US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

Civilians in the ruins of Mosul city. (Maranie R. Staab)

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May 4, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

Baghdad-based Latif Habib has been tracking and researching alleged Coalition civilian casualty incidents in Iraq for Airwars for more than two years – and has been on the front lines during the Mosul assault on five occasions so far. Here Latif reflects on why the campaign to capture Iraq’s second city has proved so lethal for civilians still trapped within. 

The plan to liberate Mosul from the control of so-called Islamic State has undergone several changes. Initially the reported aim was to leave an escape route from the western half of the city for the use of militants and possibly also civilians, in order both to relieve combat pressure and to protect civilians. Instead, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped in West Mosul in what is becoming a fight to the death with ISIL. 

Plans and actions have differed radically between the right bank of the Tigris – geographically, the western half of the city – and the left bank, or eastern side. Initially, during operations to capture the east which began in October 2016, the Iraqi government and military leaders advised civilians to remain in their homes during the fighting. Coupled with the use of elite anti-terrorism forces who were well trained in urban warfare, this was a relative success – although as Airwars has reported, hundreds of civilians still likely died.

However, the same plan in far denser western Mosul has cost the lives of large numbers of civilians, in large part due to continuous aerial and artillery bombardment carried out by the Coalition and Iraqi forces. More than 5,500 bombs, missiles and rockets were used by the Coalition in Mosul in March alone, with thousands more munitions likely fired by Iraqi forces. 

These attacks have targeted Daesh facilities and units along with the headquarters of their leaders. But in many cases they have also struck the neighborhoods and markets of the Right Bank, hitting civilians and causing great loss of life. Several of the raids reportedly targeted areas where citizens were also present, including buildings and mosques that were being used as places of refuge for families displaced from other neighbourhoods where military confrontations were also taking place. This has led to even higher casualty figures.

A leaflet dropped on Mosul warns civilians to stay away from ISIL-held buildings

‘Sixty per cent of West Mosul destroyed’

The leadership of the international Coalition has continued to use long range rockets, mortars and artillery as well as airplanes to target Daesh fighters, especially inside the residential neighbourhoods of the Old City.  One particularly deadly raid on March 16th-17th hit residential buildings in which dozens of civilian families were gathered in the al Jadida neighborhood – all of them residents of the area. At least 280 civilians are now thought to have died in bombardments on the immediate neighbourhood, according to Iraqi civil defence.

Many questions remain unanswered about how these houses could have been targeted by the international coalition and Iraqi forces, with no conclusive findings so far. In my own view, there has been no serious effort to learn from the grave mistakes so far made by aircraft of the international coalition, or to deal with the resulting excessive human losses. All the arguments and excuses offered by US officials and leaders in the field have done nothing to change the tragedy of the civilians on the ground, and have not removed the suspicions among many Moslawis of the Coalition.

The excessive use of weapons like mortars and heavy machine guns inside the city, and random shelling by both sides, has caused additional casualties. The Federal Police, who are not trained in urban warfare but were even so used heavily in the battle for West Mosul, have reportedly caused a great deal of destruction. Daesh snipers also position themselves on the rooftops of buildings turning civilians into an indirect target, while the terror group’s suicide truck bombs have caused great destruction to civilian areas.

Already, many hundreds of civilian have died in the Old City, with its narrow streets and alleyways, where very intense firepower was used to compensate for the fact that Iraqi tanks and heavy equipment could not enter. Elite counter-terrorism forces who fought in eastern Mosul suffered heavy losses in that battle, and have been replaced in the west by less experienced soldiers and police. Airstrikes, rockets and artillery and mortar bombardment have, it is claimed, destroyed as much as 60% of West Mosul.

According to the United Nations the battle for Mosul is the biggest urban assault since World War Two – which has already lasted a month longer than the siege of Stalingrad. The failure by both the Coalition and the Iraqi government to create safe corridors for civilians to leave during the fighting – instead requiring them to stay in their homes – has contributed greatly to the very high number of civilian casualties now being reported.

▲ U.S. Soldiers assigned to Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division fire their M777 towed 155 mm howitzer during a fire mission near Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 03, 2017. Battery C is supporting Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the global Coalition to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Craig Jensen)


April 18, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A lethal US drone strike in Syria on March 16th did target a mosque – as locals have always insisted and American officials have denied – according to new analysis by Forensic Architecture, Human Rights Watch and Bellingcat. Researchers also allege that the US launched Hellfire missiles at civilians as they fled the mosque, killing many.

The new reports make use of before and after imagery of the buildings; eyewitness testimonies; and architects’ drawings to demonstrate that the United States did indeed target the Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque, located about a mile southwest of al-Jinah in Aleppo governorate.

“Our analysis reveals that contrary to US statements, the building targeted was a functioning, recently-built mosque containing a large prayer hall, several auxiliary functions and the Imam’s residence,” according to Forensic Architecture.

In its own report Human Rights Watch argues “that US authorities failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian casualties in the attack, a requirement under the laws of war.”

Forensic Architecture’s video showing bombed al Jinah building was a functioning mosque

In a detailed video report released April 18th, Forensic Architecture – based at Goldsmiths College at the University of London – presents evidence, including videos and pictures taken before and after the strike, accompanied by 3D modelling, that identifies and illustrates various sections of the mosque. The northern portion, which was destroyed, included “a dinning area, the toilets, a ritual washing area and the secondary, smaller prayer room.” Witnesses said that several hundred people were in the building, including around 50 in the smaller prayer room, which is also known as the “winter prayer hall.”

According to local residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch, the attack began “just before or around” 7PM. The attack took place slightly over an hour after what would have been Maghrib (sunset) prayer and roughly 15 minutes before Isha’a (night) prayer. One witness said that many people would stay in the complex, moving from the prayer hall to kitchen area “to eat and rest before the night prayer.” Four witnesses that researchers at Human Rights Watch spoke with estimated there were 300 people attending a religious lecture at the mosque when the attack began.

After two 500lb bombs destroyed the northern segments of the building, worshipers and those inside the main prayer hall in the southern part fled. At this point, many of those fleeing were fired on by what researchers working with Forensic Architecture, as well as Human Rights Watch later identified as likely Hellfire missiles. This account – of larger bombs and at least several Hellfire missiles being fired – is in line with the total number of munitions earlier reported by the Washington Post.

“Exchanging architectural plans and photographic analysis with people on the ground we managed to reconstruct a detailed model of the mosque,” said Omar Ferwati, project coordinator for Forensic Architecture. “We believe that the US forces that targeted the building misidentified the nature of the building, leading to high levels of civilian casualties.”

Working with Mohammad Halak, head of the local White Helmets rescue team, researchers determined that eight people were killed and 11 injured “as a result of the first two blasts within the norther part of the building.” Among the casualties were the Imam’s wife Ghousoun Makansi who died when the couple’s upstairs apartment was also destroyed in the attack; as well as two brothers – Mohammad Khaled Orabi and Hassan Ombar Orabi, aged 14 and ten. According to Forensic Architecture, the rest of the casualties were due to missile strikes which then hit the area outside the mosque. On a road, researchers were able to match marks – geolocated by Bellingcat – with those traditionally left by Hellfire missiles.

Such ‘double tap’ strikes gained infamy during the most controversial periods of the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan.

US denials

Airwars was the first to report confirmation of US involvement in the al Jinah strike, which was perpetrated with the use of drones on the evening of March 16th. Monitoring by Airwars presently puts the death toll at at least 37. The White Helmets, who estimated that over 50 perished, provided the names of more than two dozen of the dead included five children.

Al-Jinah is just across the border from Idlib, the Syrian governorate where the US has carried out an increasingly intense unilateral campaign against alleged al Qaeda-linked targets. Initially, US officials told Airwars the strike had taken place in Idlib. Operations like the one that targeted al-Jinah are officially separate from the anti-ISIS campaign elsewhere in the country.

Forensic Architecture and collaborating researchers identified two large craters in the northern section of the building.

Shortly after the strike, the Pentagon released a picture of where the drones had hit, showing the left (north) side of a building crumpled from impact, while the remainder of the structure appears still standing. Across from destroyed sections is a smaller structure, which looks to be untouched.

US officials still insist that the target, successfully hit that night, was ‘an Al Qaeda in Syria meeting location,” and that the smaller building across the street had been identified by the Americans as a mosque, and therefore avoided.

“Intelligence indicated that al Qaida leaders used the partially-constructed community meeting hall as a gathering place, and as a place to educate and indoctrinate al Qaida fighters,” Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon told Airwars after the attack.

Yet Forensic Architecture concludes that this identification was incorrect, along with initial claims that the strike had taken place across the border in Idlib, and that no civilians were killed. Researchers at Bellingcat determined that the civilian casualties due to the strike “are partially the result of the building’s misidentification.” Central to the disparity in accounts was an apparent American determination that because they had identified one mosque, the building across the street – which was in fact a larger, newer mosque – couldn’t be one as well.

Witnesses, including the director of Aleppo’s Civil Defense, told Human Rights Watch that victims were not wearing military clothing. In its report, Human Rights Watch said it “has not found evidence to support the allegation that members of al-Qaeda or any other armed group were meeting in the mosque.”

“The US authorities’ failure to understand the most fundamental aspects of the target and pattern of life around the target raises the question whether officers were criminally reckless in authorizing the attack,” concluded HRW researchers.

The Bellingcat study includes details of the Tablighi Jamaat, “a non-political global Sunni Islamic missionary movement which focuses on urging return to primary Sunni Islam.” The group – which says one of its classes was struck – has at least 12 million supporters globally according to Bellingcat. The open-source collective also includes a detailed timeline of the Al Jinah event.

The Pentagon issued this photograph to demonstrate, it claimed, that it had not bombed a mosque in Syria. Forensic Architecture now says the opposite is true


April 4, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford
It began as a unilateral US campaign against Al Qaeda elements plotting overseas attacks. But now this expanded shadow war risks embroiling the United States in Syria’s affairs long after the last ISIL stronghold has fallen. An Airwars special report, in conjunction with Foreign Policy

The unilateral American shadow war against al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria is now in its 30th month. Unlike the anti-Islamic State campaign, where the United States releases daily strike reports, the war against al Qaeda is less transparent, receives less media attention, and involves both the US military and intelligence apparatus. What began as a narrow mission in Syria — targeting al Qaeda terrorists allegedly focused on international attacks — has in the past six months expanded in both scope and intensity, according to local reports and interviews with US officials.

Outside the headlines, this war is also causing a steadily increasing death toll among Syrian civilians. One of the latest strikes in the long-running US campaign occurred on March 16th, when US drones struck a mosque complex in the town of al-Jinah, in northern Syria. The United States says it is investigating the attack but insists it didn’t hit a mosque. To the incredulity of locals, it claims to have instead struck a nearby building where “an al Qaeda in Syria meeting” was taking place. One witness told the local outlet Smart News: “[T]his is a praying center … peaceful civilians praying. I am one of them, there are no terrorists here.”

Rescuers work to free victims after a March 16th US drone strike in al-Jinah, Syria. Screenshot from video by Moaz Alshami Shada

President Barack Obama had laid the groundwork for increased strikes against al Qaeda last fall, as his administration broadened the definition of who was a legitimate target in northern Syria. These strikes have continued with a similar intensity since President Donald Trump took office. Because of this escalation, Washington now finds itself ramping up to fight an ambiguously defined opponent that is deeply enmeshed in the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The surge in civilian casualties, meanwhile, risks further antagonizing Syrians towards the United States, thus creating a vicious cycle that risks extending the 16-year US ‘War on Terror’ far into the future.

During the past 30 months, Airwars researchers have tracked more than 30 apparent unilateral American strikes, almost all in the rebel-held northwestern Idlib province. Using the lowest estimate for each incident, these strikes have likely killed at least 91 civilians. The real strike and overall casualty numbers are probably far higher. First, while the United States does publicize some unilateral strikes — as it did for six strikes in January — others have gone unreported, including drone attacks apparently carried out by the CIA. Secondly, it is difficult to properly attribute some strikes, such as a February 7th strike in Idlib city that reportedly left two dozen civilians dead but has also variously been blamed on Russia and the Syrian regime. The Airwars data set includes all strikes publicly acknowledged by US officials, as well as other strikes that we believe are likely to have been carried out by the United States.

Nevertheless, the trend is clear: The United States is escalating its unilateral air war in Syria. More than half of the 35 likely US strikes that we have been able to clearly source have occurred in the past six months. Though these operations have been largely obscured by the ongoing and massive military campaigns in Mosul and Raqqa, they also seem poised to increase in the weeks and months ahead.

 Opening salvo

A young girl Basmala, one of 13 civilians reported killed in a US cruise missile attack on September 23rd, 2014. (Via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

The first US airstrikes in Syria occurred on September 23rd 2014. According to locals in the town of Kafr Daryan, the target of the attack that night were members of the Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda, known then as Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front. Along with a number of fighters, at least 13 civilians reportedly died, including a husband, wife and their two children.

US officials said the cruise missiles that landed in Kafr Daryan were intended for a special cell within the Nustra Front planning attacks abroad, which they dubbed “the Khorasan Group.” The bombings marked the start of intermittent strikes against al Qaeda in Syria that have continued ever since, in parallel to the better-known and much larger coalition campaign against the Islamic State.

In 2014, the United States took pains to make clear that it was not striking all Nusra Front targets, but instead those it identified as intent on attacking the West. Likewise, it maintained that those it struck were not focused on defeating Assad. Less than two months after the Kafr Daryan attack, U.S. forces carried out fresh strikes against five more targets in Idlib. In a news release sent out the day after one of those strikes in November, CENTCOM stressed that it was only hitting the Khorasan Group, which it defined as “a network of Nusrah Front and al-Qa’ida core extremists who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money, and planning attacks against U.S. and Western targets.”

“These strikes … did not target the Nusrah Front as a whole,” the US military release continued. “They were directed at the Khorasan Group whose focus is not on overthrowing the Assad regime or helping the Syrian people.”

Likely remnant of a cruise missile fired at targets in Kafr Daryan. (Via Amnesty International).

Wider goals

More than two years later, the United States no longer refers to the Khorasan Group, whose core members have allegedly been killed. Though Jabhat al-Nusra renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and claims to have split with al Qaeda in July 2016, the United States continues to target its fighters, insisting that any changes have been merely cosmetic and the group’s links to the international terrorist group remain intact. James Clapper, then Director of National Intelligence, called the Nusra name change a “PR move … to create the image of being more moderate.”

A UN counterterrorism official who spoke with Airwars gave a similar account: “It was just a rebranding. … [T]hey thought ‘oh no, a lot of people don’t like us because they think we were associated with al Qaeda.’” Since January, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham operates under the umbrella group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which it founded, and remains headquartered in Idlib.

A former senior official in the Obama White House told Airwars that the administration began paying greater attention to the Nusra Front in early 2016, and by the fall had devoted more assets to combating it, including drones that had previously been used against the Islamic State. “That was predicated by a series of intelligence products that frankly spooked a lot of people,” the official said. “While the national focus had been on [the Islamic State], and the fear had been on an [Islamic State] attack, the sense was the near-term threat to the homeland and that threat that had the potential to grow the most in the coming months and years was posed by Nusra.”

In November 2016, the Washington Post reported that the White House had by now given the Pentagon “wider authority and additional intelligence-collecting resources to go after al-Nusra’s broader leadership.” Significantly, Obama ordered that all Nusra leaders — not just so-called legacy members of al Qaeda or those involved in planning external attacks — were to be targeted, an account confirmed to Airwars by two former Obama administration officials.

Current and former US officials insist that the recent increase in strikes is in large part a product of greater intelligence and knowledge of plots. But this period, beginning last fall, also coincides with significant and strategic gains made by the Syrian regime and its allies — ultimately to the point that officials in Washington no longer assumed Assad would be pushed from power. The Obama doctrine of supporting certain opposition groups against the Assad government did not yield the desired results, particularly after Russia intervened in Syria in late 2015. It was only a year later, when the opposition appeared to have little chance of taking the entire country, that the United States significantly escalated its campaign against al Qaeda. As one administration official told the Washington Post, the White House could no longer go along with what it called “‘a deal with the devil’ whereby the United States held its fire against al-Nusra.”

“Before, the Americans would have to really sell the idea of targeting opponents of Bashar al-Assad, or groups that were fighting [him],” according to Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. With the fall of Aleppo in late 2016, he added, “[T]here was a tacit understanding that the game was over.”

Unclear authorization

All US military strikes against alleged al Qaeda in Syria have been carried out under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress just days after the 9/11 attacks. The Pentagon says the same is true of the anti-Islamic State campaign, even though that group broke with and has fought al Qaeda. In Syria, the United States makes use of an expansive definition of so-called associated forces of al Qaeda — a phrase that was not included in the AUMF, but that has been adopted by the Pentagon and successive U.S. administrations. More than 15 years after 9/11, it could now apply to thousands of fighters in the Syrian civil war, many of whom may care little about striking the West.

Michael Hayden, former head of both the National Security Agency and CIA — and a prominent backer of drone warfare — says the AUMF is no longer fit for its original purpose. And he faults Congress for failing to redefine these war powers earlier. “The public debate seems to have moved well beyond it,” he told Airwars in a telephone interview. “There is no political space in which to have this discussion right now with everything else that is going on.”

In January, the Pentagon issued a news release following two attacks in Idlib targeting senior al Qaeda figures that may have subtly reflected the expanded nature of the campaign. “We are confident,” the release said, “these strikes will degrade al-Qaida’s ability to direct operations in Syria.” Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is estimated to have well over 10,000 fighters, so a campaign against the entire organization would be radically different from the initial effort to disrupt a cell of al Qaeda terrorists planning international attacks.

In response to a question from Airwars, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon insisted that “not much has changed,” and pointed out that the same January release still referenced al Qaeda’s commitment “to carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States and West.”

Asked to clarify what groups — and how many individuals — are now within the scope of the American campaign, the Pentagon said it would not release intelligence information and only stated, “We do target al Qaeda in Syria.”

Remains of a vehicle targeted by the Coalition in Idlib on October 17th 2016. The attack also reportedly injured three civilians (via Step News)

Insurgents vs. terrorists

Are elements in al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate planning attacks abroad? Those who have watched the civil war for years say “yes,” but that it’s complicated.

“Intelligence suggests that al Qaeda in northwest Syria is engaged in putting together the infrastructure, recruiting necessary fighters and putting in place a plan that could one day be activated to conduct attacks,” says Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of The Syrian Jihad.

Lister doubts, however, that this planning is occurring within the context of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the umbrella group that includes a broad subset of the Syrian opposition. He and other analysts now worry that the United States risks sparking a war with the broader anti-Assad movement.

“The announcement of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham [HTS] almost certainly means that large new sections of north Syria’s rebels are considered al Qaeda-linked, and thus included in that target set,” said Sam Heller, a fellow at the Century Foundation who researches the Syrian civil war. “And with every passing day, HTS assimilates more of the northern opposition. Whether the United States will strike them remains to be seen.”

In that context, the March 16th strike on part of a religious complex in the town of al-Jinah has raised deep concerns — not only for its high civilian toll, but for the precedents it sets for the type of targets the United States is willing to hit. While locals described the building as a recently constructed mosque, US officials insisted to Airwars that the mosque was not hit, which they said was a short distance from the actual target.

Residents, however, say the larger structure that was struck was also a part of the mosque complex — a description supported by open-source imagery — where more than 200 people were meeting for religious teaching. Casualty figures have varied, from 37 to more than 60 victims.

A post-strike image released by the Pentagon. US officials claim the structure hit was not a mosque — locals say otherwise.

Pahon told Airwars that the airstrike target was “an Al Qaeda in Syria meeting location … killing several terrorists. Intelligence indicated that Al Qaida leaders used the partially-constructed community meeting hall as a gathering place, and as a place to educate and indoctrinate Al Qaida fighters.”

Discussing the strike, the UN counterterrorism official said the sheer number of people in the building meant that regardless of the presence of al Qaeda leaders, the strike was reckless — reminiscent of previous airstrikes since 9/11 that have worsened animosity toward the United States.

“It’s precisely the wrong approach to try to prevent terrorists in the future,” the official said.

Photo shows the remnants of a bomb used in the airstrike on the ‘Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb mosque in the rebel-held village of al-Jinā, w-Aleppo.

— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) March 16, 2017

Charles Lister, who contends that the United States has thus far been effective at striking a balance in Syria by only going after senior al Qaeda leadership, said no evidence had yet emerged of any targets that warranted the al-Jinah strike.

“That nothing at all has come out still to this point strengthens the accusation that this may have been a case of mistaken target selection,” he said. “Whatever the case, the damage is done — as far as genuinely moderate Syrians within the opposition are concerned, the al-Jinah incident demonstrated that there was little difference between the US and the Assad regime or Russia.”

From Obama to Trump

The last unilateral strike of the Obama administration underscored just how much the target set in Syria had expanded during his presidency. On January 19th, a US Air Force B-52 bomber — along with other aircraft including drones — struck west of Aleppo, reportedly killing more than 100 fighters in what the Pentagon described as an al Qaeda training camp. It was one of a number of strikes that month, which the United States claimed had between them killed at least 150 terrorists.

Heller said it appeared the camp was being used jointly by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and a smaller number of fighters from a separate group called the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement. The two groups had grown steadily closer during the past year; a little more than a week after the strike, Zinki would officially join Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

This expanding definition of which groups represent legitimate targets for a strike may be poised to grow even further during the Trump administration. The new American president, who during the election campaign promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State, has asked the Pentagon to consider relaxing the rules of engagement in Syria and Iraq as part of the campaign against that group. This month, Trump authorized the CIA to carry out its own drone strikes in Syria.

HUGE news via source:

Al-Qaeda deputy leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri has been killed in a U.S drone strike near Al-Mastoumeh in #Idlib.

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 26, 2017

Images posted after a US strike which reportedly killed senior al-Qaeda leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri. Subsequent reports indicated the strike was carried out by the CIA. 

For the moment, US military personnel remain mostly focused on the Islamic State and the dual campaigns to capture Mosul and Raqqa. Recent weeks have seen the highest reported civilian casualties of those operations. In March alone, more than 1,700 civilian casualty allegations have been lodged against the US-led coalition in both Iraq and Syria. Many of these incidents are contested, but a number of deadly strikes, including a raid in west Mosul that reportedly left more than 100 dead, have raised serious questions about how Coalition strikes are approved.

The White House has not said whether it will free up even more resources to attack al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate with a wider air war. That said, the campaign shows every sign of continuing to grow. In Yemen, the Trump administration and the Pentagon have already overseen an unprecedented increase in airstrikes, targeting what they claim are al Qaeda militants — a signal, perhaps, of their intent to pursue the group with greater intensity in Syria and elsewhere.

But as in Yemen, progress has been fleeting. As the Assad regime’s hand has strengthened, so has Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s. The United States, in effect, is escalating its campaign against al Qaeda only when the group has achieved an outsized representation in a diminished opposition.  The war — a different front, but part of a 16-year-old campaign — may just be beginning.

“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is much stronger than people think,” Hassan said. “They are more organized than other groups. They are in tune with the local sentiment, they know people want to focus on Bashar al-Assad. … It is very similar to the beginning of the ISIS war.”


April 2, 2017

Written by

Chris Woods

The US-led Coalition has conceded that a supposed ‘ISIS headquarters’ it targeted at Mosul in September 2015 was in fact a family home, noting in its latest civilian casualty release that “four civilians were unintentionally killed and two civilians were unintentionally injured in the building.”

Four members of the Rezzo family died when Coalition aircraft bombed their suburban Mosul villa on the night of September 20th-21st 2015. Despite a record 558 days between the incident and the Coalition’s public admission of error on April 1st, officials had known of possible civilian deaths within hours of the attack.

“This report was opened and a credibility assessment completed in 2015. However, the report was never officially closed or reported publicly. I do not know why that was,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition told Airwars. “The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment, and officially closed the report in February.”

There was relief among family members that the deaths had finally been admitted – but also concern: “For eighteen months, we have been fighting for this admission of a mistake, for our loved ones to be counted as civilians,” Professor Zareena Grewal told Airwars from New York. “It is a small relief to have the US government concede that this airstrike was a mistake, that they mistakenly targeted the residential homes of a family that opposed ISIS. It is also deeply frightening because this case is an indictment of the quality of US intelligence.”

The Coalition admission – one of five newly confirmed civilian casualty events, all in Mosul – brings to 229 the number of Iraqi and Syrian civilians so far admitted killed in the US-led air war against so called Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS.) Airwars presently estimates that at least 2,831 civilians have so far died as a result of Coalition actions.

A family’s home destroyed

Among the declared targets struck by the US-led alliance on September 20th 2015 were “an ISIL VBIED facility, an ISIL bunker, an ISIL building, [and] an ISIL C2 node.” Now the Coalition says it also conducted “a strike on what was evaluated at the time to be an ISIS headquarters building.”

Cousins Najib and Tuka, both killed in a Coalition airstrike on September 20th-21st 2015 (Picture courtesy of the Altalib family)

Instead the home of a middle class family was destroyed. University professor Mohannad Rezzo; his 17-year old son Najib Mohannad Rezzo; his brother Bassim’s wife Miyada Rezzo and their 21-year old daughter Tuka Rezzo all died.

“Mohannad’s wife, Sana, survived the explosion, which flung her, burned, from her second-floor bedroom to the driveway below. Mohannad’s older brother, Bassim, also narrowly survived,” US-based relative Zareena Grewal wrote in the New York Times just days after the strike. “Bassim’s pelvis and leg were shattered in the attack and require surgery, but it is his emotional pain that consumes him.”

According to CENTCOM, military officials were aware of civilian casualty allegations within a day of the incident. Professor Grewal noted on October 4th 2015 that she had already been told that “Centcom was assessing the credibility of the reports, before determining any follow-on action, which might include a ‘formal investigation.'”

Yet despite Rezzo family members long ago coming forward with key photographic and other evidence, the alliance has continued publicly to deny any casualties until now. So confident were officials they had destroyed the right target that for more than a year, an official video of the Mosul attack was posted on the Coalition’s YouTube channel. It has since been removed, though not before being preserved by a pair of reporters who have been instrumental in helping secure a public admission of the Coalition’s error.

The Coalition’s own video of its attack on the Rezzo family home – since removed from its official YouTube channel

‘A long time coming’

Investigative journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal have spent more than a year working closely with family members to secure an admission from the Coalition that it made a deadly error.

“Today’s official recognition of this airstrike having killed civilians has been a long time coming, and should have been made public previously. It is also a searing reminder of the immense difficulty families face in getting the loss of their loved ones recognized, even in cases in which there is ample evidence of civilian loss,” Azmat Khan told Airwars in an emailed comment.

“There is still information that the Coalition has refused to provide us, for example, the kind of aircraft and munitions used in this airstrike, as well as the reason why the Rezzo family homes were hit. We are also still awaiting the results of our Freedom of Information Act requests for the government’s own investigations into this incident.” Khan and Gopal’s major investigation into the incident is expected to publish in the near future.

Family members – while welcoming the official admission that their relatives were accidentally slain – remain angry that the process took so long. “Despite eyewitness testimony, a UN investigation, photographic evidence, and video footage of the strike that clearly demonstrated Coalition forces had hit two residential homes, the Pentagon did not count our family members as civilian victims and simply lumped them together with the death toll of Islamic State fighters,” says Professor Grewal. “The claim that our military air strike campaigns are precise is a dangerous and bloody myth.”

“We regret the unintentional loss of civilian lives resulting from Coalition efforts to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria and express our deepest sympathies to the families and others affected by these strikes,” the Coalition noted in its own press release.

Asked how the Coalition could have mistaken a family home for an ‘ISIS headquarters, a spokesman told Airwars: “ISIS uses many different types of structures to plan its terrorist activities. Many of which are residential homes taken from the people of Iraq and Syria.”

Backlog of allegations

The Rezzo admission is one of five new Mosul cases confirmed by the Coalition in its latest monthly civilian casualty report.

A Coalition strike on ‘an ISIS weapons manufacturing facility’ on January 30th 2017 is now thought to have unintentionallly killed one civilian in the building according to officials. Airwars understands that this event took place at Tanak neighbourhood, where up to 11 civilian deaths were reported by ISIL in a Coalition attack that day. Among those said by local monitors to have been slain were a young man Mustafa Mayser Mahmoud, his mother, and his father Mayser Mahmoud.

On February 6th the Coalition now says that “during a strike on ISIS fighters, it was assessed that three civilians were unintentionally injured when they entered the target area after the munition was released.” A similar attack against an ISIL truck bomb facility six days later also saw two civilians accidentally killed “when they entered the target area after the munition was released.”

The previously-unknown fifth incident on February 16th, again on “an ISIS VBIED facility” – this time in West Mosul’s Ar Rabi neighbourhood – killed a further two civilians according to officials.

Airwars is currently seeking to ascertain whether all five newly confirmed events were, as on previous occasions, the result of US-only actions.

In a mark of how steeply civilian casualty allegations are now rising, the Coalition announced in its latest report that it is still assessing 36 additional claimed civilian casualty events for February – on top of six more incidents for the month it has already deemed ‘not credible.’ Even so, this record monthly tally of 45 events under investigation still represents only half of the 90 claimed cases for February so far tracked by Airwars.

The international alliance admits it is falling behind on claims, though insists it intends to work through all cases: “The Coalition does have a backlog of allegations it is currently waiting to assess, to include additional allegations brought to our attention by Airwars. Credibility assessments take time and manpower to complete thoroughly,” Colonel Scrocca said in an emailed statement.

“While the primary mission of the Coalition is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we should not and will not rush through this process for the sake of expediency. We take this responsibility very seriously and will continue to scrupulously assess every single allegation to ensure a full accounting of our findings.”

Mustafer Mayser Mahmoud died with his father (right) and mother in a reported airstrike on January 30th 2017, which the Coalition now appears to have conceded killed at least one civilian (via Mosul Ateka)


March 28, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

In a blistering new report, Amnesty International has accused so-called Islamic State, the US-led Coalition and Iraqi forces of failing adequately to protect hundreds of thousands of civilians still trapped in Mosul. Airstrikes in particular are singled out for criticism: “Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside,” notes Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera following a visit to the war-torn city.

“The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”

Amnesty’s report is mostly focused on East Mosul, which was finally liberated in January. Yet the campaign to capture the west of the city – which began on February 19th – is exacting an even higher toll among non-combatants.

Identical twins Ali and Rakan Thamer Abdulla were among at least 101 civilians killed in a major incident in West Mosul on March 17th-18th, Airwars has learned. Their father and as many as 23 other family members also died with the twins at Al Jadida, in one of the worst losses of civilian life so far recorded in the grinding war against so-called Islamic State (ISIL).

The US-led Coalition has now said it carried out airstrikes on March 17th “at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties” and is investigating. Five international allies regularly bomb at Mosul alongside the Iraq Air Force – the US, Britain, France, Australia and Belgium – and it is presently unclear which nation or nations carried out the confirmed strikes at Al Jadida.

Complicating matters further, there are also reports that Iraqi artillery struck nearby, and that ISIL may additionally have been involved. Some locals say that airstrikes set off a secondary explosion – possibly a carbomb or fuel truck – that then caused buildings to collapse in Al Jadida.

Reporter Anthony Lloyd of the London Times – who recently visited the scene – told Airwars he believed there may have been two or three related  casualty events at Al Jadida over a short period of time, adding to the confusion.

Many of those who died at Al Jadida perished alongside their kin. Entire families had gathered in house basements, which they hoped would afford them some protection from the ferocious air and artillery barrage targeting ISIL forces in the neighbourhood on March 17th-18th. Instead entire rows of houses collapsed, entombing those below.

Pictures posted to social media showed the twins, Ali and Rakan Thamer Abdulla performing at competitions and smiling with their family. The Facebook page for Gym Egypt – a large Arab bodybuilding site – posted a short note about Ali and Rakan, calling them “heroes of Iraq.” The twins were the son of Haj Thamer Abdulla, who according to local reports was also killed along with his sons and daughters – numbering 26 family members in all.

Other victims of the al Jadida disaster named in local reports include 12 members of the family of Khadr Kaddawi; 11 members of Basem al-Muhzam’s family; and 30 civilians from the Sinjari family.

Twins Ali and Rakan Thamer Abdullah, two popular local bodybuilders who were slain in western Mosul. Image courtesy of Iraqoon Agency.

‘We are investigating the incident’

Where responsibility lies for at Al Jadida is still unclear. On March 26th, CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel said “we are investigating the incident to determine exactly what happened and will continue to take extraordinary measures to avoid harming civilians.” CENTCOM chief spokesperson Colonel John Thomas later told Airwars that the US was reviewing some 700 videos captured by aircraft in Mosul on several days around March 17th. 

Despite reports suggesting that its artillery may also have hit the street, the Iraqi military has blamed ISIL for the deaths, saying that 61 bodies had been recovered at the site of a booby-trapped house, which it described as “completely destroyed.” The statement added that “there is no hole or indication that was subjected to an air strike.”

That account strongly contradicted much field reporting and the accounts of other officials. A provincial health official, for instance, told Reuters that wide swaths of the neighborhood were destroyed in fighting. “Civil defense has extracted and buried 160 bodies up to this moment,” said the official. Earlier, Iraqi civil defense had reported at least 137 bodies were recovered. On March 27th, the Iraqi Civil Defense Department cited an even larger figure of 531 victims recovered from the Al Jadida neighborhood.

Pictures from the neighborhood showed dozens of bodies being buried in mass graves, wrapped in blue tarpaulins. Marcus Yam, a photographer for the LA Times, filmed a woman, Turkya Azudin, watching corpses being pulled from the rubble. Ms Azudin told him she had lost 18 members of her family.

To what extent Coalition airstrikes were responsible for more than 100 deaths at Al Jadida – either directly, or via secondary explosions – may also contain clues on why civilians are now more at risk on the battlefield. Though the Pentagon denies that its rules of engagement have been changed since Donald Trump took office, Iraqi officials have said it is now easier to call in US and Coalition airstrikes in western Mosul. In December, Coalition leaders also made the decision to allow lower level commanders the authority to call in airstrikes – but claimed these would still face the same scrutiny. 

Full statement from Coalition confirming changes were made in December to who could call in airstrikes. Claims that same scrutiny applies.

— Samuel Oakford (@samueloakford) March 28, 2017

“Based on lessons learned during phase I of the Iraqi security forces liberation of East Mosul, the CJTF-OIR commander delegated approval authority for certain strikes to battlefield commanders to provide better responsiveness to the Iraqi security forces when and where they needed it on the battlefield,” Coalition spokesman Col. Joseph Scrocca told Airwars. “This is not a change to rules of engagement, but merely a procedural change.”

“What you see now is the result of fighting an evil enemy in a dense urban environment where ISIS is using civilians as human shields, using homes as fighting positions, schools as weapons storage facilities, and mosques and hospitals as bases for its terrorist operations,” added Scrocca.

Whatever the semantics, the reality on the ground is that civilians are at greater risk of harm. Across Iraq and Syria, Airwars has monitored claims of more than 1,200 civilian fatalites tied to Coalition activity during March alone. That level of allegations is on a par with some of the most intense periods of Russian activity in Syria during 2016.

This scene will haunt me for a while: Turkya Azudin watches workers pull out corpses from her home and count relatives she had lost: 18

— Marcus Yam 火 (@yamphoto) March 25, 2017

400,000 still trapped

In Iraq’s second largest city, a perfect storm now places civilians in extreme danger. Iraqi security forces have set up military positions in residential areas as the assault advances, drawing enemy fire while launching their own rounds – at times indiscriminate – into some of the most densely populated areas of Mosul. US-led airstrikes have hit some of these same neighbourhoods, along with ground-launched artillery, rocket and mortar strikes. Also on the ground, so-called Islamic State fighters routinely put civilians at risk by placing snipers on top of residential buildings, or by deploying explosives or truck bombs near civilian buildings.

According to the most recent United Nations estimate more than 400,000 civilians still remain trapped in a relatively small area of West Mosul. Given the intensity of the battle, high civilian casualties are inevitable. As one US Apache helicopter pilot said in a recent interview, “I can’t see into houses.”

“We have been trying to follow the issue of airstrikes and its impact on civilians – it is happening, and we have advised the government that conducting airstrikes in densely populated areas will necessarily result in civilian casualties, particularly given ISILs use of human shields which sources in Mosul and people leaving the area have confirmed,” said Francesco Motta, director of the UN’s Human Rights Office (HRO) in Iraq.

“Multiple sources have reported to HRO that ISIL have been deliberately locking families and civilians in their houses and placing offensive positions on the rooftops etc, in order to ensure serious casualties, and has been forcibly transferring people within western Mosul for this purpose. HRO has also received reports of civilians used as human shields being tied up to cars and used in public parades in areas of western Mosul under ISIL control.”

Amnesty International has also strongly criticised ISIL’s abuse of civilians in its latest report. But it says this does not excuse Coalition or Iraqi military actions which also place civilians at risk: “IS shamefully resorts to using civilians as human shields, a serious violation of the laws of war that amounts to a war crime. In a densely populated residential area, the risks for the civilian population become enormous. However, the IS’s use of human shields does not absolve Iraqi and coalition forces from their obligation not to launch disproportionate attacks,” says Donatella Rovera. Whatever ISIL’s tactics, it appears certain that hundreds of civilians have died this month alone as a result of incoming fire from Iraqi and Coalition forces. International and local media are uncovering ever more civilian casualty incidents. The Guardian found survivors of a March 22nd strike in Mosul that left at least 15 civilians dead. With so many major incidents across the city that week, the family’s plight had never been publicly reported at the time.

The question facing Coalition and Iraqi commanders – whatever their official rules of engagement or combat guidelines – is how many civilian deaths they are prepared to inflict in order to defeat ISIL at Mosul. There are already warnings of a hollow victory if the cost is too high. As Amnesty notes, “The civilian population has borne the brunt of the battle to recapture Mosul, with all sides displaying a chilling indifference to the devastating suffering caused to the city’s civilians.”

According to Amnesty International, 16 people were killed ‘in a Coalition strike’ at this location in Hay al- Mazaraa, East Mosul, on March 13th 2017


March 17, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Following an unprecedented increase in claims, researchers at Airwars have tracked their 1,000th alleged civilian casualty event tied to reported Coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. Recent evidence indicates that in both countries, civilian casualties rose during the last months of the Obama administration and are now accelerating further under the presidency of Donald Trump – suggesting possible key changes in US rules of engagement which are placing civilians at greater risk.

The 1,000th alleged incident monitored by Airwars researchers took place in Raqqa governorate, where intense Coalition airstrikes have seen more than 600 munitions dropped in the first two months of the year alone.

On the night of March 11th-12th, at least 17 civilians in Kasrat Al Faraj were reportedly killed by a Coalition attack. Several local reports said that those killed were sheltering inside a building after being displaced by recent fighting, and that many were women and children. On March 14th, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the death toll had risen to “22 at least, including 6 children under the age of eighteen and 7 women citizens.” Another report from Syria News Desk indicated there were two raids – one on two schools “hosting displaced people” and another near the “the scientific research area southeast of Raqqa city.”

The 1,000th alleged incident coincides with a recent spike in civilian casualty allegations. Airwars best estimates suggest the US-led air campaign against so-called Islamic State has so far killed at least 2,590 civilians in Iraq and Syria since 2014. That year, Airwars tracked 62 reported civilian casualty incidents. In 2015, the first full year of attacks, researchers monitored 261 allegations. By 2016 that figure had risen to 454 cases.

The intensity of strikes in 2017 – notably around Raqqa and Mosul – has no precedent. To March 15th, a record 245 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events have been monitored by Airwars – roughly three events a day. At this pace, the number of alleged Coalition incidents this year could surpass 800.

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Intense fighting

Much of the recent casualty reporting is linked to parallel campaigns against ISIL at both Mosul and Raqqa. In Iraq’s second city, hundreds of civilians have been reported killed in just the first few weeks of March, as Iraqi Security Forces backed by Coalition air and artillery strikes attempt to dislodge ISIL fighters from the densely-packed western half of the city. Media reports have described the battle to oust ISIL as “reducing western Mosul to rubble.” Since the start of operations in the western half of the city on February 19th, almost 100,000 people have fled Mosul according to the International Organization for Migration.

Around Raqqa – where almost unreported the Coalition has bombed every day during 2017 – researchers at Airwars have so far graded as credible 43 of 99 reported civilian casualty incidents this year. Those 43 events are estimated to have claimed the lives of between 147 and 207 civilians. All but eleven of these 43 credible reported incidents around Raqqa have taken place during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Overall, as many as 9,200 civilian deaths have been alleged from 19,000 Coalition airstrikes. Airwars employs a strict grading system when evaluating these allegations. Only those incidents that have at least two credible sources and are accompanied by reported Coalition strikes in the near vicinity are assessed as “fair” – such as the 43 Raqqa incidents. Around 47% of the over 1,000 alleged civilian casualty incidents since 2014 meet this threshold, or have instead been confirmed by the Coalition as having killed or injured civilians. Other allegations contain conflicting reporting; are single sourced; or have been discounted, for example because reported civilians turned out to be combatants.

While the Coalition’s estimate of the civilians it has killed – 220 – is less than ten percent of Airwars’ baseline estimates, it has over the past year significantly increased the number of incidents under investigation.

Yet as of January 31st 2017 according to a senior official, the Coalition had only provisionally assessed or investigated 319 alleged civilian casualty events in total – just 36% of the total claimed incidents tracked by Airwars to that date. Though the Coalition has devoted more resources to its investigations – and engaged with outside monitoring – the torrent of casualty reports over recent months appears likely to further overwhelm military investigators. Additionally, there is the question of accountability for the US’s 12 Coalition allies, none of which have admitted to involvement in a single civilian death.

“Both the Coalition and CENTCOM have stepped up their investigations into civilian casualty allegations over the past year,” says Airwars director Chris Woods. “Unfortunately, these efforts have not kept pace with the rising tide of civilian casualty allegations being leveled against the Coalition. With two thirds of all claims not even assessed yet, any Coalition claims of low civilian casualties need to be treated with significant caution.”

#MOSUL_ALERT: 16,229 families (97,374 individuals), displaced from #West_Mosul in last 19days btw Feb 25 & March 15, as tracked by @DTM_IOM.

— IOM Iraq (@IOMIraq) March 15, 2017

Around 100,000 civilians have so far fled the fighting in West Mosul

Looser rules of engagement

In late January President Trump requested a new plan from the US military to tackle ISIL, in which he called for “recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of International law regarding the use of force against ISIS.”

During his campaign for the presidency, Trump went further, explicitly threatening to target the families of ISIL fighters. “They are using them as shields,” he said in November 2015. “But we are fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families.”

In short, Trump has been demanding that the US military consider dropping many of the restrictions which help protect civilian lives on the battlefield. His January request could open the door for US military planners to prepare attacks that may be expected to – and indeed do – kill more civilians.

When discussing civilian deaths, many in the US military highlight recent developments in Afghanistan, where generals concluded after almost a decade of conflict that rising civilian casualties were undermining the NATO mission there, and proving an effective recruiting tool for the Taliban. Reforms were introduced via directives including the creation of a civilian tracking cell; more stringent targeting rules; and a top down emphasis on civilian protection as a mission critical concern. The measures by no means ended civilian casualties, but casualties caused by international airstrikes dropped steeply between 2008 and 2013.

In that context, Trump’s request “flies in the face of everything that was done in Afghanistan,” one former senior military intelligence officer who served in the country told Airwars.

In Afghanistan “IHL [International humanitarian law] was your lowest standard and then you are going up from there, and this is like IHL is your highest standard and the goal is how close to the chalk line can you get,” said the officer. “That’s really fucked up.”

“The question that’s out there is to what extent has any relaxation of rules of engagement or restrictions based on civcas been put in place by the new administration,” they added. “I don’t know – clearly we have reporting on an increase in civcas [in Iraq and Syria]. To some extent that’s going to be driven by high-op tempo in urban areas – but the US also has a very long history of doing that kind of stuff very well in Afghanistan with minimal civilian casualties – so it begs the question, what is different?”

There are signs elsewhere – in the US’s unilateral campaign against alleged al Qaeda linked targets in Syria – that a higher tolerance for civilian casualties may be emerging. As Airwars first reported on March 16th, US aircraft bombed what was described as an al Qaeda “meeting place” – adjacent to what officials knew to be a mosque in rural western Aleppo. At least 42 people, mostly civilians, were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Parts of the mosque were also destroyed.

Exclusive: US Says it Carried Out Deadly Strike that Hit an Aleppo Mosque

— Airwars (@airwars) March 17, 2017

Should the US further loosen its rules of engagement in Coalition activities, the civilian toll from strikes in Raqqa and other parts of Syria and Iraq may worsen. Though it remains unclear if and when restrictions on civilian casualties may be lifted, an executive order signed by former President Obama in July 2016 setting out civilian protections could be in Trump’s crosshairs. Noting the recent rise in allegations, advocacy groups are steeling for the worst – but say it it isn’t clear yet what has been decided.

Higher casualties could result from a number of changes. Pentagon commanders might set the overall permissive risk for civilians far higher than has been seen so far in the 30-month war. Lower-ranking commanders may also be given authority to approve strikes where there is a risk of civilian casualties.

Since January, alleged Coalition civilian casualty events have been outpacing those of Russia. Initial data for March provides further evidence that civilian casualty allegations are both becoming more common under President Trump, and are likely to outrun Coalition efforts to track and investigate them.

Airwars recorded 59 separate civilian casualty allegations in Iraq and Syria during the first 15 days of March, for which researchers assessed that at least 117 civilians were likely killed.  At least 36 civilians – and likely more – are estimated to have died in just the first 8 days of the month in Raqqa governorate.

The worst of these occurred on March 8th, in the east of Raqqa governorate. At least 14 civilians – including at least six children – were allegedly killed outside Al Blu Rashed village when a coalition strike reportedly hit a vehicle carrying them. The death toll was one of the few in recent months to garner wire reports – Associated Press, citing monitoring groups Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, reported at least 20 civilian deaths. A day earlier, several local outlets, including Smart News, reported that five civilians were killed and at least 10 injured by another Coalition airstrike in al Salhabiya village.

A man searches through the rubble following an alleged Coalition airstrike on Omar Al Mukhtar school in Al Tabaqa, February 16th (RBSS)

‘Strategically beneficial’

In a letter dated March 10th more than 30 former US officials wrote to US Defense Secretary Mattis, encouraging him to ensure continued civilian protections similar to those set out by the Obama administration.

“The United States has always put a strong premium on minimizing civilian harm in armed conflicts, both because it is the right thing to do and because doing so is strategically beneficial.,” the letter stated.

“You could certainly loosen the standards for civilian casualties such that the commanders have more authority to take certain actions and take greater risk, and go after targets that are particularly high value, but where there is a greater possibility of civilian casualties,” says Luke Hartig, a fellow at the New America and former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council. “But our military commanders also understand the ways civilian casualties can set back our overall efforts and I have full confidence they will continue to operate with the utmost professionalism and discrimination in the use of force.”

“From what we’ve seen publicly, this administration is still finding its footing, and we don’t yet know exactly how it will respond to incidents of civilian harm,” Marla Keenan, senior director of programs at the Center for Civilians in Conflict told Airwars. Keenan added that it may be difficult to know if and when policy guidelines are officially changed. But President Trump – who during the campaign promised to “bomb the shit” out of ISIL – has indicated a willingness to escalate US airstrikes around the world, including most recently in Yemen, where the US launched more than 40 attacks in a five day period.

“We’ll have to wait and see—watching closely but not jumping to conclusions,” said Keenan, referring to civilian casualty policy in Syria.

The bulk of Coalition civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria occurred during Obama’s presidency. As Airwars noted at the time, hundreds of civilians were likely killed across Iraq and Syria in the short period from October 17th 2016 (the start of Mosul operations) until Obama left office. However between January 20th when Donald Trump became president and March 15th, Airwars has tracked 173 new alleged Coalition civilian casualty events – with 1,214  to 1,859 claimed non-combatant fatalities between them. While many of these allegations have yet to be properly assessed, the tempo of reported civilian fatalites is clearly accelerating.

Rescuers retrieve victims from an alleged Coalition strike in al Tabaqa, Raqqa governorate on February 28th. Image courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.


March 17, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

The Belgian Ministry of Defence has revealed that its F-16s carried out 639 sorties in Iraq and Syria between July 2016 and March 6th 2017, as part of the ongoing international war against so-called Islamic State. Of these sorties, 45% or about 287 were kinetic actions – meaning weapons were used. 

The fresh details about Belgium’s campaign were given at a press conference on March 14th – six months after the last such briefing. Belgium’s squadron of six F-16 fighters and seven pilots are conducting around 400 hours of sorties a month, or two to four sorties every day – a significant contribution from such a small force.

The Belgian campaign – which will end its second deployment in June – has been among the least transparent among Coalition partners. Even so Belgium continues to maintain that its actions have not killed or severely injured any Syrian or Iraqi civilians in more than two years of war.

Overall Airwars estimates that Belgium has now conducted around 390 airstrikes against ISIL since 2014 – with a higher than expected number of actions in Syria indicated in the latest release. This also suggests Belgium is the sixth most active member of the US-led Coalition.

Most Belgian airstrikes are focused at Mosul and Raqqa – where Airwars is also tracking high reported civilian casualties (Image source: Defensie – La Défense)

According to officials, 70 per cent of Belgian armed sorties since July 2016 have been around Mosul (down from 83% reported in September), with a further 12% in the Anbar area of Iraq, and 17% of actions near Raqqa in Syria – a rise of 10 per cent in recent months. A Coalition-backed advance on ISIL’s claimed capital has also seen record recent claims of civilian casualties.

Ministry of Defence officials have additionally reported that four types of munitions are in regular use by Belgium in Iraq and Syria – all of them 500lb or above. These are the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb; GBU-38 and GBU-31 GPS-guided munitions (the latter a 2,000lb bomb); and the GBU-54 combined laser/GPS-guided bomb. Unlike its closest ally the Netherlands, Belgium does not yet use the 250lb Small Diameter Bomb, known for its claimed precision. According to spokesman Colonel J. Poesen, “those have been ordered”.

Belgium says it is using four types of munition in its anti-ISIL strikes (Source: Defensie – La Défense)

‘No civilian casualties’

Belgium claims it applies both a lengthy pre-strike assessment process, and extensive post strike battle damage assessments for all of its airstrikes. It says that this careful approach, supported by two imagery analysts based in Ramstein in Germany, and four legal advisors including a red card holder (in Udeid, Qatar) means Belgian forces have not killed a single civilian. In the words of Colonel Poesen: “We have a clean record. Cleaner than some other countries.” However, it was later admitted that “zero risk does not exist” and that “there are limitations”.

While Belgium clearly attaches significant importance to civilian lives, a clean record would be unprecedented in a hot war such as the present anti-ISIL conflict – particularly when most strikes are now in urban areas. Airwars currently estimates that a minimum of 2,590 Iraqi and Syrian civilians have died in Coalition airstrikes – more than ten times the present Coalition estimate of 220 deaths.

Given that 70 per cent of recent Belgian actions have taken place around Mosul and 17% near Raqqa, it appears unlikely its forces have not been involved in any civilian casualty incidents. Hundreds of civilians have been credibly reported killed in airstrikes at both locations in recent months.

The Defence Ministry’s claim also cannot be tracked against the public record, since no dates or specific locations for Belgian strikes have been published – and with no details of any civilian casualty investigations made public. 

In a major Airwars transparency audit published in December, Belgium was rated as one of the least transparent members of the Coalition. Press conferences and the publication of monthly updates – which the MoD appears to have resumed – are signs of some improvement. Even so, public accountability and transparency continue to be problematic.  Without knowing where and when hundreds of Belgian strikes took place, the “zero civilian casualties” claim remains a claim, with the actual human cost of Belgian strikes unknown.

On March 20th, Belgian civil society is holding a conference on civilian casualty monitoring. And two days later, Airwars has been invited to present its latest transparency study to the Parliament’s Defence Committee.

Belgium performs poorly against other Coalition partners when it comes to transparency

▲ A Royal Belgian Air Force F-16 refuels over Iraq, October 10th 2016 (USAF/Tech. Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr)


March 16, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

This article was updated on March 17th to reference new reports in Step News and the Washington Post. 

Military officials have confirmed to Airwars that a strike in rural Aleppo which reportedly left dozens dead in and around a mosque was carried out by US aircraft.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said that at least 42 people, mostly civilians, were killed in a strike that “targeted a mosque in al-Jinah village” in the western countryside of Aleppo on March 16th. “The death toll is expected to rise,” said the monitor.

Video posted by the White Helmets showed men being dug out from rubble at the site. Local activists told al Jazeera that the attack took place during evening prayer, when the mosque was full of “up to 300 people.” Other accounts put the death toll far higher.

Initial reporting was conflicting, including assertions that Russian forces or the Assad regime were to blame. Photographs reportedly from the site and posted on social media also appeared to depict weapons fragments similar to those found at previous US drone strikes in Syria.

Photo shows the remnants of a bomb used in the airstrike on the ‘Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb mosque in the rebel-held village of al-Jinā, w-Aleppo.

— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) March 16, 2017

@bellingcat @Arn_Del @green_lemonnn @chrisjwoods @airwars @samueloakford

— Syrian Lense (@SyrianLense) March 16, 2017

Airwars was initially told by US Central Command (CENTCOM) that a strike was carried out late on March 16th, but in Idlib governorate. That is where the bulk of US strikes against alleged al Qaeda-linked targets have taken place since 2014. The unilateral American campaign exists in parallel to operations conducted by the anti-ISIS Coalition. Strikes and reported civilian casualties from both have risen significantly since last fall.

However, a US official later clarified that the US raid in fact took place in the vicnity of al-Jinah village, which is located in western Aleppo governorate, just a few kilometers from the border with Idlib. CENTCOM spokesperson Maj. Josh Jacques said the target was  “assessed to be a meeting place for al Qaeda, and we took the strike.”

“It happened to be across the street from where there is a mosque,” said Jacques. He said the mosque was not the target, and that it wasn’t hit directly. Both CENTCOM and the Pentagon told Airwars that they were further investigating the attack.

Videos identified by researchers at the citizen journalism outlet Bellingcat appeared to show parts of the mosque destroyed, while others remained upright. 

Northern side of mosque has collapsed due to American airstrike, but largest part still standing. h/t @CT_operative

— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) March 17, 2017

Citing local sources, the outlet Step News said the strikes hit a gathering known as a Dawah. A local group, reported Step “holds a meeting in one of their centres every Thursday which is attended by dozens of students of religious studies, sheikhs, sharia experts and fighters in the Islamic factions and civilians from the region.”

On March 17th, the Washington Post, citing a U.S. official, said that the attack “involved two Reaper drones, which fired four Hellfire missiles and dropped at least one 500-pound GPS-guided bomb.”

The death toll, which could not immediately be confirmed, appears to be at least the second largest ever from US strikes aimed at alleged al-Qaeda targets in Syria. On January 19th, more than 100 fighters gathered at a training camp in Idlib were reportedly killed in a raid that involved a B-52 bomber. Most of those killed were said to belong to the militant group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, officially claimed to split with the terror group in July 2016, renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Since January 2017 it operates under the umbrella group Tahrir al-Sham. The US military carries out attacks against alleged al Qaeda targets under the same 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed several days after the 9/11 attacks. The strikes employ an expansive definition of “associated forces” – a phrase not used in the AUMF, but which has been adopted by the Pentagon and successive US administrations. It could now apply to thousands of fighters in Syria.