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Russia entered the increasingly complex international air war raging in Syria, with devastating implications for civilians (Photo: Russian MoD)

International airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Iraq and Syria: October 2015

Written by Chris Woods on November 23, 2015


Additional reporting by Latif Habib, Kinda Haddad and Basile Simon

Major developments

  • The US-led Coalition ended October 2015 having carried out 5,107 airstrikes in Iraq and 2,712 in Syria so far in its 14-month air war against Daesh. Some 28,578 bombs and missiles had been dropped by 13 allies.
  • There were 22 reported incidents of concern in October 2015 – ten in Syria and 13 in Iraq – in which the US-led Coalition is alleged to have killed between 83 and 102 civilians. Most events were either poorly reported or contested – a sign of the deteriorating security situation in the field for casualty recorders. Only three incidents in October are presently assessed by Airwars as having being fairly reported, which between them appear to have killed between 8 and 11 civilians.
  • Russia reported carrying out 1,391 combat sorties to the end of October – its first full month of airstrikes – which it says “engaged 1,623 terrorist objects.”
  • There were also 104 incidents of concern in Syria in which Russian aircraft allegedly killed between 528 and 730 non-combatants. We presently assess 44 of these incidents as fairly reported, which between them are likely to have killed between 255 and 375 civilians.
  • Canada became the third nation to announce its withdrawal from the Coalition air campaign after Belgium and Denmark – though strikes are presently continuing under the new administration of Justin Trudeau.
  • The US reported its first combat fatality of the war, following the death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler of Delta Force in an Iraqi ground raid.

Civilian casualties

  • Reported civilian fatalities by the US-led Coalition were significantly down for October – in part because of a steep decline in airstrikes in Syria. Even so, there were 22 alleged incidents of concern involving multiple reported civilian deaths.
The Al Fandi children (via Mosul Ateka)
The Al Fadhi children (via Mosul Ateka)

In Kisik near Mosul on October 18th for example, at least five civilians died when missiles apparently struck a local taxi. Abdullah Fathi Al Fadhi was killed with his wife and at least two of their children (pictured.) Another child reportedly survived the attack. Taxi driver Ammar Anwar Mohammed Jamil (who held a Masters in computing and mathematics from Mosul University) also died as he was bringing the family back to Mosul from the Turkish border. The Coalition has confirmed carrying out an airstrike at Kisik that day.

  • For more on Centcom’s November 20th admission that Coalition aircraft have ‘likely’ killed civilians in Iraq, see our report here
  • A high number of reported incidents – 104 in total – allegedly involved the Russian Air Force in Syria for October according to Airwars researchers. Though still assessing these events, we can offer some preliminary findings.

– The number of Russian airstrikes which caused non-combatant deaths has to an extent been exaggerated. With all Syrian regime combat aircraft also Russian-made, some confusion appears inevitable. In addition, for some events it remains unclear whether fatalities were caused by Russian (or Syrian) aircraft, or by ground forces. And on at least two occasions, alleged civilian fatalities at Bukamal and Palmyra may have been caused by the US-led Coalition.

– Even so, credible allegations of civilian fatalities inflicted by the Russan Air Force are worryingly high. All regional casualty recorders report extensive non-combatant deaths – often in mass casualty incidents (see table below.) The majority of these deaths have occured in areas which are not under Daesh occupation. These include parts of Syria controlled by other extremist groups including Jaish al-Fatah and the al-Nusra Front, as well as by more moderate factions.

– Credible reports frequently indicate the deliberate targeting by Russia of civilian neighburhoods and infrastructure – with graphic evidence on a number of occasions of civil defence rescuers deliberately targeted in so-called ‘double tap’ strikes.

– Russia’s limited use of precision or ‘smart’ munitions is a key factor in higher civilian casualties.

– Airwars presently assesses 44 Russian incidents as having likely killed civilians in Syria to October 30th – which between them reportedly killed 255 to 375 non-combatants. This is roughly ten times the level of credible allegations against US-led Coalition operations in Syria.

  • In one of the worst known incidents, an air raid shelter in the village of al Ghantu was reportedly hit in a Russian airstrike on October 15th, killing up to 48 people from one extended family. Among the dead were at least 23 children and nine women. Local cameramen filmed apparent Russian Air Force Su-24s bombing the town, despite the Kremlin making no reference to airstrikes in the governorate of Homs that day.
The moment a Russian missile hit al Ghantu, Oct 15th 2015
The moment a Russian missile hit al Ghantu, Oct 15th 2015

Estimates of civilians killed by Russian Air Force in Syria, September 30th- October 31st 2015

Monitoring group Estimated Russian-inflicted civilian fatalities
Airwars 255-375
Syrian Network for Human Rights 254
Violations Documentation Centre 329 or more
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 185*

* To October 28th

Coalition and Russian military actions

  • Both the US-led Coalition and Russia continued to build up their air power in the region. Turkey opened up more bases for Coalition operations, while Russian Air Force fighters and bombers primarily operated from Hmeymim in Lattakia governorate – a stronghold of the Assad regime.
  • A Kurdish Special Forces assault on a Daesh holding facility at Hawijah, Iraq led to the release of 70 civilian prisoners. However, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler of Delta Force was also killed in the raid – the first US combat fatality in its 14 month war against Islamic State. Responding to concerns that the war was expanding, CENTCOM issued a statement insisting: “It is important to realize that US military support to this Iraqi rescue operation is part of our overarching counter-terrorism efforts throughout the region and does not represent a change in our policy.  US forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have boots on the ground.
  • Canada’s Liberal Party returned to power in a surprise victory on October 19th 2015, with new premier Justin Trudeau vowing to end Ottawa’s year-long combat operations in Iraq and Syria. However, despite Trudeau’s government being sworn in on November 4th, Canadian airstrikes have so far continued.
  • France carried out a second round of airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria on the night of October 8th, following a decision by President Hollande two weeks earlier to expand military operations against the terror movement. Two Rafales targeted a ‘Daesh suicide training centre.’
Rafale aircraft bombed Islamic State positions in Raqqah October 8th, as France stepped up operations against the terror group (Ministère de la Défense)
Rafale aircraft bombed Islamic State positions in Raqqah on the night of October 8th, as France stepped up operations against the terror group (Ministère de la Défense)