A US F-16 receives in-flight fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over Iraq, August 22nd 2018 (via US Air Force/ Staff Sgt. Keith James)

Airwars monthly assessment: August 2018

Written by Alex Hopkins on October 18, 2018


Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis: Kinda Haddad, Salim Habib, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Sophie Dyer, Koen Kluessien, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Poppy Bowers, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann, Laura Bruun, Anna Zahn and Chris Woods.

Conflict monitoring

During August, civilian harm from international military actions across Iraq and Syria remained at a low level. Airwars tracked just four allegations against Russia in Syria (a record low), and eight against the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria.

It should be noted, however, that Airwars has tracked high numbers of deaths earlier in the year. In total, from January to August 2018 inclusive, 693 civilian harm events were alleged against Russia in which between 2,006 to 3,067 Syrian civilians were claimed killed. For the same period, Airwars tracked 90 claimed Coalition harm events – almost all in Syria – in which between 484 and 742 non combatants were alleged slain. Moreover, as both the US-led Coalition’s air war against ISIS and the broader Syrian civil war enter their end stages, the fear is that civilian casualties may once more spike in final, bloody battles.

With ISIS now reduced to a tiny area of territory north of Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor governorate, Syria, US-led Coalition airstrikes remained at the same low levels seen in July. Minimum civilian deaths likely caused by Coalition actions in Syria during August fell by 63% on the previous month, with just 28 civilians likely killed across six casualty events near the key towns of Al Sousse and Al Baghouz, which ISIS clung on to.

However, as Operation Roundup entered its third phase on September 11th, Airwars is concerned that civilian harm may again spiral, particularly around Hajin, as Coalition forces focus on eradicating ISIS from its last outposts in Syria.

August also saw a massive reduction of 83% in Russian incidents of concern in Syria, with just four reported casualty events monitored throughout the month – the lowest tracked number of claims since Moscow began its bloody intervention in Syria in September 2015. This sharp fall in Russian actions meant that US-led Coalition events outweighed those attributed to Moscow for the first time since October 2017.

However, this lull in Russian strikes was accompanied by widespread fear of carnage to come in Idlib, the rebels’ last stronghold in Syria. As Russia, Turkey and the Assad government negotiated on Idlib’s immediate future, the governorate stood ‘on a knife edge’ – with the imminent threat of possibly the fiercest assault yet in the civil war, and a battle which could yet displace and put at risk 700,000 people.

Russia in Syria: casualty events at record low

Casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft in Syria during August fell to the lowest in any given month since the start of Moscow’s air campaign in September 2015. Overall, there were just four events tracked throughout the month, which represented an 83% decrease on the 24 incidents tracked during July.

Across these four events, between 39 and 43 civilians were claimed killed with a further 72 wounded, compared to between 135 and 150 reported killed in July. Of August’s four events, two were in Idlib, while the remaining pair were in Aleppo and Hama governorates.

“The sharp fall in alleged Russian events during August can be linked, in part, to the latest round of the Astana peace talks, which ended on July 31st,” explains Abdulwahab Tahhan, who helps monitor Russian actions in Syria for Airwars. “Soon after the talks, a de-escalation zone was agreed with Turkey and Russia as guarantors. Russia’s pause in strikes was the longest in almost three years of war in Syria in support of the Assad government.

“However, with hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Idlib  the very real fear is that this slowdown merely foreshadows the battle to come. Idlib really is the great unknown. We have certainly seen in the past that such a pause in Russian strikes can prefigure a major onslaught.”

Almost all of the claimed deaths in August came as part of one disastrous incident on August 10th, when between 37 and 41 civilians were claimed killed and up to 70 more wounded in multiple airstrikes on the town of Urma al Kubra, in Aleppo governorate. The majority of sources attributed the event to Russian warplanes, though one source, Hamza.alshaheed, blamed “the butcher Bashar Assad”.

Footage by Step News showing the moment an alleged Russian warplane struck Urma al Kubra.

Shabab Al Sousse put the death toll at more than 20 civilians, while LCCSY said that as many as 41 had perished. Smart added that 14 of the victims were children and six were women, who perished when as many as 25 houses were destroyed.

Raqqa RWB, citing an Orient News correspondent, referred to “the destruction of an entire neighbourhood”, though the head of the civil defense center in the town, Hussein Badawi, told SCD Aleppo that the alleged Russian raids had in fact levelled three neighbourhoods.

Destruction in a neighbourhood of Urma al Kubra

Multiple sources published images showing widespread destruction, children being removed from the rubble by The White Helmets, and graphic photographs of dead children. Seven members of the Aboud family were among those named as killed, along with several daughters of  Radwan Khalil and Ibrahim al-Naif.

During the final full week of the month, Airwars monitors did not track a single casualty event in Syria that was blamed on Russia. However, this ended on September 4th when reports reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes — all in Idlib – scene for the final and possibly most ferocious battle of the war.

Children of Ahmed Mustafa Aboud, killed in an alleged Russian airstrike on Urma Al Kubra, Aug 10th (via Latamina.alhadth)

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

For the first time since Airwars began tracking US and Coalition military actions in 2014, we are unable to include an update of official AFCENT data, since the US military command is now more than six weeks behind in its reporting for Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. *

The Coalition itself reported just 25 air and artillery strikes in Iraq during August – three more than the previous month. Strikes in Syria also remained steady, with 65 air and artillery actions, mainly in Deir Ezzor, and just two less than in July.

Strikes by the UK and France remained at low levels. Britain reported only four airstrikes in August. Three of these strikes were in Iraq near Tikrit and Bayji, where targets reported hit included ISIS vehicles and buildings. There was also one strike in Syria on an ‘ISIS-held building’ in the Euphrates Valley.

France carried out three airstrikes in August, the same number as in the previous month. Two of these strikes were against ISIS fighters in Iraq and the third – carried out in conjunction with other Coalition jets – targeted an ISIS site for the assembly of VBIEDS in the Euphrates Valley. Paris reported that its Rafales had dropped two precision  AASM bombs (armament air-modular floor bombs of 250k) on the building, destroying it. Meanwhile, Task Force Wagram, France’s artillery detachment in the Euphrates Valley, declared 14 shooting missions – the same number as in July.

The Netherlands publicly declared that weapons were deployed during three missions, two near Hajin and Abu Kamal in Syria, and a third near the Middle Euphrates Valley in al Anbar province, Iraq.

U.S. Marines clear out an 81mm mortar tube during training in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at Hajin, Syria, August 4, 2018 (via US Air Force)

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria: likely deaths fall by 63%

Throughout August, Airwars tracked eight alleged Coalition civilian casualty events, just two less than in July. All of these were in Deir Ezzor governorate, Syria.

Of the eight Syrian events in August, six were assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed as fair when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day. Airwars’ current estimate is that  28 or 29 civilians likely died in these six events, compared to a minimum of 75 civilians who likely died during July.

“August was a relatively quiet month in Syria but nonetheless we still saw a number of civilians killed as a result of the Coalition campaign against ISIS,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “Throughout the month there were several reports of military hardware being moved to reinforce SDF positions and to establish new military bases around the province of Deir Ezzor in preparation for phase three of Operation Roundup which started on September 11th. and which aims to finish off the last pockets of  ISIS remnants in the province. While casualties remain low at the present, our fear is that as the operation enters this next phase, casualties will spike around Hajin and the Deir Ezzor countryside held by ISIS east of the Euphrates River.”

Civilians in  Al Sousse – one of the three most important towns still controlled by ISIS in Deir Ezzor – remained under significant risk during August, with four incidents of concern tracked in the town throughout the month.  On August 7th, three non-combatants died in an alleged Coalition strike which, according to Zaman al Wasl, targeted “the buildings of residential associations in the town”. An ISIS leader, Abu Khadija al Jazairi, also reportedly died in the raid. Some comments on a Facebook thread by Al Sousse Youth claimed that the victims were IDPs rather than people from the town itself.

The following day (August 8th), Al Sousse came under fire again and a further three civilians were reported killed in an alleged Coalition strike which hit a medical clinic and other sites, according to The Step News Agency, the Shaam News Network and other sources. Reports said that the Coalition was targeting ISIS militants in the area. The civilian casualties more likely happened in Al Sousse but some sources mentioned that neighbourhoods in Al Shafa village near the city of Abu Kamal were also struck.

Martyrs and wounded after the international coalition aircraft targeted the medical clinic in the village of Sousse and residential neighborhoods in the village of Shaafa.’

Airwars did not track another civilian casualty event for six days. But then on August 14th, four civilians in Al Baghouz reportedly died in an alleged Coalition airstrike, according to sources on the ground. The Smart News Agency reported that other civilians including women and children were wounded, in addition to the killing of three members of ISIS. Some activists stated that the attack was conducted by Iraqi warplanes operating as part of the US-led Coalition.

But by far the worst event of the month occurred on August 26th, when 19 women, reportedly the wives of ISIS fighters on external missions, died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on an ISIS-held house in al Sha’afa, Deir Ezzor governorate. According to the source Al Shaafa, Coalition jets attacked the edge of Al Sha’afa, “and it was confirmed that one of the targets was the house of Mohammed al Wahaysh al-Furaji, a building being used to host the women of IS”. The Euphrates Post also blamed the Coalition, as did the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, though the latter only reported that the strike led to the injury of a young man.

Only the Smart News Agency gave casualty figures, putting the number of women killed at 18. Elnashra reported that “militants’ sites had announced the killing of two civilians, including a child, and the injury of four children and a woman” in a Coalition strike.

Libya

The month of August in Libya was marked by an escalation of violence in Tripoli. Various militias vied for control in the capital, with the 7th Brigade from Tarhuna at the centre of the violence. It said it wanted to “cleanse the capital from the corruption” of the GNA-affiliated militias running the city.

During the clashes, both sides reportedly used artillery which led to several alleged civilian casualty events. The worst occurred in Wadi al Rabie in Tajoura on the outskirts of the capital where according to Human Rights Watch, a mother and her two children were killed due to shelling.

In another event on August 30th, two children were reported killed in the Al Mashtal area of Tripoli, either inside or outside their house. Civilian infrastructure was repeatedly targeted in events and led to both displacement and significant destruction.

As a result of these attacks, the 7th Brigade was reportedly hit by airstrikes on August 29th and lost three of its fighters. Local sources claimed that the strikes were either conducted by the GNA or by Italy.

On September 4th a ceasefire agreement mediated by UNSMIL was signed in Zawiya city between the rival militias to end all hostilities.

Outside Tripoli the situation was relatively quiet. The LNA and unknown actors reportedly conducted various airstrikes to attack the remnants of the Derna Shura Council/ Derna Protection Force which controlled the city until the takeover by the LNA. No civilian harm was reported in those events.

The US also continued its operations in Libya, later confirming it had targeted an ISIS member near Bani Walid with a precision strike.

‘Aftermath of indiscriminate artillery shelling on the Al Mashtal neighbourd in Tripoli’

Advocacy

Military advocacy

In the US-led Coalition’s August Civilian Casualty Report it confirmed responsibility for 15 additional civilian deaths, including the fatal injuring of an elderly civilian man which public reporting named as Ismail al Jarjab. Ismail died on July 4th 2017 of injuries sustained ten days earlier from an airstrike on the al Dar’iya neighbourhood of Raqqa. Local reports of his death were brought to the attention of the Coalition by Airwars. The number of civilians deaths conceded by the Coalition to August 31st 2018 stood at 1,061.

As we signalled in last month’s update, information exchanges with the US-led Coalition’s own Civilian Casualty Cell continue to improve. In a welcome move, the Coalition supplied Airwars with coordinates (accurate to 100 m) for all Credible and Non Credible assessments published in their latest report. Since mid 2016, Airwars has consistently asked for the geolocations for all incidents but up until last month had only regularly received coordinates for the minority of incidents assessed as Credible.

Consequently, for the first time Airwars has been able to crosscheck all new assessments with its own database of allegations. Accurate geolocations are critical in identifying incidents in which Airwars is not recorded by the Coalition as the source of reporting. This includes internal or “self-reports”, which currently account for only 6% of all alleged events, but over half of Credible assessments.

In London, Airwars also attended a roundtable on the mitigation of civilian harm in Westminster chaired by Dr Larry Lewis, a former adviser to the State Department on civilian harm, which was organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones. Dr Lewis reiterated the need for “fairer treatment” of external reports from civic society groups such as Airwars, who account for the bulk of reporting.

The strike on Issa’s home was first reported at the time by local monitors, @Raqqa_SL and @saadalinizy.

European advocacy

Our outgoing advocacy officer Koen Kluessien was featured in a major three part series published by NRC on the Dutch air campaign against so-called Islamic State. The second article in the series specifically focused on the discrepancy between the number of civilian harm incidents the Coalition has conceded, and Airwars estimates.
Commenting on claims of “careful warfare” by the Dutch Defense Ministry, Koen noted that there is no way of knowing if such actions are in fact carefully executed: “The Defense Ministry remains non-transparent in its accountability. […] We would be in favor of the Coalition doing much more active research on the ground into possible civilian casualties,” he noted.

* Update on AFCENT data

On Monday October 22nd, the AFCENT data for the month of August 2018 had been published by US military command. For the month of August, 241 munitions were reportedly released from air across Iraq and Syria. This represents a 17% fall on the 292 munitions reportedly released from air during July.

Given that strike numbers reported by the Coalition (which include air and artillery strikes) across Iraq and Syria remained steady for August and the AFCENT figure indicates a 17% drop on munitions released from the air, this could suggest a rise a rise in the proportion of artillery strikes conducted in August.