The aftermath of an alleged Coalition strike which reportedly hit civilian homes in Al Tawssi’ya, Raqqa, June 25th (via RBSS)

International airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Iraq and Syria: June 2017

Written by Alex Hopkins on July 12, 2017


Airwars research team: Kinda Haddad, Salim Habib, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Eline Westra, Christiaan Triebert, Oliver Imhof, Poppy Bowers, Beth Heron, Tareq Haddad, Eeva Sarlin, Samuel Oakford and Chris Woods

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June was the second deadliest month for civilians in Iraq and Syria since the start of Coalition actions in August 2014. Record numbers of munitions were released by the Coalition, dominated by a fourfold increase in munitions dropped on Raqqa — where more civilians were estimated killed by the Coalition than ever before.

Across Iraq and Syria, Airwars tracked a record 223 alleged Coalition casualty events during June, likely killing a minimum of between 529 and 744 civilians – a rise of 52% on May’s estimated totals. In Syria, the sharp increase in munitions fired had a devastating impact on civilians. Likely deaths among civilians from Coalition actions rose by 47% from May, to an all time high. At least 415 non-combatants were likely killed, most of them in Raqqa governorate – where the offensives to seize the capital from ISIS officially began on June 6th after months of airstrikes and bombing in the area.

Following an increasingly bloody eight month campaign, Iraqi Security Forces were  by the end of the month fighting in the last ISIS-held pockets of West Mosul. Their advances came at a terrible cost to civilians. Airwars monitoring shows that the fighting intensified in June, including a 21% rise in the number of munitions dropped on West Mosul – even as the number of neighbourhoods under assault significantly contracted. Consequently, reported fatalities rose even higher than May’s already alarming levels.

The ongoing and deeply worrying increase in civilian deaths attributed to Coalition actions means that for six straight months, casualty incidents reportedly carried out by the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria have significantly outweighed those attributed to Moscow just in Syria. In June, this gap was greater than ever before – with nearly five times as many reported Coalition civilian casualty events as there were Russian.

Coalition military developments

As of June 30th 2017, 13,049 air and artillery strikes had reportedly been carried out in Iraq – and 9,971 in Syria – since the start of the Coalition campaign against so-called Islamic State almost three years earlier. There were 229 strikes declared in Iraq during June – a decrease of 14% on May. Reported strikes in Syria, however, rose by 44% to their highest level yet. Overall, there were 878 strikes carried out in June in Syria. 

Munitions released across Iraq and Syria were also at record levels. According to official data published by US Air Force Central Command, the Coalition’s declared active members (the US, UK, France, Belgium, Australia – along with possibly Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) released a total of 4,848 munitions during airstrikes on ISIS targets in June. This was a 11% increase over the previous month; and a 53% increase on munitions dropped in June 2016 – the peak month for that year.

Munitions figures provided to Airwars by CENTCOM are higher than those provided above by AFCENT, because they also include HIMARS rockets, helicopter attacks and artillery strikes. According to CENTCOM, the Coalition fired approximately 12,300 munitions between Iraq and Syria during June alone – 4,300 in Iraq and 8,000 in Syria. Of these, approximately 4,100 were in support of operations to liberate Mosul – a 21% rise from May. Those strikes were focused on an increasingly small number of neighbourhoods, with Coalition officials confirming that Iraqi airstrikes in Mosul had ceased  by June 20th or earlier. Most recent heavy destruction in the city from incoming strikes has therefore been a result of US and allied actions.

Munitions released in Raqqa increased massively during June, comparable to levels seen during the most intense battles for West Mosul. CENTCOM reported approximately 4,400 munitions were fired in support of operations in Raqqa – more than four times as many as the roughly 1,000 munitions dropped in May.

The US’s two most active allies also reported increased actions in Syria – though they still accounted for a small portion of overall Coalition raids. For the period of May 30th to June 26th, the UK reported carrying out 20 strikes – an increase of 42% on May. Activity in Iraq remained steady at 36 strikes.

There was little change in raids carried out by France in Iraq, where it declared 27 strikes. Artillery strikes by French Task Force Wagram in Mosul, however – which reached a peak in May – fell by 35% in June to 171 strikes.

In Syria, France was marginally more active than the UK – carrying out 21 strikes throughout the course of the month, more than double the French total in May. As with the UK, the majority of these were in Raqqa, where the allies were playing a  greater role  in the fight to capture the city.

A French naval Rafale departs after receiving fuel from a US air tanker, June 2nd 2017 (via US Air Force)

Capture of Mosul – and start of Raqqa offensive

On June 1st, the Iraqi Federal Police pushed deeper into Mosul’s Zanjili and Sheefa districts. At the start of the month, the UN estimated that more than 750,000 Iraqis had already been displaced by the fighting in Iraq’s second city.

The following day, June 2nd, Iraqi forces seized the Sihaa district, meaning that ISIS now controlled just three major neighbourhoods in West Mosul: Zanjili, the Old City and the Medical City. The Iraqi military reported that over 90% of Mosul had now been recaptured.

Fighting remained fierce but on June 10th, Zanjili district was captured. Meanwhile, over half of the Al Shifaa neighbourhood – the last district near the Old City centre – had been reclaimed by June 11th.

Significant gains were made by June 15th as Iraqi forces fully encircled the Old City. However the UN warned that 100,000 civilians were still trapped behind ISIS lines.

On June 21st, Iraqi forces pushed towards the iconic Al Nouri Mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had made his speech declaring the terror group’s “caliphate” on July 4th 2014. The ancient mosque was reportedly destroyed by ISIS on June 22nd.

After Iraqi forces recaptured the grounds of the mosque, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared a symbolic end to the caliphate on June 29th.Tens of thousands of civilians, however, were estimated to remain trapped in the city – many left homeless, starving and injured.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the SDF announced theformal  start of the Raqqa offensive on June 6th, amid warnings of  “a difficult and very long-term battle“.

Significant gains were made throughout the month. By June 15th the SDF had captured the al Sinaa nieghbourhood and by June 25th had control of the al Qadisiya district. Despite fierce fighting and ISIS counter attacks, by June 29th, the SDF had almost completed the encirclement of Raqqa.

Coalition civilian casualties

June was the second most deadly month for likely Coalition civilian fatalities since the start of the campaign in August 2014. Minimum likely civilian deaths, which were already at alarming levels in May, rose by a staggering 52%.

The scale of the death toll almost neared that of March 2017, when Airwars tracked an all-time record number of likely Coalition civilian deaths. June did not see mass casualty events such as those seen at Al Jadida in Mosul and Al Mansoura in Raqqa in March, which likely killed a minimum of 263 non-combatants between them. This, however, was of little comfort to civilians. As the battle for Mosul entered its final, bloody stage and the campaign to seize Raqqa built momentum, ordinary Iraqis and Syrians – caught in the crossfire between ISIS and the Coalition’s formidable air power and artillery – repeatedly paid a lethal price.

Across both Iraq and Syria, Airwars researchers tracked 223 casualty events – an unprecedented increase of 39% on May’s 160 incidents – and the greatest number of alleged Coalition casualty events Airwars has ever tracked in any one month during the war.

Of these 223 events, 130 are currently assessed by Airwars as fairly reported. In each case, this means that Airwars has monitored two or more credible uncontested sources, and that the Coalition has confirmed carrying out strikes in the vicinity of those casualties on that day. Airwars’ current assessment is that between 529 and 744 civilians died in these 130 events – compared to a minimum of 347 deaths during May.

The overall number of civilian fatalities alleged from Coalition actions for June in Iraq and Syria – across all ‘fair’. ‘poor’ and ‘contested’ incidents – currently stands at between 1,547 and 2,132 reported fatalities.

For the sixth consecutive month, casualty events attributed to the Coalition in Iraq and Syria outpaced those reportedly carried out by Russia in Syria. Given the Coalition’s prior condemnation of Moscow’s ferocious campaign in Syria, this latest hike in civilian casualties puts the US and its allies in arguably their most compromising position yet.

Mosul: deaths rise again prior to city’s fall

In the weeks leading up to the fall of Mosul, trapped civilians were at extraordinary risk. Stranded in the war torn city, they repeatedly fell prey to Coalition and Iraqi air and artillery strikes along with ISIS snipers as they desperately tried to escape or hid – often in vain – from yet another bombardment in the basements of their homes.

Of the 34 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events tracked in Iraq during June, 85% of them were reported in Mosul. The number of deaths assessed as likely carried out by the US-led Coalition rose by 145% on May, to between 91 and 139 civilians across seven events graded as ‘fair’, compared to a minimum of 37 killed during May.

The low number of ‘fair’ events, however, was a reflection of the mounting chaos in the city, where it had now become almost impossible in the majority of instances to determine whether Coalition or Iraqi air and ground forces or ISIS were to blame for fatalities.

Consequently, the minimum number of contested deaths rose by 37% on May. Across 19 events, between 776 and 1,021 non-combatants died – an average of at least 40 civilians killed per event.

Overall across all categories – ‘fair’, ‘weak’ and ‘contested’ – between 874 and 1,167 civilians were claimed killed by the Coalition in the city throughout June – compared to between 740 and 1,241 in May. 

It is highly probable, however, that the death toll is substantially higher than this Airwars estimate, with multiple reports referencing thousands of corpses still trapped under the rubble. Local reporting had also almost completely broken down in the last weeks of the assault. Only now are some tragedies emerging, as survivors make their way from the shattered ruins of Old Mosul to IDP camps outside the city.

It also became clear that Iraqi airstrikes inside Mosul had ceased some time during June. On July 5th, a senior Coalition official informed Airwars that “it is primarily Coalition aircraft conducting air strikes in Mosul. It has been a number of weeks since the Iraqis flew there”.

“June was a disastrous month for civilian as Iraqi Security Force and Federal police surrounded Old Mosul,”  explains Airwars’ Iraqi researcher. “People were trying to flee but had no real access to safe corridors. More than 200,000 civilians were initially inside those very old buildings and houses.

“By the end of the month, 80% of Old Mosul infrastructure was dreportedly estroyed by shelling and air raids. These buildings were full of trapped civilians, resulting in hundreds of victims – mostly children and women.”

There was a 17% drop in actions carried out by the Coalition in June compared to May, with 131 strikes publicly reported. The number of targets bombed – a far more reliable metric than strikes – fell by a similar amount (16%); nevertheless, the Coalition reported 1,322 targets were bombed in the city – the second highest level since March.

According to CENTCOM, munitions released in Mosul rose by 21% on May to approximately 4,100 during June – despite the fact that there were fewer neighbourhoods to liberate during the month compared with May.

Given such heavy bombing occurred in the most densely populated area of the city – and in conjunction with Iraqi air and artillery strikes – it was sadly unsurprising that civilian deaths rose to near record levels.

A push by the ISF further into the Zanjili and Sheffa districts at the start of the month saw fierce fighting and mass casualties. Between June 3rd and 4th, local sources reported that up to 300 civilians died across two days of fighting in the Zanjili and Shifa neighbourhoods. The huge loss of life was reportedly a result of ISIS shooting civilians as they attempted to escape, along with airstrikes conducted by the Iraqi Air Force and the US-led Coalition.

Eyewitnesses described horrific scenes of bodies scattering the streets, and Alaraby cited reports of US use of white phosphorous, though this was denied by a Coalition spokesman. The widespread destruction of civilian homes was captured by drone footage.

A list with the names of the many injured civilians in Zanjili neighbourhood after heavy shelling took place (via Yasin Mahmood, Facebook)

Just four days later on June 8th – again in the Zanjili neighbourhood – up to another 80 civilians would perish in more airstrikes and shelling. News of Iraq reported that seven families were buried under the rubble and blamed the Iraq army – though the Coalition also publicly reported carrying out airstrikes amid the escalating chaos. A distressing video published by Sawlf Ateka depicted a weeping man who said 12 members of his family lay under the ruins – a story which would become all too familiar throughout the month as civilians waited for their loved ones to be dug out from the remains of their homes.

Non-combatants were consistently in an impossible and perilous situation. By June 18th, Colonel Talal Najm al-Hamdani from the Directorate of Civil Defense of Nineveh, said that about 200 bodies had been recovered over a 48 hour period across different parts of West Mosul. Disturbingly, in an interview with Al Araby al Jadeeda, al-Hamdani estimated that as many as 4,000 bodies remained buried under the rubble in West Mosul.

A civil defense team searches for bodies under the rubble of West Mosul June 19th (via Iraqi Spring Media)

There was a strong push to retake Old Mosul in the last week of June and thereby declare the final victory on July 4th, the day of al-Bagdadi’s 2014 speech at Al Nouri mosque declaring the caliphate. On June 27th  local sources reported the death and injury of at least 90 civilians near the Al Nouri Mosque. Two days later, on June 29th, again near the mosque, a further 80 non-combatants died and more were wounded – mostly women and children – following shelling and airstrikes which hit civilian homes. According to Alaraby, half of those who died were slain by airstrikes.

On June 30th, local press and residents reported that “hundreds of children and women” lay dead under the rubble of Old Mosul, while Alaraby News spoke chillingly of “the bodies of civilians filling the sidewalks”.

By the time Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced the end of the “fake Daesh state” on June 29th, it was clear that the liberation of Mosul has come at significant cost, with thousands of Moslawis credibly reported killed by ISIS, Iraqi forces and the Coalition since October 2016. As previously reported, Airwars’ own estimate is that at least 900 civilians likely died in Coalition air and artillery fire over the last eight months – though with the full toll yet to emerge from the city, this figure is likely to grow.

Scenes of destruction after heavy shelling and air strikes on Old Mosul (via Iraqi Spring Media Center)

Syria: likely deaths at all time high

Civilian deaths likely caused by the US-led Coalition in Syria rose to their highest level yet since the start of Coalition actions in Syria in August 2014. Despite the concern expressed by numerous international agencies, NGOs and human rights groups at the already alarming death toll tracked since the start of 2017, minimum likely fatalities from Coalition actions rose by 47% on May.

This volume of incidents put the Airwars Syria team under exceptional pressure as they tracked an average of six events per day, eventually compiling detailed reports on 186 claimed Coalition casualty events just in Syria for June – 83% of all reported incidents across both Iraq and Syria for the month. Of these events, 122 have been assessed as fairly reported, accompanied by an estimated death toll of between 415 and 582 civilians – 29% more than those claimed killed during the previous record month of March.

The overall reported death toll for June in Syria – across ‘fair’, ‘poor’ and ‘contested’ events – currently stands at between 643 and 932 non-combatants allegedly killed by the US-led Coalition.

As with May, the majority (84%) of the 122 fair events occurred in Raqqa governorate. There, between 335 and 422 civilians were likely killed in Coalition air and artillery strikes – an increase of 31% on minimum likely deaths a m onth earlier.

Official CENTCOM data shows a sharp increase in the intensity of the Raqqa campaign. During June, a record 644 air and artillery strikes were conducted in Raqqa governorate – up 122%. The number of targets bombed also rose, by 149% to 1,475 – again, the highest recorded level so far this year. CENTCOM meanwhile reported that a record 4,400 munitions were fired into Raqqa – over four times the number dropped during May.

“The frequency of allegations has been deeply troubling,” says Kinda Haddad, head of Airwars’ Syrian team. “Although many of these allegations are of incidents in which one or two people are killed, there are a fair number of events in which entire families have been reported killed.”

The first large-scale incident occurred on June 3rd, when up to 20 civilians died and dozens more were wounded in alleged Coalition airstrikes on the area behind the Shira’ swimming pool in Raqqa, local sources reported. According to Qasioun, the Coalition bombed five houses to the rear of the pool.

On June 8th, civilian infrastructure was hit again, when 14 non-combatants died in an alleged Coalition raid on the Al-Hason Net internet cafe at Raqqa’s Al Jazra Junction, according to local media. Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that the Coalition conducted “nearly 20 raids using white phosphorous targeting the al Sabahiya and Al Jazra neighbourhoods”. Our researchers also tracked reports of separate strikes that hit shops and a mosque in the area, with all sources blaming the Coalition.

Photo of what is reported to be the use of white phosphorous in Mashleb neighbourhood, June 8th (via Raqqa Post)

Perhaps more disturbing still was a rise in reports of civilians being slain as they attempted to escape the city. In the worst such event, up to 21 non-combatants died when an alleged Coalition strike hit them as they gathered at Raqqa’s Old Bridge on June 5th to take ferries to safety across the Euphrates River. Among the named victims were Mohammed Sheikh Steif al-Nashif and his son Jassim Mohammed al-Nashif, along with two members of the al Hussein family. Between June 4th-6th, the Coalition publicly reported destroying 68 boats in 35 strikes in Raqqa. The Coalition’s commander later boasted that all boats on the river were being targeted.

Around the same time (June 4th-5th), Bassam al Khattab and his wife were reportedly killed in similar circumstances when a Coalition airstrike reportedly struck their car as they tried to flee Raqqa towards Hitten Farms.

June also saw the highest number of children yet slain by Coalition strikes in Raqqa governorate – with at least 54 assessed as likely killed by the Coalition. Repeatedly, they died alongside family members – either when they attempted to move about the city or while they sought refuge in their homes. On June 21st, for example, up to 20 civilians died when an alleged Coalition airstrike hit Rayan bakery in the city’s Amn al Dawla neighbourhood, according to local media. @Q_Alenzy named the family of Mustafa Al-Azawi and his children and the Doweihi family among the victims, reportedly killed when warplanes shelled their flats which were near the bakery.

On the same day (June 21st), a family of 13 reportedly died following an alleged Coalition airstrike near the Bilal bin Rabah mosque. Reports said that a residential building nearby had been struck. This was one of six separate events reported on or within close proximity to a mosque in Raqqa during June. On this occasion, Airwars was unable to track the names of the victims – though, overall, Airwars has published the names of 234 civilians reported killed by the Coalition in Raqqa governorate during June.

Ahmad Al Mustafa Al-Nouri and Khalil Al-Ibrahim Al-Mustafa (the boy), killed in an alleged Coalition raid near al Rayan bakery, June 21st (via RBSS)

June also saw events reported in Deir Ezzor governorate more than double on May. Across the month, Airwars tracked 45 incidents, of which 18 have been assessed as likely carried out by the Coalition, killing a minimum of 75 civilians.

In the worst event at least 41 civilians, including five female sex slaves who were being detained in an ISIS prison, died in an alleged Coalition raid on an ISIS base in Al Mayadin on June 26th, according to local media. According to Euphrates Post one of the buildings hit was reportedly the house of Abdul Hamid Idris al Mazal, said to be a leader of the Al Nusra Front, which had been converted into a prison where the civilians perished.

The Coalition targeting appears to be extensive and is now increasingly reaching beyond Raqqa towards Hassaka and Deir Ezzor governorates,” warns Kinda Haddad. “The picture is a little more murky here however, given that the Russians and the Assad regime are also carrying out strikes in those areas, making it more difficult to identify who is responsible. This is likely to get more and more complicated in the coming weeks and months as IS shifts its fighters to these governorates.”

‘Fares Ahmed Mahmoud Alhamran “Abu Ahmed” killed by the bombing of the city of Mayadeen yesterday near his shop near the former State Security headquarters’ (Euphrates Post)

Russian military actions and civilian casualties

In June, casualty events allegedly involving Russia in Syria fell by 25% to 46 incidents. This brought the number of tracked allegations to the lowest level seen since April 2015. The majority of these events were in Deir Ezzor, Homs and Hama governorates.

Raw figures show that across these 46 incidents between 182 and 194 civilians were reported killed in alleged Russian actions though as previously reported, Airwars’ full vetting of Russian strikes is currently paused due to a lack of resources – meaning it will be some time before we can undertake a detailed assessment. As these numbers are unvetted, they should not be directly compared to assessed Coalition estimates in this report.

“Russian airstrikes were focused mainly on two fronts in Syria: Deir Ezzor and Hama,” says Airwars researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan. “While the reasons for airstrikes in Deir Ezzor could be to fight ISIS, the number of civilians reportedly dying in those alleged strikes remains alarming.”

For the sixth consecutive month, the number of allegations against Russia (46) was once again – and to the largest degree yet – overshadowed by a record number of 223 allegations against the US-led Coalition across Iraq and Syria during June.

The highest number of alleged events Airwars has ever recorded against Russia in Syria was 215 in November 2016 – at the height of the siege of Aleppo. In June 2017, allegations against the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria exceeded even those claims.

For six months now, allegations against the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria have outweighed those against Russia in Syria.