US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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May 26, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers and Oliver Imhof

Airwars and design partners Rectangle are commemorating those civilians killed and injured in conflicts, by livestreaming over 24 hours the names of 8,337 civilian casualties the international monitor has documented in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia in recent years.

The digital event marks the occasion of the UN’s 2020 Protection of Civilians Week.

Every name has a story

Over twenty-four hours starting at midnight London time on May 26th/27th – the date of the UN Secretary General’s annual Protection of Civilians (PoC)  speech –  the names of just some of the many civilians reportedly killed by air and artillery strikes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia since 2007 will be livestreamed on our website and YouTube channel.

Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid were about to drop off their friend Barakat Barakat at his home in October 2019. The three friends were eating pumpkin seeds while driving through Barisha in northwestern Syria when they were reportedly hit by helicopters searching for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

“There were so many shells falling on us, it was like rain. My hand, the one holding up Khaled’s head, got cut off,” Barakat explained to NPR last year. “Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I’m just a civilian. I didn’t have any weapons. We’re farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I’m handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves.”

Barakat Barakat is just one of 8,337 civilian casualties over the past 13 years whose names Airwars has recorded while monitoring conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia.

UN Protection of Civilians Week 2020

Through its daily monitoring of local news organisations, social media and official sources, as well as via sources on the ground, Airwars has in total recorded over 119,000 reported civilian deaths and injuries since we began documenting conflicts in August 2014 – of which more than eight thousand casualties attributed to specific belligerents can presently be named.

This UN PoC Week, Airwars aims to commemorate those who have lost their lives, while calling for governments to better account for their military actions.

The project Conflicting Truth is in partnership with the Scottish-American design team Rectangle, who also produce the complex mapping and data representations on the Airwars website.

This week’s live cast is based on an original installation by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer, first shown in Detroit in March 2019. It had been hoped to show Conflicting Truth in New York during this year’s UN PoC Week. Instead, due to the Covid-19 crisis, the decision was taken to livecast a digital version.

Rimas and Shahem Hamdou with their father Hamza al Haj Hamdou. The children were killed in an alleged Russian strike in Thalatheen Street in Idlib city on March 3rd 2020 (image courtesy of the Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Not just numbers

The Airwars/ Rectangle project seeks to show that those killed and injured in conflict are not mere statistics –  they are people with names, friends and families. Their loss inflicts severe pain on relatives, and the communities they belong to.

“I was washing dishes. Suddenly our house was filled with shrapnel. I went out and called Arif (my son), but I did not see him. I only saw black smoke. When the smoke faded away, I saw my son on the ground as a martyr,” said a mother whose son Arif was among eight other children reportedly killed in alleged Turkish shelling on Tal Rifaat in Syria on December 2nd, 2019.

The suffering often does not end with losing loved ones or seeing them disabled: it also heavily impacts the lives of those spared by the fighting. “All a young man like me cares about now is how he gets home safe every day. Or when you go to bed, all you’re thinking about is the possibility that a rocket falls on you,” Marwan, a resident of the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli recently told Airwars. “I lost friends, relatives, loved ones in this war,” he elaborates. “I’m doing an MA now, and I’m afraid to lose my dream, and my future and I can’t do anything. That makes me want to run away, to live a decent life with equal opportunities.”

Airwars aims to add as many biographical details of victims as possible. On May 16th of this year for example, the 5-year-old Bangladeshi boy Wahi Zuhair Matin was killed in alleged LNA artillery strikes on Al Fornaj neighbourhood in Tripoli. The GNA-affiliated Burkan Al Ghadab Operation wrote on Facebook that the child’s “ambition was to buy a bike and play ‘like the kids’.”

Civil Society Call for Action

Airwars is also joining with other international partners and organisations in a Civil Society Call for Action to Protect Civilians during PoC week. The joint statement signed by 22 organisations calls on the UN Security Council, Member States, and the UN System to take urgent, bold and practical steps to respond to the challenges that remain in the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

The UN Security Council added the protection of civilians in armed conflict (PoC) to its agenda in 1999, recognising PoC as a matter of international peace and security. The UN PoC Week is held annually between May 27th and June 1st. The United Nations celebrates UN Peacekeeping Day on May 29th.

▲ The original physical installation Conflicting Truth was shown in Detroit in March 2019, and was developed by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer. It features the names of civilian victims preserved in the Airwars database. (Image courtesy of Rectangle)


March 23, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Airwars learns that another Coalition ally had refused to conduct deadly Hawijah strike

Newly declassified documents released by the Dutch Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs, and the Netherlands Public Prosecutor’s Office, have revealed a number of disturbing facts about Dutch airstrikes on Hawijah and Mosul in 2015 which killed dozens of civilians.

The previously secret documents show, for example, that the Dutch military official with a potential veto over its strikes – known as the Red Card Holder – was aware even before the airstrike on Hawijah in June 2015, which led to the deaths of approximately 70 civilians according to locals, that the expected damage from the strike could in fact be greater than the Collateral Damage Estimate (CDE) was indicating.

At least one other ally within the US-led Coalition had refused to conduct the Hawijah strike based on the available intelligence, Airwars has recently learned.

In December 2019, Airwars submitted a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request to the Dutch Ministry of Defence, requesting publication of the MoD’s own investigation into the bombing of an ISIS IED factory in Hawijah, Iraq, on the night of June 2nd- 3rd 2015. The airstrike caused significant secondary explosions, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians.

After withholding their role in this deadly event from the Dutch public for nearly five years, the government eventually took public responsibility in November 2019. In addition, the Dutch Ministry of Defence admitted conducting a controversial airstrike on a family home in Mosul in September 2015, in which four civilians were killed.

Collateral Damage Estimate

The Dutch MoD has now released its own additional investigation into the Hawijah case, which was finalised on June 30th 2016.

The document – mostly unredacted –  reveals that the Dutch Red Card Holder, the representative in the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar with the option of vetoing actions which fell outside Dutch rules of engagement, was aware that the potential damage could be greater than the Collateral Damage Estimation, or CDE, was indicating.

The report states that the possibility of secondary explosions was taken into account during the planning phase by analysing previous attacks on similar targets. The report reads: “It was concluded that the expected collateral damage could be greater than the CDE indicated, but that this expected collateral damage would not extend beyond the industrial complex and that there would therefore only be material damage at night. This damage was then assessed by the Dutch Red Card Holder (RCH) as not excessive in relation to the expected military advantage.”

Airwars recently learned from a senior (non-Dutch) military official with knowledge of events that at least one other allied military within the Coalition had refused the Hawijah strike, implying that the potential risk to civilians was expected to be too high.

Excerpt of the additional investigation into the Hawijah bombing by the Dutch MoD, stating that the risk of destruction at Hawijah might be greater than the Collateral Damage Assessment was indicating.

The time of the attack had been moved “to the night hours (midnight local time) to minimise the chance of civil traffic and the presence of citizens”. However, the same report also states that the execution of the mission caused collateral damage to more than 400 buildings in the area – and that the secondary explosions that the Dutch airstrike triggered were not expected in either the targeting process, or the actual implementation of the strike. An internal Ministry of Foreign Affairs email reports that on June 4th 2015, a Coalition calculation “shows that there was probably more than 18,060 kilos of explosives stored, making this the largest ISIS IED factory ever.”

The only time the released investigation mentions civilian casualties is in its final sentence, which states that “there is a likely chance that the airstrike led to civilian casualties, but this cannot be additionally proven”. This was despite the fact that just days after the incident, respected media including Reuters were already reporting 70 civilian deaths.

The newly released emails also reveal that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in confidential contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross about civilian casualties in the weeks following the airstrike. At the time, ICRC is said to have estimated the number of civilian fatalities in Hawijah to be as high as 170.

While the Dutch Ministry of Defence has continuously insisted that victims of Dutch airstrikes should turn to the Iraqi authorities for compensation, a 2014 internal document describing the procedure for minimising and reporting civilian casualties states that the Netherlands itself should assess incidents of civilian casualties individually for possible compensation, as there were no standard procedure. The document notes that “in the case of CIVCAS [civilian casualties] by NLD, compensation schemes will be established. There is no treaty with Iraq that includes possible claims for damages, nor is there any expectation that a treaty will come.”

Despite this, until now there has been no known effort by the Dutch Ministry of Defence to contact civilian survivors of Dutch airstrikes. On March 6th, a survivor of the Mosul strike which killed four close family members and destroyed two homes, Mr. Basim Razzo, filed a lawsuit against the Dutch government for two million US dollars.

“A perfect target and a perfect hit”

In response to additional FOIA requests by Dutch news organisations NOS and NRC, the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs have released additional internal documents and emails related to the Hawijah incident. These clearly indicate a lack of urgency or apparent concern among officials, despite the known high civilian death toll.

On June 4th for example, two days after the Hawijah incident, a Dutch official on secondment to CENTCOM emailed the MoD that “initial analysis of footage of the strike itself has shown that nothing unusual has taken place, apart from the secondary explosions.” That “nothing unusual had taken place” claim is far removed from the accounts eyewitnesses gave of the incident, some of whom compared the event to the city being “hit by a nuclear bomb”. In another email, a Dutch official based at CENTCOM writes: “A perfect target and a perfect hit, that’s what people are talking about here.”

On June 6th 2015, an internal email within the Ministry of Defence reads: “Yes, no particularities. All went well on our side. Do not expect any attention from the Public Prosecutor’s Office.” While the Ministry was clearly aware of media reports of more than 70 civilian deaths – they shared, for example a Daily Star article, now offline, mentioning 74 civilian deaths – internally on June 5th, none of the released emails express urgent concern about civilian harm.

Public Prosecutor’s investigation: slow and incomplete

The Hawijah case did eventually receive attention from the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office (OM), in order to assess whether international humanitarian law had been complied with. The OM has also now released emails and internal documents related to its investigations into the Hawijah and Mosul airstrikes, following FOIA requests by both NRC and NOS.

However, the actual investigations remain classified. Even so, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld has continuously referred to the OM Hawijah investigation during parliamentary debates. Bijleveld answered critical questions by MPs on her Ministry’s lack of transparency during a parliamentary debate on November 5th, 2019, for example, by stating that “the OM has concluded that [the bombing of Hawijah] was done lawfully” and that she trusted the OM to be a legitimate and independent institution.

The released though heavily redacted documentation indicates, however, that the OM was not investigating the lawfulness of the Hawijah action, as there was no suspicion of punishable criminal behaviour, but was instead conducting a fact-finding mission – intended to gather information about possible civilian casualties. Based on written responses from OM, NOS has reported that the fact-finding mission also started more than nine months after the incident itself, since it was only in March 2016 that the OM was informed by the Ministry of Defence about possible civilian casualties.

NRC and NOS also reported that the two pilots involved in the airstrike were only interviewed fifteen months after the incident. This is striking, because the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office was previously rebuked by the European Court of Human Rights in 2014 due to serious deficit in the Jaloud case, in which a civilian was shot dead by a Dutch soldier in Iraq in 2004. The ECHR criticised the OM for waiting six hours to interview the involved soldier, giving the soldier the time to “construct his own version of the truth”. In the case of Hawijah, it took fifteen months before involved military personnel were interviewed.

In addition to the OM investigation into Hawijah being very late, its scope was also limited. NRC reports that the OM was dependent solely upon information from Dutch military personnel. The US military also declined to cooperate, because this was a fact-finding assessment, and not an investigation into criminal acts, the declassified emails show.

The OM additionally published a previously secret MoD document providing guidance for  Dutch participation in the fight against ISIS, which indicates that guidelines were likely breached in the case of Hawijah. One states that “attacks on targets in the vicinity of densely populated areas should be avoided as much as possible,” while another notes that “all reasonable precautions should be taken to avoid wounding or killing civilians or causing damage to civilian objects.” It is unclear why this documentation was missing in the MoD’s own released records.

Excerpt of the previously classified “NLP Targeting Directives ATFME”

Victim of Mosul airstrike sues Dutch government

The newly declassified documents also reveal new information about a Dutch airstrike on Mosul in 2015, in which Mr. Basim Razzo lost his wife, daughter, brother and nephew. The pilot responsible for executing that attack recently revealed to Dutch journalists that months after the airstrike, it became clear that what they thought was an ISIS headquarters, was, in fact, a family home. The MoD’s own investigation, finalised on June 30th, 2016, nevertheless concluded that “given all the available information, there is a chance that the two villas were not a military target and that, while carrying out the mission aimed at ISIS headquarters on 20 September 2015, possible civilian casualties have fallen, but this cannot be substantiated.”

The report added that “the two villas may have been incorrectly identified by the CAOC as a legitimate military objective. This is the subject of research by the CAOC, in which the Netherlands is not involved.” The CENTCOM CIVCAS allegation closure report – dated February 13th 2017 and obtained by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal for their New York Times investigation The Uncounted, states that the intelligence for the mission was based on “only 1h 35 mins of FMV [full motion video]… collected over three different days”.

The erroneous conclusion that the house was an ISIS headquarters was based on the fact that there were no women and children seen around the property in the 95 minutes of footage, and that a person was observed opening the drive gate for cars. Mr. Razzo has stated in several interviews that his wife and daughter did not come outside because ISIS forced them to cover themselves and because it was over 40 degrees Celsius during the day at the time, and that both he or his brother would open the gates for visiting cars.

Instead of being informed by their own MoD of civilian casualties in the airstrike, the OM only started their own investigation into the Mosul case after Mr. Razzo’s relative, Professor Zareena Grewal, published an opinion piece about the case in the New York Times in October 2015.

The newly released documents additionally reveal that twice, requests from the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office for interviews with key witnesses in the Mosul case (presumably military officials) were denied by other nations. One response simply stated that “such interview cannot be arranged”. Another email insisted that the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between their respective two countries only allowed for assistance when a criminal investigation was being prepared or was expected, and not in the case of a fact-finding mission.

One of the witness examination requests that was denied by another involved country

On March 6th 2020, Mr. Razzo filed a lawsuit against the Dutch government for two million US dollar. In an accompanying letter, his lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld – who is also preparing a legal case in name of Hawijah victims – writes to the Ministry of Defence that “given the very limited and conflicting intelligence, the Netherlands should have declined to execute the strike.” The MoD was given three weeks to respond to the claim.

▲ Library image: A Dutch F-16 pilot checking missiles before take-off from an airbase in Jordan (Netherlands defence ministry)


February 11, 2020

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Assisted by

Dmytro Chupryna, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

During 2019 - for the first time in five years - monitors tracked a sharp move away from US-led Coalition civilian deaths.

Airwars research shows that at least 2,214 civilians were locally alleged killed by international military actions across Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia during 2019 – a 42% decrease in minimum claimed deaths on the previous year. This sharp fall was largely because deaths from reported US-led Coalition actions plummeted following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria in March.

However, elsewhere civilians remained in significant danger. Russian strikes in support of the Assad regime claimed at least 1,000 lives in the fierce Idlib and Hama offensives. Meanwhile, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in October saw over 300 non-combatants alleged killed.

The year also saw alarming developments in Libya. From April, the Libyan National Army’s Tripoli offensive had a devastating impact on civilians. As more foreign powers joined the conflict, alleged deaths rose by an astonishing 720% on 2018. Almost half of all civilian deaths in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred last year.

Download our full annual report for 2019

The US-led Coalition in Syria: a brutal final assault

On March 23rd, after 55 months of war, ISIS was finally ousted from Syria, when the Syrian Democratic Forces seized the town of al-Baghuz al Fawqani in Ezzor governorate. This followed the terror group’s earlier defeat in Iraq in December 2017.

Yet this final assault came at a terrible cost for civilians trapped on the ground. Of the minimum of 2,214 civilians locally alleged killed during 2019, at least 470 deaths (21%) reportedly occurred as a result of US-led Coalition strikes in the first quarter of 2019, in Deir Ezzor governorate.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th – 19th 2019, which allegedly killed at least 160 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

After March 23rd, with ISIS downgraded to an insurgency, there was a significant winding down in Coalition strikes. As a result, locally alleged civilian deaths from alliance actions rapidly declined.

For the first time in five years, the Coalition was no longer the primary driver of civilian harm in Airwars monitoring. Indeed, our tracking shows that many more civilians were claimed killed by almost every other monitored belligerent than by the US-led alliance between April and December 2019.

With this shift away from Coalition civilian deaths, Airwars’ focus with the alliance and with partner militaries began moving towards post-conflict restitution and reconciliation engagements.

Syria’s civilians remain at great risk

Civilians may finally have gained respite from Coalition strikes, but 2019 saw them face increased danger on other fronts. Russia’s ongoing campaign in Syria continued to devastate civilian populations and infrastructure.

In total, our researchers tracked at least 1,000 civilian deaths in 710 casualty incidents reportedly carried out by Russia. Some 81% of these events were in Idlib governorate, where Russia lent its formidable airpower to the regime’s offensive to oust the rebels.

The aftermath of an alleged Russian airstrike on a popular market in Saraqib on July 30th (via Edlib Media Center).

Additionally, in October, Syria’s civilians faced a new threat from Turkey. The offensive came against a backdrop of repeated Turkish threats to unilaterally invade northern Syria. The chaotic withdrawal of US forces on October 7th gave Turkey a green light to launch its ‘Operation Peace Spring’.

Airwars research shows that there were between 246 and 314 locally alleged civilian deaths in 207 casualty incidents involving both sides during the final three months of 2019. Most disturbingly, there were numerous claims of war crimes by both sides, including summary executions of civilians and enemy fighters.

Libya: a 720% rise in civilian deaths

Meanwhile, civilian harm spiralled in Libya. Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched its offensive on Tripoli in April. However, what was intended to be a brief conflict soon turned into a protracted siege, with foreign powers playing an increased role, particularly in a proxy drone war between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

The impact on civilians was dire. Between April 4th and December 31st 2019, local sources reported between 279 and 399 civilian deaths. A measure of the intensity of 2019’s bombing is shown by the fact that more than 48% of all locally reported civilian fatalities in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred during the nine months between April and December 2019.

Image caption translation: “Warlord Haftar’s warplane bombs oil facility and tannery in Tajoura, east Tripoli”, June 19th 2019 (via Libya Observer)

Somalia: Record number of declared US actions

In April, Airwars expanded its conflict portfolio when it took over the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s long running monitoring of US counter terrorism drone strikes and civilian harm claims in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. We are currently reviewing this significant dataset using Airwars’ own internationally-respected methodology.

Our assessment of US air and ground operations in Somalia since 2007 is now complete – with our annual report revealing that a maximum of 44 civilian deaths were alleged during 2019, in thirteen locally claimed civilian harm events. Overall the US declared 63 airstrikes against both al Shabaab and ISIS for the year – the highest ever tally.

Advocating on behalf of affected non-combatants

Our emphasis at Airwars has always been working on behalf of affected civilians. Throughout 2019, our advocacy teams continued to engage with the US-led Coalition and its allies. More than half of all Coalition-conceded conceded civilian harm events during the year were Airwars referrals for example – with at least 220 additional deaths conceded.

Substantial talks on transparency and accountability for civilian harm were also held with senior Pentagon officials; with the British and Dutch ministries of defence; and with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

In November, the Netherlands finally admitted responsibility for a June 2015 strike in Hawijah, Iraq, which killed at least 70 civilians, according to locals. Airwars is now partnering with a number of Dutch NGOs and academics, with a focus on securing long term improvements in transparency and accountability for civilian harm by the Netherlands military.

“Since Airwars began in 2014, our exceptional team has tracked more than 50,000 locally reported civilian deaths across several conflict nations,” notes Airwars director Chris Woods. “As our 2019 report demonstrates, civilian harm remains a constant in war. Yet too often, belligerents deny or downplay civilian harm – even when local communities themselves are making clear the true costs of conflict.”

Download our full annual report for 2019

Scene of a devastating Coalition strike at Hawijah, Iraq which killed up to 70 civilians (via Iraqi Spring)

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Russian or Syrian regime airstrike on Saraqib, Idlib, June 22nd 2019 (via White Helmets)


February 6, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Book authors say pilots wish for more government openness about Dutch military campaigns


“After a few months, it turned out that it had indeed been a wrong target. An error had been made in the intelligence process. Instead of being an ISIS target, it turned out to just be a house. A mix-up in targets. You think: shit, it’s not possible, is it? I felt sick when I heard about it. Terrible, yes. I feel co-responsible. I launched that bomb and pressed the button. I ended the lives of people who had nothing to do with the war. That is a very particular experience. It’s a slap in your face. It goes against everything you are there for. You are there to help the Iraqi people.”

Dutch F-16 pilot ‘Stefan’, describing his role in a deadly Mosul airstrike in 2015 which killed four family members. Translation of an excerpt from the book Missie F-16 by Olof van Joolen and Silvan Schoonhoven (2019, Nieuw Amsterdam)


Dutch F-16s conducted hundreds of airstrikes against the terror group ISIS in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018. Yet the Netherlands has been one of the least transparent countries when it comes to possible civilian casualties from US-led Coalition actions.

Part of the reason for that Dutch secrecy has been an insistence that pilots and their families must be protected from retaliation – and until now the community has been tight, with almost no outside access. Now De Telegraaf journalists Olof van Joolen and Silvan Schoonhoven have managed to speak with Dutch pilots for their book Missie F-16 (‘F-16 Mission’), which was published in November 2019.

The book is a history of the Dutch use of F-16s in aerial warfare. The authors interviewed pilots who flew during the Cold War; the war in former Yugoslavia; and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Covering more recent conflicts, they also interviewed pilots who were operating in Libya in 2011; and in the US-led Coalition against ISIS.

The book deals surprisingly frankly with pilot concern about civilian harm – and challenges an ongoing insistence on secrecy by the Dutch ministry of defence. Airwars has been speaking with the authors.

The Mosul Incident

Olof van Joolen (a defence reporter) and Silvan Schoonhoven (reporting on terrorism and security services) published their book earlier than scheduled on November 13th 2019, after Dutch media outlets NOS and NRC broke their story about the Netherlands being responsible for at least 70 civilian deaths in Hawijah, Iraq in June 2015.

In response to that investigation, Dutch Minister of Defence Bijleveld also acknowledged responsibility for an airstrike in Mosul on September 20th, 2015, which had led to the deaths of four civilians. The book’s authors had been able to speak with Basim Razzo, who lost his brother, wife, daughter and nephew in the attack – as well as the pilot who had dropped the bomb on the Razzo house. Previously, it had been though that a US aircraft had carried out the attack.

What was it like interviewing Stefan, the pilot who dropped the bomb on the Razzo house? Schoonhoven: “We realised that he was completely drowning in this story. He was ready to tell us everything – from start to finish. He couldn’t share this with his family. These past weeks have been very tough for him – to see a videotaped interview with Basim Razzo. He had read about him, but not seen his face, let alone see him cry.”

Van Joolen: “He really would have liked to see this handled properly. He feels terrible about it. People expect some master plan from the Ministry of Defence in incidents like this. Trust me, that wasn’t the case.”

Cousins Najeeb and Tuka Razzo were among four family members killed in a Dutch F-16 airstrike in 2015 (Image courtesy of family)

Discrepancy between official and Airwars numbers

In a chapter on civilian casualties, pilot Jeffrey, nickname “Scatman”, is asked about what he thinks of Airwars estimates of civilian casualties.

“Airwars delivers nonsensical numbers”, claims Scatman. “I don’t believe that the American [military’s lower] numbers are wrong. It just doesn’t work that way. I know exactly where I flew myself and the exact metre where my bomb fell. How do they think it works? That you can secretly make casualties somewhere and then say later: “No, it wasn’t me”? And that you can get away with it?”

[Editor’s note: More than half of all Coalition-confirmed civilian harm events during 2019 were referrals from Airwars, with the alliance itself previously failing to identify  concerns. It is clear that pilots are often unaware of the consequences of their actions.]

This quote seems quite ironic now we know that this is exactly what happened for more than four years with the Hawija case. Schoonhoven: “His quote is about how he just cannot believe, from his own experiences, that the general Airwars numbers are correct. He thinks that they would have seen if indeed so many civilian casualties had fallen in the more than 2,000 airstrikes that the Netherlands carried out.”

Yet, you did not further dive into that discrepancy between the Airwars numbers and the official Coalition numbers. How did you make sure that this book did not become an uncritical outlet for pilots? Van Joolen: “I think that is a strange question. If you read the book, that is not the case. We also talked to Bassim Razzo. We wouldn’t have if we just wanted to write a glorious story about pilots. As a journalist, you can conclude that there is an Airwars number and that there is an official number, and you should mention both. We did that.”

Schoonhoven: “And if we were an outlet for the Dutch air forces, we would not even have mentioned Airwars.”

But you did not further dive into possible explanations for this massive difference. Schoonhoven: “There is a remarkable discrepancy. I cannot explain that. I believe Airwars is a legit organisation, but at the same time, I believe what Scatman says. That it is impossible to throw a bomb and then pretend you did not throw it. It’s always going to come out.”

Authors Silvan Schoonhoven (left) and Olof van Joolen with their book Missie F-16 in the office of Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf

Pilot safety

The Ministry of Defence, when asked about their lack of transparency for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, has continually pointed to the safety of pilots and families. Yet some pilots in your book are mentioned with their full names and even pilots who were active during the fight against ISIS are pictured in their aircraft. How did you experience this safety issue when interviewing pilots themselves?

Van Joolen: “They generally don’t have issues with being photographed. They are not really clearly distinguishable people. Once they put on their jeans rather than their uniform, you couldn’t point them out. They are more worried about their full names being published. Now you might have a photo of Scatman, but it’s not online and very hard to connect to his real name. With a full name, you could find his address.”

“There is a lot of, not sure if it is the right word, trauma among these guys. The death of Jordanian pilot Moaz Al Kasabeh, who was captured by ISIS and burned to death in a cage, really left an impact. We interviewed a Dutch pilot who just spoke to Al Kasabeh on the military base in Jordan before Al Kasabeh went on his final mission. But the real fear among pilots is for their families. Their worst fear is being ‘over there’ and that there is someone back home standing near their wife, mother or children. That is when they feel threatened.”

Bottlenecks in transparency

How did officials react when they heard you were writing a book about this topic, as they have been notoriously secretive? Van Joolen: “I need to give my compliments to the Dutch air force. Whenever you publish something that involves still active military personnel, they need to approve it. Not at any time during our research have they said that we could not write something down or should change something.”

“However, something interesting occurred during our research. Pilots continuously talked to us about ‘confirmed kills’. They would say something like: “One night I had 50 confirmed kills!” The Brits have been publishing reports of these confirmed kills. So we asked the air force if we could receive a list as well. And then they said: “We do not have such a list.” I don’t believe that. The pilots kept referring to ‘confirmed kills’, but there is no official record of this? And if the Brits can publish such a list, why can’t we?”

Do you think the pilots themselves are receptive towards more transparency? Van Joolen: “Absolutely, one hundred per cent. In fact, it would help many of them. In the book we write for example write about the case of Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Back home, people thought our men were building schools and wells there, when in fact, they were risking their lives and losing their colleagues. Because it was sold as a “school building mission”. That is breaking soldiers. It is incredibly important for military personnel that people at home know what they were doing, so that when they come back, they can deal with their traumas.”

What then do you think is the main issue with improving transparency? Van Joolen: “The interesting question is: where is the bottleneck when it comes to transparency in the Netherlands? From all the interviews we have had, I think the issue is with the Department of Defence, rather than in the armed forces. There’s this quote in the book by Johan van Deventer, who is currently acting head of operations. He said: “I handed in a list in my final report as detachment commandant in the fight against ISIS, in which I explicitly stated how many fighters, buildings and vehicles we eliminated.” They did not like that in The Hague. “Did you have to do that,” they told him. Some got angry. That is a very telling quote about the mindset in The Hague.”

“That is one of the points we are trying to make with this book: stop with all the strange secrecy. Admit that if you sent a unit of F-16s, you are sending our most effective weapon to do its job. You should be transparent about that, so that people know what you are doing there. I found it very shocking to hear from military personnel who talked with Members of Parliament how little knowledge MPs had about the reality of war. They really have no idea.”

Postscript: From truth to accountability

In an interview with Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad on January 24th, 2020, Basim Razzo, the survivor of the deadly airstrike on his house in Mosul, stated that he still had not received an apology from the Dutch government, despite the public acknowledgement of Dutch responsibility.

As Mr Razzo noted: “I can’t think of a reason why I haven’t heard from the Dutch government. Out of decency and as a moral act of acknowledging responsibility, I expect them to contact me and do the right thing. I think I am entitled to an official apology and then a real compensation for the loss of four lives and two houses.”

Due to the lack of action on the side of the Dutch state, Razzo is now being supported by human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who aims to hold the Dutch government accountable for the loss and damage which Mr Razzo and his family have endured, stating to Algemeen Dagblad that “it’s actually shameful that we are have to follow legal proceedings for that”.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told Algemeen Dagblad that they did not know why Razzo had not been contacted yet, but that a letter will be send to Parliament shortly outlining possible victim compensation.

The spokesperson also asserted that “the Netherlands is responsible, but not liable. Nevertheless, we want to see what we can do for the communities on a voluntary basis.” That letter to Parliament is expected in mid February 2020, indicating whether the Netherlands is ready not only to acknowledge the truth of its actions, but also to take accountability when strikes go wrong.

▲ LIBRARY: During the war against ISIS, a pilot sits in the cockpit of a Dutch F-16 with a second aircraft in the background (Image via Dutch MoD)


November 29, 2019

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Promises follow three weeks after Ministry of Defence claimed responsibility for the 2015 Hawijah incident

The Dutch government is promising to introduce transparency improvements for conflict-related civilian harm resulting from its military actions. The announcement came on November 25th, in the wake of an ongoing national scandal, following the withholding for more than four years of details of Dutch involvement in an airstrike on Hawijah, Iraq, on the night of June 2nd-3rd 2015, which led to the likely deaths of at least 70 civilians.

In a comprehensive letter to parliament on November 25th, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld promised to retroactively report the number of missions, locations, target type and weapon deployment for the entire first deployment of the Dutch contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition from October 2014 to June 2016.

In the event of future air operations, such weekly reporting would be standardised. In addition, Bijleveld promised to ensure sufficient capacity at the Ministry to monitor possible civilian harm cases during future military action. And parliament will be confidentially briefed about investigations into civilian casualties as soon as possible.

The government says it is also exploring possible compensation options for victims of Dutch military actions in Iraq.


In the weeks since the government admitted the role of the Royal Netherlands Air Force in the deadly Hawijah strike, the crisis has threatened to engulf several leading political figures – including the Prime Minister.

A parliamentary debate on November 27th focused significantly on to what extent Prime Minister Mark Rutte had been informed about possible civilian casualties in the airstrike on an ISIS weapon storage facility in Hawijah. MP Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked if perhaps “the prolonging of the [Dutch] mission [against ISIS] had been more important than telling the truth”?

Rutte said that Hawijah was not discussed in cabinet meetings before the government had prolonged Dutch military action against ISIS on June 19th, 2015 – just three weeks after the incident. He argued that “it [information about possible civilian casualties in Hawijah] would not have been relevant [for the decision to prolong the mission], as we knew before starting this mission that there was a risk of civilian casualties”.

During the debate, MP Salima Belhaj of the D66 party – which is a part of the ruling coalition –  handed in a motion calling for a fact finding mission on the ground to determine how many civilians died at Hawijah.

Defence Minister Bijleveld responded that while she was unsure if such an investigation would generate any new information, she would seriously look into options.

The Socialist Party also handed in a motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Cabinet, which while supported by some opposition parties, did not pass.

Gisteren dienden we een motie van wantrouwen in. We vroegen zo vaak naar de waarheid, maar we kregen leugens 👇 #burgerslachtoffers #Irak

— Lilian Marijnissen (@MarijnissenL) November 28, 2019

MP Lilian Marijnissen (Socialist Party) handed in a motion of no confidence, claiming that “We asked for the truth so many times, but all we got were lies”.

‘Parliament misled in 2015’

The first public Dutch acknowledgement of responsibility for civilian casualties in the war against ISIS earlier this month followed after an investigation into Dutch involvement in the Hawijah case published by news outlets NRC and NOS.

In a letter to parliament on November 4th, Bijleveld wrote that her predecessor Jeanine Hennis had wrongly informed parliament on the matter. Hennis herself had informed MPs on June 23rd 2015 that “there has been no Dutch involvement in civilian casualties”, despite having received a CENTCOM report stating that claims of civilian casualties in the Hawija incident were deemed ‘credible’ a week earlier, according to Bijleveld.

On November 25th, Bijleveld released a second letter to parliament. She wrote that Hennis had personally informed the former Minister of Foreign Affairs (Bert Koenders) and “presumably” Prime Minister Mark Rutte about Hawijah back in 2015. According to Hennis who is cited in the new letter, her tone had not been alarming, but she did mention that further inquiries would look into the possibility of civilian casualties. Neither Koenders nor Rutte recall having this conversation, although Rutte said he does not  “rule out” that it happened.

The letter revealed that CENTCOM had sent the Dutch Ministry of Defence their own additional investigation report on January 22nd 2016, in which they concluded that while the targeting process was done correctly, it was “probable” that civilians had died, while not apparently specifying numbers. Although CENTCOM officials stated that the investigation was now considered “closed”, an official final report never followed. On May 26th of that year, MoD finalised their own additional investigation, drawing the same conclusions.

Bijleveld asserts that “to this day, it is still uncertain how many civilian casualties there were in Hawijah”. However, in December 2018, a senior Coalition military official responded via email to questions by Dutch newspaper NRC, confirming that “the strike to the VBIED factory caused secondary explosions that unfortunately killed 70 civilians despite the precautions the Coalition took to mitigate civilian casualties”.

When Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked about this email in the debate on November 27th, minister BIjleveld answered that she had asked for a clarification by CENTCOM, who she claimed had said they were unsure why their spokesperson did not follow the ‘official conclusions’.

Prime minister Rutte continues to state that "until today, it is unknown how many civilians died", while CENTCOM officials confirmed in December 2018 in an email to Dutch media @NRC and @NOS that 70 civilians had died.

— Airwars (@airwars) November 27, 2019

Future transparency

So far, Bijleveld has continually referred to the standing policy of not providing any information on ongoing Dutch military operations in light of ‘national, operational and personnel security’.This has led to Airwars for several years rating the Netherlands the least transparent and publicly accountable member of the 14-nation coalition against ISIS.

The minister still argues in her letter of November 25th that it is not possible to create a new standard, as assessments of the permissible level of transparency must be made based on the current security situation.

However Bijleveld does now promise a new standard for informing parliament, writing that MPs will confidentially be briefed about all Dutch weapon deployments. In cases where the defence ministry initiates investigation into civilian casualties, parliament will also be confidentially informed as soon as possible. Parliament will further be included in any considerations regarding the degree of public transparency that is considered “permissible in the context of security”.

The Minister writes that further inquiry into possible voluntary compensation for relatives of victims and the affected communities of Hawijah is taking place.

“While many questions remain unanswered on Hawijah, Airwars nevertheless welcomes recent indications by the Defence Ministry that it will improve the reporting of its military actions and any associated civilian harm,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “These announced structural policy changes have the potential to improve transparency for Dutch military actions moving forward, so that mass civilian casualty cases such as Hawijah can never again be hidden from the public.”

▲ Destruction at Hawijah following a Dutch airstrike on June 2nd/3rd 2015, published as propaganda by the Islamic State shortly after the incident (via VRT).


October 22, 2019

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Airwars suspends cooperation with Netherlands defence ministry until possible role of Dutch F-16s in lethal event is clarified

On Friday October 18th, Dutch news organisations NRC and NOS published a story in which they accused the Dutch military of being responsible for a 2015 airstrike on an ISIS weapon storage facility in the city of Hawijah, Iraq, that led to the deaths of at least 70 civilians. The Dutch Ministry of Defence has so far refused to confirm or deny its involvement in one of the deadliest Coalition airstrikes in the war against ISIS.

Airwars has since announced the suspension of its ongoing engagement with defence ministry on transparency and accountability issues, until the Dutch government confirms or denies whether it was involved in the event.

On the night of June 2nd-3rd, 2015, aircraft belonging to the international Coalition against ISIS bombed an IED facility in the city of Hawijah, in Iraq’s Kirkuk province. Subsequent explosions from stored munitions killed at least 70 civilians, Coalition officials confirmed to NRC and NOS.

The Airwars assessment of the incident, based on local reporting and investigations by others, concluded that at least 26 children and 22 women were among those killed at Hawijah that day. Many victims were refugees from other parts of the country, who had found shelter in buildings surrounding the weapon storage facility. More than 100 civilians were also injured in the attack. According to local reports Airwars analysed, as many as 100 ISIS militants may also additionally have been killed.

Suspicion of Dutch involvement

Until now, no Coalition member has publicly claimed responsibility for an airstrike that Bas News described at the time as “one of the worst mass casualty incidents in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.” Journalists at the Dutch newspaper NRC and the public broadcasting foundation NOS investigated the incident for many months, as they suspected possible Dutch involvement following a letter sent by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence to the House of Representatives in April 2018.

In that letter, ministers revealed that the Dutch Public Prosecution Service had investigated four air strikes – out of a total of approximately 2,100 munitions released – that the Netherlands had carried out between October 2014 and June 2016. The Public Prosecution Service concluded that three out of the four investigated incidents indeed seemed to have led to civilian casualties. However any further information on these four strikes – such as place, date and time of the attack – was omitted. The Public Prosecution Service furthermore stated that while it was likely that these three Dutch strikes had killed civilians, it saw no reason to prosecute as in its view, the rules of war had been followed.

At the time, researchers and journalists noted that the first described case in the letter showed a potential resemblance to what had happened in Hawijah, three years earlier. The two ministers wrote about this first incident that “it […] was an attack by Dutch F-16s on a facility where so-called vehicle borne IEDs [car bombs] were manufactured. […] The IED factory later turned out to have contained many more explosives than was known or could be estimated in advance. It is very likely that this attack resulted in civilian casualties.” Requests for confirmation by Airwars and journalists on whether the ministry was indeed referring to the incident of Hawija have remained unanswered until now.

In a press conference the day after the Hawijah incident, American commander Lt General John Hesterman had also said that a “fairly small weapon” was used in the strike. According to NRC’s reconstruction of their investigation, weapon experts it consulted had concluded Hesterman must have been talking about GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs. In 2015, only two Coalition allies were using this type of munition in their military actions in Syria and Iraq: the United States and the Netherlands. However US and British armed drones were also using smaller 100lb Hellfire missiles at the time.

The aftermath of the alleged strike (via Iraqi Revolution)

The investigation

Both NRC and NOS visited the site of the airstrike in 2019, collecting on the ground statements from affected communities. They furthermore spoke to both US and Dutch officials. Kees Versteegh, one of the journalists working on the investigation, said in NRC’s daily podcast that several anonymous officials had confirmed to him that it was in fact a Dutch F16 that dropped the bomb.

Responding to the investigation, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld tweeted that she could  “neither confirm nor deny” Dutch responsibility for the Hawijah incident “at this moment”, but that she hoped to be able to do so in the near future. “We want to put the safety of everyone, especially the pilots, first”, Bijleveld stated, according to NRC. Prime Minister Mark Rutte was also questioned by journalists about the allegations, but answered that “while it is terrible when civilian casualties occur”, that he could not comment on the allegations.

Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld says she can ‘neither confirm nor deny’ Dutch involvement in a deadly 2015 strike

Members of Parliament have been demanding that the Minister provides clarity on the topic, so far unsuccessfully. Sadet Karabulut, MP for the opposition Socialist Party (SP), who has submitted several motions regarding transparency on civilian casualties in the past, tweeted: “We weren’t told anything at all. Every time, we asked for [information]. We never got an answer. The minister has a problem if this is true and has a lot to explain. I want to know everything. All information should be on the table now very quickly, and we should have a debate.”

MP Isabelle Diks of GroenLinks stated that “it is unbelievable that the House of Representatives is only now hearing through the press, that in the event of a Dutch attack, so many civilian victims have fallen, while the House of Representatives has specifically asked about this on several occasions.” She said she expected an explanation from the Minister soon.

Ongelooflijk dat de Kamer nu pas via de pers hoort, dat bij een Nederlandse aanval zo onthutsend veel burgerslachtoffers zijn gevallen, terwijl de Kamer hier meermaals specifiek naar heeft gevraagd. @MinBijleveld heeft heel wat uit te leggen! Snel meer info in een brief dan debat

— Isabelle Diks (@IsabelleDiks) October 18, 2019

Joël Voordewind, MP for the ChristenUnie, also demanded answers on Twitter: “Why was there no follow-up investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office on the bombing in Hawija, hardly any compensation paid, and why was it not foreseen that a second explosion could occur, resulting in so many civilian casualties? I expect clear answers.”

And Salima Belhaj, MP for D66 which is a part of the government coalition, insisted that future civilian casualties must be communicated as fast as possible to parliament.

While the Dutch government has so far yet to officially confirm its involvement in the deadly attack, Defence Minister Bijleveld made a further statement on October 19th regarding compensation for relatives of the victims of the airstrike and those who suffered material loss. According to NOS, Bijleveld claimed that “it is the international agreement that it will be settled in the country itself [Iraq]”. This contradicts statements made by CENTCOM to Airwars in 2016 that each member nation of the alliance was individually responsible for any payouts for civilian harm resulting from its own actions.

Airwars and Airwars Stichting issued a statement noting that it would be a “national scandal if the defence ministry and successive governments have withheld the death of 70 civilians resulting from a Dutch military action more than 4 years ago”, and calling for an urgent factual statement from both the Ministry of Defence and the government. Airwars has additionally suspended planned further talks with defence officials on transparency and accountability for civilian harm, until the Dutch government has publicly clarified any involvement in this incident.

▲ Library image: A Dutch F-16 is prepared for a mission against ISIS (Image via Defensie)


August 7, 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins and Oliver Imhof

The fifth anniversary of the international war against so-called Islamic State has seen the total defeat of the terrorist group as a territorial entity in both Iraq and Syria. Now degraded to insurgency, the US and its allies try to contain the jihadist organisation. However, after five years of fighting the cost to civilians on the ground has been high.

In total, since the US-led Coalition conducted its first airstrike on August 8th 2014, there have been 34,402 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, by Airwars’ count. In a conflict that has now lasted longer than the First World War, 117,677 munitions have been dropped on ISIS from air – almost seven times more than in Afghanistan during the same period.

The present best estimate by Airwars is that between 8,106 and 12,980 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition actions in four years of fighting – with the alliance itself presently conceding only 1,321 non-combatants deaths from its air and artillery strikes.

On March 23rd, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces declared victory over the caliphate established by the so-called Islamic State. While around 40,000 fighters from 80 countries had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the caliphate, the US estimates that between 70,000 and 100,000 ISIS fighters have been killed – many in airstrikes – since Coalition actions began in August 2014.

Despite declarations of victory, strikes against ISIS remnants have continued into 2019 – though at a very low rate – amid fears of the group rising again. Territory formerly seized by ISIS is now controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces – who are in constant struggle with Turkey. This is due to Turkey’s contention that the SDF is controlled by the YPG/PKK, which Ankara deems a terror organisation. In addition, the SDF is backed by the US – normally a NATO ally to Turkey. The YPG has also called upon the Assad regime, currently bombarding Idlib, for help in the past.

US-President Donald Trump has said that he wants US troops out of Syria as quickly as possible, asking France, the UK and Germany to share more responsibility in Syria. However, uncertainty about what would happen to the US’ Kurdish allies, crucial in defeating and containing ISIS, has kept the US in Syria so far.

Ferocious final assault

The final US-led assault on Baghouz, which led to the fall of the so-called Islamic State as a territorial entity, took a heavy toll on civilian life. Some 98% of the minimum 416 civilians assessed by Airwars as likely killed by the Coalition in the first six months of 2019 perished between January 1st and the final announcement of the liberation of Baghouz from ISIS on March 23rd.

Civilians in the so-called MERV (Middle Euphrates Valley) were particularly at risk due to the high intensity of the bombing campaign. An Airwars analysis indicates a sometimes higher tempo of Coalition actions in Syria in the first two months of 2019 than were recorded at Mosul during March 2017, the most intense and lethal period of the battle for Iraq’s second city.

Civilians still at risk

Following the liberation of Baghouz from ISIS, strikes in Syria all but ceased, and the Coalition has reported only one strike in Syria since May 4th. However, Airwars has continued to track civilian harm from counter-terrorism operations in the country. The Coalition carries out these sorties to support the SDF in their attempts to clear remaining hideouts of ISIS fighters, who often hide in the desert at the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The last civilian harm incident Airwars researchers tracked in Iraq was on March 24th, however, Coalition strikes have continued there, with 231 strikes publicly reported within the first six months of 2019 – a 76% rise on the number conducted in the first half of 2018. Alarmingly, the Coalition slashed transparency for its actions in December 2018, meaning that it’s now impossible to assess where or on which specific dates these strikes occurred – and for Airwars to cross-match any potential civilian harm events.

The Coalition has so far acknowledged killing 1,321 civilians in its strikes across Iraq and Syria, in what it has repeatedly called “the most precise war in history”. There is a huge disparity between the death toll given by the Coalition and Airwars. Our own estimate is that between 8,106 and 12,980 civilians have likely died in strikes by the alliance since August 8th 2014. In total, we our research team has tracked almost 2,900 civilian casualty events allegedly linked to Coalition forces, with as many as 29,400 civilians locally alleged killed in Iraq and Syria.

The house of Ali al-Muhammad al-Furaiji after it was struck by an airstrike between April 14th and 15th 2019 (via Euphrates Post)

Densely populated areas

The war has taken an increasingly deadly toll on ordinary Iraqis and Syrians on the ground as it’s progressed. Likely deaths jumped by 82% in 2016 on the following year when we saw the fighting shift to more densely populated areas. The impact on civilians trapped on the ground was dire. Of the 8,106 civilians estimated killed since 2014, almost 50% of these deaths occurred during 2017, a year marked by the increasingly ferocious battles for Mosul and Raqqa.

Overall, likely deaths fell by 80% in 2018 on the previous year, but by November 2018, with the push to eradicate ISIS from the slithers of territory it clung on to in eastern Syria, civilian harm began to spiral. This suggested that the US-led Coalition had applied few of the lessons learned during the brutal urban assaults on Mosul and Raqqa, when it came to the protection of civilians.

Stories of affected communities must be heard

As the war against ISIS moves into its sixth year, the true impact of the fighting is yet to be revealed, and there are thousands of stories needing to be heard. A major investigation by Airwars and Amnesty International has concluded that 1,600 civilians were killed by the Coalition during the Battle of Raqqa alone – ten times higher than the Coalition admits.

Five years of war against ISIS have had a devastating impact on Iraq and Syria. While rebuilding measures in some areas have been quick, only 6,000 out 24,000 properties destroyed in Nineveh, Iraq have been rebuilt, according to Sky News. As well as continuing to track all claims of civilian harm from alleged Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria – and in other conflicts – Airwars is now focusing on reconciliation and restitution for civilians affected by the military actions of the US and its allies.

While the so-called Islamic State has been defeated as a territorial power, the fight continues on different levels as calls for reconciliation and restitution become more pressing. Justice for civilians affected by the war can play a key role in rebuilding broken societies to establish peace in the crisis-torn region and stop ISIS from rising again.

What a difference rehabilitation can make! This school in west #Mosul has re-opened with support from UNDP & @DFID_UK, allowing almost 700 kids return to school🙌#IraqStabilization

— UNDP Iraq (@undpiniraq) August 6, 2019

▲ SDF forces backed by the International Coalition attack Al Baghouz on March 3rd 2019 (via Euphrates Post)


July 16, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Drawing on experiences of conflict-focused journalists, report identifies significant obstacles to proper reporting of civilian casualties.

Despite a significant majority of almost 100 surveyed journalists believing that the reporting of civilian casualties remains critical to broader war coverage, major US news organisations have too often failed properly to report on the issue during the five year conflict against so-called Islamic State.

That’s the key finding of a major new Airwars study into US media coverage of civilian harm during the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which published on July 16th.

The Airwars study, News In Brief, is a comprehensive analysis of US media coverage of civilian casualties in the recent war against ISIS. Authored by respected investigative journalist Alexa O’Brien, the report canvasses the in-depth views of almost 100 US media professionals, with a particular emphasis on field reporters and defence correspondents.

With more than 29,000 civilian deaths locally alleged from US-led Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria, the report asks whether “US readers, listeners and viewers obtained a proper sense of the cost of modern war?”

Airwars also looked at the frequency and character of actual US newspaper coverage of the issue during two key periods of the conflict. A third review examined any references to civilian harm at more than 900 Pentagon press briefings since the war against ISIS began in August 2014. O’Brien’s study also includes five practical recommendations to managing editors, to help improve reporting on the issue in future conflicts.

“Media professionals are clear that the issue of civilian harm is central to war reporting.  And airpower dominated conflicts, especially when conducted without large contingents of US ground forces, necessitate even greater scrutiny and more consistent oversight by major media institutions, not less.” says report author Alexa O’Brien.

Media coverage of civilian harm remains critical

A significant majority of media professionals believe that it is the responsibility of news outlets to investigate all major cases of civilian harm during US wars. Coverage is critical not only for a proper understanding of war itself, but also to help ensure the proper oversight of US government and military strategy, policy, and operations, journalists said.

As one reporter put it to O’Brien, “I always see the civilian casualty stories as an important way to remind people, ‘Hey, this is not antiseptic.'”

Yet when Airwars measured actual coverage, news reporting on civilian casualties from US-led actions against ISIS was found to be largely absent during key periods of the conflict. For entire months, no major US news organisations reported on civilian harm resulting from US-led Coalition actions – although the alliance itself has since confirmed many such deaths.

“Declining foreign bureaus and newsroom staff at US media outlets; a ferocious news cycle dominated by domestic politics; the quandary of credible sourcing for civilian casualty claims; little opportunity to embed with US troops on the ground; and the expense and risk of security and logistics for reporters in the field” all helped contribute to generally poor reporting of civilian harm, Airwars concludes.

Major US media were also five times more likely to report on civilian harm from Russian and Assad regime actions at Aleppo than they were from US and allied actions at Mosul, the study found – despite similar levels of locally reported civilian harm in late 2016. That suggests a reluctance by newsrooms to engage on the issue when US forces are implicated, the report suggests.

Reporters in newsrooms are themselves aware of the challenges it seems, with 63% of those surveyed saying they were somewhat or very unsatisfied with US media industry coverage of civilian harm during the war against ISIS.

More than 60% of surveyed journalists felt that US media coverage of civilian harm was unsatisfactory..

Importance of field and home reporting

The Airwars study finds that reporting from the field remains critical to proper coverage of civilian harm issues. Field reporters write most of the copy about the subject. They are also considered best suited to do so, those surveyed said.

Yet civilian casualty coverage by field reporters is generally not adequately prioritized in the pool of available resources, reporters complain. This contributes to an inability to properly cover the issue. During the culmination of the battle for western Mosul in early 2017 for example, there was effectively no major US media coverage of civilian harm the study found. During those same months, more than 1,100 civilian deaths from Coalition actions were locally alleged across Iraq and Syria.

With limited reporting from the field, the onus is on home reporters to cover the issue. Once again Airwars identified significant challenges. The study found that the Pentagon press corps rarely verbally inquired about Coalition-related civilian harm during the conflict against ISIS, even when reporting from the field was limited. A survey of more than 900 US Department of Defense transcripts found that officials were, for example, the first to raise civilian harm in three-quarters of the press conferences or briefings in which the issue was broached since 2014.

In one case the report cites, a senior Coalition official opened a Pentagon press briefing by announcing an inquiry into a reported major civilian harm event at Mosul that weekend. In the hour long discussion which followed, no reporters asked any questions about the incident.

Reporting on civilian harm by friendly forces may also be a point of discomfort in US newsrooms. Surveyed media professionals said they considered media reporting on civilian harm caused by so-called Islamic State, by Syrian government forces, or by the Russia military to have been more satisfactorily covered than civilian harm caused by the US and its allies.

Trustworthy sources

Challenges in the coverage of civilian harm were not solely due to proper resourcing or job demarcation issues, but also to sourcing concerns. In the absence of reliable or credible information about civilian harm via field reporters, media professionals say they need increasingly to rely upon open-source material and analysis; and reports from inter-governmental and humanitarian organizations, and monitors.

Journalists also say they rely on specialist non- governmental organizations—like Airwars—that monitor civilian harm outside the conflict zone, as well as those that investigate it on the ground, more than they rely on official US government or military sources, evidencing the significant role that such organizations now play in reporting on the topic. Reporters also say that these organizations and eyewitness accounts have more credibility than official US sources regarding civilian harm.

As a result, some media professionals expressed support for a reputable and commonly accepted industry-wide methodology or standards for alternative civilian harm counts, that can be used to help credibly report on the topic during conflicts.

There are also concerns that the US military’s limited responses to journalists’ information requests thwarted news coverage about civilian harm claims, or made it more onerous and resource intensive to report on. Industry professionals said that the military’s responses were often not complete or timely enough to meet deadlines; and that as journalists they then had to conduct extensive and costly investigations or follow-ups to obtain the information required to perform due diligence.

Finally, more than half of US media professionals who were surveyed said that they are not sufficiently prepared to report on civilian harm with regard to specific related disciplines, and that they would benefit from training in such disciplines.

Stories on civilian harm were more likely to be rejected due to a lack of editorial interest than any other reason, surveyed reporters told Airwars

Recommendations for improvement

The Airwars study suggests practical steps which can be taken to help improve future newsroom coverage of civilian harm- with author Alexa O’Brien scheduled to meet with relevant editors on many major US titles in the coming days. The five recommendations are:

A clear editorial mandate for civilian harm coverage at media outlets

One key reason identified by reporters for poor casualty reporting is that the issue lacks a relevant mandate from managing editors. That in turn means the subject is generally siloed, fragmented, and largely self-directed by individual journalists.

Citing the effectiveness of newsroom mandates on the reporting of fatal shootings of people of colour by US police, News In Brief urges editors to adopt a similar mandated approach to civilian harm coverage.

Persistent and well-resourced field reporting and balanced sourcing

The presence of properly resourced and prioritized field reporters remains a key part of ensuring that civilian harm coverage is consistent and balanced during wars. Without adequate resourcing or prioritization, reporting on casualties from US actions risks being fragmented, one-sided, or even non-existent.

Coordination of civilian harm coverage by Pentagon reporters and others covering the US military back home

While there is consensus that field reporters are best placed to cover civilian harm issues during US wars, this is not always possible.

Managing editors should therefore appropriately task and coordinate coverage of civilian harm from home, especially when on-the-ground reporting is diminished during conflicts—as with the war against ISIS.

Support for reputable initiatives and standards for alternative civilian harm counts

Reliable and trustworthy counts of civilian harm are critical to reporting on the topic, and to understanding its significance in terms of the strategy, policy, and operations of the US government and military.  Such an independent effort to establish monitoring standards is currently underway by a consortium of international non-governmental organizations, led by EveryCasualty.

Journalists remarked that a reputable media industry-wide consortium, to pool resources in order to vet civilian harm claims in airpower dominated and inaccessible conflict zones, might be another solution to the increasing requirements and challenges of covering the subject adequately in future wars.

Training in disciplines related to civilian harm reporting

More than three-quarters of surveyed journalists say they have never received training on how to cover civilian harm in military conflicts. They are also keen to see such training, saying that it would benefit both them and their coverage of the issue.

Read the full report on US media reporting of civilian harm in the war against ISIS

▲ A reporter in Mosul during the battle to evict so-called Islamic State. Image courtesy of Harry Chun.


May 1, 2019

Written by

Marie Forestier

Recent change in French narrative suggests its forces may have harmed civilians in the war against ISIS - but officials refuse to say more.

On May 16th 2017, Sajid Ahmed Sajid and his brother Amer Ahmad Sajid, two men in their fifties and each with a salt and pepper beard, were killed by a bomb that struck their house in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Al-Najjar in West Mosul, according to locals and local media.

The Coalition’s public account of the attack differs, insisting that “during a coalition strike against an ISIS commander, ISIS headquarters and VBIED operation which destroyed the VBIED operation, two civilians were unintentionally killed when they inadvertently walked into the blast radius of the strike.”

Yet which of the Coalition allies active during Mosul was responsible for those deaths – the US, the UK, France, Australia or Belgium – remains unclear.

Between May 8th – 23rd 2017 according to official records, while the battle for Mosul was raging seven international Coalition airstrikes on parts of the city controlled by ISIS, as well as an airstrike in Tabqa, Syria, between them killed at least six civilians and wounded one. While the Coalition has made public that tally, it has not specified which military within the international alliance was responsible for each event. According to an agreement between the allies, it falls to each individual Coalition member to announce its own responsibility for what militaries call ‘collateral damage’.

In that same time period and geographic area, the French military reported 24 strikes “carried out by French aircraft in Iraq and Syria”. It is impossible to know whether France is responsible for the deaths of the Sajid brothers – or indeed of any other civilians killed in the course of these seven strikes – because the French army doesn’t disclose the day or the precise location of its actions.

Asked in early December 2018 about potential French involvement, the spokesman for the French Military Chiefs of Staff, Colonel Patrick Steiger, didn’t answer directly and referred this reporter instead to the Coalition. “We don’t want to single ourselves out. The answer lies at the Coalition level,” he said. Yet, in March 2017 Colonel Steiger had previously said that based on “the current state of our information, we have no knowledge of collateral damage. But absolute certainty doesn’t exist.”

This subtle communication shift suggests that French air or artillery strikes may have killed civilians, whether in May 2017 or at another time. Yet the French Minister of the Army, Florence Parly, has refused to comment on the issue.

A French Rafale conducting operations in the war against ISIS (Image via Armee francaise)

Intense campaign

Starting in September 2014, the French army has been participating with ten of its Rafale aircraft and artillery batteries alongside 15 other countries in the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), to help defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Between August 2014 and April 20th 2019, the Coalition launched 34,334 air and artillery strikes, which were conducted by the US to a significant degree. “During this period, based on information available, CJTF-OIR assesses at least 1,291 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes,” the Coalition presently believes. Some 122 allegation reports are still under assessment.

This figure is significantly lower than the one published by Airwars, which presently estimates that between 7,743 and 12,561 civilians have been killed, based on confirmed or fair reports. The Coalition’s tally also appears low compared to previous conflict figures. According to UN estimates, in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2014, an average of one civilian was killed for every 14 international forces airstrikes. Although rules of engagement differed, these airstrikes targeted for the most part rural areas with far fewer inhabitants than Iraqi or Syrian large cities.

The US, which has conducted the majority of all Coalition airstrikes, is also statistically likely to be responsible for the majority of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria. Until April 2017, all civilian losses admitted by the Coalition (which by then amounted to 229 deaths), were caused by the US Air Force, officials confirmed at the time. Frustrated at being the only country to concede civilian casualties, the Americans stopped releasing information specifying countries’ actions, and have only published global figures at Coalition level since.

Eventually, the UK admitted in May 2018 to the death of one civilian (in the course of more than 1,800 strikes) and the Netherlands has conceded three civilian casualty events – though refuses to say how many non combatants were killed or injured. Australia admitted on February 1st that “between six and 18 civilians may have been killed” during a raid it was involved in at Mosul in 2017, and had previously conceded two additional events. France is thus the only active Coalition member not to concede any civilian harm publicly.

France was second only to the United States in its military contribution to the war against ISIS – but has not declared any civilian harm from its actions.

1,500 French strikes

After the US and the UK, France has launched the greatest number of Coalition airstrikes (it ranks second if French artillery figures are also included) – that is to say, 1,500 strikes since the beginning of the operation.

“Many strikes took place in heavily populated urban areas where significant civilian harm has been credibly reported,” Chris Woods, Airwars director, said. For instance, French aircraft launched 600 airstrikes during the battle of Mosul. In this urban environment, where civilians were used as human shields by ISIS and were sheltering in unknown locations, and where blasts rebound easily, risk of civilian harm ran high. “It’s inconceivable that France hasn’t been responsible for civilian harm in such an intense conflict,” Chris Woods said.

“When you conduct combat in an urban area, you kill civilians. You can take steps to minimize deaths, but you have to be honest about the risk,” a former high-level US defense official said when interviewed for this article.

Despite what others see as the inevitability of civilian harm from urban strikes, the French military works on the assumption that since its rules of engagement (which it refuses to reveal) are very restrictive – and that since it takes great precautions, that it is unlikely to have harmed civilians.

For example, if a civilian is standing in proximity to a target area, the French military claims that it would cancel a strike. “In summer 2017, we stopped airstrikes in the Mosul area because we couldn’t guarantee the precision and the effect of strikes,” the French military Chief of Staff spokesman said. However, due to limited information, it remains difficult to demonstrate that French rules of engagement are safer than those of other allies.

Experts say that it’s not a lack of precision that kills civilians, as weapons currently used are very precise. According to several military sources, the bombs used by Coalition members – including France – in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, such as GDAM, AASM, or GBU, are all laser- or GPS-guided. The main issue comes from incorrect or outdated intelligence, or from not seeing civilians in the targeted area. “Precision munitions bring little benefit to trapped civilian populations in urban centres,” Chris Woods said.

The French military say that 90% of the airstrikes it has launched in Iraq and Syria have been close air support strikes (CAS), while only 10% have been planned strikes. These CAS strikes are called in and guided by allied fighters on the ground during their progression, when they need an enemy position to be destroyed.

Planned strikes are instead aimed at pre-identified targets such as operational centres or weapons factories. Militaries often have days to watch a target and identify potential patterns of civilian movement surrounding them. According to the French rationale, CAS are less risky because there is an officer on the ground who can directly see the target.

Yet experts disagree, arguing that the target is not necessarily in sight and that indications for a strike might lack precision. “Vision depends on the ground. But in close air support of troops in contact, you are not able to spend a long time observing the target and it’s difficult to minimize civilian harm,” the former high-level US defense official said.

In February 2019, and for the first time, a senior French military official publicly admitted “an excessive cost” and “significant destruction” resulting from the Coalition’s tactics against ISIS. Colonel Francois-Regis Legrier, who had been in charge of directing French artillery supporting Kurdish-led fighters in Syria since October 2018, wrote an article in the National Defence Review at the end of his mission.

“By refusing ground engagement, we unnecessarily prolonged the conflict and thus contributed to increasing the number of casualties in the population, We have massively destroyed the infrastructure and given the population a disgusting image of what may be a Western-style liberation leaving behind the seeds of an imminent resurgence of a new adversary,” Colonel Legrier wrote.

Legrier’s article was abruptly removed, and the French Minister for the Army has sought to sanction him.

French artillery crews in action against ISIS – part of Task Force Wagram (Image via Armee francaise)

A lack of accountability

Killing civilians is not necessarily considered a crime during conflict according to international law, as long as strict conditions of proportionality and distinction are respected and all feasible precautions to protect civilians are taken.

Yet when civilians have been harmed, States “are under an obligation to conduct prompt, independent and impartial fact- finding inquiries in any case where there is a plausible indication that civilian casualties have been sustained, and to make public the results,” according to the former UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Ben Emmerson.

Still, NGOs and observers have often criticised the weakness and lack of transparency of the Coalition’s investigations. After a strike, the military conducts a Battle Damage Assessment (BDA), which reviews the impact of the attack, looking mainly at whether the target was reached. It also allows an opportunity to see if civilians were harmed. The BDA is largely based on pilots’ observations immediately after a strike, and a review of battlefield surveillance footage if there is any. It is a “basic” process according to one French defence official. “We can’t see everything. There can be shrapnel and it can wound someone. This, we don’t know about it,” Colonel Steiger said.

Since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve, 200 allegations of civilian casualties potentially involving the French military have been investigated, this reporter has learned. Yet French army officials refuse to make the results of those assessments public.

When allegations of civilian casualties are brought up, a Coalition team in Al Oudeid base in Qatar investigates claims by reviewing all footage and images available, along with other materials, for example external media or NGO reports. When the Coalition assesses that a death is “not credible”, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur, but that the team was unable to gather sufficient information about the case at that time.

The team is made up of a few analysts, and the Coalition admits that it doesn’t have enough resources to investigate every case. No French officer is part of this team but the French military say that they conduct their own investigations in parallel. These consist of reviewing the same images and other information, along with the insights of a munition expert who assesses the range of the explosion.

Amnesty International has criticised this internal assessment process, which it says does not usually include information gathered at  the strike’s location, and from witnesses. The organisation stresses that aerial images have their limits. “You can’t see through roofs and walls, you miss families that don’t leave their hiding places for days. Taking drone footage after an airstrike is not a substitute for a proper investigation,” Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s weapons adviser said.

A French Rafale during the war against so-called Islamic State (Image via Armee francaise)

‘No public pressure’

Just as France’s investigations into alleged civilian harm are not comprehensive and lack transparency, so too with its communication about military operations. In the beginning of the war against ISIS, the French army used to publish daily reports on its actions, specifying the type of aircraft and munitions used, the target, and a fairly precise location. However since March 2015, France has instead released weekly reports that only give the number of missions and broad details of “neutralised targets”, as well as the general location of the attack – usually at province level.

“There is no public pressure to have all the information. We haven’t felt that we needed to say more,” claims French military Chief of Staff spokesman Colonel Patrick Steiger. This approach contrasts with other Coalition members such as the UK, which has continually published detailed reports of its own military operations. In this context, it is extremely hard for external observers to raise the alarm on allegations in which France might be involved.

Within the French political system, Members of Parliament have also failed to provide a watchdog role regarding civilian casualties. “We talked about it two or three times during sessions. But it is not an issue because we have not been notified of any incident that can be problematic,” Gilbert Roger, Seine-Saint-Denis Senator said.

This approach contrasts sharply with the US, where the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2018 and 2019 oblige the Pentagon to answer to Congress annually on civilian harm, for example.

France’s refusal to identify or concede civilian casualties from its actions – while limiting any admissions to the Coalition’s broader tally – has far reaching consequences. The International Committee of the Red Cross highlighted the risk of responsibilities being obscured in a recent report. “This can create a climate in which stakeholders, political and military alike, perceive themselves to be free from the scrutiny of accountability processes, and act beyond the parameters of their usual normative reference frameworks.”

Errors are also likely to happen again unless they are identified. “Military learn from their mistakes by looking at how civilians died. But it becomes less likely if they are acknowledged at the coalition level only,” Chris Woods said. “And with such a complete lack of transparency from the French military, Syrian and Iraqi civilians who have been caught up in French actions will forever be denied accountability and possible compensation.”

This article was originally published in French in Liberation. The English-language version here appears courtesy of Marie Forestier, and of Liberation.

▲ French artillery crews fire from Iraq into the ISIS-occupied Hajin Pocket in eastern Syria, early 2019 (Image via Armee francaise)


April 25, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Amnesty and Airwars investigation says civilian harm during battle for Raqqa is ten times higher than Coalition admits

A major new study by Amnesty International and Airwars has concluded that at least 1,600 civilians died in Coalition strikes on the city of Raqqa in 2017 during the battle to evict so-called Islamic State – ten times the number of fatalities so far conceded by the US-led alliance, which had admitted 159 deaths to April 24th.

The two organisations are calling on the US and its British and French allies to properly investigate all reports of civilian harm at Raqqa; to be transparent about their tactics, methods of attack, choice of targets, and precautions taken in the planning and execution of their strikes; and to create a fund to ensure that victims and their families receive full reparation and compensation.

The major project – which saw Amnesty field researchers on the ground for almost two months in Raqqa – is featured in a new interactive website, Rhetoric versus Reality: How the ‘most precise air campaign in history’ left Raqqa the most destroyed city in modern times, which is described by Amnesty as ‘the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in a modern conflict.’

“Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in the US-led Coalition’s offensive to rid Raqqa of IS, whose snipers and mines had turned the city into a death trap. Many of the air bombardments were inaccurate and tens of thousands of artillery strikes were indiscriminate, so it is no surprise they killed and injured many hundreds of civilians,” says Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.

“Coalition forces razed Raqqa, but they cannot erase the truth. Amnesty International and Airwars call upon the Coalition forces to end their denial about the shocking scale of civilian deaths and destruction caused by their offensive in Raqqa.”

Raqqawis walk in front of destroyed buildings in central Raqqa, January 2019 (Image courtesy of Amnesty International)

Witnesses and survivors

Almost 500 alleged Coalition harm events have so far been identified by Amnesty and Airwars researchers during the battle for Raqqa, in which more than 3,000 civilians were locally alleged killed.

On four site visits to the broken city, Amnesty researchers spent a total of around two months on the ground, carrying out site investigations at more than 200 strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors.

Amnesty International’s innovative Strike Trackers project also identified when each of more than 11,000 destroyed buildings in Raqqa was hit. More than 3,000 digital activists in 124 countries took part, analysing a total of more than two million satellite image frames. The organisation’s Digital Verification Corps, based at six universities around the world, also analysed and authenticated video footage captured during the battle.

Airwars researchers had independently tracked 429 locally alleged civilian harm events during the battle for Raqqa, and this comprehensive dataset also formed a key part of the study.

Three Airwars team members were seconded to the Raqqa project, where they worked alongside Amnesty researchers to analyse open-source evidence – including thousands of social media posts and other material – and to build a database of more than 1,600 civilians credibly reported killed in Coalition strikes.

The organisations also gathered names for more than 1,000 of the victims. Amnesty International has directly verified 641 of those names on the ground in Raqqa, while there are very strong multiple source reports for the rest.

Shihab Halep from the Airwars Syria team helped build the database of victim names for Raqqa. “We were able to document at least 1,000 civilians killed by the Coalition and its proxies on the ground. The international community needs to find a way to hold Coalition forces accountable for their actions, to ensure that the same will not be committed in the future and to bring justice for these innocent victims and for their families,” he says.

Hanna Rullmann and Sophie Dyer worked with Amnesty to incorporate Airwars’ own findings into the study – along with the organisation’s engagements with the Coalition on hundreds of reported casualty events: “Bringing together Airwars’ vast remote monitoring data with Amnesty’s field investigations was a huge undertaking. Victim names became invaluable in matching the different research threads. The result is a comprehensive and undeniable picture of massive civilian loss of life throughout the battle,” says Sophie.

Men wait by the side of the road for casual labour in Raqqa. Many end up clearing partially destroyed or damaged buildings, a very risky endeavour as many building were mined by ISIS and civilians are frequently killed and injured by mines. (Image courtesy of Amnesty International)

ISIS occupation

By the time the offensive to capture Raqqa began in June 2017, ISIS had ruled the city for almost four years. Previous investigations by Amnesty and others detailed how the terror group had perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, torturing or killing anyone who dared oppose it.

However as the new study reports, most of the destruction during the battle for Raqqa was caused by incoming Coalition air and artillery strikes – with at least 21,000 munitions fired into the city over a four month period. The United Nations would later declare it the most destroyed city in Syria, with an estimated 70% laid waste.

Both Amnesty and Airwars have frequently shared their findings on civilian harm at Raqqa with the US-led alliance. As a result, the Coalition has so far admitted responsibility for killing 159 civilians – around 10% of the minimum likely toll, according to the new study.

The Coalition has routinely dismissed the remainder of reported deaths as “non-credible.” Yet to date the alliance has failed to adequately probe civilian casualty reports, or to interview witnesses and survivors – admitting that it does not carry out site investigations.

“The Coalition needs to fully investigate what went wrong at Raqqa and learn from those lessons, to prevent inflicting such tremendous suffering on civilians caught in future military operations,” says Chris Woods, Director of Airwars.

Raqqa has been described by the United Nations as the most destroyed city in Syria (Image courtesy of Amnesty International)

Bringing cases to life

Rhetoric versus Reality brings to life the stories of families who lived and died by taking users on a journey through Raqqa: meeting survivors, hearing their testimonies and visiting their destroyed homes. From the bombed-out bridges spanning the Euphrates to the largely demolished old city near the central stadium, no neighbourhood was spared.

Developed with Holoscribe’s creative team, the interactive website combines photographs, videos, 360-degree immersive experiences, satellite imagery, maps and data visualisations to highlight the cases and journeys of civilians caught under the Coalition’s bombardment. Users can also explore data on civilians who were killed, many of them after having fled from place to place across the city.

One of the first neighbourhoods to be targeted was Dara’iya, a low-rise, poorer district in western Raqqa.

In a ramshackle, half-destroyed house, Fatima, nine years old at the time, described how she lost three of her siblings and her mother, Aziza, when the Coalition rained volleys of artillery shells down on their neighbourhood on the morning of June 10th 2017. They were among 16 civilians killed on that street on that day alone. Fatima lost her right leg and her left leg was badly injured. She now uses a wheelchair donated by an NGO to get around and her only wish is to go to school.

In December 2017 the Coalition dismissed the event as ‘non credible’ – claiming that “there is insufficient evidence to find that civilians were harmed in this strike.”

In another tragic incident, a Coalition air strike destroyed an entire five-storey residential building near Maari school in the central Harat al-Badu neighbourhood in the early evening of September 25th 2017. Four families were sheltering in the basement at the time. Almost all of them – at least 32 civilians, including 20 children – were killed. Again, the Coalition would later dismiss the event as ‘non credible.

“Planes were bombing and rockets were falling 24 hours a day, and there were IS snipers everywhere. You just couldn’t breathe,” one survivor of the September 25th strike, Ayat Mohammed Jasem, told a TV crew when she returned to her destroyed home more than a year later.

“I saw my son die, burnt in the rubble in front of me. I’ve lost everyone who was dear to me. My four children, my husband, my mother, my sister, my whole family. Wasn’t the goal to free the civilians? They were supposed to save us, to save our children.”

More than 11,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged during the US-led battle to capture Raqqa from ISIS, analysts from Amnesty found.

‘Time for accountability’

Many of the cases documented for the project likely amount to violations of international humanitarian law and warrant further investigation, says Amnesty. Despite their own best efforts, NGOs like Amnesty and Airwars will never have the resources to investigate the full extent of civilian deaths and injuries in Raqqa.

The organisations are therefore urging US-led Coalition members to take three key steps.

    To put in place an independent, impartial mechanism to effectively and promptly investigate reports of civilian harm, including violations of international humanitarian law, and make the findings public. That Coalition members who carried out the strikes, notably the USA, the UK and France, must be transparent about their tactics, specific means and methods of attack, choice of targets, and precautions taken in the planning and execution of their attacks. And that Coalition members must create a fund to ensure that victims and their families receive full reparation and compensation.

A spokesperson for the Coalition told Airwars that the alliance takes all allegations of civilian harm seriously: “The current number for completed investigations of civilian casualties between June-October 2017 is 180. Of note, there are still open allegations under investigation. Amnesty International provided us with 86 new allegations, 43 of which had already been assessed as credible and previously reported or were deemed not credible because the allegation did not corroborate with our strike records. We requested that Amnesty International provide us with additional information on the remaining 43 allegations if they have it so that we would be able to determine whether we could conduct an investigation.”

The spokesperson added that “We are willing to work with anyone making allegations or providing new, credible information. We continue to be open and transparent about our strikes and civilian casualty reports, which are posted and can be checked online.”

▲ Mr. Maarbalati sells items out of the back of his bicycle for work. Mr. Maarbalati’s wife, Kafa Hassen, died in an airstrike in Harat al-Badu neighborhood of Raqqa during the four month military campaign to oust the Islamic State from the city. (Andrea DiCenzo/Panos)


February 5, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Six month study will examine how effectively journalists reported on recent civilian harm in Iraq and Syria.

Hundreds of journalists will be canvassed for their views on recent conflict casualty reporting by the US media as part of a major new project by Airwars.

The six month study—funded by the Reva and David Logan Foundation in the US, and the J Leon Philanthropy Council in the UK—aims to help assess and improve mainstream media reporting of civilian harm issues. The study is being authored by US reporter Alexa O’Brien.

Provisional research conducted for Airwars indicates that field reporters are still critical when it comes to properly reflecting civilian harm issues. But casualty reporting can sometimes suffer when conducted remotely by journalists back home. The new project is aimed at better understanding the constraints and challenges of modern conflict reporting – and is expected to include practical suggestions for improvement to editors and reporters.

“While our research focus is US reporting on civilian harm in the war against ISIS, Airwars will we hope help lay the groundwork for better assessments and reporting of conflict casualties by media professionals in other military conflicts,” says Alexa O’Brien, Airwars project lead and author of the forthcoming report.

“Airwars not only seeks to better understand the character of US reporting, but also the underlying capabilities and constraints of those who cover conflicts. The project includes a major survey of US reporters, as well as in-depth interviews with media professionals and subject matter experts.”    

Chris Woods, the founder and director of Airwars and himself a journalist of almost 30 years’ experience, says the new study has the potential to improve future conflict reporting: “There’s an imperative to ensure civilian casualties—including from our own actions—are properly reflected amid broader media coverage of modern conflicts,” says Woods. “This new Airwars project will help not only to improve our understanding of why and when civilian harm is (or is not) reported, but also offer practical suggestions for improvements to media professionals.”

The six month study is expected to publish in June 2019. 

    If you’re a journalist who has covered the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq for a US media outlet—whether inside or outside the conflict zone—and you want to participate in the study’s survey, please email

Alexa O’Brien

▲ A young girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 2017 (Image courtesy of Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)


January 10, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Header Image

All Dutch military personnel are now safely home following a final tour of duty in the war against ISIS (Image via Dutch Ministry of Defence)

The Netherlands claims that operational security concerns led it to being the least transparent member of the US-led Coalition against ISIS. That must now change, argues Airwars.

On December 31st 2018, the participation of Netherlands F-16s in the international fight against so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria came to an agreed end, after almost four years of airstrikes.

Despite conducting precision airstrikes, the Coalition has not always been successful in preventing civilian casualties – with the alliance overall admitting at least 1,139 civilian deaths from its actions to date. Yet it is nearly impossible to find out when or even whether Dutch F-16s have been responsible for civilian casualties, making them the least transparent member of the international alliance.

Now that the F-16s and their pilots have safely returned home, Airwars is arguing that it is time for the Netherlands to take proper responsibility, and follow the good practice examples of other Coalition countries in demonstrating genuine public transparency.

Unclear figures

The Coalition conducts its own assessments into civilian harm, for example publishing monthly casualty reports. However their findings differ significantly from those of independent research initiatives such as Airwars. There is for example a sharp contrast between the 1,139 civilian death conceded by the Coalition to date, and the 7,316 or more civilian deaths assessed as likely according to the most conservative estimate of Airwars investigations.

This can partly be explained by the methods used by the Coalition to assess claims of civilian harm. The Coalition estimates the number of civilian casualties primarily based upon aerial observations, while Airwars estimates the numbers based on local reports from the ground. A New York Times investigation also made clear that the Coalition’s civilian casualty monitoring team applies a locational assessment radius of just 50m and often does not record the locations of delivered munitions. Claims of civilian harm are therefore  dismissed too easily.

Even so, the US-dominated civilian casualty cell based within the Coalition has striven to identify civilian harm where it can – and to make public those findings. The same cannot be said of Dutch officials at the national level.

The Netherlands Ministry of Defence claims to be transparent because all allegations of civilian harm are referred to the Public Prosecution Service for assessment, even though these investigations are conducted behind closed doors. While the Defence Ministry admits responsibility for killing or injuring civilians in up to three airstrikes in Iraq investigated by the Public Prosecution Service,  it continues to refuse to identify the dates and locations of these same events, or even the number of civilians harmed, citing operational security reasons.

The reluctance of the Netherlands to publish strike details of the assessed incidents sits at odds with greater civilian harm transparency from all other Coalition allies – and with recent broader improvements in levels of Dutch public accountability. Since the renewal of the air campaign in January 2018, the Netherlands has started including the location of the nearest large settlement to a strike in its weekly updates, making it easier for Dutch actions to be cross referenced against public claims over a time period.

However, officials are still refusing to make this same information public for historical Dutch actions between 2014-2016 – including those incidents investigated by the Public Prosecution Service.

The Ministry of Defence had long denied during the war against ISIS that its F-16s were causing civilian harm. That’s what makes it so important for the Ministry of Defence to provide information that enables external scrutiny.

Public transparency by other Coalition allies

The refusal of the Netherlands to disclose the dates and locations of the three events in which its aircraft are known to have harmed civilians runs counter to the public transparency evidenced by many other Coalition allies in recent years. The Netherlands was the fourth country (in addition to the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom) that publicly admitted to having caused civilian harm as a result of their actions against ISIS.

However, all three other countries have explicitly identified incidents in which their aircraft were involved – with no discernible impact of this disclosure either on operational or national security. In addition, there was no attempt by domestic media or others in those countries to single out pilots for blame. Over the duration of the war against ISIS, specific civilian harm allegations have been investigated and publicly commented upon by the United Kingdom; France; Belgium; Denmark; Canada; the United States; and Jordan. In each case, these close allies felt able to engage publicly on civilian harm issues without apparent fear of operational or national security blowback. The Netherlands should follow these examples of good practice, Airwars believes.

Public transparency on civilian harm issues is important for several reasons. First, Dutch citizens have a right to know what kind of war is fought in their name and at what cost. Second, the government is obstructing the natural process of justice for Iraqis and Syrians affected by Dutch airstrikes. According to the Coalition, each member of the alliance remains individually responsible for the civilians it kills or injures – and this includes making any compensation or solatia payments. Presently, the Defence Ministry chooses to withhold crucial information on the location and dates of four investigated strikes – where civilian harm appears likely in most events. This makes it impossible for the relatives of those Iraqis who fell victim to bombardments by the Netherlands to know in which events Dutch aircraft have been implicated.

Back in 2015, the UN’s Human Rights Council emphasized that all states conducting strikes in Iraq and Syria “are under an obligation to conduct prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiries in any case where there is a plausible indication that civilian casualties have been sustained” and crucially, “to make public the results.” Let 2019 be the year that the Netherlands takes proper public responsibility for its military actions.

    Maike Awater is Airwars’ Utrecht-based advocacy and research officer. The original Dutch-language version of this article was published by NRC on January 9th 2019.
▲ All Dutch military personnel are now safely home following a final tour of duty in the war against ISIS (Image via Dutch Ministry of Defence)


September 24, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof

A major new Airwars report submitted to the British Parliament is challenging UK claims to have harmed no civilians during the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, despite almost 1,000 targets having been struck by the RAF. The UK’s involvement represented one of its biggest military actions since the Korean War in the 1950s.

The 43 page report, Credibility Gap – United Kingdom civilian harm assessments for the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, was submitted by Airwars in response to an inquiry by the UK Parliament’s Defence Select Committee – which has also published a shorter version of the report. As well as taking oral evidence from senior British military commanders, the Committee has received written submissions from the Ministry of Defence and NGOs including Amnesty International, Save the Children and Article 36.

Front page of the Airwars report

Airwars is blunt in its own submission. While welcoming overall UK transparency, it challenges the MoD’s narrative of an antiseptic airwar in Iraq in Syria: “It is the view of Airwars that the Ministry of Defence’s claim of zero civilian harm from its actions at Mosul and Raqqa represents a statistical impossibility given the intensity of fighting, the extensive use of explosive weapons, and the significant civilian populations known to have been trapped in both cities,” the report notes.

In both battles Airwars has in total identified 413 alleged civilian harm events where British involvement is in theory possible based on public reporting of strikes: 176 of these were in Raqqa and 237 in Mosul. For the majority of these cases the UK’s position is still unestablished. Some 40 events have however been directly referred to the Ministry of Defence for assessment. In 39 of these cases the MoD rejected any involvement, while one case remains open.

Monthly breakdown of potential UK tagged alleged fatalities in the Battles of Raqqa and Mosul

Looking at the bigger picture, the Coalition has conceded civilian harm in 36 out of the 413 known alleged events for the battles of Mosul and Raqqa. While the US was responsible for around two thirds of Coalition strikes in Mosul, and an estimated 95 per cent of strikes in Raqqa,  as the second most active belligerent, UK involvement in civilian harm events is feasible.

The high number of reported civilian casualties is not the only reason the UK’s claim of zero urban harm is implausible. The battles of Raqqa and Mosul made clear that the benefits of precision weaponry are greatly overstated when it comes to urban warfare. As the report notes: “The greater the intensity of explosive weapons use – predominantly in urban areas – the higher the civilian toll.”

Read our new report, Credibility Gap, in full

During the campaigns, much of the Old City of Mosul and almost 70% of Raqqa’s entirety were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, according to the United Nations. Much of the damage was caused by Coalition actions with at least 50,000 munitions fired, along with significant destruction that came from ISIS actions and either government forces or proxies. All parties combined reportedly killed at least 9,000 civilians in Mosul and 2,400 or more in Raqqa, according to current best estimates.

For the UK, the 500lb Paveway IV bomb has generally been the weapon of choice, accounting for two out of three weapons released during military operations in Iraq and Syria. The Paveway IV, a wide area effect munition with a large explosion radius, is poorly suited to urban warfare according to Airwars. As the report states, its use “would over the course of hundreds of strikes, have caused potentially significant additional unintended harm to civilians and infrastructure when released on dense urban areas.”

In combination with the intensity of bombardment – the Coalition released an average of 3,200 munitions per month in Mosul between October 2016 and July 2017, for example – there are many other reasons to doubt UK claims that civilians were not harmed by its actions. ISIS deliberately placed civilians in areas where air-dropped munition might harm them. Nonetheless, “a key finding of Airwars is that the Coalition did not significantly modulate its use of explosive weapons once operations focused on Raqqa,” where an average of 4,000 munitions per month was dropped on a much smaller area.

Choropleth of Airwars estimated maximum number of fatalities in Fair and Confirmed graded incidents during the Battle of Mosul (excluding incidents for which coordinates are missing or geo-accuracy is at city- or town-level).

‘A fool’s errand’

British claims to have harmed no civilians during the battles for Mosul and Raqqa stand in direct contrast to the views of the most senior UK commander in the Coalition, who helped devise the strategy to capture both cities from ISIS.

“War is brutal, and if you want to fight in cities, everything is more extreme,” Major General Rupert Jones, who served as deputy commander of the Coalition, told the Defence Select Committee inquiry in May 2018.

“Everything is heightened in a city – the number of troops you need, the amount of munitions you drop, and the amount of suffering… The idea that you can liberate a city like Mosul or Raqqa without – tragically – civilian casualties is a fool’s errand,” concluded Jones.

Despite such statements, and similar ones by other officials, “British defense officials, at least while still serving, have often appeared unable or unwilling to take the logical step of concluding that Britain, as the most active Coalition member after the United States, would have a proportionally significant share of such casualties.” It took the UK 44 months to acknowledge any civilian harm during its mission in Iraq and Syria, raising doubt about its willingness to concede such events.

The Airwars report also puts the process of examining cases and quality of assessment under scrutiny, as the UK mostly relies on the Coalition’s own civilian harm cell. Most commonly, the Coalition relies on what is observable during events, meaning what can be seen from footage taken from above.

This process is problematic, since most civilian harm in urban fighting occurs in unobservable spaces. Families and individuals were killed in significant numbers in both Mosul and Raqqa when buildings collapsed on top of them – an outcome which military surveillance rarely captures. Airwars also found that a significant proportion of UK strikes targeted buildings. According to MoD reports released at the time, during the Battle for Raqqa 63% of UK strikes targeted buildings, while 31% of strikes hit such structures during the Battle for East Mosul.

Map showing how Credible civilian harm incidents in the Battle of Raqqa (for which Airwars has received Military Grid Reference Coordinates to an accuracy of 1 m or 100 m) are located in High Density Urban areas.

Recommendations for improvement

As a result of concerns about the implausibility of UK claims of no civilian harm during the battles of Mosul and Raqqa – and the MoD’s internal review process – Airwars makes several key recommendations to help improve British monitoring and reporting of civilian harm:

    That the Ministry of Defence establishes a dedicated civilian harm assessment cell for future conflicts, to which personnel with key skills are assigned. That the MoD enhances its assessment and investigative capacities in order to properly evaluate allegations of civilian harm. Where possible this should include a proper review of local claims and external field studies; communication with victims and witnesses; and on site investigations. In light of most local, credibly reported civilian harm at Mosul and Raqqa occurring within unobservable spaces, that the MoD reviews whether it is over-reliant upon ISR when determining non combatant harm; and assesses whether the statistical modelling used in its own Collateral Damage Estimates for urban actions might undercount civilian casualties. The extensive use of larger explosive weapons at Mosul and Raqqa contributed to civilian harm, despite advances in precision guidance. Airwars calls on the MoD to review its present munitions suite in relation to urban warfare. That the MoD provides, as a matter of course, compensation or solatia payments for those affected by UK military actions in which civilian harm is conceded. That the MoD provides as much locational detail as possible in its public strike logs. This will assist external agencies in evaluating potential harm from British strikes – while preventing the UK from being unnecessarily implicated in events. Following due consideration of the above concerns, that the MoD undertakes a full and proper assessment of more than 400 civilian harm allegations during the battles of Mosul and Raqqa in which UK forces might have been involved.

As the Airwars report notes, despite significant improvements in overall civilian harm assessment – especially at a Coalition level – there is still much room for improvement by the UK in how it deals with the consequences of its military actions.

As the Airwars report concludes, “for affected local civilians in Iraq and Syria, accountability is the issue.” After many years of war, belligerents taking proper responsibility for their actions could offer some relief for Iraqi and Syrian families. Without such accountability, there is a risk that these communities might once again believe themselves abandoned – and become a future target for extremism.

    The Airwars report was authored by inhouse investigator Samuel Oakford with key assistance from other team members including Eirini Christodoulaki, Sophie Dyer, Salim Habib, Kinda Haddad, Shihab Halep, Alex Hopkins. Koen Kluessien, Santiago Ruiz, Hanna Rullmann, Eeva Sarlin, Abdulwahab Tahhan and Elin Espmark Wibe.
▲ Raqqa during the battle in January 2018 (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)


August 8, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof

The fourth anniversary of the international war against so-called Islamic State sees the terror group nearly ousted as a territorial entity from both Iraq and Syria, according to US-led Coalition forces and local monitors. The removal of the group has helped lead to significant recovery in some areas, particularly in Iraq. However the cost for civilians of ISIS’s defeat has also been high.

The conflict – which has drawn 14 international powers into a major fighting alliance since August 8th 2014 – has seen almost 30,000 Coalition air and artillery strikes and more than 108,000 munitions dropped from the air on ISIS forces. Those combat partners known to be still active are the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands.

International airpower has played a huge role in defeating ISIS. The first US airstrike took place near Erbil in Iraq, on August 8th 2014. Exactly 1,462 days of war later, and Washington’s intervention has now lasted longer than the American Civil War, and the US’s participation in both the First and Second World Wars.

The present best estimate by Airwars is that between 6,500 and 10,000 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition actions in four years of fighting – with the alliance itself presently conceding more than 1,000 non-combatants deaths from its air and artillery strikes.

The last public costings for the war, published 13 months ago, declared that the US had already spent $14bn in its fight against ISIS. More than 70,000 ISIS fighters have been alleged killed by the US-led campaign according to anonymous officials – though recently the Coalition has been more tight lipped in estimating the number of enemy fighters killed.

At its height, ISIS had held much of northern and central Iraq, and swathes of Syria. Yet today, only a hard core of about 1,500 ISIS fighters is thought to remain around Hajin in the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian-Iraqi border, among them senior figures possibly including leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Other fighters have been driven into more remote desert areas on both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border.

In Iraq itself ISIS is now defeated as a territorial entity – with only a limited number of Coalition airstrikes since the capture of Mosul in July 2017. However there are troubling signs of an emerging insurgency, with police and army units recently targeted.

“The coalition of 77 nations and international organizations remains committed to achieving the lasting defeat of #ISIS and its pervasive and negative ideology” – GEN Votel @CJTFOIR #Syria #Iraq

— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) July 21, 2018

The civilian toll

While ISIS has paid a high price in the war, civilians in Iraq and Syria have also suffered. The terror group murdered many thousands – for example committing acts of genocide against the Yazidis of Northern Iraq – and also held captive the populations of major urban areas including Mosul, Ramallah, and Raqqa. Many cities and towns in Iraq and Syria have been almost entirely destroyed in the fighting, with millions forced to flee.

The war has routinely been dubbed “the most precise war in history” by the Coalition due to its heavy use of GPS- and laser-guided bombs and missiles: munitions that were meant to save civilian lives despite the heavy fighting. It took the Coalition nine months and over 4,000 munitions dropped to admit civilian harm for the first time, in May 2015. By July 2018  when the Coalition published its latest civilian casualty report, the alliance had conceded at least 1,059 deaths from its actions.

Yet according to Airwars estimates, a minimum of between 6,500 and 10,000 civilians have likely lost their lives in Coalition bombings since 2014. Overall, more than 26,000 civilian fatalities have been alleged locally from Coalition actions, in more than 2,650 alleged events. Thousands more civilians have died as a result of anti-ISIS actions by Iraqi and Syrian government forces; and in interventions by Russia, Iran and Turkey against the terror group.

A war of parts

The beginnings of Operation Inherent Resolve, as it quickly became known, saw relatively low numbers of reported civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. These early stages of the war were mainly defensive – ensuring that ISIS did not expand its territory further. The Coalition also needed to buy time to help train up local armies and proxy forces.

Between August and December 2014, a minimum of 148 civilians were likely killed in Coalition airstrikes according to Airwars monitoring of local sources. That number rose to at least 692 likely civilian deaths killed in 2015. Despite shattering the military narrative of zero civilian harm, these relatively low numbers indicated that significant caution was being taken to reduce harm to civilians, given the intense nature of the conflict.

In 2016, the war against ISIS shifted to offensive mode – while front lines increasingly shifted to more densely populated areas. Between 1,261 and 1,923 civilians were reported killed that year according to Airwars – an 82% increase on 2015. Civilian casualties were significantly up in Iraq for example, with the Anbar offensive in May and June, as well as the beginning of the Battle for Mosul in late 2016.

The tough fights for Raqqa and Mosul – the respective strongholds of ISIS in Syria and Iraq – also marked the beginning of the deadliest period for civilians. In 2017 the number of likely civilian casualties spiked significantly, to at least 4,008 to 6,269 killed. This can be explained by intensified warfare – with the Battle for Mosul taking longer than that for Stalingrad in the Second World War, for example – and less caution appearing to be taken to preserve civilian life.

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The Trump Effect

Prior to his election, Donald Trump had lambasted Barack Obama for what he viewed as an overcautious approach to the war. Once in office, President Trump boasted that he had changed US rules of engagement to make it easier to bomb ISIS – while his officials began publicly referring to a War of Annihilation.

The intensification of fighting under Trump led to significant civilian harm and levels of destruction in urban areas, comparable at times to the Second World War. What is less clear is whether similar levels of destruction would have occurred anyway under a Hillary Clinton presidency, given the war’s focus on urban areas in 2017.

Even today Raqqa is considered “unfit for human habitation” by the UN, having been 70% destroyed. West Mosul experienced similar devastation with 80% of the Old City now in ruins. Reportedly more civilians than combatants lost their lives during the Battle for Mosul because of Iraqi, Coalition and ISIS actions. To this day, bodies are still being pulled from the rubble, while in Raqqa recovery teams are even now still discovering mass graves.

So intense were US-led military actions in 2017 that Coalition-linked civilian casualties far outnumbering those attributed to Russia over the year. Two of the worst military failures of the war happened during this period due to American actions. On March 17th 2017 in the Jadida neighbourhood of Mosul, between 105 and 141 civilians were confirmed killed in an American airstrike on a house. The event is the biggest confirmed incident of civilian casualties in the entire war so far.

Just days later at Al Mansoura near Raqqa, a former school was hit by an American airstrike, killing between 40 and 150 internally displaced people who were seeking refuge in the building. Faulty intelligence for the strike reportedly came in part from Germany, which helps provide reconnaissance for the alliance.

.@CJTFOIR dismissed @amnesty's report re civilians killed by #USA-led Coalition's bombardments in #Raqqa ; said we are naive & misinformed, but now admits responsibility for the cases we reported. But there are many more victims. Coalition must come clean

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) August 7, 2018

Airwars impact

Founded in 2014 as a voluntary project to track Coalition airstrikes and civilian harm, Airwars has grown to become the primary monitor of civilian harm from international military actions in both Iraq and Syria. A significant part of its work is now focused on engaging with militaries to help them better understand civilian harm on the modern battlefield, in an effort to reduce casualties and seek accountability.

The Coalition itself has also evolved, having assessed more than 2,000 alleged civilian harm events in recent years, and so far admitting to more than 240 incidents. Even so, only 9% of alleged civilian casualty cases tracked by Airwars have so far been confirmed. Only the US, the UK, Australia and the Netherlands have individually admitted civilian harm from their actions to date – while all ten other belligerents (France, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE and Bahrain) still claim that their bombings are flawless, just as Russia asserts in Syria.

While 27 out of the 245 cases confirmed by the Coalition to July 2018 were referrals by Airwars, the US-led alliance mostly relies on self-reporting – with 112 incidents coming from their own reports. Media field investigations such as those by Buzzfeed and the New York Times have led to at least 19 events being conceded. Recently, investigations from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have led to a rise in NGO reports leading to civilian harm admissions.

Sources of reporting for Coalition-declared Credible incidents Incidents Proportion of incidents
Self-report 112 46%
Airwars 27 11%
Social media 11 4%
Other 1 0%
Web report 1 0%
Media 19 8%
NGO report 7 3%
Unknown 67 27%
All sources 245 100%

So why is there still such a large disparity between local, on the ground reports of civilian harm and the Coalition’s own admissions? In the absence of any ground investigations by the Coalition – and a bias towards self-reported events – military assessments remain heavily reliant on what is observable from the air when determining civilian harm below. Yet as the recently retired RAF Air Marshall Greg Bagwell said when challenging official UK claims at the time to have caused no civilian harm, “you can’t see through rubble”.

There is also a political dimension. Much of the initial impetus to improve US civilian harm reporting in the war against ISIS came as a result of President Obama’s 2016 executive order which in part sought to mitigate civilian harm on the battlefield. That order remains in effect under President Trump. Other nations such as France, Jordan and Turkey have shown no public interest in tackling the issue of civilian casualty mitigation on the modern battlefield.

“Over the course of four years of war against so-called Islamic State, Airwars has seen significant improvements in the US-led Coalition’s assessment of civilian harm claims,” says Airwars director Chris Woods. “Even so a major gulf remains between public and military estimates of civilian harm – with most individual Coalition allies still claiming that their strikes have only killed ISIS fighters. The reality for ordinary Iraqis and Syrians has been very different – with many thousands killed and injured in the battles to free them from ISIS. Proper public transparency and accountability from the Coalition allies is a vital step in helping heal the wounds of this brutal conflict.”


July 5, 2018

Written by

Airwars Staff

Despite concerns raised by MPs, the Netherlands Defence Minister confirmed during a recent parliamentary debate that the government still has no plans to disclose where or when in Iraq or Syria its airstrikes might have harmed civilians.

While the renewed Dutch air campaign against so-called Islamic State has seen improved transparency, all requests for information on the mission have so far been refused. On April 18th 2018, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands turned down a Freedom of Information request from RTL News for Internal Memoranda, which contained the locations and dates of Dutch strikes in Iraq. According to the Court, publishing this information could present a “danger to the security of the state” and might, in an ongoing mission, “harm the relations with other states and international organizations”.

This refusal to publish information on Dutch airstrikes was reiterated by Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld during a June 27th debate in the Netherlands Parliament. Political interest has grown in civilian harm issues after The Netherlands officially conceded for the first time in April that its aircraft had caused civilian casualties in up to three incidents in Iraq. 

The Defence Ministry has however refused to say where or when these events took place – or how many civilians were harmed. On June 27th, the issue was discussed in a general debate on current Dutch military missions. Despite the efforts of several MPs to push for more details of civilian harm events, the Ministry of Defence stuck to its initial decision not to disclose further information.

21 written questions on civilian harm

Prior to the debate, elected representatives posed 72 written questions on the general progress the Dutch anti-ISIS mission has made over the past year. Of these, 21 were questions specifically focused on civilian harm issues, and the lack of public transparency and accountability for Dutch strikes. Some of those questions drew on a recent parliamentary briefing provided by Airwars to MPs. 

Specifically, MPs requested that Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld make available more information about investigated incidents in which civilian casualties may have occurred, so that “independent investigation is possible”. One question specifically asked whether or not the Defence Ministry could rule out responsibility for a major civilian harm incident at Hawija in 2015 – a civilian casualty event which has already attracted private speculation among Dutch journalists as to whether Netherlands aircraft might have been responsible.

Although the Cabinet has stated that it “attaches importance to communicating as openly as possible,” it was it said not prepared to respond to requests for more information on any of the four cases assessed by the Public Prosecution Service, citing national and operational security.

Prepared for this often-repeated argument, MPs requested further explanations as to how more transparency about civilian casualties in Dutch operations might endanger Dutch troops or civilians domestically, as the government has claimed. Without going into further detail, the Defence Minister responded that the guiding principle of releasing information would always be “the safety of the individual pilot and the unit, but also the safety of their home front and of Dutch society and the Coalition as a whole.”

Following up on this lack of transparency – the worst among all 14 Coalition allies – Socialist Party MP Sadet Karabulut noted during the debate that “if that were the case, the United Kingdom and Australia would also not publish the locations. This information is made public because it is also in the interest of our military.” The Minister in turn answered that “Each country of the Coalition makes its own decisions.”

“That’s just how we do it”

Salima Belhaj, MP for the social-liberal D66 which is a part of the governing coalition, reminded the minister of her own party’s successful cross-party motion which calls for more detailed reporting on Dutch weapon deployments. “Wouldn’t you find it interesting if the Cabinet would publish the locations and dates?” she asked the Minister. Karabulut added that her party wholeheartedly supported this request for more transparency, stating that “SP and D66 have throughout the years always jointly pushed for this.” 

“We cannot report more than we do at the moment”, Minister Bijleveld responded. “You stated that our weekly updates on Wednesday are a step in the right direction. They are. But we will not do more than that because in the end the safety of the state always stands at first place.”

Karabulut in turn stressed that there is in fact a direct strategic incentive for the disclosure of airstrike data. “Because specific information on three incidents is not made public, the Netherlands can possibly be connected to hundreds of possible civilian casualty incidents.”

When Karabulut asked if the Minister did not want to rule out possible responsibility for these incidents, she replied that the Public Prosecution Service had concluded that there was no question of criminal offences in the four assessed Dutch strikes. “Because that is what it really is about”, she stated. “That is the method we use in the Netherlands and it is different from other countries, but that’s just how we do it”.

However, according to Airwars director Chris Woods, such a narrow legalistic approach to civilian harm is insufficient: “With most reported battlefield casualties in the Coalition’s war against ISIS likely occurring within the framework of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), we urge the Defence Ministry to tackle the broader issue of mitigating civilian harm from all actions. That means properly understanding where and when casualties occur – including those strikes which do not breach IHL.”

▲ Library image: Dutch F-16 takes off (via Netherlands Defence Ministry).


June 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition against so-called Islamic State has quietly admitted to killing at least 40 civilians in a March 2017 strike near Raqqa, finally acknowledging what a UN inquiry and human rights groups have long said was among the bloodiest incidents of the four year bombing campaign.

The overnight raid on March 20th-21st 2017 targeted a school sheltering displaced civilians in the town of al Mansoura. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) field investigation published in September 2017 said that ISIS members and their families were also present in the building, though were separate from large numbers of displaced people who had sought safety inside.

After interviewing locals, HRW researchers were able to name 40 civilians who died in the raid, a number it stressed was a minimum, and doubtless far below the true toll. Others have placed the civilian toll that night at 150 or more deaths. 

The Coalition directly cited Human Rights Watch in its admission, included in a monthly civilian casualty review released June 28th. The report stated that the incident was “reopened after the receipt of new evidence from Human Rights Watch.” The Coalition then determined that “During a strike on Daesh militant multifunctional center allegedly caused civilian casualties. Forty civilians were unintentionally killed.”

The admitted number of 40 fatalities appeared to be based on the Human Rights Watch findings, though it was unclear what additional steps the Coalition had taken which had led them to reverse repeated denials issued over the previous 16 months. The al Mansoura raid now represents the second largest death toll admitted to by the Coalition, after an attack days earlier in March 2017 in Mosul which killed over 100 civilians. 

“The updated assessment of the Mansoura allegation was based largely on a video report from Human Rights Watch,” a senior Coalition official told Airwars. “HRW visited the site and interviewed individuals present during the strike and after. Their accounts included specific details regarding the strike more likely to be known by somebody who had been present. Compelling, detailed, and accurate firsthand accounts tend to weigh heavily in favor of a finding of ‘credible.'”

“It’s positive that they are acknowledging this now, but it’s an incomplete step,” said HRW’s Nadim Houry. “We are not getting more clarity about how they are doing these investigations.”

Human Rights Watch investigation into al Mansoura

UN Commission: 150 civilians killed in attack

From the start, the Coalition had strongly pushed back against reports of civilian harm at the Al Badiya school building. A week after the attack – and before any official assessment or investigation had concluded – the then Coalition commander Lt. Gen Stephen J. Townsend told reporters there was no reason to believe civilians had perished.

“We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school,” Townsend said on March 28th, 2017. “And we observed it. And we saw what we expected to see. We struck it.”

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there… it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend explained to reporters. “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that. In fact, everything we’ve seen since then suggests that it was the 30 or so ISIS fighters we expected to be there.”

Townsend would later take aim at Airwars, claiming that reports of civilian casualties due to Coalition strikes were “vastly inflated.” The al Mansoura allegation, like a growing number related to the assault on Raqqa, was later officially determined to be ‘non-credible’ by the Coalition’s civilian casualty investigative unit.

In March 2018, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria released  its own findings concerning the incident, stating that 150 civilians were in fact killed in the attack. Unlike Human Rights Watch, the Commission was unable to visit the site (it is banned from the country by the Assad government), but instead conducted a number of remote interviews from outside Syria. The Commission reported that Coalition personnel should have been aware of the large internally displaced person (IDP) presence at the site.

An Airwars survey of local reporting in the lead up to the attack – provided shortly afterwards to the Coalition – had also turned up several reports indicating a significant IDP presence in the vicinity of al Mansoura. After the Commission released its findings, the Coalition for the first time showed a willingness to re-open the case, telling Airwars it would do so “if credible or compelling additional information can be obtained.”

The al Mansoura strike proved further controversial due to the discovery of the involvement of German reconnaissance aircraft. A number of Coalition members, while not carrying out strikes on their own, nevertheless provide intelligence and logistical capabilities to assist  bombings by other nations. Whatever pre-strike surveillance the Coalition conducted at al Mansoura proved insufficient to protect civilians at the site, the alliance’s admission of 40 deaths now shows.

“It is not enough to just say we killed some civilians. No one is saying it was intentional, but that is not the point of conducting the investigation,” said HRW’s Nadim Houry. “Where did things go wrong? What steps have they taken to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future?”

Casualty reports for the al Mansoura event monitored by Airwars varied widely, from several dozen deaths to claims of as many as 400 people killed. Nadim Houry says that 40 fatalities, including 16 children, was HRW’s baseline after visiting the site twice. “40 are the ones that we were actually able to identify, but the actual number is much higher,” he said.

Human Rights Watch also investigated a nearby incident that occurred less than 48 hours later, when at least 44 civilians including 14 children were allegedly killed after bombs hit a market in Tabqa, west of Raqqa city. That March 22nd 2017 incident remains unconfirmed by the Coalition.

Concerns at Raqqa

In a further concession to international NGOs, the Coalition also acknowledges in its latest report the findings of a recent Amnesty International field investigation into civilian harm at Raqqa.

The Amnesty field study, War of Annihilation, looked at four families devastated by the recent fighting for Raqqa. “Between them, they lost 90 relatives and neighbours – 39 from a single family – almost all of them killed by Coalition air strikes,” Amnesty reported.

The Coalition initially greeted the report with hostility. However, it has now opened assessments into five cases based on Amnesty’s findings, while rejecting a sixth. “The Coalition takes these and all allegations seriously, and this month’s civilian casualty report reflects the current status of six cases pertaining to Amnesty’s recent report,” the US-led alliance now notes.

Despite @amnesty’s allegations on @CJTFOIR conduct, they never discussed the article w/us & didn’t thoroughly research things we said. They failed to check the public record & get facts straight. We are open to criticism, but they didn’t make the effort to understand what we do

— OIR Spokesperson (@OIRSpox) June 5, 2018

The Coalition’s initial response to Amnesty’s field study was hostile

The fight to capture Raqqa from ISIS did not officially begin until June 6th 2017. Overall, more than 2,000 non combatants were credibly reported killed by all parties to that battle – with mass graves still being discovered. 

Airwars estimates that at least 1,400 civilians perished in Coalition air and artillery strikes before the city’s capture in mid-October. More than 21,000 munitions were fired on Raqqa in just five months – many times more than were released across all of Afghanistan by international forces for all of 2017. 

Despite this ferocious assault, the Coalition has admitted to very few deaths in Raqqa – even as its civilian casualty unit churns through and discards allegations. Only 26 fatalities have so far been conceded.

In the same monthly report that saw the al Mansoura strike acknowledged, the Coalition classed more than 120 civilian harm allegations relating to the battle of Raqqa as ‘non-credible.’ In the last two months alone, the Coalition has evaluated almost 200 civilian harm events from the battle and rated them all in this way.

Overall, the Coalition has only admitted to 4% of more than 450 locally reported civilian casualty events for the battle of Raqqa. Airwars instead rates more than 70 per cent of those cases as Fair – that is, with two or more credible local reports, and Coalition strikes confirmed in the near vicinity. 

“Since March 2018, the Coalition has not assessed a single incident of civilian harm in the Battle of Raqqa as Credible. In other words, they have dismissed all the reports we and others have submitted to them, the majority of which we had significant confidence in,” said Sophie Dyer of the Airwars advocacy team. “This disparity between the local reports we have gathered, and the Coalition’s own assessments – which are heavily reliant on post strike video analysis and observable harm – is greatly troubling.”

Asked why so few casualty claims for Raqqa are being assessed as Credible, a senior Coalition official provided Airwars with the following statement: “A number of factors go into the assessment of an allegation: the quality of the information and detail provided in the allegation, the nature of the strike and the evidence available, for example. Each allegation is assessed with fresh eyes based on the available evidence without regard to previous assessments and without any credibility percentages in mind.

“If any allegation or any grouping of allegations is assessed as ‘non-credible,’ it is because each individual allegation either didn’t correlate to any Coalition strikes, didn’t contain sufficient information to make an assessment, or that an assessment based on all reasonably available information did not corroborate the allegation.”


June 5, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition appears to have committed violations of international law during the battle for Raqqa, Amnesty International says, after an extensive investigation outlining several incidents in which the Coalition used disproportionate firepower – despite what it says should have been knowledge of the presence of civilians in the city.

“The cases provide prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law,” said Amnesty in its report – published on the first anniversary of the US-dominated assault on Raqqa.

The heavily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began their operations in the city on June 6th 2017, backed by substantial US-led strikes (95% of Coalition airstrikes and 100% of artillery actions during the battle for Raqqa were American). Five months later in mid-October, the city was retaken from so-called Islamic State. 

Estimates of the death toll in Raqqa vary, but local monitors credibly report that at least 2,000 civilians perished at the hands of all belligerents. Airwars researchers put the number likely killed by the Coalition at at least 1,400. But until now there had not been extensive ground investigation into the toll of strikes in the dense urban environment. That includes any efforts by the Coalition itself – which has discarded the great majority of civilian casualty allegations under review for Raqqa by its own investigators – all apparently without speaking to witnesses and victims. To date, the Coalition has admitted to just 26* civilian deaths during the fight for the city.

What I found in #Raqqa , in northern #Syria : Unimaginable destruction of lives, homes and livelihoods. Entire families killed when #USA -led Coalition bombed houses full of civilians. Demand investigations now. Victims deserve justice and reparation.

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) June 5, 2018

“It’s not hard to find airstrike sites to visit in Raqqa,” said Benjamin Walsby, one of the Amnesty researchers who traveled to the city. “There’s one on virtually ever street, and often more than one. We analyzed the scene of 42 strikes, and spoke to witnesses, survivors and relatives of the dead. The Coalition has not done the same.”

“The Coalition maintains a transparent process and has demonstrated its willingness to open new cases and even reopen old cases in light of new or compelling evidence,” a spokesperson for the alliance told Airwars. “We have not been approached by Amnesty but are willing to work with them.”

According to the United Nations, as much as 80 percent of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by fighting, and the local reconstruction committee recently told Airwars that most damage was caused by airstrikes. Adding to the suffering, hundreds of civilians – by some local accounts more than 1,000 – have been killed by ISIS mines and other explosive remnants since the end of fighting. 

Amnesty researchers spent two weeks in Raqqa during February 2018, visiting the 42 sites and interviewing a total of 112 survivors and witnesses. Amnesty has highlighted the cases of four families who lost dozens of members, illustrating the terrible ordeal Raqqawis faced as a result of ISIS’s criminal behavior – and the disproportionate and at times seemingly indiscriminate nature of Coalition strikes meant to vanquish the militants.

In each case, “Coalition forces launched air strikes on buildings full of civilians using precision munitions with a wide-area effect, which could be expected to destroy them entirely,” wrote investigators. “The civilians killed and injured in the attacks, many of whom were women and children, had been staying in buildings for long periods prior to the strikes. Coalition forces would have been aware of their presence had they conducted rigorous surveillance prior to the strikes.”

“Witnesses reported that there were no fighters in the vicinity at the time of the attacks,” said Amnesty. “Such attacks could be either direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks.

‘Shocking destruction’

The Coalition was well aware of the strategies ISIS would employ in Raqqa to purposefully endanger civilians, Amnesty investigators contend – including fighting in residential areas, and the use of non-combatants as human shields. The Coalition however did not modulate operations, instead escalating munition use and even turning down out of hand UN calls for a humanitarian pause. 

“The scale of destruction and loss of civilian lives I found in Raqqa is shocking,” Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser, told Airwars. “It is imperative that the Coalition stop being in denial and carry out proper investigations to establish why so many civilians were killed as a result of its strikes, and that it make available information that is crucial to this endeavour. There is no security rationale for not doing so.”

The first Amnesty case involved the Aswad family. Eight members were, it says, killed in a Coalition strike on June 28th that hit a building owned by four brothers in the family – Jamal, Ammar, Mohammed and Khaled. In the days prior to the attack, neighbors had joined the family in the building’s cellar, attempting to shield themselves from fighting above ground between ISIS and the SDF. Amnesty found that while “IS fighters were in the area at the time” they were “not in the immediate vicinity of the Aswad building.”

Witnesses said that because the building hadn’t yet been finished, people would move across the road to the family’s existing home to “cook and use the toilet.” 

“We were sure that the warplanes would have photographed our street and would know our movements, as we went to and fro between the building and the old house across the street, and would have known that we were civilians, families with children,” Mohammed later told Amnesty. Nevertheless, on June 28th, the building was hit, pancaking upper floors and destroying the structure.

“Fragment of the motor of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile recovered among the ruins of the Aswad family building, destroyed in a Coalition strike which killed eight civilians on 28 June 2017.” via Amnesty report.

Mohammed survived. But his brother Jamal died, along with a neighbour named Mohammed Othman, his wife Fatima and five of their children, aged 8-17. Another brother, Ammar, later also died – reportedly due to a land mine planted by ISIS.

Amnesty investigators visited the site and found remnants of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and a US-designed Joint Direct Attack Munition. Both the United States and the UK declared strikes in Raqqa on June 28th.

‘War of Annihilation’

The Hashish family meanwhile lost eight members from an IED explosion at Raqqa, before losing nine more people in a July airstrike. The remaining family members had been staying in a smaller home with five rooms. One morning the area experienced shelling, forcing the family to take shelter. “The strike occurred straight after we re-entered the house,” said Munira, a survivor. “My brothers Hussein and Mohammed and their kids and the neighbors were all killed.” Munira was also injured, along with her children. “My seven-year-old son, Ahmad, was the worst; he suffered severe wounds to his abdomen.”

Munira also described ISIS’s patterns of movement in the city, which put residents in danger. “It was impossible to know which house IS would be in from day-to-day as they used to move around. We heard that they had made openings in the walls of people’s houses so they could move without being seen on the street. Any house was their house if they so wished.”

But she said it was unclear why the house her family was in was targeted. “They [ISIS] did not come to our house; it was an Arabic house [one story], not a tall building, so it wasn’t useful for them.”

Unlike operations in Mosul, which took place over the course of two US administrations, the battle for Raqqa was overseen wholly by the Trump White House and US Defense Secretary James Mattis. Just over a week before fighting reached inside Raqqa, Mattis remarked that the fighting against ISIS was now a “war of annihilation.” By the summer of 2017 – after just six months of the Trump administration – likely Coalition civilian casualties monitored by Airwars had doubled. In Raqqa, the gloves were off, including for US Marine Corps artillery units which fired thousands – or possibly tens of thousands – of rounds into the city.

The worst case documented by Amnesty – almost unfathomably distressing – was that of the Badran family, which lost 39 members alongside 10 neighbours in a number of airstrikes during  the Raqqa assault.

“Members of the Badran family killed in three separate Coalition air strike on 18 July and 20 August 2017 in Raqqa”. via Amnesty report.

First, five family members were killed on July 18th in a reported airstrike on a house in Nazlet al-Shehade – an area to which ISIS had forced that family to move. Two other neighbors were killed, then four other family members died when a strike hit a car in which they were fleeing from Nazlet al-Shehade.

A month later, after moving through the city in search of medical care and fleeing ISIS fire, the extended family returned to a home in the Harat al-Sakhani area. One of the surviving family members, Rasha, explained what happened around August 18th:

“Two days later, we were bombed, both houses where we were staying got bombed. Almost everybody was killed. Only I, my husband and his brother and cousin survived…. We hid in the rubble until morning because the planes were circling overhead. In the morning we found Tulip’s body [her infant daughter]; our baby was dead. We buried her near there, by a tree.”

In total, 28 members of the extended family were killed in the strike, along with five people in a house across the street. “Nothing was left standing, there was only rubble,” said Rasha. “These were simple Arab houses, they were not sturdy. I don’t understand why they bombed us. Didn’t the surveillance planes see that we were civilian families?”

‘Undercounting civilian casualties’

The final case reported by Amnesty involved the Fayad family. Sixteen family members and neighbours were killed in reported airstrikes on October 12, 2017 in the Harat al-Badu area of Raqqa, where many civilians had become trapped in the final days of fighting. Though fighting had briefly paused earlier in the week as part of a truce, the Coalition and SDF then struck ISIS’s remaining strongholds on the night of October 11th and 12th. Among those who perished were multiple victims in the Fayad family. 

According to the Coalition’s own strike reports, its aircraft carried out aerial attacks in Raqqa on each date referenced in the four Amnesty cases.To date, the Coalition has admitted to only 21 civilian fatalities in Raqqa between June and October 2017. Of 225 allegations reviewed, the Coalition has only found 15 cases to be credible. Over 90 per cent of all cases reviewed during the battle have been found to be ‘non-credible’.  In its most recent report, the Coalition rejected 72 reported civilian harm events at Raqqa – while finding none to be credible.

“The low credibility count suggests that some, possibly many, allegations may be dismissed before all necessary efforts are deployed to investigate them,” wrote the Amnesty researchers. “Undercounting civilian casualties could result in underestimating potential harm to civilians in future Coalition operations, as civilian harm mitigation procedures require military units to learn from their civilian casualty assessments, and incorporate that learning into planning future operations.”

None of the more than 100 residents who Amnesty spoke with during their research said they had been approached by the Coalition. As Airwars reported in March, there were ample opportunities for such interaction, including at processing centers run by the SDF.

“Unexploded MK 82 bomb, dropped by the Coalition, in a street in the centre of Raqqa. Months after the recapture of Raqqa unexploded munitions still littered Raqqa, in places where they posed a threat to civilians and where they could have easily been removed.” Via Amnesty Report.

Bodies in Raqqa are still being dug out, seven months after the end of hostilities. In a May interview, a member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee told Airwars that remains hastily buried in mass graves during fighting are often too decomposed to be identified. Other bodies are still entombed in the rubble that litters the city. Recovering the dead risks encountering one of thousands of IEDs that ISIS left rigged in Raqqa’s homes and public areas.

“Many of these, as well as unexploded bombs dropped by Coalition forces, continue to contaminate the city, with the cleaning process set to continue for months, if not years,” wrote Amnesty in its report. Desperate for money, children are working as labourers to clear rubble for as little as $4 per day – a job that can prove deadly.

“Why were those who spent so much on a costly military campaign which destroyed the city not providing the relief so desperately needed,” asked one resident of the city.

“Amnesty’s detailed field investigation once again highlights the significant death and destruction visited upon Raqqa last year, primarily by US forces as they ousted so-called Islamic State,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “There is little doubt that several thousand civilians were killed in the fighting – yet almost no interest from the US and its allies in understanding how and where they died.”

Airwars’ own monitoring has shown a clear correlation between the level of Coalition firepower deployed in Raqqa and likely civilian deaths. As its own report recently noted, “Before the assault on Raqqa had begun in June 2017, the US-led Coalition had been made aware of the high reported civilian toll at Mosul – with Airwars for example publicly highlighting rises and falls in reported civilian harm which were closely tracking munition use. Not only were these lessons not subsequently applied by the alliance – but the intensity of bombardment at Raqqa (given its relatively smaller size, and the shorter duration of the battle) actually worsened.”

Airwars graphic depicting the close correlation between intensity of Coalition bombardment and civilian deaths at Raqqa

*An earlier version of this article stated that the Coalition had admitted to 21 civilian deaths which took lace d the Battle for Raqqa (June-October 2017). As of the Coalition’s latest monthly civilian casualty report that figure is now 26.


May 30, 2018

Written by

Airwars Staff

Three months after the capture of Raqqa from so-called Islamic State, the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (RCC) began the hard job of helping to resurrect the largely destroyed city, while recovering the remains of thousands killed in heavy fighting. RCC’s work is often dangerous. Since the end of hostilities in October 2017, hundreds of civilians have been wounded or killed by mines and IEDS left behind by ISIS. Still, the committee works daily to uncover the dead, seeking out mass graves and informal burial sites across the city. The mental and physical challenges faced by recovery crews are extraordinary. There is still little reprieve from death in this city.

In late May, Airwars spoke at length with a key member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee. For security reasons, they have asked to remain anonymous. The interview was originally conducted in Arabic and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Airwars: Please tell us about the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee?

Raqqa Reconstruction Council: The reconstruction committee receives a lot of help through the Civil Council. We’re not sure where the money originates, but it’s all through the Council.

We started with the most important things to do after liberating the city. The civil defense duties were the most important. There were so many dead people – whether civilian or militant – so we made a team and called it the First Responding Team. It included Civil Defence duties such as the fire department and first aid.

We worked on getting people with relevant experience in these fields. Since we did not have forensic doctors, we had to bring [them in] from outside to supervise the process of collecting bodies. At first the team was made up of volunteers, and then we got financial support. We were asked by families – at the beginning we used unsophisticated tools and when we got funding we were able to buy better tools to dig, and a bulldozer, all the cars and bags and everything else we needed. And now we are expanding.

After attending to individual requests, we were faced with mass graves. We developed teams that would roam the city and make initial assessments. We had an initial evaluation of gardens, parks and empty lots and other related areas. We then made estimates about where there might be bodies. We started this on January 8th 2018.  

Airwars: You’ve said that there are thousands of open reports of bodies in Raqqa. How many bodies have been recovered and how many people do you think died in the city? RRC: Since we began working, we have recovered almost 700 bodies, but we don’t have an overall estimate of the number of people who died in the city. There are estimates on social media about Raqqa which put it at two, three or four thousand, but as a team we can’t tell how many civilians were killed overall. I can refer you to the UN, which mentioned that 80 percent of the city was destroyed as of April 1st. As a personal estimation, when I entered the city – I was among the first people to enter on October 21st, 2017 – I made the same assessment.

From the northern side it’s even worse, and could be 90 or 100 percent, but [the level of destruction] goes down when you move south and east, to 40 percent or 10 percent. But in the city generally, it’s 80 percent.

Airwars: Have you found mass graves?

RRC: There were buildings where we recovered 10 bodies and other buildings were we got 20 and 30, but we wouldn’t call it a mass grave. Mass graves are bodies buried by people, not under the rubble.

Some people came and told us they have someone buried in a specific park and asked if we could remove the body and rebury them. Then we asked why they were buried in the park, and they would tell us: during the final stages [of fighting] when there was heavy bombardment of cars, people couldn’t move the bodies in a normal fashion. They would gather all the bodies together and in the evening ISIS would bury them in the closest place.

Bodies would be put in bags and the ground was already dug so they would bring the bodies – they would put two, three, four bodies together and bury them in this ground. So it was due to initial assessments in the city and people’s testimonies and from working in the city. Once we started working on day one we started uncovering other places.

Airwars: The bodies in the mass graves, are they women, men, children, civilians, or fighters? How many are there?

RRC: The bodies belonged to women, children and men – for the latter we can’t tell if they were civilians or fighters. Some of them were militants but very few. The rest of the men, we can’t tell who’s a militant and who is a civilian.  It’s written on the bags [by whoever buried them] ‘a man, a woman, a child, a civilian.” Very, very few had written that this was a militant. But this does not mean that the rest are not militants.

We don’t have a final death toll of the number of women, men and children but we have so far recovered 150 bodies from Al-Rashid Stadium, and 27 bodies from  Hadika Baiyda [“White Garden” – a residential garden area of the city] where the second mass grave is.

Workers dig out bodies in a mass grave at the al-Rashid Stadium (Image courtesy of Raqqa Reconstruction Committee)

Airwars: Are bodies still being recovered from under the rubble?

RCC: We are still recovering them. Lately we’ve been busy with mass graves. We have more than one team – most of the team members are directed to the mass graves specifically, because it’s summer and the way they were buried was not 100% proper so sometimes there’s a smell. We try to allocate most of our efforts towards the mass graves but there is another team working on people under the rubble.

Airwars: How do you think people died in Raqqa? From airstrikes, artillery, from being shot?

RRC: Most likely, the majority died from aerial bombardment. Of course there were those who died from artillery but we could tell the difference with artillery. If there is partial destruction in the building then it’s artillery, but when it’s completely destroyed it is an airstrike. 

Airwars: Do you know how much artillery and how much airstrike destruction there was?

RRC: Probably 35% by artillery and the rest is airstrikes. It’s just an estimation.

Airwars: You told us that it’s summer, and that you want to recover the bodies. Could you please tell us more about the possible diseases you face from the heat and the decomposition of the bodies?

RRC: On the ground, until now we haven’t seen signs of diseases. But from initial assessments in the streets, there are areas where there’s a smell and other places there isn’t a smell but one thing that’s common is that the city is full of flies.

Airwars: What is the process when you recover bodies? When you have recovered 150 bodies from the stadium, what do you do to document those you have recovered?

RRC: When we recover multiple bodies [usually in bags], we put them near where they were recovered. With the presence of the forensic doctor, we open the body bag, and we try to identify the body. Then we write down what is written on the bag – whether it’s a number or a name. We identify the body if we can, as belonging to a woman, a child, a militant or a civilian; if the body is wrapped [in a Kafan] or wearing clothes.

We write the description of the clothes or the Kafan. Of course we haven’t seen a full body recovered. By that I mean that bodies have started to decompose even though they are in bags, but decomposed so you wouldn’t be able to tell what kind of injury the body had, whether it’s a head wound, or shrapnels or a cut. We write the condition of what we’ve seen. We place the remains in another bag which does not leak smells, and then transfer it to the cemetery and bury it properly.

Airwars: How much of a problem are unexploded munitions in Raqqa?

RRC: This is a very important point. The war has ended but a new one has just started. If you follow what ISIS releases [electronically], ISIS sent a message to the SDF and the civilians in general – people in this area – that we have left this land but will fight you for years. This was a remark alluding to the explosives which were intentionally planted, and other unexploded munitions.

For example, a few days ago, a guy was driving a bulldozer to help build a new house. There was an explosion while he was on the bulldozer, and in a 300 meter perimeter — or even half the perimeter was 300 meters — we couldn’t find him.

The danger is huge. Civilians have suffered badly, especially in the beginning when they entered the city in the first two months, when people returned to their homes. Explosives and mines were left in ways you wouldn’t imagine. Like if you opened the fridge, or the house door, or a window, and sometimes even if you opened the water tap or turned the switch or the water meters in the buildings – these are places that wouldn’t occur to you.

They even put explosives wired to a loofah. There was a woman with her children. They left Ain Essa camp and went back to her house in the city. After almost a week, she needed to use the loofah, so she moved it and it exploded and she died with her children. This danger is there from the beginning and it’s still present in the city and even the countryside. We have plenty of water stations that we have to rebuild and make work again, also power cables, government and public buildings, streets and even barriers. We assume that mines are everywhere.

Airwars: What about unexploded bombs and missiles?

RRC: There’s not a lot, only a few. ISIS’s strategy was to leave ammunition which would explode. We have discovered more than one ammunition factory. There is also some unexploded ammunition still in some parks, though not as many as the mines. They could be from SDF or anyone. We can’t tell whose ammunition it is. 

Airwars: When you recover the bodies and bury them again, do people know the location of the new graves? Or if people want to know if you have recovered a body, can they find out? Is there anything online or names in the new cemetery?

RRC: They are buried in a part of the city’s cemetery designated for these new bodies. It’s east of the city in a place called Tal Al-Bai’ya. We bury them individually. We leave marks here; if we have names [from the bags] we write them down. If not, we write numbers and we have in our files that body number X was found in such and such an area, and buried in this new area. If someone gives us information about a specific person, we would check and see if we have a match.

Airwars: Has anyone been able to identify or claim bodies? For example has anybody come to you and told you about a family member, and then it was possibly to identify them subsequently?

RRC: People can sometimes identify bodies while we are retrieving them, particularly where we recover the dead after receiving a family request. So we’d give people an appointment, for example a Saturday, so they would come and we then recover the bodies.

[Conversely] the bodies we recover from the rubble, nobody can identify even family members. The bodies have been exposed to the air and have decomposed, with only a few pieces left which cannot be identified. Not even their parents can identify them.

As for the mass grave, if someone had left a mark — some families for example left a mark in front of a hole, saying that a person related to me died in this hole —  then they can guess which person it is from the exact spot. When we find documents then some people recognize the victims – or from their clothes or the personal items they have on them. But these situations are very rare and only for those under the rubble, not the mass graves. Nobody was able to identify any body [in the mass graves].

Recovery crews handle a previously buried body at the Al-Rashid Stadium (via RRC).

Airwars: You have recovered 150 bodies from the stadium and 27 from Hadika Baiyda. Were you able to identify anyone?

RRC: No, not at all. We ourselves couldn’t identify them but there were some individual cases, I mean, for example Al-Rashid Stadium is different from Hadika Baiyda (White Garden).

Al-Rashid Stadium burials were done by ISIS members, because it is very close to the National Hospital in Raqqa. but  Hadika Baiyda was among many residential buildings. This area was besieged and bombarded especially in the last phase [of the battle for Raqqa.] People here were buried individually but there were also mass burials as well. Due to the bombardment, people weren’t able to take them to the cemetery, but buried them in the garden temporarily and left a mark.

Those buried individually, most people know who they belong to. Some people came back and were able to recover the body of their family because they were buried individually by their families, so these graves are known. But the bodies which weren’t recovered, we think their families left Raqqa and left Syria and never came back. If they went back, they would have recovered these bodies and reburied them properly.  

However, Hadika Bayda burials were carried out by the families. Due to the bombardment, they couldn’t go to the cemetery, which is almost 3km from the city center. People couldn’t transport the dead bodies in cars, because the cars were targeted by aircraft thinking they belonged to ISIS.

So people started digging in the garden to bury their families, and the same applies for other gardens and parks. Many of these people who buried their family members and and left the city, or who managed to flee, later came back and recovered the body even before we had started our project, and sometimes they ask us to recover them and rebury them in the city cemetery.

However for those who went to Turkey or Lebanon or any other country and couldn’t come back, they couldn’t recover the body. While they of course know where they buried their relatives, that knowledge is lost to us in Raqqa.

Airwars: Family members who come to ask you to recover their loved one’s bodies, do they tell you how they were killed?

RRC: Of the people coming to us, we don’t have statistics about how their loved ones died. But some have told us they were killed by ISIS snipers, when civilians tried to leave in the last days before the city was given to the SDF. Some said their relatives were killed by [air] bombardment, some by artillery. It seems to me the majority were killed by either air or artillery attacks. There are so many killed and under the buildings.

These graves – people used parks and stadiums due to air strikes. The bodies there definitely were not killed by ISIS because ISIS when they killed people, they had no manners. If you remember what they did in Shehaytat, in Deir Ezzor, they killed 750 people in cold blood, ISIS would show them in videos and on their media. But these people [in Raqqa] were killed in bombardments.

Airwars: You mentioned that the bodies in the stadium are not identified?

RRC: Yes, and I will tell you a story, A mother came looking for her son. He left the city when the SDF created a safe passage for civilians to leave. This guy took one of those passages, but he was shot by a sniper, that’s what his mother told us, so his friends who were with him took him to the National Hospital, but he died in the hospital and was buried at night in Al-Rashid Stadium.

His mother came to ask about him and gave us his name, but we didn’t have names. We showed her the documentations and marks of the bodies we found, a woman here, a child there, a man there, but there are no features, so she couldn’t tell where he was buried and even if she sees all the bodies, she wouldn’t be able to identify her son [due to the state of the remains]. If the body was not left with a mark from the person who was burying it, it is impossible to identify it at all. This was for Al-Rashid Stadium.

Airwars: You work with dead bodies on a daily basis. This must be very difficult for you due to the number of those killed, and the families who come to ask about their loved ones. How do you cope with this kind of work?

RRC: It’s such suffering. Working with dead bodies is still dangerous because you’re recovering bodies and you don’t know what’s buried inside. The mine removal teams are active in the city, but small things might put people in danger. We have recovered militants’ bodies and the explosive belts were still on them, and this puts the whole team in danger. Thank God, it still hasn’t happened [an explosion].

This job is difficult and dangerous. We’re still doing it and adapting, but working in the mass graves is highly dangerous both physically and mentally for team members. We have given days off to members of the team. We transfer them to another team to search for bodies under the rubble, and step away from the mass graves.

Working in mass graves creates a shock and leaves you in a state where you don’t want to eat or drink or even have a healthy life. So in order to adapt, we rotate the team members, some of them work in the mass graves, some search for bodies in the city, others recover bodies from under the rubble, and that allow us to keep a minimum effect mentally and physically on team members.


May 3, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

After nearly four years of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the United Kingdom has admitted for the first time that its forces caused civilian harm during anti-ISIS operations, when a missile fired from a Reaper drone this March also killed one non-combatant in eastern Syria.

The May 2nd admission came just a day after an exclusive BBC report quoted a Coalition source who said the British had likely caused civilian casualties “on several occasions.” That source cited a January 9th 2017 strike in Mosul that they said “almost certainly” killed two civilians. The British MoD countered what appears to be its partners’ own findings, contending the dead were probably ISIS fighters.

However in a written statement to Parliament, the British Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson MP, conceded a separate and much more recent incident – far removed from the large-scale battles of Mosul and Raqqa. This occured on March 26th 2018, in an area of eastern Syria where ISIS fighters had yet to be defeated.

“During a strike to engage three Daesh fighters a civilian motorbike crossed into the strike area at the last moment and it is assessed that one civilian was unintentionally killed,” said Williamson, using an Arabic term for the terror group. “We reached this conclusion after undertaking routine and detailed post-strike analysis of all available evidence.”

Failure to investigate on the ground

The question of non-US partner culpability has proved vexing. In May 2017, Airwars revealed that US officials had determined that partner nations had caused at least 80 civilian deaths. No Coalition member will publicly accept responsibility for any of the incidents, which were released in bulk without any identifying information.

Since then, Australia and the Netherlands have joined the United States in admitting to involvement in incidents where civilians were killed or injured. Far larger military contributors the UK and France had remained silent.

In the BBC investigation – for which defence correspondent Jonathan Beale again traveled to Mosul to see the damage wrought on the city by airstrikes – he reported that Britain’s Coalition partners have “highlighted or ‘flagged’, several incidents when UK airstrikes may have caused civilian harm” but “on each occasion the MoD says it saw no evidence it caused civilian casualties.”

The newly conceded British casualty incident was observable thanks to Coalition video taken from the air, according to the Defence Secretary’s statement. From the first Coalition admissions, investigators have shown a bias towards cases: out in the open, and where follow-up investigations – either involving travel to the location or interviews with locals – are not required.

The Coalition and partner allies do not as a matter of policy speak with locals, or visit allegation sites. Yet most civilian casualty incidents monitored by Airwars likely would be impossible to confirm solely based on aerial reconnaissance, occurring as they often do in dense urban environments such as those in Raqqa and Mosul. As former deputy RAF commander Air Marshal Greg Bagwell has recently noted, “you can’t see through rubble.”

Urban strikes

According to the former UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, Royal Air Force planes carried out strikes on more than 750 targets during the campaign to liberate Mosul – “second only the US.” As Airwars has previously reported, Coalition strikes in Mosul were more often carried out with little or no knowledge of who remained inside buildings – an issue that extends to any post-strike analysis.

There is no official civilian death count for the battle of Mosul, but an investigation by the Associated Press has placed the toll at between 9,000 and 11,000 killed by all parties from October 2016 to June 2017. In total, Airwars tracked between 6,000 and 9,000 non combatant deaths variously attributed to the Coalition by local sources, and estimated that a minimum of between 1,066 and 1,579 likely died due to Coalition air and artillery strikes. This almost certainly represents a significant undercount, due to confused reporting at the time. It is telling that Britain’s first civilian casualty admission came not from Mosul – where it launched more attacks than anywhere else in Iraq or Syria – but from the deserts of eastern Syria.

“While the UK’s concession of a civilian fatality from one of its airstrikes against ISIS is a welcome step towards greater accountability, we’re concerned that it has taken the MoD almost four years and 1,600 strikes before making any such admission,” said Airwars director Chris Woods.

“Thousands of civilians have credibly been reported killed in Coalition actions to defeat so-called Islamic State – and airstrikes remain the primary cause of death. We hope the UK will now properly investigate the hundreds of additional potential civilian harm events its aircraft have recently been implicated in.”

▲ RAF Tornado GR4's over Iraq on an armed reconnaissance mission in support of OP SHADER. Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft have been in action over Iraq as part of the international coalition’s operations to support the democratic Iraqi Government in the fight against ISIL.


April 13, 2018

Written by

Airwars Staff

The Netherlands Public Prosecution Service has found that Dutch forces killed or injured civilians during anti-ISIS operations in up to three historical incidents in Iraq.

However the country’s military has since told Airwars it is still refusing to divulge when between 2014 and 2016, or exactly where in Iraq the incidents took place for reasons of national and operational security.

The new findings relating to four separate airstrikes — all in Iraq — were released in a progress report on Dutch involvement in the anti-ISIS Coalition, presented to Parliament on April 13th.

While the report found that none of the strikes had violated the laws of war, it did reveal for the first time that Dutch aircraft had caused civilian harm. Until now the Netherlands has denied all such claims.

‘Civilian casualties did occur’

The report described in some detail the sequence of events surrounding each incident. But crucially it omitted the dates and locations for each event – preventing them from being matched against almost 1,000 alleged Coalition civilian casualty incidents in Iraq since 2014. The Netherlands has also given no indication of how many civilians were killed or injured in each event.

In the first case, Dutch F-16s were involved in an attack on a suspected vehicle-borne IED plant. “The IED factory turned out to have more explosives than previously known, or could have been calculated,” said the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor noted that the attack “ led to the destruction of buildings in the area” and said ”it is very likely that civilian casualties occurred during this attack.”

In a second case – in which the Prosecution Service explicitly found that “civilian casualties did occur” –  Dutch aircraft were involved in attacking a building that had been identified as an “ISIS headquarters” but was later found to be a residential building. Notably, the report to Parliament cited faulty Coalition intelligence. “Before and during the deployment the F-16 pilots had no indication that the information was incorrect,” Parliament was told.

A third case was described as a car driving “suddenly” into the blast area of a strike on a building, during which time “civilian casualties were possible.”

The last case investigated involved the incorrect targeting of a building, which the report said was due to the wrong settings in an F-16 targeting system. No civilian deaths were believed to have resulted, the Dutch government report found.

Though civilian deaths were confirmed or likely in three of the four cases reviewed, the Public Prosecution Service determined that international humanitarian law had not been violated during any of the attacks. Even so, the investigation found that Dutch military actions had led to civilian harm.

‘Dutch government must now step forward’

The Netherlands now takes its place alongside the United States and Australia as the only members of the 13-member Coalition to admit to causing civilian casualties during anti-ISIS operations in Iraq or Syria.

However, unlike Australia or the US, the Netherlands is still refusing to release dates and locations for the strikes in question, making external evaluations of their findings impossible. Airwars asked the Dutch Ministry of Defense why, and was told by a spokesperson that on national and operational security grounds nothing further would be divulged.

Between October 2014 and July 2016, Dutch F-16s fired more than 1,800 munitions in hundreds of airstrikes against ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria. In January 2018, the Netherlands once again resumed strikes after swapping in with its Benelux partner Belgium.

“With the Netherlands for the first time admitting civilian harm from its actions in the war against ISIS, it is unacceptable that the locations and dates of the airstrikes are still not being released,” said Airwars Dutch advocacy officer Koen Kluessien. “How can affected Iraqis and Syrians ever have accountability for their loved ones? It’s time for the Dutch government to step forward, and take full responsibility for these sad events.”


April 5, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford
Photographs are published with the kind permission of Maranie R. Staab. All rights fully reserved.

Eighteen months ago, Iraqi forces backed by heavy coalition firepower descended on Mosul, Iraq’s second city and the largest ever controlled by the Islamic State. It took them nine months—well beyond initial estimates—to dislodge the terror group. During that time, strategies changed. Under the Obama administration, more commanders with the U.S.-led coalition were given latitude to call in strikes. When Donald Trump took office, he grew that trend, and embraced so-called “annihilation” tactics. In parallel, Iraqi security forces suffered heavy casualties early in the fight among their elite units, and later operated with fewer restraints. By the time the city was captured in July of last year, it was littered with some eight million tons of rubble—three times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the UN noted.

The urban fighting in Mosul that began on October 16, 2016 was described by U.S. officials as the most intense since World War II. Backing Iraqi forces on the ground, the U.S.-led coalition, which included a dozen partner countries, carried out more than 1,250 strikes in the city, hitting thousands of targets with over 29,000 munitions, according to official figures provided to us. But in the nine months since the reclamation of Mosul, those involved in the operation have conspicuously neglected to assess how many civilians were killed. There remains no official count of the dead in Mosul.

In December 2017, the Associated Press estimated that 9,000 to 11,000 civilians had died in the battle—an estimate nearly 10 times higher than what had been officially reported. At least a third of those deaths, the AP found, came as a result of coalition or Iraqi bombardments. In a separate investigation, NPR reported that the city morgue had recorded the names of 4,865 individuals on death certificates, dating between October 2016 and July 2017, and estimated that more than 5,000 civilians had been killed.

While these reports filled what had, in effect, been a vacuum, they were met with little concern from Western authorities. Neither Washington nor its local and international allies have shown any indication that they will undertake a comprehensive survey of the loss of life in Mosul. Nor have they taken significant steps to compensate the families of those their forces killed inadvertently. While the Pentagon does make such payments and did so during the Iraq war, it has only done so twice in the war against ISIS.

Medics work to stabilize Ammar, age 8. The young Moslawi boy was brought to “Trauma Stabilization Point #2” following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017 in West Mosul, Iraq. (Maranie R. Staab)

“It is simply irresponsible to focus criticism on inadvertent casualties caused by the coalition’s war to defeat ISIS,” spokesperson Colonel Thomas Veale told the AP in response to its report. “Without the coalition’s air and ground campaign against ISIS, there would have inevitably been additional years, if not decades of suffering and needless death and mutilation in Syria and Iraq at the hands of terrorists who lack any ethical or moral standards.” This argument—that acting decisively and with overwhelming force in an urban battlefield saved lives in the long term—is belied by an official lack of interest in finding how many died overall, no matter the culprit.

The question of who, if anyone, is accurately tracking civilian deaths is difficult to answer. Both the Pentagon and U.S. embassy in Baghdad directed questions about civilian deaths to the counter-ISIS coalition, the body that represents the countries supporting government forces in Iraq’s fight against ISIS. However, the coalition has only investigated strikes it has identified as its own and found reason to review. This means that only U.S. and French artillery strikes in Mosul, and U.S., British, French, and Australian airstrikes on the city are subject to review—a process which thus far has yielded civilian death estimates far lower than our own, which are based on local reports and the coalition’s own strike data. But the coalition’s tally represents only a small fraction of the overall death toll in Mosul.

To date, the coalition has acknowledged its involvement in the deaths of 352 civilians during the battle for the city. A coalition spokesperson told us that “any assessment on the effects to Iraqi citizens of the ISIS occupation of the city and subsequent liberation by Iraqi Security Forces’ support by the coalition would be conducted by the government of Iraq.” But Iraqi officials have not been forthcoming, and did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview with the AP, Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, even said that, at most, 1,260 civilians were killed in fighting for the city.

With our team of researchers at Airwars, we monitored thousands of local reports and claims from within Mosul during the battle for the city. We also spoke with multiple reporters and researchers carrying out their own field investigations at the time. Based on local reporting and confirmed coalition strikes in the near vicinity, we conservatively estimated that between 1,066 and 1,579 civilians likely died from coalition air and artillery strikes during the nine-month battle, out of a total of somewhere between over 6,000 to nearly 9,000 deaths alleged by local sources against Coalition forces. But in many cases reports from the city were confused: There was simply so much incoming and outgoing fire that it remains unclear whether several thousand civilians were killed by coalition, Iraqi, or ISIS munitions.

Ali’s mother, Noor, grieves over the body of her son. On the night of June 12, 2017 an airstrike hit Ali’s neighborhood in West Mosul, Iraq. The young Moslawi died from blunt force trauma and arrived at the Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) “dead on arrival.” (Maranie R. Staab)

Interviews with more than 20 journalists and aid workers who were on the ground in Mosul, both during and immediately after the assault, strongly support the view that many thousands of civilians died. Their reporting also showed that simply speaking with locals—something the coalition and American authorities confirmed to us they almost never do as a matter of policy, and Iraqi federal authorities have also not done—can uncover the details of fatal incidents.

On January 24, Iraqi officials announced the liberation of East Mosul.  In late February, Iraqi troops began the far tougher job of penetrating the dense Western part of the city, only capturing it five months later. In the climactic weeks of fighting in Mosul’s Old City, ISIS’s last stronghold in West Mosul, press footage showed civilians attempting harrowing escapes from blocks controlled by the group to those held by Iraqi forces. Many families didn’t make it out. Journalists and aid workers spoke of how Iraqi counter-terror forces—who they described as more careful to avoid endangering civilians—had been depleted in the early stages of the fight. As a result, the less-well-trained security forces took their place in the fight for Western Mosul.

Among them were the Iraqi Federal Police, notorious among locals for their negligence. According to several journalists and aid workers, by the end of the battle, Iraqi forces were launching crude explosive weapons into narrow areas packed with civilians. Some units launched improvised rockets from the back of vehicles. At the time, the Red Cross said civilians were fleeing, “bleeding even from their eyes.”

John Beck, a freelance journalist from Scotland, covered the assault. “When the West came, the Federal Police and Iraqi army took a more prominent role and were less discriminate in their use of heavy unguided artillery,” Beck said. “I began to hear more and more people who said they had relatives buried under the rubble. Many said entire families had been wiped out.”

Human-rights investigators took note. “The U.S.-led coalition was in joint enterprise with Iraqi forces. Its toleration for use of [rockets] enabled the killing of many, many civilians in Mosul,” Benjamin Walsby, a field researcher at Amnesty International, said. In July, Walsby and his colleagues released a significant report outlining the destruction in Mosul. Based on research that included interviews with more than 150 West Mosul residents, as well as medical workers, Amnesty accused ISIS of war crimes, but also said the coalition and Iraqi forces may have committed violations themselves. “I reject any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful or excessively targeted civilians,” then-coalition commander Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said in a press conference in July. “I would challenge the people from Amnesty International or anyone else out there who makes these charges to first research their facts.”

An elderly Iraqi man sits outside of a medical Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) in West Mosul, Iraq. The man is the grandfather of Zainab, a young Moslawi that was injured and who ultimately died following an airstrike on the afternoon of May 31, 2017. (Maranie R. Staab)

Months later, an extensive investigation for The New York Times by journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal determined that in certain areas of northern Iraq, total civilian deaths from coalition strikes during 2016 were more than 31 times higher than official estimates based on video taken by coalition planes and other sources of intelligence. The coalition, they reported, had often misidentified targets. Even with the benefit of drone surveillance and video feeds, its forces had killed civilians where ISIS was not present.

In December 2016, as Khan and Gopal were in the midst of their field research, the Obama administration extended the authority to call in airstrikes to personnel lower in the command chain, moving decision making further from headquarters and to the field level. (This practice continued and grew under the Trump administration, by Trump’s own account.) Khan and Gopal immediately noted an uptick in civilian deaths in areas they’d been surveying. “The number of cases we documented in East Mosul, just within 15 days, it was like night and day, so it was a real change on the ground,” Gopal said.

Journalists who embedded with Iraqi forces have offered specific examples of exactly how civilians were likely killed all over Mosul, and especially in the West, by both the coalition and Iraqi forces. Civilians faced excruciating choices, and often operated with limited knowledge of what was happening around them as they cowered in basements, unsure of how close Iraqi forces were. Who was in homes or other buildings targeted by airstrikes wasn’t always clear. “I can’t see into houses,” as one helicopter pilot told Stars and Stripes.

Injured civilians arrive at “Trauma Stabilization Point #2” in West Mosul, Iraq following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017. (Maranie R. Staab)

“We would hear stories of neighbors sheltering together, 40 people, 50 people in a basement,” one Western journalist who was based in Iraq during the assault, and asked that we not share their name due to ongoing work in the region told us. “You can imagine easily a whole family wiped out—a lot of families lived together so it would be parents, their kids and grandkids.”

ISIS certainly put civilians in extreme danger, fighting in their midst, using them as human shields, keeping them in booby-trapped buildings, or executing them outright. In a November report, the UN estimated that at least 741 civilians died in execution-style killings by ISIS during the battle for the city—and hundreds more in shelling and car bombings. Iraqi forces encountered a staggering 700 car bombs in Mosul, according to the coalition. Moslawis told Amnesty International how ISIS would bury bombs under the soil, so civilians were never sure where they could move. One witness recounted how ISIS fighters welded shut the front doors of houses. “They did this to our door, and even worse, they did it to another house in our neighborhood where hundreds of people were staying,” the witness said.

When civilians did flee, weapons fire could come from all sides. Naviseh Kohnavard, a Middle East correspondent for the BBC World Service, recalled the confusion in Zanjili, one of the neighborhoods in Western Mosul hit hardest by fighting. “I saw people coming out; they were bloody and most of the people were carrying out children, and many died in front of us,” she said. Investigations by Mike Giglio of BuzzFeed led the coalition to acknowledge responsibility for the deaths of 36 civilians—but only after he tracked down survivors and witnesses during reporting trips in May. “It’s such a chaotic situation and they don’t have people on the ground,” Giglio said. “All we did to get that information was we drove past checkpoints—my photographer and I—and then I went without an armed escort into civilian neighborhoods and I just asked people where there had been casualties.”

Giglio witnessed incidents first hand as well. In February, he embedded with Iraqi forces in Western Mosul when ISIS fighters—at least one using a tunnel to pop in and out of—began shooting anti-tank missiles in their direction. “I looked down the street and saw the ISIS guy who fired it—they called in an airstrike on this guy’s position,” Giglio said. “An airstrike hit the tunnel, the tunnel was in the street, and I saw it knock down one maybe two houses in the process,” Giglio said. “I think that’s how a lot of this stuff happens.”

Nadia Aziz Mohammed looks on as Mosul civil defence officials search for the bodies of 11 family members, killed in a June 2017 airstrike (Photo by Sam Kimball. All rights reserved.)

Another incident occurred on June 20, in Western Mosul, uncovered later by American journalist Sam Kimball, who was reporting in the area. Once again, an ISIS fighter was seen on the roof of a family home. In the ensuing airstrike, Nadia Aziz Mohammed said she lost 11 relatives. A week later and filmed by Kimball, Mohammed stood a short distance from the home, watching as a bulldozer dug out the remains of her family. By this point in the conflict, the Coalition had informed Airwars that the Iraqi Air Force was no longer carrying out air raids on the city, meaning there was little doubt that any airstrike had been conducted by the U.S.-led alliance. (With the exception of its drones, ISIS had no air force.)

On another occasion—in East Mosul—Kimball told a young man he was looking to speak to victims of airstrikes. The man put out a call and locals began to come forward. “I spoke to so many people who either said I had relatives killed in an airstrike, or my neighbors were killed, or at least one of their family members were killed in an airstrike,” said the young American war reporter.

Among the 352 civilian deaths the coalition has admitted occurred during the Mosul assault, the United States has officially taken responsibility for only one incident that killed civilians to date. On March 17, 2017, an airstrike in the western neighborhood of al Jadida left over 100 civilians dead by the coalition’s own count—likely the deadliest strike during operations in the city. U.S. officials claimed that the two 500-pound bombs that targeted the roof of the building where civilians were sheltering then set off explosives held inside, though locals disagreed with this account.

Activists also moved into the information gap. Perhaps the best known of these is a social media account called “Mosul Eye” run by a Moslawi man named Omar Mohammed. Under ISIS rule and then during the battle for Mosul, “Mosul Eye” meticulously documented reports received from the city. The account relayed reports from sources inside Mosul, or family members of those trapped. These often would have been difficult to fully investigate during the assault. Mohammed maintained that many tens of thousands were killed during the fight for Mosul—an estimate that well exceeds the tallies arrived at by the AP and NPR. “Every day I was receiving reports of families killed by airstrikes or missiles—at least 20 or 25, sometimes 40 people were killed in one house and this was every day,” he told us.

An ambulance leaves Trauma Stabilization Point #2 carrying injured civilians following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017. (Maranie R. Staab)

Though the coalition has made strides in reporting civilian harm, the gap between the deaths it has acknowledged and public estimates is substantial.

Across the entire coalition war against ISIS since 2014, the United States and its allies have so far conceded 841 civilian deaths—while Airwars places the likely minimum tally at 6,200 or more killed. As Khan and Gopal’s work has shown, that disparity may stem at least in part from serious procedural issues that implicate the military’s ability to track not just civilian deaths but the location of its bombs—and a failure to investigate events on the ground.

Moslawis recently marked a year since the al Jadida strike that killed over 100 people. For a brief period in 2017, global attention was paid to those civilians killed or injured in the assault on Mosul, and to the limits of “precision” warfare in cities. A year later, the U.S. government appears unwilling to study the civilian toll of massive urban battlefields such as those in Mosul. Americans continue to wage wars without a true understanding of the costs, while Iraqi civilians understand them all too well.



▲ An Iraqi man rushes his son for medical treatment during the Battle of Mosul. (Maranie R. Staab)


March 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Australia has admitted to killing two civilians and injuring two children during the battle for Mosul – the third such admission of harm by Canberra’s military, and one that further sets the Royal Australian Air Force apart from most other Coalition partners which continue to deny civilian casualties from their own airstrikes.

The case originally came to light during a field investigation by Amnesty International – which was slammed for its findings at the time by the US-led alliance. Airwars then published details of the event – which in turn were investigated by the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The admitted incident occurred in the Mosul neighborhood of Islah al Zirae on the night of May 3rd 2017, during an intense push by Iraqi forces with Coalition air support. Civilians who reported being trapped by ISIS fighters or pinned down by heavy fire attempted to flee once ISIS fighters had withdrawn. In the midst of this, several family members were attempting to evacuate a home they had been sheltering in when it was hit by an airstrike.

The ADF said it carried out two investigations into the attack, and found that the civilians were killed and injured by munitions dropped by an RAAF Super Hornet.

“On the balance of probabilities, our strike resulted in the death of two people and the injury of two others,” deputy chief of joint operations, Major General Greg Bilton, said in remarks reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

‘Chaos of airstrikes’

The newly conceded case was one of 45 civilian harm events that Amnesty researchers documented in West Mosul. Amnesty however only published details of nine of the incidents, leaving out the Ishlah al Zirae event because it was based on a single source — a family member of the deceased. The precise date of the incident also could not be narrowed down at the time, with Amnesty flagging it as having likely taken place some time between May 1st and 3rd.

The testimony taken by Amnesty was however shared with Airwars, which in turn alerted the Coalition to the event as part of its own routine advocacy engagement. In its most recent monthly civilian casualty report, released on March 28th, the Coalition said it had been determined that while conducting a strike to destroy an ISIS fighting position in the neighborhood of Islah al Zirai, “two civilians were unintentionally killed and two civilians injured.”

“We were getting dressed to leave and my brother’s family were still getting dressed and putting jackets on the children,” said the relative who survived and spoke with Amnesty researchers. “I set off with my wife and children and we turned the corner and heard an air strikes. I ran back and the house had caved in. My brother died. My sister in law [wife of another brother] also died.”

“People were panicking and running out of their house – four family members were trapped in the house or trying to leave,” said Ben Walsby, part of the Amnesty team that deployed to Mosul. “They hadn’t been able to get out before because ISIS was preventing them, but in the chaos of airstrikes, they felt they had to get out.”

“This was just a quick interview with a family member who had run out of the house because the airstrikes were coming — people were scrambling,” said Walsby.

In their report, Amnesty accused ISIS of war crimes in Mosul, but also said the Coalition and Iraqi forces may have committed violations themselves. The Coalition responded by sharply questioning the veracity of Amnesty’s work.

“I would challenge the people from Amnesty International or anyone else out there who makes these charges to first research their facts and make sure they are speaking from a position of authority,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, then the Coalition’s top commander.

As it turned out, it was the Coalition which needed to further investigate, and in the case of the May 3rd strike, both the alliance and the Australian Defence Force have now accepted responsibility.

Amnesty International investigated civilian harm events in multiple neighbourhoods of West Mosul for its report – including Islah al Zirae

‘Regrettable incident’

There are several reasons why the latest ADF admission is notable. The Australian military remains the only Coalition partner besides the US to admit to any civilian harm in Iraq or Syria since 2014, despite an estimated 10,000 strikes by non-US allies. Countries like France and the United Kingdom have yet to concede a single civilian death — a statistically implausible assertion.

These countries have been aided by a Coalition practice enforced since 2017 that does not identify which partner is responsible for any single event in the alliance’s monthly casualty reports. With rare exceptions, the US itself no longer acknowledges its own Coalition strikes that caused civilian casualties.

The Amnesty account which triggered the Australian investigation – recorded in an informal camp for displaced persons – also illustrates how effective simply speaking with survivors from battles like Mosul’s can be. Australian officials in the May 3rd case were able to conclude involvement without carrying out their own interviews, though only after Amnesty had recorded the initial testimony. As a policy, the Coalition does not conduct interviews with survivors in the aftermath of strikes – a practice that extends into Syria, as recently reported by Airwars at Raqaa.

Australia was identified in December 2016 by Airwars as one of the Coalition’s least transparent members. Since then it has taken steps to improve the reporting of its actions. In September 2017, the ADF reported its involvement in two previous civilian harm events – one an Australian airstrike, the other an action by another ally for which the ADF had supplied flawed intelligence.

“I think it’s very important for us to recognize what a very complex urban environment environment this was, and the face we are operating in a war zone,” said Defence Minister Marise Payne of the latest ADF admission. “Our operators work to the highest standards but regrettably incidents like this happen.”

“The strike was called in because the Iraqi security forces were under direct sniper attack from the building, and the sniper was causing injuries,” said Payne. The witness who spoke to Amnesty, however, said “there were no Daesh around, otherwise how could I have just walked out of my house?”

Airwars director Chris Woods welcomed the latest Australian admission. “With only a single survivor claim and a fairly vague date attached to this incident originally, the ADF would have had to put quite a bit of detective work into identifying its own role in the event,” said Woods. “The event also shows why we must continue to take seriously the voices of affected Iraqis and Syrians.”

▲ Library image: Royal Australian Air Force personnel start post flight maintenance on an F/A-18A Hornet aircraft following an Operation OKRA mission (Via ADF)


March 15, 2018

Written by

Airwars Staff

A renewal of airstrikes by the Netherlands against so-called Islamic State in 2018 has been accompanied by some improvement in public transparency, an Airwars assessment of the first two months of the campaign has concluded.

While the Netherlands remains less transparent than the UK, changes to the way it publicly reports on military actions now place it on a par with France, one of the more transparent nations in the US-led alliance. Airwars Dutch advocacy officer Koen Kluessien welcomed “this positive move”, while encouraging the defence ministry to go further.

Since the renewal of its mission on January 5th, the Netherlands has included the location of the nearest large settlement to a Dutch strike in its weekly updates. Previously no locational data was provided – leading Airwars repeatedly to identify the Netherlands as the least transparent member of the 13-nation Coalition.

However, despite recent improvements the Dutch defence ministry still does not state on which precise date it conducted its actions, something the UK has been doing since the beginning of the war in 2014. That in turn means Dutch actions cannot be cross-referenced against specific public claims of civilian harm – a key demand from Airwars and others advocating for better public transparency.

“The improved reporting is a step in the right direction, but the Dutch Defense Ministry could do better. An advanced democracy like the Netherlands should be leading the way when it comes to public transparency and accountability,” said Kluessien, who has been closely monitoring the renewed mission.

Six F-16s

The Dutch rejoined the US-led Coalition with six F-16s on January 3rd, from an airbase in Jordan. This is the second time the Netherlands has taken part in the fight against ISIS. Military operations first began in October 2014, with the campaign paused in July 2016 when Dutch F-16s swapped out for Belgian aircraft.

The move towards greater public transparency has brought the Netherlands more into line with all other active Coalition partners. Among the four known active members, the UK remains the most transparent – publicly reporting on the date, location and target of each strike. France and the Netherlands now publish the same level of data – saying roughly where they bomb in any given week – though not precisely when.

The United States now finds itself the least transparent member of the remaining Coalition members it leads – refusing to publish specific data on where, when or what it bombs. However the US is also the only one of the four nations to have conceded any civilian casualties in almost four years of airstrikes, and has committed significant resources towards broader Coalition transparency (for example staffing Operation Inherent Resolve’s civilian casualty monitoring cell.)

An Airwars graphic showing improved Dutch transparency and public accountability – now on a par with the weekly reporting of the French defense ministry.

Parliamentary engagement

In the run-up to the renewed mission, Dutch MPs returned to the issue of transparency and public accountability in late 2017. Parliament’s earlier demands for improved reporting during the 2014-2016 campaign had been ignored by the defense ministry. As social-liberal D66 MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma stated in a Foreign Affairs committee meeting: “I would like to challenge the Minister of Defense to see if we can do more with regards to the transparency side of things. I had tabled a motion about this. This was passed with a large majority. I’m not quite sure what happened with this, from an operational point of view.”

Airwars director Chris Woods had already warned Dutch MPs at a November 29th parliamentary hearing in The Hague, that the Netherlands risked being remembered as the least transparent partner in the entire Coalition against so-called Islamic State. This concern was later echoed by several Members of Parliament in a plenary debate on the renewed missions against ISIS.

As a result, another cross-party motion was passed calling for “more detailed reporting on military weapon deployments”. The motion was supported by then Minister of Foreign Affairs Halbe Zijlstra, who stated: “[…] we cannot and will not put aside this call for transparency.”

Perhaps as a result of that motion – and of the long running campaign for more transparency from Airwars and others – the weekly reports accompanying the renewed Dutch campaign marked a relative improvement in transparency.

The first update was issued on January 10th by the defense ministry and reported that for the period of January 3rd-9th its F-16s deployed weapons during one mission near Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor, Syria. Since then, a total of almost 20 Dutch airstrikes have been reported.

‘No civilian casualties’ claim

While the more detailed weekly reports mark a welcome step towards greater accountability, the Dutch defense ministry still insists that hundreds of Dutch airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have never led to any civilian casualties since 2014.

Even with improved airstrike reporting by the Netherlands, it remains difficult for affected victims to understand responsibility.

Between January 3rd and February 27th, our Syria researchers tracked and assessed 19 civilian casualty incidents allegedly tied to Coalition strikes in the vicinity of Abu Kamal and Abu Hammam. Of these 19 events, Airwars presently evaluates 15 as fairly reported and estimates that between 104 and 249 civilians likely died in these incidents.

However, with multiple belligerents bombing the region from the air – and the Netherlands not providing specific dates of strikes – attribution for recent events has proven to be challenging.

Asked if the defense ministry has cross-referenced its own airstrike data with any of these 19 specific claimed events, a spokesperson told Airwars: “When it comes to examining a weapon deployment after the fact, it is assessed whether or not the strike conformed with the mandate; and checked for possible civilian casualties and collateral damage. We use any information available to do so.“

An Airwars map showing the general location of Dutch airstrikes from January 3rd until February 27th. Nearly all of the 19 missions in which weapons were deployed occurred near Abu Kamal and Abu Hammam in Deir Ezzor, Syria.

No release of previous strike locations

Despite recent improvements, for airstrikes conducted during the first leg of its anti-ISIS campaign the Netherlands is sticking to its former levels of poor transparency and accountability.

When asked if the defense ministry would also release the near locations of earlier airstrikes, a senior public affairs officer told Airwars that “The weekly updates for the period 2014-2016 will not be adjusted. These are previous publications that we will not revise.”

At present, almost nothing is known about Dutch strikes between October 2014 and July 2016, even though Dutch F-16s fired more than 1,800 munitions. Official data suggests that the Netherlands may at times have been the fourth most active member of the Coalition – after the US, UK and France. However, all freedom of information requests for information on the Dutch campaign have so far been refused.

▲ Library image: A Dutch F-16 pilot checking missiles before take-off from an airbase in Jordan (Netherlands defence ministry)


March 12, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

An investigation by Airwars for the Daily Beast shows that Coalition-inflicted casualties were vastly higher than are being publicly acknowledged – and the Trump administration has shown little interest in discovering the truth

In the weeks after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State at Raqqa, a woman named Ayat Mohamed—her black clothing covering burns on her body—led a French TV crew to the ruins of a building in the Al Badou neighborhood. Here in late September Ayat’s husband Khaled al Salama, their four children, along with her mother, sister and niece, had all been killed by an alleged strike by the US-led coalition. Their bodies remained trapped below.

“The planes were bombing and rockets were falling 24 hours a day,” said a tearful Ayat. “There were ISIS snipers everywhere, you couldn’t breath.” In all directions, buildings had been destroyed, and it was hard to tell where one structure began and another ended. “My children are still there, buried under the rubble,” she told the camera. “No one has dug them out yet.” Ayat said she could not afford to have their bodies retrieved. “How can I get them out of these ruins, how can I see them?”

Ayat Mohamed, interviewed by France 24 in her ruined neighbourhood

Nearly three more months would pass before some of the bodies were recovered. A picture taken at the scene shows five white body bags labelled with the names of Ayat’s husband, Khaled, and their children Farah, Mohammad, Najah and Hussein. Their remains were dug out on February 12th, according to the local monitor Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

“Al Salama’s wife survived the shelling and spent nearly four months communicating with the Raqqa Civilian Council until they pulled out the bodies of her family,” an RBSS representative told Airwars. The location of the remains of Ayat’s mother, sister and niece is unclear, though it is possible they were among the nearly 30 bodies that have been pulled from the building, most of them badly decomposed and many charred after they were burned in the attack. All of the bodies were buried in Tal al Bai’aa cemetery, said RBSS.

More remains of victims are being retrieved in Raqqa every day, some dug out by laborers hired by relatives and loved ones. According to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, in the month leading to mid-February alone, upwards of 190 additional unidentified corpses had been pulled from the rubble.

Overall, an estimated 2,000 civilians were killed during bitter fighting for control of Raqqa, according to local casualty monitors – in an assault dominated by US firepower. Even now the dying hasn’t stopped. Cut down by explosives left rigged by ISIS, hundreds of returning civilians have been wounded or killed since October. Like those seeking to retrieve their family members, Raqawis, the people of Raqqa, left to fend for themselves have paid desperate locals to try and disarm their homes, or have attempted to make their homes safe themselves—sometimes with disastrous consequences.

All this is occurring as international media coverage of Raqqa dwindles away. Once the center of countless stories about the so-called Islamic caliphate, ISIS’s self-declared capital is now 80 per cent uninhabitable due to destruction from recent fighting, according to the United Nations.

The remains of Ayat’s husband and four children. Image provided by RBSS.

No Accountability By the time US-backed ground forces began moving into Raqqa in early June 2017, a parallel offensive across the Iraqi border in Mosul was nearly finished. After eight months of bitter fighting, parts of Iraq’s second largest city were devastated and thousands of civilians had been killed or injured. In Raqqa, early accounts indicated that just as in Mosul, civilians were being obstructed from leaving – at risk from booby traps laid by ISIS, or targeted by the terror group’s snipers. At the same time, civilians inside Raqqa received conflicting evacuation instructions from the Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Unlike operations in Mosul, which took place across two US administrations, the fight in Raqqa was carried out entirely under the watch of Donald Trump’s White House. Trump’s promise to delegate everything to commanders in the field—and Defense Secretary James Mattis’ shift to “annihilation tactics”—helped contribute to a drastic increase in civilian casualties from Coalition strikes that took off early in 2017. As The Daily Beast and Airwars reported last year, the number of civilian deaths caused by the Coalition during the entire war against ISIS had already doubled under Trump by the summer of 2017—right in the midst of operations in Raqqa.

According to official data, the Coalition—in Syria almost entirely consisting of American military aircraft and ground artillery units, with limited support from British and French planes—leaned heavily on airpower and artillery during the five months it took to expel ISIS from an area much smaller than Mosul.

Today, the actual number of weapons fired in Raqqa remains clouded by inconsistent statements from US officials. However, according to an Airwars analysis, at least 95 per cent of strikes in Raqqa and all artillery strikes were American. At least 21,000 munitions—and possibly thousands more—struck the city.

What isn’t uncertain is that the intense bombardment resulted in significant civilian casualties. Local monitors estimate that upwards of 2,000 were killed by all parties to the fighting—and many victims, like those in the Salama family, are only now being found.

At the same time, the Coalition’s record on investigating alleged deaths from air and artillery strikes appears to have significantly weakened in Raqqa. Nine months into operations in Mosul – at the end of June – the Coalition had acknowledged responsibility for 43 strikes that it said killed at least 240 civilians and wounded a further 42. (As of its most recent update, the Coalition has admitted to killing 321 or more civilians in Mosul, and injuring a further 46 people in 60 events.) It concluded that 58 additional alleged civilian casualty incidents at Mosul were considered “non-credible”. That meant that after seven months, 43 percent of the 101 total completed assessments had resulted in acknowledgements of responsibility.

In Raqqa, a greater reliance on air and artillery strikes ahead of more cautious ground advances—as well as the limited firepower of local partner forces (the largest weapons wielded by the SDF were 120mm mortars)—all indicated that civilian harm would be more often tied to Coalition actions.

Yet nine months later, only 11 percent of Coalition civilian harm assessments have resulted in an admission of responsibility. Out of 121 reports so far assessed for the Raqqa assault, the Coalition has confirmed involvement in just 13 strikes, which it says left 21 civilians dead and six injured—far short of the 1,400 likely Coalition-inflicted deaths Airwars tracked between June and October.

The enemy forces arrayed against the Coalition in Raqqa also significantly differed. According to Coalition figures, international and Iraqi forces encountered 700 vehicle borne IEDs during the battle for Mosul. In Raqqa, the Coalition and SDF encountered only “around a dozen VBIEDs” between June and Oct. 20, 2017.

Most damage to the city—described in January 2018 by USAID chief Mark Green as devastation “almost beyond description”—was the result of US air and artillery strikes. Satellite images from before the battle show one neighborhood mostly intact. Soon it was mostly gone.

Meanwhile, decisions about what and what not to strike were moved significantly down the command chain, a dynamic that began in late 2016 under President Barack Obama and which was in full effect during the battle in Raqqa. “TEA [Target Engagement Authority] was decentralized from the Headquarters GO level (far removed from the battlefield) and delegated to the appropriate level commander, who was close to the fight,” AFCENT spokesperson AnnMarie Annicelli told Airwars in an email. The “ground force unit,” she said, “controlled all dynamic engagements” of air and artillery.

View of Raqqa’s Old City, taken on June 2nd 2016.

View of the Old City, taken on July 19th 2017. Images from Amnesty International.


A storm of weapons

Fired from afar and usually targeted based on intelligence from local proxy ground forces,the SDF, US bombs, missiles and artillery shells rained almost continuously into Raqqa. According to official figures provided to Airwars, the Coalition launched more than 20,000 munitions into the city during the five-month campaign. In August, that barrage had officially increased to more than one bomb, missile, rocket or artillery round fired every eight minutes—a total of 5,775 munitions during the month.

This was more than all munitions released by the US in Afghanistan during all of 2017. In Mosul – a far larger city with many times as many residents, and where fighting lasted nearly twice as long – the Coalition actually fired on average fewer air-dropped and artillery munitions during nine months of fighting (3,250 per month).

According to Air Force Central Command (AFCENT), Coalition aircraft carried out “nearly 4,500” airstrikes in and around Raqqa between May and October of 2017. During the four month battle for Raqqa, the UK said that its aircraft had hit 213 targets in the city, while France reported fewer than 50 airstrikes on Raqqa over the same period. All other air attacks (approximately 95 percent) and every artillery round to hit the city most likely came from US forces.

During the first half of the battle for Raqqa, fire from A-10 “Warthog” ground assault aircraft accounted for roughly 44 percent of weapon use in Raqqa. The extensive use of A-10s in such an urban setting – which fire 30mm cannons and can also deploy bombs and missiles – was described by US officials at the time as unprecedented.

“The fight itself was within the urban complex of Raqqa and the pilots had to get creative to figure out ways to strike targets at the bottom of these five-story buildings,” said Lt. Col. Craig Morash, commander of the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. “Urban conflict, at least in this form, was kind of the first time anybody had ever seen it before,” he later told a reporter.

Those A-10s were joined by Reaper drones, B-2 and B-52 bombers, F-15s and F-16s, and long range artillery. Raqqa experienced the full weight of the US warfighting machine.

Quentin Sommerville, the BBC’s veteran Middle East Correspondent, reported extensively from both Raqqa and Mosul. His battlefield dispatches from deserted areas of Raqqa that had been captured from ISIS showed a city in ruins, even as fighting still raged in other neighborhoods. “24 hours of coverage wouldn’t do justice to the total devastation across Raqqa,” he tweeted from the city on September 17th. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I would say in Mosul artillery and airstrikes were in most cases a last resort,” Sommerville said in an interview with Airwars. “In Raqqa, they seemed like they were used first.”

Recent disclosures suggest the true number of weapons fired in Raqqa may in fact be even higher. Speaking to reporters on January 23rd, Command Sergeant John Wayne Troxell—a senior non-enlisted adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff—said that US Marines stationed near Raqqa had “in five months… fired 30,000 artillery rounds on ISIS targets, killing ISIS fighters by the dozens.”

A spokesperson for the Marine Corps later told Airwars that they were not authorized to verify those figures, while the Coalition said that many of the rounds fired by the unit were aimed “at other Daesh targets in Syria outside of Raqqah.” Artillery, however, has a limited range, and Marines based in Syria during Raqqa fighting likely would have unleashed the majority of rounds inside the city itself, which by June was completely surrounded.

The remains of the building in which Ayat’s entire family was killed. Image via RBSS.

In August, Amnesty International reported that hundreds of civilians were already dead from Coalition air and artillery strikes. “Artillery shells are hitting everywhere, entire streets,” Raqqa resident Ahmad Mahmoud, wounded by artillery himself, told Amnesty in June 2017. “It is indiscriminate shelling and killing a lot of civilians.” A Western reporter in touch with Airwars said survivors from Raqqa later told them artillery was scarier, as it came in deluges and without any warning.

The so-called Islamic State bears significant responsibility for the destruction and death toll at Raqqa, according to investigators. “By deliberately placing civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations, for the purpose of rendering those areas immune from attack, ISIL militants committed the war crime of using human shields in Raqqah governorate,” the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria noted in a recent report.

“Despite the fact that civilians were being used as human shields, international coalition airstrikes continued apace on a daily basis, resulting in the destruction of much of Raqqah city and the death of countless civilians, many of whom were buried in improvised cemeteries, including parks,” the Commission also wrote.

Facing down thousands of bombs and shells, residents said ISIS sometimes made civilians wear the same clothes as ISIS fighters so as to appear indistinguishable. ISIS would also position vehicles “next to a house and fire at the planes and helicopters in the sky,” one witness who lost his brother in a subsequent strike told Amnesty. “Then it would move and park next to another house. The helicopters and planes kept trying to hit it. They hit so many houses but they didn’t even hit the vehicle.”

But at times Coalition targeting was less explicable. In one incident, on the night of July 1st, neighbors told Amnesty, a family of five—including three children—died when an airstrike hit their building in Raqqa’s Old City. The house was 100 meters, the witness said, from the closest group of ISIS fighters. The Coalition has identified a number of possible incidents around this date in Raqqa—including one referred to it by a “human rights organization,” and another which the Coalition has already determined was a “non-credible” allegation.

The Salama family appears to have fallen victim to such a scenario. Ayat and her husband Khaled had recently returned to Raqqa in order to bring other family members to safety. Instead they all became trapped as the fighting intensified. According to RBSS, the family was moved by ISIS, reportedly along with many residents of al Amassi neighborhood, to another part of the city called al Badou. There, they were killed in a reported Coalition strike.

Silent media

Despite the horrors experienced by civilians during recent fighting, press reports from Raqqa have been filed far less regularly than its status as the former “ISIS capital” might have suggested. In Mosul, many more journalists covered the battle—often revealing important details about the civilian toll. In December for example, a major field investigation by the Associated Press put the overall civilian death in Mosul above 9,000.

Reporters on the ground in Mosul were able to uncover incidents of civilian deaths from airstrikes, and in several cases help convince the Coalition to concede involvement. The work of BuzzFeed News’ Mike Giglio led to an admission of culpability in four cases, which had left a total of 40 civilians dead. That accountability was only possible after Giglio made unauthorized reporting trips to Mosul, interviewing family members and other witnesses—investigatory steps that the Coalition itself does not undertake. In Raqqa, few media investigations have so far taken place.

When details of civilian deaths do emerge, they gain less traction. In the last month of fighting at Raqqa, a report released by the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA included details of an October 2nd presumed Coalition strike that hit “a water well located in the outskirts of the Al-Tawaassoiya area in the north of Ar-Raqqa city, reportedly killing 45 civilians.” The next day, another strike hit wells where civilians had again congregated, leaving at least 21 dead according to OCHA. The attacks left the city with no functional wells, said the humanitarian brief.

Those attacks, which followed an alleged pattern of civilians being bombed near water sources, and the targeting of civilians trying to escape the city by boat earlier in the offensive, do not appear to have been widely picked up by English-language media.

“In Mosul, media were falling over each other; almost no stone was left unturned,” said Sommerville. “But Raqqa was more difficult to reach during the offensive, and is still difficult to get to. There we have barely scratched the surface. It seemed to me that wherever we went there were stories of civilian casualties. And no one was investigating.”

Yet access to civilians who had escaped the fighting at Raqqa was possible. The SDF had set up civilian reception centers on the outskirts of the city, where survivors were able to speak freely about their harrowing experiences.

A body part seen in February amid the rubble in the Hadiqa Bayda area of Raqqa. Image provided by RBSS.

“The bombardment had been so heavy that people weren’t even afraid of talking about it in front of the SDF,” said a Western journalist who visited one of the centers. “Almost every single person we spoke to had a relative, friend or neighbor that was killed in some kind of bombardment—whether they were going to get water or something else.”

Though all these civilians passed through central locations, there appears to be little or no official record kept of their testimonies about the toll of fighting and bombing inside the city. “The Coalition has not conducted interviews on the ground in or around Raqqa as part of any civilian casualty investigation,” a Coalition spokesperson told Airwars.

“It is striking to see the Coalition continue to deny civilian casualties even after independent on the ground investigations found the contrary,” said Nadim Houry, of Human Rights Watch. “If they want to talk to survivors, they only need to visit these areas.”

Though Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were both able to reach Raqqa without permission from the Syrian government, UN investigators have been blocked by Damascus since 2012. The UN’s Commission of Inquiry, established by the Human Rights Council and the only internationally sanctioned body tasked with investigating crimes committed by all sides in the Syrian war, is severely hamstrung. It can only carry out investigations remotely, often via cell phones and the internet.

Ironically, the Syrian government’s attempts to shield its own crimes has also offered a better chance at impunity for its adversaries. “It is beyond comprehension that, despite this extensive range of violations, Syrian victims and survivors continue to be denied any meaningful justice,” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro on March 6th.

Houry of Human Rights Watch visited Raqqa governorate in the lead up to the battle, documenting evidence of at least 84 civilian deaths in two strikes. In each case, HRW provided detailed information to the Coalition, but not a single one of those civilian deaths has been admitted. “The delays at this point suggest either lack of seriousness in the effort or a desire to hide something,” he claims.

The legacy of the fight for Raqqa may now be the thousands upon thousands of unexploded pieces of ordnance that litter the streets, many of them IEDs rigged by ISIS to explode. Coalition countries say they are funding efforts to train and equip cleanup teams, but those efforts appear to be inadequate. On a subsequent trip, Houry documented the toll—at least 491 dead and injured since October—from IEDS, and how desperate many civilians remained.

The going rate for young men to look through properties and remove rubble was around $50 per house, according to one resident. A false step could cost searchers their lives. A successful job could lead to the discovery of more war dead, like the family of Ayat Mohamed. “It’s like playing Russian roulette, but these young men are desperate for money,” said the resident.

Raqqa is only one part of a complex Syrian battlefield that has claimed countless civilian lives. But the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in its self-proclaimed caliphate was a fight orchestrated and carried out in the main by the United States. To date, the Trump administration has shown little interest in properly understanding the civilian harm resulting from its defeat of ISIS.

▲ Photos of bodies pulled from al Tawassouiya neighbourhood (via Reporters Without Borders)


March 7, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Note: this article has been updated to include a response from the Coalition. 

United Nations investigators charged with monitoring the Syrian conflict have accused both Russia and the US-led Coalition of potentially violating international law or war crimes for strikes in the country during 2017.

In a year which saw shocking reports of civilian harm across Syria, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic launched a blistering attack on the many belligerents, domestic and foreign, who now crowd Syria’s soil.

The latest report of the Commission of Inquiry outlined cluster munition use by pro-government forces; an attack on a hospital that was treating victims of an April 4th 2017 sarin gas attack; and a brutal pro-government campaign in the second half of that year in the Aleppo countryside, targeting schools – a campaign which the Commission said amounted in each instance to war crimes.

ISIS was accused of using snipers and landmines to deliberately target civilians at Raqqa, forcing them to remain within the beseiged city, and of forcibly moving civilians into neighbourhoods under attack from assaulting forces: “By deliberately placing civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations, for the purpose of rendering those areas immune from attack, ISIL militants committed the war crime of using human shields in Raqqah governorate,” the Commission noted.

Investigators also cited the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for conscripting children as young as 13 as fighters. In the aftermath of fighting in Raqqa, the Commission noted, the SDF has been interning up to 80,000 displaced people in desert camps, ostensibly to vet them for possible connections to ISIS. According to the Commission, “Irrespective of the legitimacy of a security threat, the blanket internment of all internally displaced persons from Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr by the Syrian Democratic Forces cannot be justified.”

The Commission also implicated, in effect, four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with involvement – either directly, or by association – with likely unlawful airstrikes. That marked a significant change from late 2015, when Commission chair Paulo Pinheiro said there was “no possibility that we will investigate the American air strikes or French or British or Russian.” In the years since, Russian and US-led airstrikes have reportedly killed thousands of civilians in Syria, leading to a far more robust response from the Commission. 

In the case of November 13th 2017 airstrikes in Aleppo, UN investigators took the important step of naming Russia as the perpetrator — not simply “pro-government” forces or the regime and its allies. In a separate investigation, the Commission offered new details about what may be the deadliest airstrike of the entire US-led campaign in Iraq or Syria – an alliance that also counts among its ranks UNSC permanent members France and the United Kingdom.

Highest civilian toll of entire Coalition war

On the night of March 20th-21st 2017, the Al-Badiya school in al Mansourah, by almost all accounts filled with at least 200 internally displaced people, was struck by the Coalition.The US-led alliance has confirmed it conducted the attack – though continues to insist that only ISIS fighters died.

In a September 2017 Human Rights Watch report, researchers interviewed local residents who said some “ISIS members and their families displaced from Iraq had moved into the school prior to the attack,” but that many also were “completely unaffiliated with ISIS.” HRW found that at least 40 named civilians, including 16 children were killed, and said the toll was likely much higher. The UN-sponsored Commission now assesses that 150 civilians were in fact killed that night – and insists no Islamic State fighters died.

Human Rights Watch investigation video interviewing al Mansour survivors

Though it is not allowed to enter Syria by the Assad government, the Commission was able to interview 20 survivors, relatives, rescuers and other witnesses. “Interviewees explained that, since 2012, Al-Badiya school housed internally displaced families,” wrote the UN investigators. “Some of the residents were recent arrivals while other internally displaced persons had been living in the school for years.”

In the weeks after the strike, Airwars itself provided the Coalition with a 28-page dossier of reports monitored prior to and after the attack which in part described the movement or presence of IDPs in the near area.

In their new report, UN investigators found that the school was hit by three separate airstrikes, “each using multiple bombs that destroyed most of the building rendering it uninhabitable.” They also obtained photographs which showed the type of aerial weapons, including Hellfire missiles, which were likely used.

The al Mansoura strike, and the Coalition’s response, immediately raised serious concerns. As reports emerged suggesting a large civilian toll, the Coalition’s then-top commander General Stephen J. Townsend appeared to preempt his own investigative team.

“We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school,” Townsend told reporters on March 28th 2017. “And we observed it. And we saw what we expected to see. We struck it.”

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there… it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend continued. “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that. In fact, everything we’ve seen since then suggests that it was the 30 or so ISIS fighters we expected to be there.”

The aftermath of a Coalition strike on a school in Al Mansoura, March 21st . This is one of the few images to show the destruction of the attack. (via Mansoura in its People’s Eyes)

In its most recent report, the Commission of Inquiry rebutts that version of events. “Information gathered by the Commission does not support the claim that 30 ISIS fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by ISIS,” it wrote. Investigators said the Coalition should have been aware that the school had been sheltering displaced families for five years. Indeed, among the reports provided to the Coalition by Airwars that described the presence of IDPs were several that predated the strike by several weeks.

The Commission concluded that the Coalition violated international law in failing to “take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”

The Coalition’s investigative team ultimately concluded that allegations of civilian harm in the Mansoura incident were “non-credible.” As in other high profile US or US-led attacks, Coalition investigators did not visit the site of the strike, instead relying on its own internal sources such as strike video. The Coalition’s subsequent investigation, said the Commission, should have been able to “identify the high number of civilian casualties resulting from this incident.”

Even after Human Rights Watch provided the Coalition with detailed information from its own in-person investigation and published those findings, the Coalition did not reopen the case. Reached by Airwars following the release of the Commission’s report, the Coalition repeated their earlier non-credible assessment but said they would consider the findings.

“Based on all evidence provided, to include weapons system video, we have no solid indication civilian casualties resulted from this strike,” said a Coalition spokesperson. “We are interested in the facts the U.N. used to reach a different determination than our assessment. We have in the past re-examined our assessments based on new information, and are willing to reevaluate this assessment if credible or compelling additional information can be obtained.”

Possible Russian War Crimes

The tandem Russian-Syrian aerial campaign in Syria continues to pose significant roadblocks to accountability. Most reports citing Russia during the recent bombing in eastern Ghouta, for instance, have also cited the regime as the possible culprit. Unlike the Coalition however, neither Moscow nor the regime make any effort to admit civilian harm. That makes the second significant case study of international strikes so important in the new UN report.

In an important piece of detective work examining a mass casualty event at Atareb on November 13th 2017, the Commission’s investigators were able to study flight records and pilot communications – and declare that the Russian air force was responsible for a series of strikes that left at least 84 civilians dead and some 150 injured. “Using unguided weapons, the attack struck a market, police station, shops, and a restaurant, and may amount to a war crime,” the Commission said in a statement.

Aftermath of the November 13th attack in Atareb. (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

At the time of the attack, while some local reports did cite the regime the large majority blamed Russia alone. Based on those reports, Airwars assessed that the events in Atareb were the deadliest in all of Syria that week to be tied to Russia. According to to the UN, these early accounts – monitored by Airwars – citing local testimony and observations of planes flying overhead proved accurate.

The first target hit in Atareb was a police station, where at least 13 officers and six prisoners died. The Commission found that the police were not involved in fighting, and that the station was not a “lawful military objective.” Four minutes later, a nearby three-story building was bombed.

A third, catastrophic wave of strikes then followed, hitting “a market street killing and maiming civilians and destroying vegetable and clothing shops as well as nearby residential buildings.” The Commission said it was able to corroborate local accounts by using video captured at the scene, and via satellite imagery.

“Shop owners explained that, at the time of the attack, the market was crowded with people who had left work, most of whom were men since many women had stopped going to the market after the earlier attacks,” wrote investigators.

In the market area, the Commission found evidence consistent with damage caused by unguided Russian-made OFAB-500 bombs. Elsewhere was an entry hole through which an unexploded bomplet fell. “Evidence at the scene and video evidence is consistent with a BeTAB-500 unguided ‘bunker buster’ carrying 12 rocket-assisted penetrators,” wrote investigators. “Using such weapons in a densely civilian populated area was certain to impact civilians.”

While Coalition strikes have mostly tailed off after Syrian Democratic Forces captured Raqqa in October 2017, Russian strikes have been blamed for record numbers of civilian deaths in recent weeks. Between February 19th and February 25th alone, Airwars tracked a record 78 new alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria – nearly all in eastern Ghouta – that reportedly left at least 324 civilians dead. 

On March 5th 2018, the UN Human Rights Council requested that the Commission of Inquiry conduct an urgent investigation into the offensive in the besieged suburb of Damascus.


January 10, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A former deputy commander of the Royal Air Force – who previously oversaw airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya – says that despite British claims to the contrary, it is inconceivable no civilians have been harmed in more than 1,600 UK airstrikes against so-called Islamic State.

Air Marshall Greg Bagwell, who retired from the RAF in 2016, told campaigning group Drone Wars UK in an extended interview that “I don’t think it is credible… that we have not caused any civilian casualties.” On the same day that Bagwell’s interview was published, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was still being quoted as saying that “We’ve not seen any evidence that we have caused civilian casualties.”

Senior opposition Labour MP Clive Lewis has called on the Ministry of Defence to “stop treating the British public as mugs” with its “fantasy approach to zero civilian casualties.”

Air Marshall Greg Bagwell (Image via Drone Wars UK)

According to Air Marshall Bagwell, the Ministry of Defence’s focus on defending its claim of zero civilian casualties is contributing to a false image of risk free war, noting that “the 100% claim and the incessant pressure on its defence has frustrated me.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that we continue to maintain a pure 100% argument,” Air Marshall Bagwell told Drone Wars, in an interview published on January 8th. “Although we do our utmost to both prevent civilian casualties and conduct post-strike analysis to confirm, I don’t think it is credible to the average listener that we have not caused any civilian casualties just because you have got no evidence to the contrary.”

Bagwell also called into question the accuracy of battle damage assessments, which are used to determine possible civilian harm, noting that “you can’t see through rubble.”

‘Second only to the United States’

The UK is the second most active member of the anti-ISIS Coalition after the United States. Through December 12th, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) has reported 1,626 airstrikes – 1,357 in Iraq and 269 in Syria –  which the MoD claims have left upwards of 3,000 ISIS fighters dead. But it has always maintained in parallel that there is no evidence to suggest civilians died as a result of any bombings.

As the war against ISIS moved deeper into heavily populated cities during 2017, British claims of zero civilian harm appeared ever more unlikely. Following the battle for Mosul, former British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP boasted that the UK had struck more than 750 targets in the city – “second only to the United States.” Yet a recent Associated Press investigation found that as many as 11,000 civilians may have died in that assault – at least a third killed by air and artillery strikes.

In a September 2017 response to a Freedom of Information request filed by the Press Association, the MoD was still asserting that according to their records “we have found no credible evidence of civilian casualties [that] have been caused by RAF strikes in Iraq or Syria” over the preceding year. Earlier FOIA requests have been answered similarly.

Until 2016, Air Marshall Bagwell was Deputy Commander at Royal Air Force Command, involved in handling Britain’s involvement in the Washington-led Coalition. “He’s a very senior commander with a lot of experience, and I suspect he is only saying publicly what a lot of officers are saying privately amongst themselves,” said Chris Cole, director of Drone Wars. “Suggesting there may not have been any civilian casualties from more than 1,600 airstrikes is simply not credible.”

Bagwell agrees. “It is almost unbelievable that someone, somewhere, has not been killed by accident,” he said. The former RAF commander also warned that the British public was receiving a warped version of what their counterterror operations resulted in, portraying war as clean.

“There is a danger at the moment that we are conditioning ourselves to think in a certain way – that wars are bloodless and we can carry out war in a ‘nice way,’” said Bagwell. “Thinking war is bloodless is a mistake.”

While downplaying the extent of non-combatant fatalities and emphasising the war’s “precision,” top American officials have conceded civilian deaths. “We can make a mistake, and in this kind of warfare, tragedy will happen,” said US Secretary of Defense James Mattis in August 2017. British officials have rarely made such statements, or have waited as Bagwell did, until they retired.

Members of Parliament have taken note. Afghanistan veteran Clive Lewis, chair of the All-Party Parliamenty Group for Drone Warfare and Labour’s former Shadow Defence Secretary, told Airwars that “The Ministry of Defence’s insistence that it has not caused civilian casualties from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is increasingly untenable, given the lack of transparency surrounding how it investigates civilian casualty reports.”

“The longer the government insist on this fantasy approach to zero civilian casualties, the more they undermine the public’s trust in the government on this matter and beyond,” said Lewis. “This erosion is dangerous and completely unnecessary. My message is clear: Do not treat the British public as mugs.”

The Ministry of Defense does not appear to be budging. In a written response to Parliament on January 8th, Mark Lancaster, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, claimed that “we have been able to discount RAF involvement in any civilian casualties as a result of any of the strikes that have been brought to our attention.”

A Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 armed with Paveway IV laser guided bombs, shown at a base in Cyprus during 2015. Credit: Cpl Neil Bryden/ MoD


By its own admission, the Coalition’s air campaign has killed more than 800 civilians. Airwars researchers estimate the toll is far higher, at over 6,000. By either measure, it appears certain that the United Kingdom – like France and other major partners – have been responsible for some civilians deaths.

In May 2017, Airwars revealed that US officials had judged their coalition partners responsible for at least 80 confirmed deaths due to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. But with the exception of Australia, no member of the Coalition besides the US has ever admitted to killing a single civilian in Iraq and Syria.

Those 80 deaths were quietly included in an April 2017 civilian casualty report, released by the Coalition. They did not include dates or locations for any the deaths – a decision made to insulate allies from identification. Subsequently, the US stopped publicly identifying its own strikes in Iraq and Syria that killed civilians – again, a step to prevent any ally from being identified by elimination. This meant that survivors and family members of victims could not know which country was involved in dropping bombs which harmed their loved ones, even if the Coalition had admitted responsibility.

In evidence presented at the UK’s Parliament in 2017, Airwars director Chris Woods told MPs and peers that he was “surprised” by MoD claims that it had not caused any civilian harm in Iraq or Syria, based on his private conversations with senior defence officials.

While the MoD has never admitted to civilian casualties, it does review allegations. For 2016, Airwars identified more than 120 alleged incidents in which British airstrikes might have resulted in civilian harm. However  in each case the MoD has so far assessed, the UK has determined  that there was no evidence to suggest civilian casualties.

The disparity has raised questions about the UK’s battle damage assessment capacities, and whether they are fit for purpose. “Our view is, if the British repeatedly cannot see civilian harm, but all of the modelling indicates that we should be seeing civilian harm, then that suggests that the aerial civcas monitoring that the MoD is using is not fit for purpose,” Airwars director Chris Woods told the parliamentary inquiry in July 2017.


December 16, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced victory over so-called Islamic State in Iraq on December 9th, his allies in the international Coalition had just begun their 40th month of bombing ISIS targets in the beleaguered nation. A grinding territorial war was finally ending.

“Our forces fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus we can announce the end of the war against Daesh,” Abadi said, referring to the group by an Arabic acronym. “Our battle was with the enemy that wanted to kill our civilization, but we have won with our unity and determination.”

As Iraqi forces celebrated in Baghdad with a military parade, the Coalition congratulated Iraqis on the defeat of their common enemy – while the US pledged its continued backing of Baghdad. With ISIS now losing all major territorial footholds in the country, the toll of the occupation – and from the internationally supported campaign to remove the terror group from Iraq – are still being measured.

Estimates of how many have died since ISIS began its blitz across northern and western Iraq in 2014 remain fragmentary. Thousands of civilians were killed, disappeared or were captured and enslaved, as ISIS fighters targeted minority groups like the Yazidis — crimes that a UN Commission of Inquiry would later label genocidal.

“The public statements and conduct of ISIS and its fighters clearly demonstrate that ISIS intended to destroy the Yazidis of Sinjar, composing the majority of the world’s Yazidi population, in whole or in part,” concluded the commission.

A Yazidi boy – his face and hair matted with dust – re-enters Iraq from Syria, at a border crossing in the town of Peshkhabour in Dohuk Governorate. Photo: UNICEF/Wathiq Khuzaie

When they weren’t shooting civilians, ISIS often trapped them in their homes as Iraq’s cities and towns came under assault — at times even welding them inside. Mines and improvised explosives were widely dispersed in homes and in the street. These will likely kill Iraqis for years to come. The Coalition recently reported that it has so far helped remove “nearly 40,000 kilograms of explosives since April 2016 from liberated areas in Iraq.”

Thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers and police officers were also murdered during the early stages of the occupation, their executions shown in graphic ISIS propaganda videos. During recent operations to capture Mosul, the UN estimates that at least 741 civilians were summarily executed by ISIS fighters, with hundreds more killed by the groups’ artillery and vehicle bombs.  Mass graves are still being found.

“There are many layers of the dead in and around Mosul,” said Katharina Ritz, head of delegation for the ICRC in Iraq. “From different stages of this latest conflict, such as the discovery of many mass graves reportedly linked to ISIS rule, to those who died in various ways during the assault, and those who died at the end and were buried under rubble.”

The heat map shows the locations of alleged Coalition strikes resulting in civilian casualties in Iraq (via the Airwars database) throughout the war. The intensity of colour shows where most claims have been reported. The largest dot represents Mosul.

Iraqis bore brunt of military cost

Ground fighters on all sides of the conflict in Iraq suffered heavy casualties. US military officials have thrown around large numbers — claiming anywhere from 45,000 to 70,000 or more ISIS fighters killed since Coalition operations began. But analysts have questioned whether the number of ISIS fighters in general has tended to be exaggerated, especially by Western militaries.

In the fight for Mosul, elite units like Iraq’s Special Operations Forces were so heavily depleted during fighting — by some estimates they suffered “upwards of 50 percent casualties” in East Mosul — that their role in the more densely packed West was severely diminished.

In March, CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Votel said that 774 Iraqi troops had so far been killed in Mosul. US officials have since put the number of Iraqi military dead in Mosul at 1,400. Other estimates place the number even higher: In November 2016, the UN reported that 1,959 members of the Iraqi Security Forces and supporting forces had been killed that month alone in Iraq. After the Iraqi government protested, the UN stopped publishing estimates of government forces killed in the fighting. Many more Peshmerga fighters and irregulars with Popular Mobilization Forces militias also died fighting ISIS.

Partly as a result of this high Iraqi toll, in December 2016 the Obama administration loosened restrictions on who could call in airstrikes, allowing personnel farther down the command chain to do so. That decision allowed faster approval of attacks, which Coalition officials said would help assist ground troops.

However some journalists on the ground have said that this led to an immediate rise in civilian casualties, a toll that only grew as operations in Mosul continued into the city’s West and ultimately ended in a hellish assault on the narrowly packed Old City.

Though civilians, Iraqi forces and members of ISIS were killed in significant numbers, remarkably few Coalition personnel have died during combat operations – a measure not just of battlefield superiority but of how intensively the alliance depended upon remote air and artillery strikes. As of December 15th, just 13 US service members were reported as killed in action during the entirety of Coalition operations in Iraq and Syria going back to 2014. Partners like France have only suffered rare casualties during operations around Mosul, and not from direct fighting.

There are few conflicts in the history of warfare where a force’s own ability to destroy an enemy over extended periods has been matched by their own relative safety from harm. By comparison, partner forces on the ground suffered casualties at hundreds of times the rate of the Coalition’s.

A heavy civilian toll 

In contrast with high Coalition tallies of ISIS fighters killed, estimates of civilian deaths have been treated conservatively by belligerents and, in many cases, by the media. The air campaign against ISIS began in Iraq on August 8th 2014, when US jets bombed targets as part of an effort to stave off the terror group’s attempt to capture, enslave or exterminate fleeing Yezidis in northern Iraq. By then, the extremist group had already captured large areas of Western and Northern Iraqi, including Iraq’s second city Mosul.

Eight days into the US intervention the first civilian casualties tied to US strikes were alleged. On August 16th outlets including the German press agency DPA and Al Jazeera reported that 11 civilians had been killed in Sinjar. According to local accounts, munitions aimed at fleeing ISIS fighters had instead hit civilian homes in the area. More than three years on, the Coalition has yet to assess this first claim – one of hundreds of Iraq allegations so far unaddressed by the US-led alliance.

It wasn’t until November 20th 2015 that the US first admitted responsibility for any civilian deaths in Iraq. Initially, the US said four civilians had been killed in a March 13th strike in Hatra that same year. Not publicly reported at the time, the incident was brought to the attention of the Coalition by the owner of one of two cars bombed near an ISIS checkpoint. After a Washington Post investigation, CENTCOM raised its estimate of civilians killed to 11. Among the dead were five children and four women. A redacted investigation was posted online by CENTCOM — a practice neither the US or Coalition would continue. Links to the original investigation have now been removed.

Out of some 800 local allegations against the Coalition in Iraq which have been identified by Airwars, the alliance has so far confirmed responsibility in 107 incidents – conceding a minimum of 471 civilian deaths and 97 injuries.

Eighty additional civilian deaths have been confirmed by the Coalition in unidentified events which were the result of non-US Coalition actions — strikes which could have taken place in either Iraq or Syria. America’s allies still refuse to accept responsibility for any of those 80 deaths.

Based on available public evidence, Airwars researchers currently assess 180 further incidents as likely the responsibility of the Coalition. The present Airwars estimate of the total number of civilians killed across all 287 events is between and 2,129 and 3,152  non-combatants.

Beyond the Coalition’s much lower estimates of how many civilians were killed due to its own strikes, the UN in Iraq has released only minimum figures for estimated civilian deaths which they acknowledge to be far below the true toll. In the case of one key province – Anbar – where much of the recent fighting has occurred, the UN has rarely offerted any casualty data. In its most recent monthly report, UNAMI, said it had once again been unable to obtain casualty figures for the province at all.

Only one group, Iraq Body Count, has attempted to systematically capture the death toll caused by all parties in Iraq since before ISIS first began its expansion. From January 2014 – when ISIS captured Fallujah – Iraq Body Count has recorded more than 66,000 civilians having been reported killed in violence throughout Iraq. Their monitoring has led to a preliminary count of 9,791 deaths during operations to recapture Mosul. Clarifying and unraveling reports will still take time, said Iraq Body Count co-founder Hamit Dardagan, who also works as the organisation’s principal analyst.

“After ISIS’s ousting we have a range of reports of mass graves of different age, and disentangling all these will take a lot of time, especially in relation to the more immediate reports that appeared and may in some cases have concerned the same victims,” said Dardagan. “The same need to disentangle multiple accounts of aggregate deaths holds true for OIR and Mosul. We have seen the official accounts, as you will have, but one wonders how even they could be near-finished as yet.”

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Possible under-reporting of civilian harm

While there is little dispute that many thousands of Iraq civilians died in the past 42 months of war, understanding how non-combatants met their deaths often remains a significant challenge.

The Iraqi military has so far issued no estimates of the civilians killed by its own operations. The tally from ISIS killings, while likely running into many thousands, remains to be fully assessed.

The total number of deaths locally alleged from Coalition actions in Iraq between August 16th, 2014 and December 5th 2017 ranges from 9,736 to 13,972 civilians killed in 800 claimed events – though Airwars currently assesses the likely minimum tally at between 2,129 and 3,152 civilians killed, based on available reports.

In 276 cases, Airwars researchers were not able to determine who carried out the reported strike, and these remain labelled as ‘contested.’ Most of these incidents took place in 2017, predominantly in Mosul. This ambiguity in monitoring reflected an increasingly chaotic situation in the final year of fighting.

There are also worrying indicators that civilian casualties in Iraq from all military actions may have significantly been under-reported. Just over half of all admitted Coalition events in the country were never publicly reported at the time – we only know about these civilian harm incidents because Coalition pilots and analysts internally flagged concerns.

In addition, while the number of Coalition strikes overall in Iraq and Syria were roughly equal, Airwars has tracked almost twice the number of confirmed and likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Syria (3,823) than it has for Iraq (2,129). That disparity is thought to be linked to the far poorer local quality of civilian casualty reporting by NGOs and media within Iraq. How many more casualties were never reported we cannot know.

“Civil society groups are much better developed in Syria, after six years of war. Many have undergone extensive training in Turkey and have become expert at documenting violations,” said Benjamin Walsby, Middle East researcher at Amnesty International. “Generally speaking, Iraqi groups were not as well developed as their Syrian counterparts.”

Because of this gap in consistent monitoring – and the Coalition’s own lower estimates –  the individual investigations of journalists and human rights workers like Walsby have played a key role in better understanding the toll of the war. In November, journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, writing in the New York Times, estimated that based on a field study of attacks in Northern Iraq, the actual toll of Coalition strikes in certain areas could be upwards of 30 times what has been publicly acknowledged.

The destruction of cities 

The number of bombs and missiles unleashed on both Iraq and Syria rose considerably as the fighting escalated. Figures for munitions released by Iraqi forces have not been issued so far, while ISIS bragged of deploying hundreds of vehicle borne car bombs during the fighting. An average of five VBIED attacks were faced daily by Iraqi forces during fighting in East Mosul.

Accorded to US Air Force figures, the number of weapons released from aircraft under Coalition control rose from 6,292 in 2014 to 38,993 during the first 11 months of 2017. However, these figures exclude fire from Coalition helicopters, and ground based sources like artillery and HIMARS rockets. According to Coalition figures provided to Airwars, the number of munitions fired into Mosul during the 9-month battle to liberate the city exceeded 29,000. France alone reported more than 1,200 artillery strikes on Mosul.

The fighting has left swaths of urban areas in ruins, often the result of Coalition and Iraqi airstrikes and artillery fire into areas where ISIS proved difficult to dislodge. In the battle for Ramadi, where elite counterterror forces were back by heavy Coalition and Iraqi aerial support, UN analysis of satellite imagery showed more than 5,600 structures were damaged, nearly 2,000 of them destroyed.

A graphic produced by the United Nations showed damage to buildings in Ramadi.

Particularly damaging in the fight for Mosul were improvised rockets, hurled into the Old City by Iraqi forces. “The scale of death and destruction wrought upon Mosul and other parts of Iraq is almost unfathomable,” said Walsby, “Much of this was caused by Coalition airstrikes and Iraqi forces’ use of rocket assisted artillery, among other tactics. Fighting IS was difficult, but there were many things that Coalition forces and their Iraqi partners could and should have done differently to prioritise protection of civilians.”

In total, Airwars presently estimates that between 1,066 and 1,579 civilians were likely killed by Coalition strikes in the vicinity of Mosul between October 17th and mid July. However this may represent a significant under-reporting, with a determination of responsibility presently impossible in many further cases. Overall, researchers monitored between 6,320 and 8,901 alleged civilian deaths in which the Coalition might have been imnplicated – with thousands more ISIS fighters and Iraqi ground troops also killed.

As this Airwars chart shows, reported civilian deaths in Iraq rose dramatically in 2017, reaching peak levels in March with the battle for West Mosul.

The limits of precision warfare

The deadliest strike admitted to by the Coalition across Iraq and Syria took place on March 17th 2017, in the al Jadida neighborhood of West Mosul. At least 105 civilians were killed when the Coalition dropped two 500-pound bombs which targeted snipers on the roof of the building. American officials claimed the house was rigged to explode, though locals have maintained that was not the case.

Though US and Coalition officials have insisted the anti-ISIS operation has been the most “precise air campaign in the history of warfare”, its undeniable physical and lethal toll has shown certain limits to high-tech warfare as it is currently being fought in urban areas.

Too often during the fighting in Raqqa and Mosul, heavy air and artillery strikes were used to clear buildings of ISIS fighters where the immediate presence of civilians appeared to be unknown.

“There’s no doubt that the technology is advanced and we can put rounds in places where we’ve never been able to before, but in urban environments the enemy can turn every building, every room into fortified positions you are taking out infrastructure and you are taking out civilians if they are in what the enemy wants to be a part of,” said John Spencer, a former army infantryman and deputy director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.

“If we know that the character of warfare has changed, and the people that want power figure out that’s where they get the most advantage, we should be adapting.”

While the overall civilian casualty toll has been relatively high, perhaps more remarkable was the number of Iraqis who were able to escape the fighting – despite the intensity of battle. Through October 31st of this year, 3,173,088 Iraqis had been displaced by fighting across the country according to the UN. 2,624,430 had returned to where they were previously displaced from. Through October 18th, 793,422 people had been displaced from Mosul, and 300,576 had so far returned to their homes.

Aftermath of alleged coalition strike on Mosul May 21 2015 (via Mosul Atek)

A lack of allied accountability 

In an apparent effort to improve transparency among its Coalition partners, in April 2017 the US ceased identifying its own strike numbers in Iraq and Syria. However, based on earlier modelling and military reports from other countries, the US clearly carried out the vast majority of actions — well upwards of 90% in Syria.

In Iraq (where the Baghdad government invited the Coalition and its members to operate) non-US partner nations played a larger role – responsible for about one third of all Coalition airstrikes. As of December 1st 2017, the UK had launched the most strikes in Iraq of any ally, with 1,357 reported. It was closely followed by France – which declared 1,265 airstrikes and more than 1,100 artillery actions. Australia conducted approximately 600 strikes; the Netherlands 490; Denmark 258; Belgium 370 and Canada some 246 airstrikes.

With the exception of Australia, no Coalition member besides the US has admitted to a single civilian casualty in more than three years of war. This remains true despite an Airwars investigation that revealed in May 2017 that the US military had determined that at least 80 civilian deaths were the responsibility of other Coalition members. Even now, those deaths remain unclaimed by any nation. Family members of most victims of Coalition strikes in Iraq still cannot know what country was responsible for those deaths.

Key improvements in civilian casualty monitoring were introduced by the Coalition during the war – including the move to regular monthly casualty reports; a significant expansion of the alliance’s CIVCAS cell; the regular releasing of assessment co-ordinates; and the Coalition’s engagement with external agencies such as Airwars. Even so, more than half of the alleged casualty events tracked during the war have yet to be assessed – and it remains unclear how committed the Coalition allies will be to properly investigating this backlog as the ‘hot’ war ends.

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An uncertain future

The war to defeat ISIS as a territorial entity in Iraq had the backing of the United Nations and the international community – and the active support of more than 70 nations. “The military victory over ISIS must be applauded,” said Sahr Muhammedally, Middle East and North Africa director at CIVIC. “Now comes the harder part for the Iraqi government and anti-ISIS coalition to restore critical infrastructure destroyed during operations; and clear buildings and roads of booby traps so people can return home safely. There must also be a robust presence of properly trained security forces to provide security and prevent revenge attacks against returning civilians.”

Like Syria, Iraq is not a member of the International Criminal Court, meaning that even ISIS’s crimes there do not fall under its jurisdiction. While the UN Human Rights Council has created a Commission of Inquiry for Syria, it has not yet done so for Iraq.

This September, however, the UN Security Council authorized a probe of ISIS’s crimes in Iraq which will preserve evidence for eventual criminal prosecution. Groups like Human Rights Watch criticized the move for falling short of a mandate to consider all crimes allegedly committed during the fighting, including by Iraqi, Kurdish and Coalition forces.

“ISIS drew worldwide condemnation and generated widespread publicity. It had to be defeated; we are all too aware of its unspeakable crimes,” said Amnesty’s Walsby. “What is yet to be properly acknowledged is the terrible price that thousands of Iraqi civilians paid for their liberation, at the hands of Iraqi and Coalition forces. Any victory statement that fails to acknowledge this is both deeply flawed and could prove short lived.”

“The challenges in Iraq after ISIS are many, but ensuring that all Iraqis are protected from harm and their losses dignified and recognized is essential to build the foundation for stability and reconciliation in Iraq,” said Muhammedally.


Note: Since our report was posted, two important stories were published December 20th by the Associated Press and NPR, concerning the civilian toll in Mosul.

After an extensive investigation involving on the ground interviews, local morgue reports and reference to NGO databases – including Airwars’ – the AP determined that between 9,000 and 11,000 Mosul residents died during the 9-month assault on the city. Their analysis showed that roughly one third of those deaths were the responsibility of US-led Coalition or Iraqi forces. The likely civilian toll from morgue records “tracks closely with numbers gathered during the battle itself by Airwars and others,” wrote the authors of the AP report.

Based on figures obtained from the Mosul morgue, NPR put the number of civilians killed in the city at “over 5,000.” That number, NPR noted, “is likely more than the number of ISIS fighters believed to have been in Mosul and presumed dead.”

▲ A stunned local at the scene of an alleged Coalition strike on the Sunni Waqf building in Mosul, September 29th 2015 (via NRN News)


December 2, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Three weeks after journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal published a damning New York Times account of civilian deaths caused by anti-ISIS airstrikes, the Coalition has yet to respond publicly. The investigation represented the first large scale, methodical ground survey of airstrikes and the harm they have caused in the war, in this case from three areas of Northern Iraq targeted by the Coalition. Civilian casualties were found to be 31 times more likely than the alliance was admitting.

Airwars recently sat down with Khan and Gopal in New York City to learn more about how they carried out their investigation. Below are highlights from the interview, lightly edited for clarity.

Airwars: No one had completed this kind of scientific study before during the conflict. Going into it, what did you expect to find? How did it compare to what you encountered?

Azmat Khan: We began planning this in February 2016. By April I was on the ground [In Iraq] and I was embedding with local forces, both Shia militias and then with Peshmerga forces, in certain frontline towns. I remember early on seeing how pivotal these airstrikes were in terms of re-taking cities.

There was one town that was really important to Shias, and so dozens of Shia militias had tried to retake it — Bashir — from where ISIS had launched mortars with chemical agents into a neighboring town, Taza. I watched several Shia militias based in Taza try and fail to retake Bashir, putting in all of their troops. Then the peshmerga agreed to try and retake it, and they put in maybe a fraction of the number of troops, but were supported by Coalition airstrikes in a way the militias weren’t, and Bashir fell within hours.

Azmat Khan

It really showed me the extent to which these airstrikes played a pivotal role in re-taking territory, but also the level of devastation. Many parts of Bashir were just up in smoke, when I visited the day after it was re-taken.

Unless you were on the ground, you couldn’t get a real sense of that scale. There’d been good accounts looking at civilian casualties — but nobody had looked at both those that successfully hit ISIS targets and those that didn’t, so a systematic sample. That’s what we teamed up to do. As more cities were being retaken, we though there’s an opportunity to do this.

I think what surprised me was I expected there to be vast discrepancies between the Iraqi Air Force’s civilian casualty rate and the Coalition’s, but the 1 in 5 statistic [1 in 5 airstrikes, they found, killed civilians], that appeared to be consistent across the board, in the entire sample of airstrikes, as well as those identified only as Coalition. That shocked me.

Anand Gopal

Anand Gopal: We had actually done a lot of reporting on airstrikes in civilian mass casualty incidents that didn’t make it into the piece — early on in Hawija; the takeover of Ramadi which was really devastating; Fallujah and Tikrit as well. I think initially we were both really shocked in the difference between what we were getting anecdotally and what was being reported. That’s sort of what inspired this initially. It took a little bit of time for us to figure out the best way to do this would be house to house – systematically.

Khan: It was hard to do that until October… that’s when they [Iraqi forces] were up to the Christian neighborhoods, Bartella was taken around this time. They had started the official campaign, but they weren’t in East Mosul.

Airwars: So It’s October 2016, that’s when you are starting the systematic sample?

Khan: That’s when I was first able to visit a significant number of airstrikes in downtown Qayyarah, a large enough sample to understand that this is possible, we can successfully do this. We came back in January, and then several more times.

On the ground

Airwars: How did you go about this work?

Gopal: For example in downtown Qayyarah you could see that every fourth house was destroyed. So we decided to start at one point in a town and go systematically and just go street by street. We went with various people, police officers and others.

Khan: First I went in with a local blacksmith; later on we went with federal police officers. We went in with many different people at many different times, just to make sure that we were protecting against any potential bias. .

Gopal: We also had to make sure we didn’t miss any of the destroyed places, so we got satellite imagery and [got an analysis of] the before and after satellite imagery to actually mark the destruction, for instance. Many of them are airstrikes, but some of them are demolitions. After ISIS was ejected, people come and demolish [an ISIS] house in retribution. Some of them were not the result of airstrikes at all.

Khan: Those are not in our sample. We excluded anything that was damaged from something else, like a demolition.

Gopal: Two challenges — one is to isolate those that were due to airstrikes from the rest, and the second is to figure out if it is Coalition or Iraqi.  

Airwars: So once you had these cases on the ground, did you match them with reported strikes?

Khan: I had early on gone in and done a calculation – I think there were 450 or so airstrikes officially labeled as “near Qayyarah”, the entire district, not even just downtown,  according to the Coalition’s daily summaries of airstrikes. Then we went through the civilian death casualty reports acknowledged by the Coalition, and found two civilian death reports, one of which was later amended to an injury.

And then we checked Airwars as well, to see whether any allegations matched, and I know there were at least two certain matches from our sample in downtown Qayyarah. Then we looked at open investigations to see if any might match. But of the 75 civilian deaths in that sample of 103 airstrikes, none of those 75 civilian deaths we found had been admitted to or acknowledged to by the Coalition, to date. And none of the 21 deaths from strikes that fell even just within 50 meters of a logged Coalition strike had been acknowledged by the Coalition.

Airwars: That’s mindboggling.

Nadia Aziz Mohammed looks on as Mosul civil defence officials search for the bodies of 11 family members, killed in a June 2017 airstrike (Photo by Sam Kimball. All rights reserved.)

Airwars: And your sample, if anything, likely would have shown fewer civilian deaths — less than West Mosul?

Khan: Yes, the strikes in our 103 sample — which is how we arrived at the 1 in 5 rate — did not include West Mosul, and they occurred before the rule change in December [when the Obama administration made calling in airstrikes easier in support of Iraqi forces].

Gopal: For complex tribal and patronage reasons, strikes in the areas we looked at may be more accurate than those in, say Anbar province. This is because they are populated by the Jibburis, a large tribe whose members maintained a close relationship with US forces over the years. This dates back to a split between Jibburi sheikhs and Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s; by the 2003 invasion, these sheikhs had become one of America’s few Sunni allies, and they were rewarded with police and government posts.

This put them on the opposite side of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and by 2014 they had become known for their fierce resistance to ISIS. This means that the Coalition enjoyed a far better and more extensive informant network in northern Iraq than it did in Anbar. Given our focus on Ninevah and not Anbar, it is likely that if there was any geographic bias, it led us to undercount the civilian casualty rate.

‘Incredible devastation’

Airwars: What was it like on the ground when you talked to people?

Azmat: It was really tough because there is so much sensitivity involved; many are very traumatized.You also have to be very, very clear that because you are a journalist, you are not an aid worker, which is how many people can sometimes view Westerners. Even asking questions about losses — you have to be so careful about that, and it involved usually meeting with as many survivors or people who were eyewitnesses.

If anything, these people we interviewed skewed pro-government, because they were the ones who were allowed to return. All of our interviews happened with people who were living in these areas. We aren’t at a camp saying, “Tell me about your home?” We were at these places where the [strikes] had happened and we knew and could verify that these people live right next door.

Gopal: I know many children of ISIS members had probably been killed, but they are not in our sample because those families have fled or have been arrested and are kept in camps.

Airwars: What did the places you went to look like?

Gopal: Qayyarah was heavily damaged, I’d say. Every street – probably every three or four houses.

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

In all, Khan and Gopal found that among 103 airstrike cases they identified after house to house surveying, one in five had caused civilian deaths – a figure greater than 31 times what the Coalition itself had acknowledged in the survey areas.  

Khan: I’ve been to every one of the 103 [sites] and there were some distinctions. In Shura, by the time of liberation most of the airstrikes happened during the liberation period, not all but most. During the liberation period Shura was pretty depopulated; civilians had mostly left. So it was destroyed. It had just been shot up. Apparently ISIS fighters were staying in tunnels underneath homes. These houses, you could just find incredible devastation, but probably the least amount of civilian death because civilians had left at the time of the bombing.

In terms of verifying allegations, our work went far beyond interviews and analyzing satellite imagery. In addition to interviewing hundreds of witnesses, we dug through rubble for bomb fragments, or materials that might suggest ISIS use, like artillery vests, ISIS literature, sometimes their bones, because nobody would bury them.

We also got our hands on more than 100 sets of coordinates for suspected ISIS sites passed on by local informants. Sometimes we were able to get photos and videos as well. And ultimately, we verified each civilian casualty allegation with health officials, security forces, or local administrators.

The killing of a family

During the course of their research, Khan and Gopal learned of the case of Basim Razzo, who lost his wife and daughter, and his brother and nephew next door, when their homes were misidentified and bombed by the Coalition on September 20th, 2015. Basim barely survived the strikes, but set off on a long quest to have the US government admit its error.

The Coalition’s pre-targeting of Basim’s home – surveyed extensively, filmed by drones —  was what Khan and Gopal call “the best case scenario.” And yet even in this case – most strikes are given nowhere near the attention – the Coalition failed utterly to identify the structures as civilian in nature, and as having no connection whatsoever to ISIS.

In fact, the Coalition was so assured of the strike’s success that it uploaded a video of the attack online. Initially identified in the video as a car bomb factory, Khan and Gopal later learned the Coalition had internally identified it as an ISIS headquarters. It was none of these things.

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

Airwars: I want to talk about Basim. Why did you feel you had to tell this story through his own?

Khan: Basim’s case actually represented so many of our findings. It was important to us that we also use a character and a story that we could follow very closely through the process, and obviously a large part of that was that Basim was exceptional at documenting his own case very early on.

One of the biggest reasons is that he is the “best case” scenario. This is a man who has Western contacts, who speaks fluent English. There had been a [Coalition] video uploaded, so if anything should result in some kind of accountability, this is the best case scenario. This is a deliberate airstrike, not a dynamic one. It was an “ISIS headquarters,” which we were told, when I was at the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center), a very senior intelligence officer told me that a target with one of the highest thresholds to meet is usually an ISIS headquarters… In so many ways Basim’s case was the ultimate, highest most deliberative process.

Airwars: When you say the best case scenario, you mean the best case on the Coalition side in terms of what intelligence they could have, and they still screwed up in such a fundamental way?

Gopal: if there was ever a strike they could get right, this would be the one. They have weeks to plan it, they have it as an ISIS headquarters. And so you know, if it’s an ISIS headquarters, the threshold for actionable intelligence has to be much higher. It can’t just be drone footage that doesn’t see women and children.

Airwars: They identified it as a headquarters and what was the genesis of that? In the story you talk about – it’s infuriating to read – that they didn’t see women and children.

Khan: One of the things I asked at the CAOC in Qatar was how do you identify local patterns of behavior. For example, I said, under ISIS a lot of women are not leaving their homes. So when you are looking at these pattern of life videos, are you taking these variable local dynamics into account? How do you distinguish for example when you are bombing in Iraq and one of these areas, how do you distinguish between patterns of behavior that are specific to Iraq vs. bombing in Afghanistan. What are the differences?

I was told that they could not get into a great deal of detail about ISIS’ “TTPs” — tactics, techniques, and procedures — their understanding of how ISIS generally operates.  They told me that these are developed through the intelligence community, in coordination with a cultural expert, but that they could not offer more detail about it.

Gopal: At the end of the day, it appears there are no consequences for getting it wrong, so there are no incentives to try to get it right.

Another piece of this is there were a number of strikes and incidents that appear to have violated principles of proportionality. Where you bomb an entire house and kill a bunch of civilians for one or two snipers. None of that ended up in the story, because we were, again, trying to interrogate the best case scenario.

Airwars: There’s a fighter on the roof, and they blow up the entire building. You’ve documented that as well?

Gopal: We have plenty of cases like that, but they were after the rule change in December 2016, (and not in the sample of 103 strikes), so a number of cases in late December early January in east Mosul where this was happening. We have a little sidebar in the story that mentions one instance very briefly —  for example, three civilians in one house were killed after at least one ISIS sniper broke into their house and used their roof.

Changing the rules

Note: After civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria began noticeably increasing during 2017, journalists began asking whether the rules of engagement in anti-ISIS operations had changed. Top US officials at first claimed they hadn’t, but later noted that a December rule change had made it easier for lower ranks to call in airstrikes at Mosul.

Airwars: You mentioned these rule changes. There was a lot of talk about what Rules of Engagement mean, and whether that changed in Iraq or Syria, or whether it’s a semantic conversation. What did you understand as having changed, and what did you see on the ground as a result?

Gopal: We didn’t use the term rule of engagement for this reason because it is a contentious term. Personally, and I’m speaking in a personal capacity, I do think that [the December authorization change] qualified as a rules of engagement change…

What we know is in December the number of people who had the authority to call in airstrikes was broadened. Commanders closer to the ground were able to call in airstrikes and both of us know from tracking this very closely on the ground that there was a marked difference.

We have to separate other differences, because there is a phase of battle change, they went from East Mosul to West Mosul which means you have a skyrocketing of civilian casualties. That’s going to happen because you are going there. There are questions of tempo and the number of strikes you are conducting. But from December 20th, from then immediately began to see a change. The number of cases we documented in East Mosul, just within 15 days it was like night and day so it was a real change on the ground.

Airwars: There were other variables, as you mentioned. From afar it’s not easy to splice out what is responsible for what.

Gopal: Right. The Battle for West Mosul didn’t start until the end of January, early February. But we saw this change in the casualties in December.

It is very clear after December 20th – the best actual experiment you can have is just look at the strikes in East Mosul. The neighborhoods before and after December 20th on either side of it are both in East Mosul. You look at the rate before and after and it’s countable. One can look at that and make an estimation. You can look at the Airwars archives before and after these dates, but just in east Mosul.

Airwars: The Coalition repeated over and over how precise the campaign was. What was your sense of this? Did you feel they were deluded? Did you feel they were obscuring the truth, did you feel that they just didn’t get it? Did you feel they were just trying their best?

Khan: Clearly, we have people who care a lot about this issue; they are not unfeeling. And one of the first things that they will often point out is, “We are not doing what the Syrian and Russian air force is doing.”

Mohannad Rezzo, who died in a 2015 Coalition airstrike (via Mosul Ateka)

Sam: Do you feel it’s almost as if because this Russian campaign is happening at the same time they don’t have to be as careful because anything is better than what the Russians are doing?

Gopal: Of course Russian strikes deflect attention from what they are doing. The big difference is of course whatever the Russian air force is doing – which is horrible, undoubtable – they haven’t come out with a particular claim that they’ve killed some 400 civilians in 14,000 airstrikes— but the fact that the Coalition is making this claim means that it—it forces all of us journalists and researchers and academics to hold them to account to that.

More broadly I would say I think it’s in a way unfair almost to compare the two cases—the Syrian/Russian case and the Coalition case—because they are really the result of totally different histories and norms. What I mean is it used to be the case that – it was once accepted for the US to say target civilians. This is World War II in Dresden and firebombing Tokyo, the Korean War. Trump said the US wants to completely destroy North Korea; it would have been the second time they’ve done that. They would target civilians, they would target civilian infrastructure.

That shifted in Vietnam. Even though the laws of war had changed much before after Geneva, it shifted in Vietnam because of a really powerful antiwar movement that forced certain types of norms to be instituted within the military itself. That is the same paradigm we are living in now. The Coalition shouldn’t pat itself on the back that it’s not killing as many civilians as Russia. It’s the result of a process in which millions of people basically demanded and fought for that, against the wishes of the US military for generations.

‘Not a word from the Coalition’

Airwars: Have you had any official response since you’ve published this piece?

Khan: We had been in contact for about a year with questions, which they had been providing responses to. We had been checking coordinates from our sample in their logs. And more than a month before publication, we provided detailed information about all of the civilian casualty allegations that fell within 360 meters of logged Coalition coordinates: the names of dead of injured, photo evidence, contact information of survivors or witnesses or others they could reach on the ground,, before and after satellite imagery, and other evidence, and asked for any response or comment on any of them.

Although they answered other questions, we did not get a response about any of those allegations, and followed up a few times, including asking whether new investigations would be opened as a result of those allegations. And since the piece has been published, we still have not received a comment on that.

Gopal: We didn’t get a denial, we got nothing.

Khan: About the civilian casualty incidents not a word.

Anand: Not a word.

▲ Four members of the Rezzo family died in September 2015 when the Coalition confused their home with an 'ISIS headquarters.' Officials have finally admitted they got it wrong (Picture courtesy of the Altalib family. All rights reserved.)


December 1, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

Dutch F-16s will resume their part in the Coalition’s air war against ISIS on January 1st. Yet while other members of the US-led Coalition have maintained or improved transparency and accountability, the Netherlands has always refused publicly to share any information on the date, location and targets of its airstrikes. Airwars director Chris Woods was one of five speakers invited to a November 29th Dutch parliamentary hearing on civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS.

The Netherlands risks being remembered as the least transparent partner in the entire global Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State, Airwars director Chris Woods warned Dutch MPs at a November 29th parliamentary hearing in The Hague.

Official munitions data suggests that during its previous engagement against ISIS, the Netherlands may have been the fourth most active member of the Coalition, after the US, UK and France. Yet a near-complete lack of public transparency and accountability means that almost nothing is known about any Dutch airstrikes between October 2014 and July 2016 – when more than 500 civilian casualty events were alleged. 

Strikes are set to resume on January 1st when close ally Belgium steps down. Yet defence officials have indicated that there are no plans to improve on the Netherlands’ notoriously-poor public transparency record – citing fears for the personal security of military personnel.

An updated Airwars graphic which measures transparency among all remaining Coalition belligerents shows the Netherlands to be far below all other allies when it comes to saying where, when or what is bombed, the committee was told.

An updated Airwars graphic makes clear how far behind other allies the Netherlands is when it comes to public accountability in Iraq and Syria.

Dutch lack of transparency makes public scrutiny impossible

During the parliamentary hearing – which featured MPs from most political parties – Han ten Broeke, MP for the conservative-liberal VVD, challenged Airwars by pointing out that certain details about Dutch airstrikes are in fact being shared. However, such information is only provided to MPs in closed committee sessions which cannot be publicly discussed. Some MPs have complained privately that they are unable to check Dutch military claims against the public record, as could be done with British or Canadian strikes for example. 

Dutch investigative journalist Sinan Can, who recently met with civilian victims in Iraq,  stressed the importance of public transparency during his own testimony, citing his experiences working on a recent documentary in East Mosul. “It was almost impossible to conduct in-depth research. […] I would like to know where and how many civilians were killed. A little more transparency would build trust. It would enable us [journalists] to explain what happened to the people in Mosul”, Can told MPs.

Independent journalist Jannie Schipper, who in July broke a story on the possible involvement of the Netherlands in an airstrike on January 26th 2015, also addressed MPs. Schipper told the personal story of Ebtehal Mohammed Yosef (26) and Mohammed Mohammed Ahmed (29), who both barely survived the incident.

The account poignantly answered a question of Martijn van Helvert, MP for the Christian-democratic CDA, who asked why Iraqis and Syrians do not simply leave ISIS-held territory when it is being bombed. Schipper said that Yosef and Ahmed had left Mosul in a convoy of six taxis, but were bombed twice on their way to Baghdad.

Wilbert van der Zeijden, senior researcher at human rights organisation PAX, indicated during the hearing that the Coalition risks losing sight of its original stated goal: “ISIS has almost been defeated, but the factors that brought it to power are still in place,” he warned.

According to Van der Zeijden’s policy brief, the military campaign often hasn’t protected civilians, nor has it led to stability in the region. In fact, it has at times done quite the opposite. In both Iraq and Syria the lack of a clear political post-ISIS strategy may lead to a new conflict. Instability, insecurity and a power vacuum were exactly the circumstances ISIS had initially profited from.

‘Without facts there is no justice’

MPs were told that despite the high reported number of civilian casualties, the assumption at Airwars is that most of the Iraqis and Syrians harmed in Coalition actions are not unlawfully killed. Even so, with so many foreign and local powers bombing in Iraq and Syria, relatives are entitled to understand who was responsible for specific actions.

That was a key reason why Professor Liesbeth Zegveld said she had decided to represent Yosef and Ahmed – making her the first lawyer in any Coalition country to take specific action on behalf of those affected by airstrikes.

Prof. Zegveld emphasized the importance of transparency by indicating that with a lack of data it is impossible for victims to assert their rights. “Without facts it is impossible to make a legal assessment. […] Without facts there is no justice”, the human rights lawyer told MPs.

Airwars director Chris Woods concluded his own remarks by calling on the Dutch government to take a different stance on publicly sharing essential airstrike information: “Does the Netherlands really want to be remembered as the least transparent and accountable member of the Coalition?”

However a number of MPs at the hearing stressed that Dutch concerns regarding the safety of military personnel were very real – and were keen to hear from the panelists how other Coalition allies managed transparency issues.

Read our short report to Tweede Kamer MPs setting out our concerns [in Dutch and English]

▲ Library image of munitions being loaded onto a Dutch F-16 during the war against ISIS (via Defensie)


October 19, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have announced the capture of Raqqa from so called Islamic State (ISIS) fighters — and while Coalition officials say small pockets of resistance remain, it is now possible to assess the significant civilian toll of the four month battle.

Some 200,000 civilians by some estimates were in the city when operations to dislodge ISIS began on June 6th. Though the SDF and Coalition appeared at times to give conflicting instructions to civilians, most were able to flee – including several thousand during the last week of fighting, following an agreement that also saw the surrender and evacuation of around 275 ISIS fighters. 

But among those who were trapped at various points since June, Airwars estimates that at least 1,300 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition strikes (more than 3.200 such deaths have been alleged in total.). At least 700 victims have so far been locally named. Some were hit in their homes, some as they fled or reportedly tried to retrieve bodies. Throughout the battle, as in Mosul, ISIS put civilians in incredible danger, employing them as human shields to ward off fire — or worse, ensure their deaths. 

Overall, local monitors say at least 1,800 civilians were killed in the fighting. Fadel Abdul Ghany, Director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said his researchers estimated a civilian death toll in Raqqa since June of 1,854, of which 1,058 were the responsibility of Coalition forces. According to the Network’s estimates, ISIS was responsible for 311 deaths, and SDF ground forces for 191 civilian fatalities.

Other monitoring groups arrived at similar tolls: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that at least 1,873 civilians were killed overall.

Statistics of #Raqqa’s battlessince the declaration till the end of the battle 09.06.2017 to 15.10.2017#Raqqa #Syria #ISIS #YPG #USA .

— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) October 16, 2017

To date, Coalition investigators have conceded just five likely deaths tied to their attacks in Raqqa between June 6th and mid-July, according to monthly reports. Asked about what it viewed as a more realistic total for the number of civilians killed by Coalition actions, the Public Affairs Office directed Airwars to those monthly reports, and said another covering September would be released shortly.

In Mosul, the Coalition and American authorities have said the job of counting dead civilians — killed in any manner — fell to the government of Iraq. In Raqqa, the city is occupied by a Coalition-backed militia and not a national entity. No one appears to be tracking the total civilian toll — no one, except monitoring groups. “We have no reliable statistics on the overall number of civilians killed in Raqqah since June,” said a Coalition spokesperson.

The battery of Raqqa was so ferocious that on average during the entire month of August, one bomb, missile or shell was fired into the city every eight minutes. In September, the last full month of fighting and when ISIS-held territory never made up more than a quarter of the city’s area, some 4,570 munitions were fired by the Coalition. Since June, an estimated 20,000 munitions were fired in support of Coalition operations at Raqqa. Images captured by journalists in the final days of the assault show show a city in ruins.

Historic pictures by @Kilicbil today in Al-Naim square — once infamous for IS atrocities, now dotted with yellow flags of SDF

— Maya Gebeily (@GebeilyM) October 17, 2017

‘Raqqa is 80 per cent uninhabitable’

“There is barely a building that has been left unscathed, some of them have been pulverized by artillery and by fighting, others have been flattened by US airstrikes,” Holly Williams, a journalist in Raqqa, told the BBC World Service on an October 17th broadcast. “It is a terrible irony that in order to retake Raqqa, they’ve had to destroy the city.”

UN officials have been cited as saying that as much as 80 per cent of Raqqa city is now uninhabitable.

The civilian toll in Raqqa from airstrikes extends back through years of Coalition, Russian and regime airstrikes. US and allied aircraft first bombed ISIS positions in the city on September 23rd 2014, with a steady trickle of casualties reported in the following months. The numbers of civilians killed then escalated in March 2017, as SDF fighters sought to besiege the city before eventually fighting inside its confines.

From the start of March through June 6th, an additional 767 or more civilians in Raqqa governorate are assessed by Airwars as likely killed by Coalition strikes — bringing the estimated toll from the campaign to above 2,000. This is higher than the number of civilian deaths considered likely the responsibility of Coalition strikes during the campaign to capture Mosul, a city several times larger. It must be noted that in Mosul reports were often contradictory and attribution difficult, and therefore “likely” Coalition incidents were proportionally fewer. In Raqqa, when a bomb or artillery shell fell it almost certainly originated with the Coalition. 

There were several particularly deadly incidents in the lead up to operations inside the city itself. In a recent report, investigators at Human Rights Watch profiled two such events: the bombing of an abandoned school used to house displaced Syrians on March 20th, and an attack that hit a market and baker two days later on March 22nd. Both incidents took place at Tabqa, to the west of Raqqa and near where a Coalition friendly fire incident would soon after claim the lives of 18 SDF members, raising questions about the accuracy of air and artillery strikes, and the intelligence used to plan them.

Between the two March attacks, Human Rights Watch recorded the names of 84 civilians identified by locals and relatives as killed. Among them were 30 children. After the Coalition’s commander initially brushed aside the school bombing, calling it a “clean strike”,  internal investigators determined that no civilians were killed — an assessment the Coalition has stuck by even in the face of subsequent findings. A separate investigation undertaken by a UN commission of inquiry has cited the school incident as one of the war’s deadliest, and said it took place at night, while most were sleeping.

Those deadly strikes set the tone for a dramatic increase in civilian casualties over the next half year. They also coincided with a new anti-ISIS plan, delivered by US Defense Secretary Mattis at the end of February to President Trump. Mattis would later describe the new US approach as one of “annihilation” — surrounding ISIS areas and not allowing any foreign fighters to escape. (Across Iraq and Syria, reported civilian deaths rose six-fold in the month after the plan was delivered). Yet Raqqa was ultimately taken after an agreement between the SDF, local tribal leaders and ISIS that allowed several hundred fighters to surrender in exchange for the release of thousands of trapped civilians. 

“After destroying most of the city, the Coalition has shown no interest in helping locals save what’s left of civilians,” wrote analyst Hassan Hassan on October 14th, lamenting that evacuation arrangements for Raqqa weren’t considered much earlier.

As noted before, after destroying most of the city, the Coalition has shown no interest in helping locals save what’s left of civilians. A missed opportunity to *actively* demonstrate interest beyond dropping precision bombs.

— Hassan I. Hassan (@hxhassan) October 14, 2017

‘Civilians have paid the highest cost’

In March alone, Airwars recorded at least 275 civilian deaths likely attributable to Coalition airstrikes or artillery — more than six times as many as were tracked in February. This occurred in spite of a drop in the number of targets hit, suggesting more civilian deaths with each US-led raid. In April, Airwars researchers estimated that at least 215 civilians were killed by Coalition strikes in Raqqa governorate. In May, that figure was 283.

In June, when the offensive inside the city began, civilian deaths due to Coalition activities in Syria hit a new record, rising by nearly 50%. In Raqqa itself during the month, Airwars estimated that at least 335 civilians had been killed by the alliance’s bombs or artillery.

“In the many months that forces have participated in the battle for Raqqa, it is the civilians who have paid the highest cost,” a member of the monitoring group Raqqa of Being Slaughtered Silently told Airwars shortly before SDF fighters declared the city captured.

On June 6th – the first day of the assault – three children, including a baby named Jana Nour al Hariri were reported killed by a Coalition strike in the al Ferdos neighborhood of Raqqa. This marked a new and grim metric for measuring the toll in Raqqa: the number of children reportedly dying in air and artillery strikes. After seven weeks of fighting inside the city, the deaths of more than 119 children had been tied by Airwars researchers to likely Coalition actions.

According to Airwars estimates, that number rose to at least 250 child fatalities by the time the SDF declared victory in October. 

Jana Al Hariri, killed – along with four members of her family – in an alleged Coalition raid on Al Ferdous, July 6th 2017 (via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

On August 24th, the UN’s humanitarian adviser for Syria, Jan Egeland, urged the Coalition to consider a humanitarian pause. The Coalition refused, and suggested it would not consider any steps allowing ISIS to regroup inside the city. “The only way to save the people of Raqqa is to liberate them from the Islamic State,” wrote Lt. Gen. Stephen J Townsend, in an article responding to Airwars research.

That same month, Airwars monitored at least 433 civilian deaths it considered the likely responsibility of the Coalition. In one of the worst reported incidents, at least 23 civilians were reported killed in an attack on Raqqa’s Bedo neighborhood on August 20th. More massacres followed in the coming days: On August 21st, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the death of 19 children and 12 women in the same neighborhood. Dozens more were killed in strikes that week. 

The aftermath of an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqa’s Bedo neighbourhood, Aug 20th (via Euphrates Post)

The annihilation of ISIS

The US-led effort in Raqqa served two functions — to free local populations from ISIS rule, but also to prevent any fighters from getting away and, possibly, plan attacks against the West. These two stated goals — the protection of civilians, and the annihilation of ISIS in the context of a wider global war on terror — were not always in tune. 

In Mosul, noted Hassan, an escape route was initially left open towards the west, if only briefly. But by the time the siege of Raqqa began, “annihilation” tactics where being fully employed.

“In Raqqa, the US followed a different approach,” said Hassan. “That approach has been a disaster for the city, and especially so since such a strategy would be more catastrophic given that the Syrian Democratic Forces are not as professional as the Iraqi counterterrorism forces that the US trained and supervised for a decade.”

The Coalition, for its part, has praised the SDF for protecting civilians while operating in an unforgiving urban environment.

“In Raqqa and elsewhere across Syria, our focus remains on reducing risk to civilians, while continuing to pursue and defeat ISIS terrorists at every opportunity,” Coalition spokesperson Ryan Dillon told reporters on October 17th. “Over the past 96 hours, we have seen about 1,300 civilians assisted to safety by the SDF, and just about 3,000 civilians rescued in the last week. “

Amazing moments when a group of Raqqa civilians finally rescued from ISIS by YPG-led SDF fighters @MAturkce @CENTCOM @brett_mcgurk

— Mutlu Civiroglu (@mutludc) October 13, 2017

As the battle for Raqqa wound down in October, American officials boasted of the firepower still being unleashed on ISIS-held parts of the city. On October 9th, US special envoy Brett McGurk tweeted that 75 airstrikes had taken place over the preceding 72 hours (a “strike” can include many bombs and multiple targets). During that time period several civilian casualty incidents were reported. In one, at least nine civilians were reported killed in Raqqa when a Coalition strike allegedly hit a residential building. According to local accounts the dead had been displaced from Palmyra, only to be cut down in Raqqa a week before the fighting ended.

“Why resort to a scorched earth strategy with a city housing the most vulnerable people in all of Syria?” one member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently noted to Airwars. “Do they not know that, in a way, their actions have caused the people of Raqqa to completely loose faith in the international community?”

The challenge for the Coalition and its local allies in the months ahead will be restoring hope to this shattered city.