Civil defence volunteers arrive at the scene of a reported Russian or regime strike in Saqba, Damascus, eastern Ghouta, February 20th 2018 (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Airwars monthly assessment: February 2018

Written by Alex Hopkins on March 23, 2018


Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis: Kinda Haddad, Salim Habib, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Koen Kluessien, Oliver Imhof, Poppy Bowers, Eeva Sarlin, Samuel Oakford, Sophie Dyer, Laura Bruun, and Chris Woods.

Conflict monitoring

Coalition actions

Overall, from August 8th 2014 to February 28th 2018 across both Iraq and Syria, Airwars had monitored 2,475 incidents locally alleged against the US-led Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State, which claimed a total of between 17,348 and 25,800 civilian fatalities between them. Of these claims, Airwars presently estimates that a minimum of 6,193 to 9,537 civilians are likely to have been killed in Coalition actions. The alliance itself has so far conceded at least 841 deaths from 212 events.

The known remaining active Coalition allies –  the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands – released 747 munitions from the air across Iraq and Syria during February 2018 according to official AFCENT data – a 4% reduction from January’s 780 munitions 2018. The January figure, however, was initially reported as 448 munitions and then revised upwards by AFCENT.

Iraq

During all of February, the Coalition declared just 19 airstrikes in Iraq – though this represented a 58% increase from the 11 declared in January. Neither the UK or France declared any airstrikes in Iraq during the month. However, the French did report 10 artillery missions in support of Iraqi Security Force, half the number reported in January.

With ISIS’s territory recaptured almost completely in Iraq, on February 5th the Coalition announced that it would be focusing on “policy, border control and military capacity building” –  a major shift in its local strategy after 42 months of increasingly intense engagements.

Airwars tracked just one civilian casualty allegation in Iraq during the month. On February 7th, local sources reported that two people were killed and two more wounded in strikes that reportedly hit farming areas in al Mikisha village, east of the Abu Saida district in Diyala province. Both of those wounded later died. However, none of the sources provided any information on the party responsible for the attack – and there was also confusion about whether some or all of those killed were either farmers, or a local ISIS cell.

Smoke rises above the orchards of Al Mikhisa village, Feb 7th following a reported airstrike (via Yaqein)

Syria

February was a devastating month for Syria’s civilians, as the regime and Russia embarked upon a furious assault in opposition-held eastern Ghouta. Airwars tracked a massive 171 alleged Russian civilian casualty events in February – about 54% more claims than January. This volume of claimed Russian casualty events had not seen since the fall of eastern Aleppo in November 2016.

Meanwhile, following three months of sharply reduced fatalities, Coalition bombing against remnant ISIS forces in Deir Ezzor governorate saw reported civilian deaths increase more than five times compared to January’s minimum estimates. Overall, Airwars tracked between 106 and 224 civilians likely killed in Coalition actions.

On February 24th, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2401, demanding an immediate country-wide ceasefire. This, however, was almost immediately broken by Russian and regime forces. Meanwhile, Turkey’s offensive in Afrin also continued, edging ever closer to the city of Afrin itself. Turkey’s President Erdogan denied that the ceasefire applied to his country’s campaign in Syria.

Russia and the regime in Syria: “Hell on earth”

Civilians in eastern Ghouta faced unimaginable danger during February, as both Russian and regime forces mercilessly pounded rebel-held areas. In early February, the United Nations warned of a major and worsening humanitarian crisis. Yet as the month wore on, and despite international outcry, the bombing not only continued but intensified.

In total, Airwars tracked a near record 171 casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft in February. That tally had only been exceeded during January and February 2016, and during November of the same year prior to the fall of Aleppo. The scale of the bombing meant that it was almost impossible to bring aid to those in need. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the carnage as “hell on earth“. UNICEF issued a blank statement on February 20th, stating that it had simply run out of words.

Between 565 and 817 civilians were alleged killed in total across these 171 events – a 54% increase from January’s 111 events. These figures remain unvetted by Airwars, and are based on initial monitoring. For this reason, they should not be compared directly with fully evaluated estimates tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes.

“February was one of the worst months in the history of the Russian campaign in Syria,” says Airwars researcher Abulwahab Tahhan, who tracks Russian strikes. “The campaign intensified in eastern Ghouta, where thousands of civilians were besieged by the Syria regime. The reports coming out of the area were extremely distressing and the images very graphic.”

As previously reported by Airwars, bombings reached a peak in eastern Ghouta in the final weeks of February. Even the UN’s Security Council Resolution 2401, passed on February 24th, brought civilians no respite as strikes reportedly continued just hours later. A meagre daily five hour truce (from 9am to 2pm local time) called for by Russian President Vladimir Putin did little to staunch the bloodshed.

“The airstrikes not only targeted residential buildings, but also hospitals, ambulances and journalists,” added Tahhan. “Civilians did not even have the chance to properly bury their loved ones who were killed in the attacks. Furthermore, we’ve seen reports of mass graves in public parks and any available public place.”

On February 8th, up to 21 civilians died in airstrikes on popular markets and residential areas of Arbin, eastern Ghouta, according to local sources. The Syrian Network for Human Rights pointed towards the regime though the Al Latamna Youth Group blamed Russia.

Four civilians died and up to 21 were wounded in an alleged Russian strike on the national hospital in Maarat al-Nu’man on February 4th, according to Step News Agency. On the same day, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that Russian jets had damaged Kafr Nobbol Surgical Hospital, Idlib.

Civil defence comes to the aid of civilians following an alleged Russian strike on residential neighbourhoods in the city of Kafr Nabbol, Feb 4th (via EMC)

Residential areas were pounded constantly. In one of the worst events, on February 22nd up to 34 civilians including children were reported killed in strikes on civilian homes in Douma, eastern Ghouta. Most sources blamed the regime, though Smart News referred to both the regime and Russia. We tracked eight events in Douma throughout the month.

Airwars monitors had tracked a total of 3,064 claimed civilian casualty events allegedly involving Russian aircraft between September 30th 2015 and February 28th 2018. The total claimed civilian fatalities in these alleged events ranges from 11,543 to 16,174. At least 5,229 of those reportedly killed in these incidents have been named by local outlets, social media and by casualty recorders. According to the Syrain Network for Human Rights, at least 6,019 civilians are likely to have died in Russian actions to date, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the figure at 6,891.

The bodies of two children following an alleged Russian or regime strike on Douma, Feb 22nd (via LCCSY)

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

The Coalition reported 137 air and artillery strikes in Syria during February – 51% fewer than the 277 it listed in January. All but three of these strikes were in Deir Ezzor governorate, centered mainly around Abu Kamal, where splinters of ISIS forces remained.

Of the still active Coalition allies, The Netherlands reported deploying weapons during eight missions in February, all near Abu Kamal. Both the UK and France also remained active in Syria. The UK reported 19 strikes, 30% fewer than the 27 listed by the British the month before.before. France reported eight airstrikes, one less than in January. 

 

Airwars researchers tracked 10 claimed Coalition civilian casualty events during February – the same number as in January. Seven of these were assessed as fairly reported. An event is assessed as fair when it has two or more uncontested and credible sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes on the day in the vicinity. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 106 and 224 civilians likely died during these seven events – a more than five-fold rise on the minimum of 21 civilians likely killed during January. Even after the fall of Raqqa, Syria’s most vulnerable citizens remain in significant danger: at least 21 children and 27 women were also killed.

“It’s hard to explain exactly the reason for February’s rise in likely fatalities but it could be a final aggressive push to defeat ISIS in its last pockets in eastern Syria,” says Kinda Haddad, head of Airwars’ Syria team. “The SDF, the Coalition’s ground forces, have also been distracted by the intensified Turkish shelling in Afrin. On March 6th, they announced their withdrawal from the battle against ISIS to concentrate on Afrin. There is the possibility that the ground troops may already have started pulling out before the announcement and without eyes on the ground, the Coalition’s targeting could be getting more erratic”.

The first significant casualty event of the month occurred on February 2nd when at least 11 civilians reportedly died and seven or more were wounded in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Bahra village, northwest Hajin town in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that strikes had rendered a makeshift hospital inoperable.

The aftermath of an alleged Coalition airstrike on a makeshift hospital in Al Bahra, Feb 2nd (via Ahmad Al Shbli)

In a matter of days, Al Bahra village would be attacked twice more – in increasingly severe events. On February 4th, multiple local sources reported up to 40 civilians including as many as 21 children and 20 women had died as a result of “indiscriminate US shelling”. A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights said that an airstrike had targeted a school housing displaced people from Al Safira, Aleppo. Euphrates Post and Damascus Center for Human Rights published an extensive casualty list, including  17 members of the Al Hussein family. 

Local media reported that at least 17 civilians also perished in the village of Al Sha’af on February 5th and 6th. According to @syrians, most of the casualties were women and children.  Sound and Picture, a local monitor, told Airwars that airstrikes began on the night of February 5th and continued through the morning of February 6th. All sources blamed the US-led Coalition.

There were no casualty events tracked between February 8th and 18th. However another major incident was reported on February 19th in Hajin, in which up to 15 civilians – including five children and six women – were reportedly killed and dozens more wounded in an alleged Coalition airstrike. Ten members of the Al-Khalaf Al-Saleh family were among those reportedly slain.

’65 civilian martyrs in 24 hours, most of them women and children as a result of the bombing of the international coalition forces on the towns of # Al-Shifa and # Bahra Rural Deir Ezzor East’

Turkey in Syria: civilians remain in peril

Civilians in the Kurdish-dominated district of Afrin remained in grave danger throughout February as a Turkish-backed offensive edged closer to the city of Afrin. As casualties mounted, the UN said that that by February 8th between 15,000 and 30,000 people had been already been displaced by the fighting.

On February 21st, the SDF announced that Assad government forces had been invited into the canton to counter Turkish attacks. Meanwhile, Turkey’s President Erdogan not only promised his forces would lay siege to Afrin city but threatened to expand the conflict to Manbij, a Kurdish controlled area to the west of Afrin, though one where US forces are also stationed. Erdogan also  proclaimed the 30-day UN ceasefire did not apply to Turkey

During February, Airwars monitored 89 locally reported civilian casualty events reportedly carried out by Turkish-backed forces, which were alleged to have killed up to 74 civilians. Based on currently available information, researchers currently assess 50 of these events as fairly reported, with Turkish actions likely leading to the deaths of between 35 and 64 civilians. Of these 35 likely deaths, five were children and six were women.

 

On February 13th, two 45 year old women were killed, named locally as Houriya Abdul Hameed Al Hajras and Fahima Hamada, Five other civilians were also wounded in an alleged Turkish shelling of Heikja village near Jindires, Afrin. One source, Syria News, added that an unspecified number of children had also died in the attack.

Civilians are treated in hospital following an alleged Turkish shelling of Heikja village, Feb 13th (via Hawar)

On February 22nd, Syrian state media was among several sources reporting that Turkey attacked an aid convoy headed to Afrin from Cizire and Kobane in eastern Syria. Sources alleged that up to 12 civilians were wounded in the incident – and one man, named as 27-year-old Salem Khalaf al-Khalif died. However, a report by Hawar News depicted what looked like a military funeral, casting doubt on the victim’s non combatant status. Turkey denied targeting civilians, claiming that the convoy consisted of military vehicles. Confusing matters further, another source Abuturab 313, reported that both a military and civilian convoy were traveling under the supervision of the Syrian army.

There were five events in the Jindires area throughout the month. The worst of these occurred on February 26th, in Yilanguz village, killing between two and five civilians including children and wounding three more. Local sources blamed a Turkish airstrike, though some also said that Turkey had conducted artillery strikes on the village. According to IC Afrin Resistance, the airstrike occurred between 3 and 4am. Rojava tweeted a disturbing video depicting showing baby clothes and children’s boots in the ruins.

A video showing the aftermath of an alleged Turkish airstrike on Yilanguz villages which reportedly killed a family of five on Feb 26th (via Anha)

Additionally, Airwars researchers tracked 10 events in February (down from 13 in January) allegedly caused by Kurdish counterfire. Seven of these were in Aleppo and one in Idlib governorate, Syria. A further two were in al Rihaniya in Turkey’s Hattai province. Airwars currently estimates that between seven and 17 civilians died in these nine events – a 30% decrease on the minimum of 10 civilians likely killed during January. Additionally, another 35-80 civilians were likely wounded.

Libya

In February 2018, the conflict in Libya saw a slight intensification compared to previous months. Particularly affected was the country’s south, which has been plagued by fighting over recent weeks. Belligerents in the south include the Libyan National Army (LNA), Government of National Accord (GNA) and Chadian and Sudanese rebels. Another important local force is the Tebu minority that variably sides with all of the three forces. Rebels belonging to the Islamist Justice and Equality movement tend to cross the borders in the Sahara, where they reportedly engage in human trafficking and drug smuggling.

In late February, heavy clashes between LNA and the rebels broke out near Sabha. The oasis town currently marks the border between the two rival governments of Libya (the LNA and GNA), which has led to unclear responsibility for the area, and shifting allegiances among local militias such as the Sixth Division.

Recently the LNA has reinforced its troops in the South, and has conducted airstrikes. Elsewhere a few other airstrikes were reported throughout Libya. On February 6th, a local source mentioned an air raid by an unknown belligerent 60 km East of Zighan. On February 10th, an airstrike on a convoy south of Sirte was reported, once again with the belligerent unknown.

Five days later, an Egyptian aircraft reportedly struck 10 vehicles which were said to be carrying weapons and ammunition near the Libya/Egypt border. The incident most likely took place on the Libyan side of the border and was picked up by international media as well. None of the sources reported civilian harm.

Advocacy

Military advocacy

In February, the Airwars advocacy team was able to exchange a large amount of data directly with the Coalition. It proactively submitted a batch of enhanced geolocations, providing the most detailed geotemporal data available based on the public record. These should in turn assist the Coalition in its own evaluations. This included data on all publicly reported events in September 2017 in Iraq and Syria, and some historic events the Coalition had requested additional information for. In total, Airwars improved the locational understanding for 158 claimed events, and submitted 121 pages of text and image-based analysis to the Coalition on those incidents.

Following the publication of the Coalition’s monthly civilian casualty report on February 22nd, Airwars received the military grid reference locations for most non-credible and all credible assessments contained in the report. In total, the Coalition completed the review of 116 possible civilian harm events: of these 102 were assessed as non-credible; four as credible; and ten as duplicates of existing reports.

Airwars has also been cross-checking its own archive against the Coalition’s public reporting. In February, our review of the 2014-2016 archive concluded. This found that for Airwars-monitored events that occurred before October 2016, 67% had yet to be processed by the Coalition. The military advocacy team is now working to ensure that each of these missed cases is properly assessed for civilian harm by the Coalition.

The military advocacy team has also been active elsewhere. In early February, team members participated in a monthly Mapathon to discuss the possibilities of collaborating with the Missing Maps project to improve the Open Street Map in Iraq and Syria. In addition, analysts participated in a series of explosive weapons and civilian harm workshops organised by The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW).

European advocacy

Airwars has employed a European advocacy officer since autumn 2016, thanks to generous funding from the Democracy and Media Foundation. Based in Utrecht, our current officer Koen Kluessien is focused mainly on Dutch and Belgian military transparency and accountability issues. During February, he also assisted PAX, the Netherlands-based peace and security NGO, in its own assessment of alleged Coalition airstrikes on the rural town of Al Bahra (see also above) – using real-time local reports of the multi-day airstrike campaign in the context of PAX’s own work on Protection of Civilians.

Additionally, Koen contributed to an ongoing Airwars assessment of Dutch miltary transparency. Since the renewal of its mission against so-called Islamic state on January 5th, the Netherlands has included the general location of airstrikes in its weekly updates. However, precise dates for when F-16s engaged in airstrikes are still not provided. This  means that Dutch actions cannot be cross-referenced against specific civilian casualty claims – a key demand from Airwars and others advocating for better public transparency.