Ammunition is loaded for use by a US Paladin howitzer at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, January 2nd 2017 (US Army)

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

Written by Alex Hopkins on February 21, 2017


Airwars research team: Kinda Haddad, Latif Habib, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Eline Westra, Basile Simon, Christiaan Triebert, Samuel Oakford and Chris Woods

January was the deadliest month yet for civilians since the start of Coalition airstrikes, according to Airwars tracking.

In Iraq government forces made key advances, recapturing critical east Mosul from ISIL. These operations, however, came at significant cost to non-combatants trapped in the city. During January, claimed civilian deaths from Coalition actions more than doubled compared to December.

The situation in Syria was also bleak, with fatalities attributed to Coalition strikes in Raqqa remaining at alarming levels as the air campaign in support of SDF ground proxies escalated. Civilian deaths, however, were lower than researchers expected based on the number of strikes reported by the Coalition in Raqqa. This disparity could be be explained in part by the massive number of munitions fired on Mosul – 2,842 – compared with relatively fewer – 904 – in Raqqa. In addition, that data, provided by CENTCOM, is higher than figures for munitions released that is tracked by the US Air Force Central Commant (AFCENT). This indicates a significant number of weapons unleashed – in Mosul in particular – that go untracked by AFCENT, such as rocket propelled artillery and ground based artillery. 

Russia’s partial drawdown in Syria, following the December ceasefire, coincided with a steep decline in civilian deaths. The sharp acceleration in the Coalition’s Mosul and Raqqa campaigns meant that for the first time since Moscow’s intervention in Syria in September 2015, civilian deaths assessed as likely caused by Coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria outweighed those attributed to Moscow’s brutal air campaign in Syria. Though that pattern may be reversed, for the moment the Coalition is out-killing Russia. 

Coalition military developments

As of January 31st, 2017, 11,014 airstrikes had been carried out in Iraq and 6,850 in Syria since the start of the Coalition campaign. During January, reported actions in Syria were at their highest levels ever, with a total of 535 strikes – an increase of 68% compared to December 2016. In Iraq, 234 strikes were declared – a significant increase of 26% from the previous month.

January also saw the highest number of munitions released by the Coalition during the 30-month air war. The six declared active members of the Coalition (the US, UK, France, Belgium, Denmark and Australia) dropped a total of 3,606 munitions on ISIL targets in January, according to figures published by US Air Force Central Command. This was a 23% increase on the previous month. (These figures represent munitions dropped only by aircraft coordinated by the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC) and does not include all strikes.) 

According to official CENTCOM figures released to Airwars, in the period from January 2nd to January 30th, the US alone carried out 502 strikes in Syria, an increase of 68% from December. The remaining members of the Coalition conducted just 11 strikes in Syria, a marginal decrease from 14 such declared actions in December.

In the same period from January 2nd to January 30th, there was an increase of 25% in declared US strikes in Iraq, with 139 reported. Strikes carried out by non-US allies in Iraq increased by 21% to a reported 63 strikes.

During January, the UK reported 20 strikes in Iraq and just four in Syria. For the third straight month, France appeared to be the second-most active member of the Coalition, ahead of the UK. Paris reported 32 strikes in Iraq and eight in Syria.

Footage of a French strike on an ISIL-occupied building housing artillery pieces, armoured suicide bombs, explosives and a command post, January 16th.

Liberation of east Mosul and advances in Raqqa

By January 8th, following a series of significant gains in the first week of 2017, Iraqi Security Forces had reached the Tigris River which divides Mosul. They continued to advance, pushing ISIL back and recapturing most districts of east Mosul by January 13th, including Mosul University. The Iraqi advance was slowed by ISIL’s deployment of numerous vehicle-born improvised explosive devices. Still, by January 11th the Al-Saddiq, Maliyah and 7 Nisan districts had all been liberated.

These gains continued to come at a significant humanitarian cost to civilians. The US-led Coalition reported 130 strikes in Mosul during January, a 33% increase on December 2016 as the final push built momentum.

The government of Iraq officially announced the liberation of east Mosul on January 24th amid reports that ISIL were using children as human shields against Coalition and ISF air and artillery strikes. The UN meanwhile reported that some 750,000 people were still trapped in the western half of Mosul.

Across the international border, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued to make advances on ISIL’s de facto capital of Raqqa in the second phase of “Operation Wrath of Euphrates.” January saw a massive rampup in Coalition airstrikes in Raqqa in support of ground forces, and to weaken ISIL positions. In total the alliance reported 335 strikes in Raqqa governorate during in the first month of 2017 – a 122% increase on December 2016.

By January 12th, the SDF advance had made crucial gains, reportedly liberating over 130 villages surrounding Raqqa from ISIL. This left them just 5km away from the crucial ISIL-controlled Tabaqa dam.

 

ISIl terr map Jan20 2017

Coalition civilian casualties

The escalation of the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns in January led to the highest likely death toll from Coalition airstrikes in any single month assessed by Airwars.

As previously reported by Airwars, this record tally – coupled with a slowdown in Russian strikes – meant that for the first time since Russia began military action in Syria in September 2015, deaths from Coalition airstrikes surpassed Moscow’s ferocious air campaign.

In Iraq and Syria our researchers tracked 95 alleged casualty incidents during January – an increase of 126% from December. A total of 630 to 824 non-combatant deaths were claimed in these January  incidents.

Airwars currently assesses 47 of these events as fairly reported. This means an incident has two or more credible sources, and the Coalition also reported strikes in the near vicinity of an incident. Between 254 and 369 civilians are presently assessed as likely having been killed in these incidents, compared with a range of 134 and 187 such deaths in December. This represents a 90% rise in the minimum number of civilians likely killed from December.

Video of a RAF airstrike in Mosul, January 12th.

Mosul: a more than doubling in civilian likely deaths

The liberation of east Mosul came at significant cost to civilians on the ground, with at least 5,000 civilians estimated to have been killed by ISIL, Iraqi government forces and the US-led air alliance.

A record numbers of civilians were likely killed by Coalition strikes across Iraq in January. A total of 21 civilian casualty events were assessed by Airwars as likely having been carried out by Coalition warplanes. Between 189 and 227 non-combatants likely died in these incidents – more than double the death toll from December.

Of these 21 events, 19 occurred in Mosul, likely killing between 169 and 195 civilians. Additionally, we have assessed that a minimum of 166 non-combatants were injured in these incidents across Mosul.

Particularly alarming was a continuation of December 2016’s trend of rising numbers of children and women killed. Minimum likely child deaths quadrupled to at least 20 in January, while at least 16 women were likely killed. Once more, we monitored reports of entire families being wiped out as Coalition jets allegedly struck their homes.

Airwars’ Iraqi researcher tracked what may have been the first mass casualty event of year on January 3rd, when as many as 22 civilians were reported killed and 29 injured in alleged Coalition airstrikes on the Domiz neighborhood in eastern Mosul. According to Iraqi Spring Media Centre – which blamed the Coalition – most of the victims were women and children. A relative posted on Facebook that their cousin Younis Hassan Abdullah al-Badrani died along with 10 family members. The Coalition publicly reported strikes “near” Mosul between January 2nd – 4th.

Younis Hassan Abdullah Al Badrani, killed in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the Domiz neighbourhood, Mosul, January 3rd (Facebook)
Younis Hassan Abdullah Al Badrani, killed in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the Domiz neighbourhood, Mosul, January 3rd (Facebook)

The ISF advance on the Tigris river led to particularly high numbers of reported civilian casualties during the week commencing January 6th. On January 8th, dozens of civilians were reported killed in eastern Mosul, deaths attributed to both Coalition airstrikes and heavy artillery fire. Frequently there were multiple, separate incidents involving civilians on the same day. On January 11th, during a day of intensive operations to retake east Mosul, Airwars tracked three separate casualty events in the city.

On the following day, January 12th, up to 30 non-combatants were likely killed and another 14 injured in alleged Coalition strikes in the New Mosul neighbourhood, on the right side of the city.  Once again, civilian homes were reportedly struck, and in a video posted by Prevision, a witness said that a residential compound, containing four houses was targeted. “Each one includes two floors which were completely destroyed  by Coalition crusade airstrikes,” claimed the witness. “We got out 14 bodies as yet, and there are 9 bodies still under rubble, and there are 4 women bodies and three children bodies in the house behind this compound…mostly kids and women.”

Man stands in front of destroyed homes in Mosul on January 12th. (Image courtesy of Iraqyoon)

Two days later on January 14th, more civilians homes were hit in alleged Coalition raids on the Al Arabi neighbourhood in northeast Mosul. According to Alghad.tv, there were around “five strikes on three houses”. A police source put the death toll higher, at 12, including four children, with a further 18 non-combatants injured. Additionally, the outlet reported that eight cars were damaged. The Coalition publicly reported strikes in the vicinity between January 13th-15th, while several sources referred to the incident as a “mistake by the Coalition”.

Smoke bellows from civilian homes following an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Arabi, January 14th. Sources said that the warplanes had struck the "wrong target" (via Network Baghdad.)
Smoke bellows from civilian homes following an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Arabi, January 14th. Sources said that the warplanes had struck the “wrong target” (via Network Baghdad.)

As the month wore on the number of incidents of concern increased. On January 30th, 11 civilians were reportedly killed in an alleged Coalition strike on Tanak in western Mosul. An initial key source was the ISIL media agency Al A’Amaq, which said that women and children were among those killed. Our researchers then tracked an update from Mosul Ateka on February 5th which reported the death of Mustafa Mayser Mahmoud from injuries sustained in the event, adding that his mother and father Mayser Mahmoud were also killed in the raid.

Raqqa on the brink

Civilian deaths likely caused by the Coalition in Syria rose by almost 50% in January. Across 26 incidents assessed as fair, we tracked between 65 and 142 fatalities.

As in Iraq, children and women were often caught up in the violence: 17 children and six women died across these incidents during the course of the month.

Of these 26 events, 65% were in Raqqa  governorate, likely killing between 40 and 59 civilians and injuring – sometimes critically – at least 48 more.

Despite the huge increase in the number of Coalition airstrikes in Raqqa, Airwars did not track a similar rise in civilian deaths that might have been expected based on established trends. Indeed, less civilians were assessed as likely killed in the governorate than the 54-82 deaths we tracked in December.

The discrepancy between death rates in Mosul and Raqqa could be explained in part by the total number of munitions delivered against ISIL targets: 904 in the vicinity of Raqqa as opposed to 2,842 in support of Mosul operations.  (These figures, provided by the Coalition, are higher than those provided by AFCENT. The include such weapons as artillery “and some ground based tactical artillery,” according to a Coalition spokesperson.)  This indicates that far fewer bombs were dropped per strike in Raqqa as compared to Mosul, where raids, possibly with more aircraft, delivered larger numbers of munitions. 

There were, however, still significant incidents of concern. On January 9th, four non-combatants including a woman reportedly died in an alleged Coalition strike on the ISIL-controlled village of Hattash in Raqqa. Both Smart News and the Syrian Mirror blamed the Coalition for the death of three or four non-combatants from the same family. Euphrates Post noted that “the international airline alliance has intensified its air raids on positions controlled by the organization [IS] in the northern, eastern and western countryside to coincide with the advance of the SDF in the west of the city.”

A tweet by Raqqa Post reports the death of four civilians from an alleged Coalition strike on Hattash on January 9th.

On the same day, in Harmala village northwest of Raqqa, Shaam News Network was among several sources to report that Coalition strikes killed another four civilians – and had wounded a further two. Thamer Al-Sahel, from the Al-Bo’asi tribe, was later named as one of the victims. Between January 8th-9th alone, the Coalition publicly declared 27 strikes near Raqqa.

The tempo of strikes increased throughout the month, with 22 strikes declared on January 22nd, a day on which we tracked one likely death at Tabaqa. The following week, this area would come under fire again: on January 26th, three civilians were reportedly killed in alleged Coalition strikes in the Hunaida area of Al Tabaqa countryside. According to Step News, Coalition jets had targeted an informal oil refinery; indeed, in its report for January 26th-27th, the Coalition confirmed destroying “oil refinement stills”.

Elsewhere in Syria, the situation was also grim with reports of significant number of fatalities in Deir Ezzor governorate. On January 7th, in another strike on an oil market – reportedly used by ISIL – Euphrates Post said that 14 civilians died when Coalition jets alleged carried out three raids.

On the same day in Al Sa’wa, Deir Ezzor, up to 40 non-combatants were reported killed when the Coalition allegedly struck a further oil refinery in what Step News said were “dozens of raids”, resulting in the death of oil traders and the destruction of more than sixty tankers.

Smoke bellows from Khusham following an alleged Coalition strike on an oil market, Jan 7th (via Ara news)
Smoke bellows from Khusham following an alleged Coalition strike on an oil market, Jan 7th (via Ara news)

Russian military actions and civilian casualties

Following the December 15th Syrian ceasefire, Russia announced a partial drawdown of its forces in Syria on January 6th. A reduction in Russian strikes had a reasonable impact on civilian casualties: overall, there were 57 incidents of concern allegedly involving Russian warplanes during the month – a 19% decrease on the previous month.

Though it will be sometime before Airwars can fully assess the allegations, Airwars compiled reports alleging between 138 and 248 non-combatants died in these events, as opposed to 249-446 alleged killed in December 2016. (Those figures are unvetted and unfiltered, and should not be compared to the Coalition numbers in this report.)

In January, 67% more civilian casualty incidents were attributed to the Coalition in Iraq and Syria than to Russia in Syria. For the first time, US-led strikes appeared to be killing more non-combatants than Russia’s notoriously brutal air campaign. It is yet to be seen whether this role reversal will continue. With the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns continuing to ramp up and the possibility that president Trump may loosen the rules of US engagement, an already dire situation could yet become worse.

Rimas Mohammad Mirwah, aged three, killed in an airstrike on a bakery in Raqqa, Jan12/13th. Sources blamed both the Coalition and Russia (via RBSS)
Rimas Mohammad Mirwah, aged three, killed in an airstrike on a bakery in Raqqa, Jan12/13th. Sources blamed both the Coalition and Russia (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)