US Marines fire a mortar during training in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria, July 23rd 2018 (US Air Force/ Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

Airwars monthly assessment: July 2018

Written by Alex Hopkins on August 29, 2018


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

Conflict monitoring

While civilian harm for international military actions in Iraq and Syria is presently at relatively low levels, casualties have nevertheless continued this year – often at alarming rates. From January to July 2018 inclusive, 689 civilian harm events were alleged against Russia in which between 2,000 to 3,000 Syrian civilians were claimed killed. For the same period, Airwars tracked 82 claimed Coalition harm events – almost all in Syria – in which between 450 and 700 non combatants were alleged slain. 

During July 2018 only, civilian casualty events reportedly carried out by Russia in Syria fell by 64% on the previous month – though as the Assad government’s Moscow-backed assault on south west Syria continued, civilian deaths still remained at concerning levels, with at least 135 people claimed killed during the month.

On July 8th, Syrian government forces prepared for a major operation to retake Dara’a city from rebels, and despite a Russian-brokered ceasefire, regime jets continued to carry out strikes on Dara’a. On July 15th, Assad’s troops widened the offensive and pushed into nearby Quneitra governorate, bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Thousands of ordinary Syrians remained in peril – trapped between Assad missiles and minefields in the Golan Heights. By July 19th, the UN estimated that up to 203,500 people remained displaced in south west Syria – including 140,000 IDPs in Quneitra.

By July 22nd, rebels had surrendered the last slithers of territory they held in Quneitra. As Syrian regime forces continued to close in, the White Helmets evacuated the area, fleeing to safety in Jordan. The group said it had been repeatedly attacked by regime forces as surrender deals negotiated with local rebels did not apply to humanitarian workers. The UK along with Canada and Germany agreed to offer refuge to those members of the White Helmets who had been evacuated from Syria via Israel.

By July 31st, regime forces had fully retaken control of Dara’a governorate, having seized the last towns and villages controlled by the ISIS-affiliate Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Waleed. On the same day, the Syrian army also recaptured the remaining ISIS-held pocket in the Yarmouk Basin.

For the US led Coalition, munitions released from the air fell by 18% on June to just 292 bombs and missiles across Iraq and Syria – the lowest number released in any one month since August 2014 when the air war began. Strikes in Syria also fell by 67% on June.

Despite this however, deaths assessed as likely caused by the Coalition rose by 39% in July – with at least 75 civilians reported killed in Syria in July. This spike in casualties came as the SDF embarked on a supported ground offensive to seize the town of Soussa, the last major ISIS enclave on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River.

Russia in Syria: casualty events fall by 64%

Following the dramatic rise in reported Russian casualty events during June, the month of July saw a 64% fall in incidents of concern. In total, Airwars monitored 24 Russian casualty events in Syria, compared to 67 in the previous month.

But despite this fall in incidents, civilians deaths remained at a troubling level as fighting continued to rage in Dara’a governorate; all but four of the 24 events tracked during July were in Dara’a

Between 135 and 150 civilians were alleged killed by Russian actions in total during July – compared with between 188 and 277 claimed fatalities during JuneThese figures remain unvetted by Airwars, and are based on initial monitoring. They should not be compared directly with fully evaluated estimates tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes.

“Though the number of Russian civilian harm events fell in July, the death toll remained worryingly high,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan, who monitors Russian strikes for Airwars. “In some of the worst incidents, we saw reports of many members of the same family killed, and the photographs coming out of such events were too graphic for Airwars to publish on social media. “

Russian and regime incidents of concern in Syria

Local reporting suggested that Moscow paused its own bombing campaign between July 9th-15th, with no local claims of Russian civilian harm events for that week. However the Assad government continued its own attacks, with multiple casualty reports from southern Syria. The worst events in July occurred within the final two weeks of the month, when allegations against the regime outweighed those against Russia.

On July 17th, up to 14 civilians died in Ein al Teenah, in the Al Quneitra suburbs. According to For Southern Syria on Facebook, ten people were killed – “mostly women and children” –  in a strike on a school sheltering displaced people. The source published graphic images of child victims, one of whom was named as Hamza Ali al KhateebFree Deir Ezzor said that 11 people died including children from the same family – and blamed regime warplanes. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that the casualties were a result of the regime dropping barrel bombs, though Marsad al Hassaka  pointed to both “Russian and Syrian helicopters”. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which didn’t apportion blame, reported that the death toll had risen to 14 including four women and five children.

Bodies of civilians killed in a strike on Ein al Tena, Juy 17th (via SN4HR)

On the same day, July 17th, in Nawa, Daraa, up to 20 more civilians perished in strikes by warplanes and helicopters. Again, most sources pointed towards the regime, though the Syrian Network for Human Rights accused both Russian and Assad forces. According to the Shaam News network, “activists confirmed that Assad forces stationed in Tal al-Mahs and at the artillery battalion in the town of Al-Shulaileh targeted the town of Nawa with more than 300 shells in just ten minutes”. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights didn’t name the culprit but said that of 15 people killed “by warplanes and helicopters”; seven of these were women.

Just three days later, on July 20th, there were several more major events in Dara’aa. In the first of these, up to 15 civilians died in strikes on Al Sahajara according to a single source, the Step News Agency . Step blamed Russian and Syrian warplanes and helicopters working in parallel with artillery shelling, which reportedly targeted the areas of the Yarmouk Basin controlled by ISIS.

In the second and worst event that day, up to 26 people died including 11 children in alleged Russian and regime strikes on Hit and Tasil, according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which referred to “a crazy bombardment by Russian warplanes and helicopters”. Hamza.alshaheed added that an entire family was trapped under the rubble in Tasil, and blamed Russian bombing.

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

The known remaining active international Coalition allies – the US the UK, France and the Netherlands (and Iraq in Syria) released 292 munitions  from the air across both Iraq and Syria during July 2018, according to official AFCENT data. This represented an 18% fall from the 356 munitions reported for June – and the lowest number of munitions released by air in any one month since anti-ISIS actions began in August 2014.

Coalition air and artillery strikes in Iraq remained at a low level: just 22 strikes were declared, two more than in June. And reported strikes in Syria fell significantly in July. Throughout the month, the Coalition publicly reported 67 air and artillery actions as Operation Roundup continued – a 67% fall on June’s 203 strikes.

Strikes by the US’s two most active allies, the UK and France, also fell. Britain reported just two strikes in Syria in July, down from 10 in the previous month. It also publicly declared one strike in northern Iraq, on July 7th, against an ISIS hideout on the banks of the Tigris to the north-east of Mosul.

For the first time in seven weeks, France reported carrying out anti-ISIS airstrikes under the auspices of the Coalition in Syria. The French military said it targeted an ISIS building in the Abu Kamal area with three airstrikes on the night of July 7th-8th. Strikes by France’s artillery detachment, Task Force Wagram, in the Euphrates Valley, fell significantly: 14 shooting missions were declared – 81% down on June.

The Netherlands publicly declared that weapons were deployed in only one mission, in the week of July 4th-11th, when its jets attacked an ISIS logistical storage unit near Mosul. Other missions were flown above Deir Ezzor and Hassakah, Syria, in support of ground troops.

‘Iraqi and US guns bring steel rain to ISIS’: U.S. Army Soldiers with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment fire artillery alongside Iraqi Security Force artillery at known ISIS locations near the Iraqi-Syrian border, June 5th 2018 (via U.S. Army)

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria: likely deaths rise by 39%

Throughout July, Airwars researchers tracked 10 reported Coalition civilian casualty events, all of which were in Syria. This was a 44% fall on June’s 18 events. However, the minimum number of civilians likely killed in these July events actually rose by 39% on the previous month as the SDF, backed by Coalition air and artillery strikes, embarked on a military operation to oust ISIS from its last enclave on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River.

Of the ten Syrian events in July, 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. All but two of these six events occurred in Deir Ezzor governorate. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 75 and 119 civilians likely died in these six events, compared to a minimum of 54 civilians who likely died during June.

“Despite repeated statements by the Coalition that great care is taken before any strike in Syria, we repeatedly see a spike in civilian casualties when there is a push to retake an ISIS-controlled area,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “One of the last pockets held by the terrorist group is in eastern Deir Ezzor around the town of Al Soussa, where we saw the worst of the civilian casualty allegations in July.

“The rise in the death toll during the month was mainly due to a few major casualty events, in which tens of civilians were credibly reported killed. As we saw previously in Raqqa, civilians who can leave the area do so. But many are not able to escape, either because they have nowhere to go or because they have left it too late to flee – meaning that they are now under siege from both the SDF supported by Coalition strikes – and ISIS. Real practical steps and genuine care need to be taken to avoid the killing of the most vulnerable people on the ground”.

The worst reported event of the month occurred on July 12th when up to 58 civilians died and 25 more were wounded in alleged Coalition (or possibly unilateral Iraqi) strikes on an “ice factory” at the junction of Al Sousse and Al Baghouz in the Deir Ezzor countryside, according to sources on the ground. The Step News Agency reported that Coalition jets had launched “five successive strikes” hitting an ice processing plant where civilians had gathered to get ice. “Massive destruction to residential buildings and shops” was also reported. Sound and Picture and Hajeen Magazine reported two of the highest tallies, 55 and 58, stating that most of the victims were displaced Iraqis. Sources named two members of the Shahadat family and the son of Mahdi Al-Salamah and the son of Mahjoub Salama among the fatalities.


A brief report by Reuters said that the Coalition or “partner forces” may have hit the area. In a statement emailed in response to a question asked by Reuters, Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan sated that “the Coalition or our partners forces may have conducted strikes in the vicinity of Al Soussa and Baghour Fukhani yesterday [July 12th]”. Ryan added that a report of civilian harm had been sent to the “Civilian Casualty Cell for further assessment”.

Just four days later on July 16th, Al Soussa would come under fire again, with up to 13 more civilians killed in alleged Coalition airstrikes on homes in the town, local media reported. The source Boukamalna said that the house of Halj Ali Al Mohsen Al Faress was targeted – a claim reiterated by other sources which said that he and his wife, Mrs Nabieh and his daughter Mona died along with five Iraqis. Other reports added that the building next door, the home of Hamid al-Ali, was also hit, killing the inhabitants. While most sources put the death toll at eight, Step News Agency said that as many as 13 people were killed, reporting that three houses were hit at 7am.

Ali Muhsen al Fares, allegedly killed in Coalition airstrikes on al Soussa (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

And on July 21st as many as 30 more civilians were killed in alleged Coalition airstrikes on several locations between Al Soussa and Al Dahra in Deir Ezzor. Alarmingly, most sources reported that the casualties occurred as entire families were attempting to flee Al Soussa and move towards the rural area of Al Dahra in Al Badia, while the Coalition reportedly struck ISIS-held locations in Al Soussa. According to Baladi, “dozens” were killed and injured including women and children. One victim was identified by Al Soussa Youth as Hamid Al Zaidan – though the source added that other bodies “couldn’t be reached”. Two days after the event, Menor Monitor said that the SDF had found eight bodies under the rubble. All reports attributed the event to the Coalition.

Libya

Libya witnessed a major decrease in airstrike activity in July 2018. While May and June still showed a lot of activity in the skies due to the LNA/UAE Derna offensive, only one strike was publicly recorded in July. The UNSMIL July casualties report also showed the civilian death toll to be the lowest since the beginning of the year.

On July 25th an airstrike hit a vehicle in the Al Sharib district of Ubari, reportedly killing Al Qaeda commander Ramzi Mansour. Initially the US was blamed, due to previous similar and confirmed actions against Al Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) in Ubari on March 24th. However, AFRICOM explicitly denied any involvement in a statement to Airwars. Menastream claimed that the American denial could mean that the French were behind the strike, as they had been active in the south of Libya as well. Local Libyan forces were ruled out, as they lack the capability to strike with precision at night.

Despite the absence of other airstrikes, the security situation in Libya remained unstable in July with increased ISIS activity – in particular kidnappings. This included the seizing of engineers from the El Sharara oilfield, including three Libya nationals and one international, a Romanian.

Additionally, an armed group attacked the Great Man-Made River water project in Tazerbu, north of Kufra, leaving an engineer and a guard dead. Other clashes occurred in Tripoli between rival militias which resulted in civilian casualties.

Advocacy

Military advocacy

After previously challenging the credibility of recent NGO field investigations into the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, the Coalition appeared to change tack, recently admitting to multiple civilian deaths, many of them first reported by Amnesty International, Airwars and the New York Times. The Coalition’s admissions were made in their July Civilian Casualty Report, which detailed 16 newly confirmed incidents in total, resulting in 105 civilian deaths. This was accompanied by a change in language, declaring a willingness to work with independent sources and to reopen investigations in the face of new evidence.

While Airwars welcomed a reset of relations between the Coalition and NGOs and journalists on the ground, it will continue to challenge the Coalition and its partners over the acute absence of any field investigations of their own. Airwars reporting currently accounts for over two thirds of all Coalition investigations into alleged civilian harm. Yet to date, only 15% of the 6,500 to 9,000 deaths estimated by Airwars to have been caused by the Coalition have been publicly conceded.

The Coalition’s latest report also reaffirmed the importance of Airwars’ work geolocating locally reported allegations of civilian harm. July’s official report included the Credible assessment of an incident in Anah ( عنه ), Iraq on September 7th 2017, which injured seven civilians, including children. Despite few sources and little information Airwars was able to provide the Coalition with a precise geolocation for the event.

The recent Credible assessment demonstrated the value of the team’s geolocation work. It is a process that combines digital forensics, open source investigation and when possible, consultation with local sources. Lack of information on the location and time of an incident remains the reason given by the Coalition in a third of all assessments it deems Non Credible.

European advocacy

Airwars and PAX, together with Utrecht University’s Centre for Conflict Studies, hosted a geolocation workshop with Bellingcat’s world-renowned open source expert Christiaan Triebert  in July. During the workshop, students and human rights practitioners were introduced to the innovative field of geolocating – providing vital tools for future research. The event was a great opportunity to share knowledge, inspire researchers in the field, and help build a strong basis for future cooperation between all organizations.

Additionally, the Democracy and Media Foundation very generously decided to fund our Utrecht-based advocacy officer for a third year. Without their support we would not be able to continue our Europe-based advocacy engagement on conflict civilian harm issues.