The aftermath of an alleged Coalition airstrike on the town of al Baghouz in Deir Ezzor governorate on September 17th. (via Euphrates Post)

International airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Iraq and Syria – September 2017

Written by Alex Hopkins and Samuel Oakford on October 18, 2017


September was another tough month for civilians affected by Coalition and Russian airstrikes, according to Airwars tracking. Despite a pullback from near record casualty totals in August, reports from monitors indicated that more than 340 civilians were likely killed by Coalition strikes during the month, nearly all of them in Syria. Though tolls in the hundreds have become the norm over the past year, this was not the case earlier in the campaign. Allegations against Russia were sharply up – breaking a trend since January of problematic Coalition events outstripping those being blamed on Moscow. 

In Iraq, a Kurdish independence vote and Baghdad’s response threatened to plunge the country back into chaos even as government forces sought to mop up the final ISIS-held territory along the border. In Syria, more than 240 civilians were likely killed by the Coalition in Raqqa city – a fall from record levels in August but still a significant toll considering how few civilians reportedly remained in the city by the end of the month. According to the Coalition, more than 17,000 bombs, missiles, rockets and artillery shells were fired at Raqqa from June to the end of September. 

An equally dangerous situation emerged during the month to the southeast of Raqqa, as separate regime and Coalition-backed forces – supported by torrents of deadly airstrikes – raced to capture the last ISIS held territory in the Euphrates River Valley. Here, the number of incidents allegedly involving the Coalition nearly tripled, though in the confusion very few could be fairly linked to them. Both Russia and the Assad government were tied by local sources to over 350 reported civilian deaths in Syria during the month from airstrikes, mostly in Deir Ezzor and Idlib governorates.

September also saw the continuation of a troubling pattern, identified in depth last month: the close correlation between munitions fired and civilians harmed by those Coalition bombs, missiles and shells. During August, the Coalition reported 32 percent higher munition use in Raqqa for example, which was matched by a 33 percent increase in civilian casualties. In September, overall munition use in anti-ISIS airstrikes across Iraq and Syria fell by 30 percent, while likely civilian deaths fell by a similar 27 percent. 

Coalition trends

To the end of September, the Coalition had reported some 13,820 air and artillery strikes in Iraq, along with 13,708 in Syria, since the start of its anti-ISIS campaign in 2014. The war’s emphasis was now firmly on Syria with 1,278 strikes declared for the month (though this was down 13% on August.) In Iraq, 253 strikes were declared in September, also a decrease of 13%.

According to official data published by US Air Force Central Command, the Coalition’s officially active members (the US, UK, France, Belgium, Australia and Jordan – along with possibly Saudi Arabia and the UAE) released a total of 3,550 munitions during air raids on ISIS targets in Syria across Iraq and Syria. That represented a 30% decrease on August’s all-time high. 

In the period between August 31st and September 25th, the UK reported 20 strikes in Iraq – up from the 8 strikes reported in August. In Syria, the British military reported 47 strikes, a 52% month on month increase. In the same time frame – August 31st to September 25th – France reported carrying out 30 strikes in Iraq, almost double the number in August. France’s actions in Syria, however, fell by 44% to 9 strikes.

Military developments

On September 21st, Iraqi security forces and the Coalition announced the start of a new offensive to capture Hawijah – an operation it proclaimed succesfully concluded just two weeks later. According to published strike releases, the Coalition did not carry out airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces near Hawija. Elsewhere in Iraq, airstrikes focused on border areas like al Qaim, where Iraqi forces subsequently began operations to clear the city in early October.

In Syria, the Coalition and SDF pushed on to capture much of the remaining area of Raqqa – the self-declared capital of ISIS, and now a city largely deserted, in ruins and reportedly littered with corpses. On September 16th, the Coalition said that the SDF held more than 60% of the city, and on September 20th, the Kurdish-dominated group said in a statement that this figure was now above 80%.

Civilians trapped in the narrowing segments of Raqqa under ISIS control – who by the end of the month were still estimated aid agencies to number 8,000 – continued to be exposed to significant risk. In Raqqa, like Mosul and other cities held by the terror group, ISIS has employed civilians as human shields. Often, when civilians are killed, it is unclear what the target was. A strike reported on September 4th, and which according to monitors left at least nine civilians dead, was indicative. According to several local sources, a Coalition attack hit a residential building on Shubat Street, killing members of a family inside. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that among the dead were six women.

“It seems that not a single building has escaped the onslaught,” wrote BBC correspondent Quentin Sommerville after spending much of the month in the city. “Many have been crushed, flattened or knocked to one side by the Western coalition’s airstrikes and artillery… it is a barrage that never ceases.”

At the same time both the Coalition and their SDF allies – spurred by the regime’s own swift advances against ISIS supported by Russia – were turning their attention southeast to the Euphrates river valley that runs to the border with Iraq.  There, cities like Mayadin and Abu Kamal (al Qaim lies just across the frontier in Iraq) were the last in eastern Syria wholly under the group’s control. In September, the race to capture these areas picked up pace. That urgency placed civilians at increasing risk.

On September 5th, pro-regime forces back by Russian airstrikes reported that they had reached military units long besieged in Deir Ezzor city. Civilian casualties escalated in the weeks following, many reportedly tied to Russian strikes. On September 18th, regime forces crossed over to the Eastern bank of the Euphrates downstream from Deir Ezzor, marking the partial end to the river’s use as a line of deconfliction between SDF and regime forces – an arrangement that according to Coalition officials had been in effect for the stretch of the river from Raqqa to Deir Ezzor.

Russian and Coalition aircraft both bombed in these areas during September, though the Coalition said that it had stopped bombing in Deir Ezzor city itself once regime forces entered. More often than not during the month, reports from eastern Syria conflicted as to who was responsible for civilian harm. An attack on September 16th for example reportedly left at least nine civilians dead, including one woman and seven children from the same family, after a strike hit residential areas of Muqan in Deir Ezzor governorate. Reports initially monitored by Airwars were evenly split: four blamed the Coalition and four cited Russian forces. According to several sources, the dead were Mohammed Al-Awad Al-Bawali, his wife Suqra Muhammed Eid al-Bu’ali and their children.

“A picture of the children of Mohammed Al-Awad Al-Bawali, who were martyred as a result of the bombing of their home in the town of Muqan in the eastern suburb of Deir Al-Azur” (via Syria 2014)

Amid the carnage, the UN issued an urgent call on September 17th for civilians to be protected in eastern Deir Ezzor.

“The UN is deeply concerned for the safety and protection of civilians – men, women and children – who are the victims of continued fighting, airstrikes and military operations in Deir-ez-Zor,” said Ramesh Rajasingham, the acting Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria. “I call on all parties to do their utmost to ensure the safety and well being of civilians in the conduct of military operations and strictly adhere to the international humanitarian law principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions in and from the effects of attack.”

Coalition civilian casualties

The UN’s attention reflected the shifting battlefield in Syria, where for the first time since operations began in Raqqa during June, more alleged civilian casualty incidents took place elsewhere in the country.

During September, Airwars tracked a total of 141 separate civilian casualty events reported locally  – a 9% rise from August. However, the number of incidents assessed as fairly reported fell by 18% to 61 events – a reflection of increasing chaos on the ground. A ‘fair’ categorisation means that an incident has two or more uncontested sources, and that the Coalition has confirmed carrying out strikes on the same date in the near vicinity. Across these 61 events, Airwars currently estimates that between 343 and 460 civilians were likely killed – compared to a minimum of 473 likely deaths in August.

Across both Iraq and Syria, likely civilian deaths from alleged Coalition strikes during September decreased by 27% from Airwars minimum estimates during the previous month. Nevertheless non-combatants remained in grave danger in Syria, and the death toll from all Coalition actions was the third highest of any month since the start of US-led strikes there in September 2014.

The raw number of alleged deaths from all Airwars monitoring of Coalition actions during September in Iraq and Syria – across all incidents assessed as ‘fair’, ‘poor’ ‘contested’ and ‘discounted’ – currently stands at between 853 and 1,678 claimed civilian fatalities for the month.

Syria: another bad month for civilians

Following the record reported civilian death toll tracked during August, the month of September saw a 31% decrease in the minimum number of civilian deaths assessed by Airwars as likely caused by the Coalition. This, however, was of little comfort to ordinary civilians on the ground, as this was still the third worst month for likely civilian deaths since the start of Coalition actions. We also saw a rise in contested and weakly reported cases – meaning that the true toll may have been higher.

Throughout the month, Airwars tracked 117 civilian casualty events in Syria – four more than in August. The number of incidents assessed as likely carried out by the US-led Coalition however, fell by 21%. Across 57 such events, Airwars currently estimates that between 321 and 426 civilians died – compared to a minimum of 467 during August.

The overall death toll for Syria across all categories  – ‘fair’, ‘weak’, ‘contested’ and ‘discounted’ – was between 635 and 1,203 civilians killed.

As the battle to oust ISIS from Raqqah entered its final stages, Airwars did monitor a significant fall in civilian deaths in the besieged city – though this may have been linked in part to a deterioration in local reporting – increasingly, reports are less specific – and the smaller numbers of civilians left inside the city. Civilian casualty events assessed as likely carried out by the Coalition fell by 34% in the city. Across 43 fairly reported events, between 245 and 296 civilians were estimated killed – a 43% drop on August’s minimum estimate of 433 non-combatants killed. Whereas in August, 90% of all Syrian events were reported in Raqqa, in September just 42% were tracked in the city.

In Raqqa itself, at least six incidents considered likely carried out by the Coalition left a dozen or more civilians killed. The worst event monitored by Airwars researchers took place on September 27th in the al Hadika al Baidaa neighborhood of the city. According to local reports upwards of 29 civilians, including women and children, were killed. On that day, aid officials estimated that only 8,000 civilians were left in the city.

Neighborhoods like Badou which had been hit hard in recent months continued to be pummeled by Coalition strikes. On September 12th, at least 11 civilians including seven children were killed in a reported strike in the area. Though details of exactly who died varied, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that all the victioms were from the same family.

Ahmed Abdul Karim Saud, killed in an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqah’s Al Badou neighbourhood, Sept 12th (via Palmyra city coordination committee)

Official strike data from the Coalition shows a significant decrease in the intensity in operations in Raqqa. A total of 1,170 air and artillery strikes were publicly reported during September – a decrease of 9% on August. The Coalition also reported the use of 4,750 munitions in Raqqa during September – a fall of 18% from August. Some 1,811 targets were also reportedly bombed in the city, representing a 26% fall  decline. 

Several friendly fire incidents were also alleged at Raqqa, including an incident near Al Nour Mosque on September 5th that was said to have left at least 13 SDF soldiers dead, according to some local reports. The Coalition, however, denied that any friendly fire incident took place on that day in Raqqa.

A fall in reported deaths in Raqqa coincided with a sharp rise in casualty events in Deir Ezzor governorate. Airwars tracked 58 such incidents throughout September, an almost threefold increase on the previous month. Twelve of these September events have currently been assessed as fairly reported and killing at least 59 civilians.

The number of contested Russian and Coalition events in Deir Ezzor governorate also jumped to 19 incidents. Between 94 and 133 civilians are currently estimated killed in these events, where apportioning responsibility remains a challenge. .

Though many incidents in Deir Ezzor governorate were contested, the deadliest event likely tied to the Coalition took place on September 9th, when upwards of 20 civilians were reportedly killed after an ISIS prison in Abu Kamal was hit by airstrikes. Euphrates Post reported that among the dead were ten detainees from Iraq. 

On September 17th, one or more strikes near a baker in the vicinity of Abu Kamal reportedly left a further eight civilians dead, including four children and at least one woman. Some reports suggested the home of an ISIS member may have been targeted amid strikes in and around the city. The four children killed were named by the Syrian Network for Human Rights as Samir Bader Attallah Al Hajj Kardoush; Amir Bader Atallah Al Hajj Kardhoush; Mounir Badr Al Hajj Kardoush; and Yazin al Hassan.

 

‘The children Samir, Amir, and Munir Badr Attallah al Haj Kardoush, killed with their parents in International Coalition warplanes missiles fired on al Sena’a neighborhood in al Boukamal city in Deir Ez-Zour governorate eastern suburbs, September 17, 2017.’ via SN4HR

Iraq: Reported civilian deaths continue to fall after Mosul

During September, Airwars researchers tracked 24 claimed Coalition casualty events in Iraq that were reported locally. This was up from 15 such cases the previous month. Of the incidents in September, only four are presently assessed by Airwars as likely carried out by the US-led Coalition. Between 22 and 34 civilians reportedly died across these incidents, compared to a minimum of 6 such deaths in August.

Contested fatalities – which during the chaotic fight for Mosul accounted for the majority of deaths – also fell during September. Airwars tracked between 25 and 118 deaths across seven contested incidents during the month.

Consequently, the overall alleged death toll for Iraq dropped significantly. Across all categories  – ‘fair’, ‘weak’ and ‘contested’ – between 218 and 475 civilians were claimed killed by the Coalition in Iraq during September – compared to an estimated range of 278 to 720 deaths in August.

However Airwars remains concerned that the quality of local civilian casualty reporting in Iraq remains poor when compared with Syria, where a more active citizen monitoring network is in place.

Russian military actions and civilian casualties

After a 45% fall in reported Russian casualty events in August, Russian actions rose dramatically the following month. Throughout September, Airwars researchers tracked 154 claimed events – a massive 327% monthly increase in such allegations. This was the highest number of claimed Russian events in Syria since April 2017, when there were 155 reported incidents. In Idlib, Russia was again accused of targeting medical facilities, while in Deir Ezzor local sources reported the use of widely-banned cluster munitions. 

Raw figures indicated that across those 154 events, between 367 and 618 civilians were claimed killed in alleged Russian actions. However it should be noted that these numbers are unvetted, and should therefore not be directly compared to the Coalition estimates in this report. The majority of allegations against Russia (45%) occurred in Idlib province, followed by Deir Ezzor (36%). There was just one allegation in Raqqa governorate.

This sharp hike to 154 reported Russian events meant that the trend of the last eight months – in which Coalition casualty events have significantly outweighed those attributed to Moscow – was finally reversed. For the Coalition during September we tracked 141 alleged events – 117 of them in Syria. However for those on the ground during such a deadly month, it perhaps mattered little who launched the bombs.