US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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Published

September 20, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

US-led Coalition forces are firing record numbers of bombs, missiles and artillery shells into besieged areas of Raqqa city – part of a bloody campaign to dislodge so-called Islamic State (ISIS) from its self proclaimed capital. The assault is also reportedly killing hundreds of trapped civilians every month – a charge the Coalition strenuously denies.

On average one Coalition bomb, missile or artillery round was fired into Raqqa every eight minutes during August, according to official data provided to Airwars. A total of 5,775 bombs, shells and missiles were launched by US-led forces into the city during the month in support of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground.

By way of comparison, US-led forces fired ten times more munitions into Raqqa during August than were released by US aircraft across all of Afghanistan for the same month (503), according to recent data issued by Air Force Central Command (AFCENT).

Bloody fight

The SDF is now in the fourth month of a slow and bloody battle to seize Raqqa from ISIS. Yet even after announcing the capture of more than half of the city, Coalition data shows record numbers of munitions being fired – higher even than were loosed in any one month (5,500 in March) during the tough fight for West Mosul, an area far larger than Raqqa.

The intensity of the air and artillery bombardment on Raqqa – primarily by US forces – closely correlates with high casualty reports on the ground. In July, munition use and likely civilian casualties from Coalition strikes in Raqqa fell by 32 percent and 33 percent respectively. In August both munition use and reported casuialties rose steeply again.

Airwars monitoring indicates that at least 433 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition actions at Raqqa during August — more than double the number of estimated fatalities the previous month. In total more than 1,000 civilians have now credibly been reported killed since the assault began on June 6th, according to Airwars monitoring. The UN reports that an estimated 25,000 civilians remain trapped in Raqqa, prevented from fleeing by ISIS. Much of the city’s infrastructure, including its medical system, has also largely being reduced to rubble.

On September 19th, the Coalition told Airwars that its own estimates were that between 15,000 and 18,000 civilians still remained inside the city under ISIS control. Officials say the civilians should leave the city if possible. “If they can do so safely, the SDF has instructed civilians to flee their homes to SDF-controlled areas of Syria for relocation to IDP camps,” said Coalition spokesman Col. Thomas Veale. 

International agencies and NGOs are urging the US and its allies to do far more to protect from harm those civilians still trapped at Raqqa. “Using explosive weapons such as bombs and missiles in populated areas poses a predictable risk to civilians,” said Ole Solvang, deputy director of the emergencies division at Human Rights Watch. “The amount of munitions the coalition is firing into Raqqa raises serious concerns whether the coalition is taking all feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties.”

Aftermath of an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqa’s Malahi neighbourhood, which was reported to have killed up to 40 civilians, August 22nd 2017 (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

‘Operational need’

Among those credibly reported by local monitors as killed in August at Raqqa were at least 74 children and 62 women — both estimates up considerably from the previous month. To date, more than 180 children have likely been killed in Coalition air and artillery strikes since June 6th, according to an Airwars assessment. 

The Coalition – which has so far conceded only four civilian deaths during the battle for Raqqa – maintains that despite the surge in munition use, the minimizing of civilian casualties is their top concern. The uptick in bombs and missiles, said a Coalition’s spokesperson, was a product of “operational need and will ebb and flow as the operation does.”

“The number of strikes and munitions also vary based on several other factors, such as the number of available targets, partner force operational tempo, enemy movement, and the weather,” said Col Veale. “The Coalition adheres to strict targeting processes and procedures aimed to minimize risks to non-combatants.”

“The avoidance of civilian casualties is our highest priority when conducting strikes against legitimate military targets with precision munitions, unlike the indiscriminate nature of ISIS tactics which result in an enormous number of avoidable civilian deaths,” Veale wrote in a statement to Airwars. “The Coalition will not abandon our commitment to our partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods”

Read our full Coalition and Russia casualty assessment for August 2017

For its part, ISIS has been repeatedly documented as placing civilians in extreme danger. Non combatants are held against their will in areas under Coalition fire, with ISIS using them as so called ‘human shields.’ Civilians are also regularly fired on by ISIS fighters if they try to flee.

During the recent battle for Mosul, Amnesty International reported that civilians were welded into homes, or ringed with booby traps. Those attempting to escape were often killed. In a recent response to Airwars research, the outgoing Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend cited such tactics.

“They booby trap houses, they weld doors shut to hold civilians hostage, and they shoot civilians that attempt to flee to the safety of our partners’ lines,” he wrote.

According to Raqqa researchers at the NGO Physicians for Human Rights, civilians are afraid to leave their homes — even if it is to retrieve a wounded civilian or dead body.

“Right now, our contacts on the ground are merely begging for time between the relentless bombings to at least be able to retrieve their wounded or dead family members from the rubble,” said Racha Mouawieh, lead Syrian researcher at Physicians for Human Rights. “Because Raqqa is ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital and main stronghold, coalition forces seem to feel they can totally disregard the lives and dignity of people trapped there.”

“ISIS has turned buildings that were once hospitals, mosques, and schools into headquarters and weapons caches to take advantage of their protected status,” said Col. Veale. “In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition strikes only valid military targets, after considering the principles of military necessity, humanity, proportionality, and distinction.”

"Al-Mansor street" downtown #Raqqa. The area has been targeted by tens of airstrikes during the last three months.#ISIS #SDF @Coalition pic.twitter.com/k2Napy5ccK

— RaqqaPost الرقة بوست (@RaqqaPost) September 8, 2017

Coalition denials

Civilian suffering at Raqqa has been well documented by local monitors such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Raqqa is Being Slaugtered Silently. Recent field investigations by Amnesty International and the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria have also raised significant concerns, as has the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – who recently warned that civilians at Raqqa “are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling ISIL are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle.“

In late August, reports grew so dire that UN humanitarian advisor Jan Egeland took the rare step of asking all sides to consider a humanitarian pause in Raqqa. The Coalition pushed back, saying operations would not be slowed and arguing that the faster the campaign was concluded, the more civilians would ultimately be saved.

The Coalition has also aggressively challenged reports of high civilian casualties from its actions – with senior officials publicly attacking Amnesty International; the Commission of Inquiry for Syria; and most recently Airwars.

Yet even the Coalition’s own reporting shows civilian fatalities in conceded incidents have doubled since Donald Trump took office eight months ago. That same official data shows that an average of 5.2 civilians are being killed in each admitted event under President Trump’s leadership – compared with an average of 3.1 civilians killed per event with Barack Obama at the helm. Airwars has recorded similar trends, though at far higher levels. As of September 14th, it estimates that at least 5,300 civilians had likely been killed by Coalition actions in both Iraq and and Syria since 2014. The majority of those reported deaths occurred during Trump’s leadership of the Coalition.

The unrelenting tempo of strikes in Raqqa may reflect the so called “annihilation tactics” put in place for counter-ISIS operations by Trump’s administration. “As we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field, we are already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS,” Trump said in an August 21st speech. Recent reports suggest the SDF has captured significant portions of Raqqa in recent days. 

https://twitter.com/arisroussinos/status/905143984355463169

‘If they are not liberated they will surely die’

Shortly after handing over command of the Coalition at the start of September, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend penned an extensive response to an earlier Airwars article jointly published with Foreign Policy. Townsend took issue with Airwars’ methodology, but also explained the Coalition’s strategy in Raqqa:

“There is no doubt that civilians are at risk every day from ISIS, our partner forces’ operations to defeat ISIS, and Coalition strikes in support of them,” wrote Townsend. “As the battle intensifies in the heart of Raqqah, more civilians will be at risk as ISIS holds them hostage and refuses to let them flee. However, if they are not liberated they will also surely die, either at the hands of ISIS or from starvation.”

But that strategy – and the significant reported civilian toll in Coalition-backed operations to capture ISIS-held cities – has caught the attention of some American military experts, who say the present offensive approach to urban battles needs to be rethought.

“Because we don’t understand cities nearly as well as we could and have demonstrated that we know even less about how to optimize military actions in them, we are like medieval doctors, lobotomizing patients and letting their blood without improving their health and too often causing death or such life-long damage that the patient survives as only a dysfunctional shadow of itself,” wrote John Spencer and John Amble of West Point’s Modern War Institute, in an analysis published in September.

“We cause incredible disruption and even destruction, but without any research-based evidence that these efforts will save the city.”

As the SDF further consolidates control over Raqqa, some international journalists have recently been able to send dispatches from inside the city. They report devastation. “24 hours of coverage still wouldn’t do justice to the total destruction across Raqqa,” tweeted veteran BBC Middle East Correspondent Quentin Sommerville. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

24 hours of coverage still wouldn't do justice to the total devastation across Raqqa. I've never seen anything like it. pic.twitter.com/rYS1y7mGxy

— Quentin Sommerville (@sommervilletv) September 17, 2017

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqa's Bedo neighbourhood, Aug 20th (via Euphrates Post)

Published

September 15, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

In late August, Airwars published a news feature in conjunction with Foreign Policy examining Coalition actions at Raqqa. The article reflected the high civilian casualty count in the Syrian city, as reported by local monitors; NGOs such as Amnesty International; the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and latterly the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria. Former Coalition commander Lt General Stephen Townsend has drafted a robust response to our report. While Airwars would take issue with much of the Coalition’s own analysis, we believe there is significant public value in publishing Lt Gen Townsend’s comments unedited and in full.

Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, former Commanding General of CJTF-OIR: Response to Samuel Oakford on ForeignPolicy.com

Having commanded the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve effort to defeat ISIS over the past year, I would like to offer your readers some perspective on the execution of the campaign. Specifically, I would like to address some points raised by Airwars’ Samuel Oakford in his recent piece on civilian casualties in Syria.

The global Coalition to defeat ISIS shares Oakford’s concern for the welfare of civilians, but commanders must also equally protect our partner forces and Coalition service members who are putting their lives at risk every day to protect and free civilians in Raqqah and throughout ISIS-held Iraq and Syria.

In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition strikes only valid military targets after considering the principles of military necessity, humanity, proportionality, and distinction. I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare. The Coalition’s goal is always for zero human casualties. We apply rigorous standards to our targeting process and take extraordinary efforts to protect non-combatants.

Assertions by Airwars, along with claims by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and media outlets that cite them, are often unsupported by fact and serve only to strengthen ISIS’s hold on civilians, placing civilians at greater risk. The civilian casualty numbers quoted in Oakford’s article are based on unsubstantiated allegations rather than facts. The Coalition deals in facts, so here they are.

We conduct a detailed assessment of each and every allegation of possible civilian casualties.  We hold ourselves accountable with an open and transparent process to assess allegations of civilian casualties, and we publish these findings on a monthly basis for the world to see.

Our critics are unable to conduct the detailed assessments the Coalition does. They arguably often rely on scant information phoned-in or posted by questionable sources.  The Coalition would be pilloried if we tried to use similar supports for our assertions. Still, their claims are often printed as fact and rarely questioned.

That said, the Coalition does not shy away from the accountability placed on us by our leaders, the media and human rights organizations. Oakford fails to mention that since the summer of 2017, the Coalition has worked directly with Airwars to ensure we assess every allegation of possible civilian casualties available.

Out of the 270 allegations obtained from Airwars that have been assessed thus far, 258 have been assessed as non-credible. Of those, 119 were assessed as non-credible because the Coalition did not conduct a strike near the area of the allegation.  Another 60 of those allegations were so vague in regard to the date and location of the alleged casualties that they were impossible to assess. The remaining 79 allegations were found to be non-credible due to lack of sufficient evidence or are still being assessed.

To date, based on data between August 2014 and July 2017, the Coalition conducted a total of 24,160 strikes that included 51,038 separate engagements.

The percentage of all Coalition engagements that resulted in a report of possible civilian casualties is 2.29 percent. The percentage of engagements that resulted in a credible report of civilian casualties was 0.32 percent.

Not since World War II has there been a comparable urban assault on a city like Mosul or Raqqah.  ISIS had nearly three years to prepare for the defense of these cities and then cowardly used civilians as human shields to protect themselves even further. They booby trap houses, they weld doors shut to hold civilians hostage and they shoot civilians that attempt to flee to the safety of our partners’ lines. ISIS has tortured, beheaded, and burned those that did not agree with them and they have gunned down women and children fleeing Mosul and Raqqah. They post the evidence of their evil for the world to see on social media.

There is no doubt that civilians are at risk every day from ISIS, our partner forces’ operations to defeat ISIS, and Coalition strikes in support of them. As the battle intensifies in the heart of Raqqah, more civilians will be at risk as ISIS holds them hostage and refuses to let them flee.  However, if they are not liberated they will also surely die, either at the hands of ISIS or from starvation.

The Coalition has done, and continues to do, everything within its power to limit harm to non-combatants and civilian infrastructure. But let us be clear: ISIS brought misery and death to this region, and ISIS is responsible for the plight of civilians in the areas they hold. The Coalition was invited to this region with the full knowledge that if ISIS is not defeated, the human cost will be even higher; it will be paid not just in Iraq and Syria, but in our homelands across the globe.

The assertion that the Coalition reduce strikes or pause operations to enable the evacuation of civilians treats ISIS as an actor that respects human rights. In reality, ISIS repeatedly demonstrates complete disregard for human life.

Any pause in operations will give ISIS more time to strengthen their defenses and take the initiative from our partners, putting more people in harm’s way. A pause will also further reinforce ISIS’s tactic of using civilians as human shields, prolonging the fighting and increasing the danger to non-combatants.

This is exactly what ISIS wants – to attack the strength of the Coalition – to create doubt and diminish support for a just mission against an evil enemy.

As we saw in Mosul, a prolonged battle in dense urban terrain is devastating for ground forces and civilians alike. This is something only ISIS wants to see. Although a commander’s imperative is to accomplish the mission and protect his own troops, he constantly and conscientiously manages the pace and intensity of operations, balancing the need to accomplish the mission with the risk to his own forces and the protection of non-combatants and infrastructure.

The only way to save the people of Raqqah is to liberate them from ISIS.  The Coalition will continue to take great care in our targeting to protect civilians from harm but we must maintain our course. We must maintain the initiative and we must liberate the people of Iraq and Syria from this real and mortal danger.

▲ Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general for Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, N.C., provides his remarks during the transfer of authority ceremony for CJFLCC-OIR in Baghdad, Iraq, July 12, 2017. The 1st Infantry Division transferred authority to the 1st Armored Division after a nine-month deployment in support of CJFLCC-OIR. (US Army Photo by Sgt. Von Marie Donato)

Published

September 6, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A Commission of Inquiry for Syria appointed by UN member states has determined that American forces violated international law when they bombed a mosque earlier this year. The Commission said on September 6th that it was also “gravely concerned” about the civilian toll in Raqqa, where Coalition forces have killed hundreds in recent months.

The Commission, which conducted 339 interviews in the course of reporting, highlighted two US and Coalition raids in their findings. One was a unilateral American raid on a mosque in Aleppo governorate which the Commission determined killed 38 people, including a woman and five boys on March 16th. A Coalition strike just a few days later, which hit civilians sheltering in an abandoned school near Raqqa, remains under investigation by the Commission.

The investigatory body also documented more than two dozen instances of chemical weapons use by Syrian regime forces, including an attack in April that left more than 80 civilians dead in Khan Sheikhoun and led to American cruise missile attacks on a government military installation. Russian forces, said the Commission, continued to bomb and target hospitals and medical personnel in Syria.

From the initial hours after the March 16th strike, American officials claimed that al Qaeda members were meeting at the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque in al Jinah. In June, US military investigators declared that in spite of numerous errors that led to misidentification of structures in the target area, the strike was lawful. US officials said only one civilian, a “smaller in stature person” – clearly a child – was believed to have died.  

Having identified a smaller older mosque nearby, US officials also insisted that the section of the religious complex hit by F-15 jets was not a functional one — an assertion contradicted by numerous local accounts and detailed investigations and analyses carried out by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture.

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

The Commission was able to confirm the use of GBU-39 munitions – a lower yield bomb which UN investigators said “was used to destroy the target with minimal collateral damage.” However, the Commission said the mosque should not have been targeted in the first place.

Witnesses confirmed to the Commission that members of the al-Qaeda linked group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham were present in al Jinah. Investigators said they could not rule out “that some members of the group may have attended the gathering.” But, the Commission added, “the United States targeting team lacked an understanding of the actual target, including that it was part of a mosque where worshipers gathered to pray every Thursday.”

“Moreover, although the targeting team had information on the target three days prior, it did not undertake additional verification of target activities in that period, which would be expected were it known to be a mosque,” wrote investigators. The Commission concluded that the US “failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects, in violation of international law.”

The Coalition strike, which took place in al Mansoura village in the early hours of March 21st, is one of the most fraught — and by some accounts deadliest — of the entire air campaign. Initial reports varied greatly but suggested a large civilian death toll. Reports monitored by Airwars named at least dozens of civilian victims.

But a week after the raid, then-coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend called the strike “clean.” Speaking to reporters on March 28, Townsend pronounced “my initial read is: non credible.” His remarks raised concern that the Coalition investigation – not completed for several months – would be influenced by the General’s own conclusion. Ultimately the Coalition determined no civilians had died.

In June, the Commission highlighted the strike at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, where one Commissioner said the death toll in Mansoura was 200 — however this number may been a reference to reports, and it was not reflected as a conclusive figure in the latest report.

In their new findings, the Commission said they had “credible evidence that the school had been used to house internally displaced people as far back as 2012.”

“At the time of the strike, over 200 people, mostly displaced families from Palmyra, Homs, but also from Hamah and Aleppo, were living in the former school,” reported the Commission. “Some of the victims were recent arrivals, including from Maskanah, Aleppo, while other internally displaced persons had been living there for years.”

The strike, the Coalition found, occurred at night when most were sleeping.

In a June 17th email, Coalition spokesperson Col. Joseph Scrocca said “It is our assessment that no civilians were killed in a strike on a known ISIS torture site, weapons storage facility and meeting place formerly used as a school in Mansoura, Syria, 20-21 March.” Asked then about the disparity between the Commission’s findings, Scrocca asked “are there any photos or videos of the hundreds of civilian dead?”

The Commission interviewed witnesses after both strikes, as did Human Rights Watch. American and Coalition investigators did not speak to locals.

Published

August 29, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The number of civilians killed by the US-led coalition assault on the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria is mounting – but the coalition’s commanding general has cast doubt on the toll his forces are inflicting on innocents there. Airwars currently assesses that 1,700 or more civilians have likely been killed by U.S.-led air and artillery strikes in Raqqa governorate since March. A minimum of 860 civilians, including 150 children, are credibly reported to have been killed in Raqqa since the official start of operations to capture the city on June 6th.

Despite these findings, and corroborating evidence from UN bodies and nongovernmental organizations, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend has described reports of such claims of large scale civilian death as hyperbole. In one instance the General  prematurely called allegations not credible even before the coalition had completed its own investigation.

Citing an estimated 20,000 civilians who remain trapped in Raqqa, UN humanitarian advisor Jan Egeland asked last week for consideration of a humanitarian pause in the city, similar to the respites organized last year in eastern Aleppo, where regime forces were fighting rebels. Despite a number of major investigations into the civilian death toll in Raqqa by multiple human rights organizations in recent months, there is no sign either side is considering any sort of pause.

The aftermath of an alleged Coalition raid raqqa’s Bedo neighbourhood, Aug 21st (via RBSS)

In a report released Aug. 24, the same day Egeland made his appeal, Amnesty International described the hell facing civilians, including thousands of children, at Raqqa. Survivors who fled the city said that Islamic State fighters have “been laying landmines and booby traps along exit routes, setting up checkpoints around the city to restrict movement, and shooting at those trying to sneak out.” But the report also described a “constant barrage of artillery strikes and airstrikes” by the coalition that further restricts movement, and has injured and killed hundreds of people.

Witnesses told of how shells ripped through civilian homes, and killed those seeking to escape. “Artillery shells are hitting everywhere, entire streets,” one witness said. “It is indiscriminate shelling and kills a lot of civilians.” (Russian air raids in support of pro-regime forces have also left many civilians dead south of the city.)

Yasser Abbas Hussein al-Alo, killed in an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqa, Aug 2nd (via Ahmad Al Shbli)

Throughout operations to capture Mosul and Raqqa, the coalition has argued that defeating the terrorist group quickly would ultimately save more lives. After Egeland’s comments, the coalition quickly tamped down expectations that the tempo of fighting might slow in Raqqa or anywhere else.

“Any pause in operations will only give ISIS more time to build up their defences and thus put more civilians in harm’s way,” said coalition spokesman Col. Joseph Scrocca. “What is more, it will further reinforce ISIS’s tactic of using civilians as human shields.”

But Townsend, the coalition forces’ commander, has gone further. He has suggested on several occasions that civilian death tolls are exaggerated — no matter how well investigated they may be.

In June, after a UN commission of inquiry warned that civilian casualties around Raqqa were already “staggering,” Townsend took issue with their phrasing, calling it “hyperbolic.”

“Show me some evidence of that,” he told the BBC.

On Aug. 22, Townsend again played down civilian deaths, this time at a press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in Baghdad.

“It’s probably logical to assume that there has been some increase in the civilian casualties, because our operations have increased in intensity there,” said Townsend, when asked by a reporter about the uptick in deaths. “I would ask someone to show me hard information that says that civilian casualties have increased in Raqqa to some significant degree.”

Such hard information is freely available from multiple sources. Large numbers of civilian casualties from coalition actions have been reported in local outlets and by Syrian monitoring organizations since well before the official start of operations inside Raqqa itself. In the three months leading up to June, Airwars researchers estimate that more than 700 civilians were likely killed by coalition strikes as the Syrian Democratic Forces surrounded the city. Airwars currently assesses that more than 5,100 civilians have likely been killed in coalition actions in both Iraq and Syria since 2014.

These estimates are only compiled from reporting rated as “fair” by Airwars researchers. This classification requires there to be two or more reliable sources indicating civilian casualties and citing the coalition as having launched the strike, no conflicting attribution (for instance, the presence of Russian or regime strikes), and acknowledgement by the coalition that it did launch strikes in the vicinity on that day. Among accounts monitored by Airwars, more than 1,900 civilian deaths in Raqqa have been blamed on the coalition since June 6, but less than 40 percent was considered “fair.”

Reports of the damage wrought by coalition strikes have been corroborated by investigators on the ground. Researchers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recently visited the cities, towns, and camps around Raqqa,  and interviewed survivors who all tell similar stories of terrifying air and artillery strikes, as well as Islamic State actions. The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria has also been able to speak with survivors and witnesses to a number of strikes in the area.

One reason for the disconnect between public allegations and military understanding is the pace of official investigations. The coalition itself has so far finished examining just a fraction of civilian casualty allegations reported in Raqqa since the assault began. Since the latest coalition monthly casualty report was published this month, only three incidents in Raqqa dating to after June 6th had been assessed by the U.S.-led alliance. Another 13 allegations are pending review.  Airwars has informed the coalition of 101 individual alleged incidents at Raqqa for June alone.

Airwars monitoring shows that the civilian death toll in Raqqa is closely linked to the intensity of the assault. Put simply: When fewer coalition bombs fall, fewer civilians are killed. In July, for example, estimated civilian deaths from coalition strikes fell in Raqqa by about 33 percent compared with June. Munitions fired at the city by the coalition also fell by almost exactly the same amount – 32 percent.

Children in particular are suffering in Raqqa. Though some civilians are able to bribe their way out of the city, local monitors like the Syrian Network for Human Rights say children are often marooned with their families. According to UNICEF, thousands remain trapped.

“With no access for humanitarian agencies, the city is completely cut off from lifesaving assistance,” said Fran Equiza, the UNICEF representative in Syria. “Children and families have little or no safe water while food supplies are running out fast.”

At least 150 children have credibly been reported killed at Raqqa since June, with more casualties reported every week by groups like Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. Many of them are named, with photographs posted on social media by surviving family members. Jana al-Hariri, a baby girl, was reportedly killed along with four family members in a raid on July 6; on Aug. 2, one-year old Saad al-Shabshol, was killed, also along with family members; And on Aug. 17, four children from the al-Sayer family were reported killed in an alleged coalition strike. Photographs showed them together in happier times — the youngest no more than a baby.

https://twitter.com/samueloakford/status/898683685330759681

https://twitter.com/samueloakford/status/898682416860090368

Against this backdrop, Gen. Townsend has been dismissive of deaths he says are not as numerous as widely reported, and in any case unavoidable. In one instance, the general’s comments have preceded the conclusion of the coalition’s own investigations into reported civilian casualty incidents, raising the possibility that their outcome might be influenced. After a coalition raid hit a school building reportedly sheltering displaced families near Raqqa on March 21, Townsend said he thought “that was a clean strike.”

“My initial read is: not credible,” he told reporters on March 28, using the official coalition term for a strike determined to not have killed civilians. Investigators with the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria later determined that the strike may in fact have been one of the deadliest of the air campaign for civilians. The coalition ultimately concluded that no civilians were killed.

In the most serious criticism of the coalition commander to date, Townsend has been accused by Amnesty International of unlawful action after he recently boasted of the coalition’s deadly firepower at Raqqa.  In early July, the general told a reporter from the New York Times that “we shoot every boat we find” on the Euphrates River.  “If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft,” he added.

According to local reports, civilians have frequently been killed as they try to escape the city by river, or fetch water from it to drink. In early July, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported the deaths of more than two dozen people who were attempting to reach the Euphrates or wells nearby. In its report, Amnesty profiled a 15-year old boy, Mohamed Nour, who attempted to flee the city with a friend in order to avoid being forcibly conscripted by the Islamic State. As they attempted to cross the Euphrates, a suspected coalition strike hit their boat, killing both children and others on board.

“Lt. General Townsend’s statement appears not to take into account the difficulties civilians face in trying to escape the city, as by then it was well known that civilians wanting to flee the city had few options but to cross the river,” Amnesty noted in its report. “Strikes on ‘every boat’ crossing the river on the assumption that every boat carries IS fighters and weapons, without verifying whether that was indeed the case on each separate occasion, are indiscriminate, and as such unlawful.”

Amnesty researcher Ben Walsby, who co-authored the group’s Raqqa report, told Airwars that virtually everyone they spoke with had fled across the Euphrates to escape Islamic State-held areas.

Gen. Townsend’s latest comments have drawn criticism from local groups monitoring the civilian toll. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which estimates that at least 800 civilians have been killed by coalition operations since June 5, said it would provide the names of those killed to Townsend if he liked. The people behind Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which has documented the Islamic State’s brutalities in the city for years, tweeted that Townsend’s comments “reminds me of Syrian regime lies same lies.”

U.S. officials have gone to great lengths to tout their care in avoiding civilian casualties. Now, however, those efforts threaten to be undermined by the Raqqa campaign.

“There has been no military in the world’s history that has paid more attention to limiting civilian casualties and the deaths of innocents on the battlefield than the coalition military,” Mattis said while sitting next to Townsend during the Baghdad press conference.

“We’re not the perfect guys,” he told reporters. “We can make a mistake, and in this kind of warfare, tragedy will happen. But we are the good guys, and the innocent people on the battlefield know the difference.” Many of those lucky enough to escape Raqqa told Walsby and his colleagues at Amnesty very different stories.

“For all the technology, the military tactics belong in another century,” he told Airwars. “There is no place for firing battlefield weapons into populated cities in the 21 st century, and this in the future will be looked back on as pretty barbaric.”

Published

August 11, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

Additional research by Samuel Oakford

Belgium has been implicated in two events in Iraq which the US-led Coalition says killed two civilians and wounded four others, national officials have told Airwars. The revelation comes despite denials by the country’s Defence Minister that ‘Operation Desert Falcon’ against so-called Islamic State has harmed any civilians – even after hundreds of airstrikes.

In May of this year, a senior Belgian official told Airwars that Brussels was likely involved in a civilian casualty incident resulting from a strike in Al Qaim, Iraq, on February 27th 2017. Airwars was also told about another incident, in Mosul on 21st March, which it understands was still under investigation by the Coalition at the time.

While the Coalition as a policy does not identify the involvement of individual countries in allegations, it did confirm the investigative status of these particular incidents. Both cases have now been classed as “credible” – meaning that the alliance has determined that civilian casualties likely resulted from the airstrikes – according to an email from Coalition officials to Airwars.

Conflicting public statements

The Coalition’s own monthly civilian casualty reports show that each of the two cases were initially brought to their attention through a “self-report” by an unnamed partner nation.

In an interview with Airwars, Colonel J. Poesen, head of operations at the Belgian Air Force said that Brussels disagreed with the Coalition’s assessment of the February 27th incident at al Qaim, which was published in a monthly civilian casualty report published in late April. That report noted that one civilian was killed and another injured when a vehicle was driven into the target zone. “We do not agree with that analysis and we are also convinced that it is not right,” Poesen told Airwars on July 6th. He also suggested that Coalition officials had been “quite quick” in their assessment of the al Qaim incident.

The other Belgian incident divulged by the senior official to Airwars took place in Mosul on March 21st 2017. While the Coalition was still assessing the case in May, it listed it as ‘credible’ in a civilian casualty report released on June 2nd. This noted that a strike on ISIS fighters had also hit four civilians who entered the target area after the munition was released. One of them died and three were injured, the alliance determined.

Though there were multiple alleged civilian casualty incidents reported in Mosul on March 21st, as part of a routine enquiry a Coalition official provided Airwars with the exact coordinates of the raid in question – placing it in the city’s July 17th neighborhood. Airwars had previously monitored a public report of civilian casualties in the near vicinity for that date, though details were sparse prior to the Coalition’s admission.

It is unclear whether Belgium challenges the Coalition’s assessment for this Mosul incident too. On July 6th, Colonel Poesen informed Airwars that the case was no longer under investigation by Belgium.

Belgian aircraft in action (photo courtesy: U.S. Air Force, Sgt. Michael Battles)

‘100% mission effectiveness’

Belgium’s refusal to accept responsibility for any civilian deaths it has been implicated in may relate to its apparent insistence that only cases which might violate international law should be investigated. According to Colonel Poesen, all incidents reported to the national Public Prosecutor have so far been been declared not to have violated international law and so had been filed without further follow-up.

Poesen went on to say that “even if there were to be casualties, it would be completely in line with the rules of engagement and the pilot would not have been guilty.” In a press statement on July 6th Colonel Poulsen also repeated Belgium’s denial that any civilians had been hurt in either Iraq or Syria: “We can proudly state that we are achieving all of our goals. Our objective of 100% mission effectiveness, without civilian casualties, continues to be the reality,” he said.

Such remarks have implied that only incidents which potentially breached international humanitarian law might be investigated. This would place Belgium at odds with the Coalition, which has indicated that all 624 civilian deaths so far admitted in Iraq and Syria have resulted from lawful – if unfortunate – actions.

Public research also suggests that even with the greatest care and adherence to international law, airstrikes do kill civilians. Airwars researchers estimate that as of August 8th a minimum of 4,887 civilians had likely died in Coalition air strikes since 2014. In Mosul and Raqqa in particular, civilians have paid a high price in the fight against ISIS.

Even so Belgium – like all twelve other nations in the alliance apart from the United States – continues to proclaim zero civilian deaths. 

Belgian Defence Secretary Steven Vandeput declined to comment on the two specific incidents identified by Airwars this week when questioned by national daily De Morgen: “The procedure is that when there is a presumption of civilian casualties, Belgium itself requests an investigation by the International Coalition”, Vandeput told the newspaper. “I have no knowledge of an ongoing investigation into civilian deaths that involved the Belgian military.”

The Minister’s comments did not address the fact that Belgium now appears to be in dispute with the Coalition about whether civilians were harmed in the two events. 

Locations of Belgian F-16 actions until June 2017. While 14% of missions were carried out in Syria, Iraq saw the greatest share of Belgian air strikes – with 48% near Mosul (via Belgian MoD)

871 bombs since 2014 Belgium’s air campaign in Iraq and Syria, already in its third year, was recently extended by the government until the end of 2017. Personnel and F-16s were initially expected return to Belgium early in July, and according to Colonel Poesen “many had made different plans for summer.” However the Netherlands – which has alternated Coalition bombings with Belgium – decided not to go back to war prior to 2018. The Coalition therefore asked Brussels to prolong its own mission.

Despite the lengthy conflict and hundreds of airstrikes, apart from a select group of politicians it is not possible independently to assess how Belgian actions have impacted the lives of civilians in Iraq and Syria. Details about the location, dates and targets of airstrikes are publicly withheld “for security reasons.”

When asked, Colonel Poesen said that the Belgian military was not planning to follow Australia’s recent example of improving public accountability, since it claimed to be “fully transparent in the Parliamentary committee behind closed doors.” Some argue that now may be the time for Belgium publicly to account for any problematic actions it has been involved in, even if they are few.

“More transparency and accountability are urgently needed to avoid civilian victims caused by Belgium,” said Willem Staes, policy officer for the Middle East at Belgian group 11.11.11. “Our contacts in the field have been sending alarming signals for months now: citizens are increasingly caught between local terror, and scorching international bombings.”

The organization also emphasizes what it sees as the vital military-strategic importance of a stronger focus on the fate of Syrian and Iraqi citizens: “Secrecy around civilian harm gives room to ISIL propaganda. If civilian protection is not taken really seriously now, ISIL will never be sustainably defeated and we will just wait for an ISIL 2.0.”

No transparency in Europe

Belgian openness about the two Coalition-confirmed events might offer a positive example of increased transparency to other members of the alliance. So far, no country except the US among the 13-member Coalition has admitted that civilians were killed or injured as a result of its own air campaign against ISIS. In contrast, the United States has admitted causing around one civilian death for every 40 of its own airstrikes. 

Yet European countries have carried out more than 3,500 strikes against ISIS between them since 2014. Based on the Pentagon’s admitted casualty rates, it would appear impossible that no civilians were harmed during these non-US raids. As Airwars revealed in May, at least 80 civilians have in fact been killed in airstrikes carried out by allies other than the US. None of the countries involved will publicly accept responsibility. 

According to military data presented to Parliament last month, Belgium has launched a total of 871 bombs against ISIS – roughly 4% of the Coalition total – since 2014. While 324 bombs were dropped during the first round of missions (September 2014 to June 2015), the second campaign – which started on July 1st 2016 – has seen 547 munitions released so far.

Bombs were mostly dropped on Iraqi territory: with 48% around Mosul and 38% near the border with Syria. In total, 14% of the raids during the last year were flown above Syria. According to Poesen this number could be slightly higher, as some of the strikes listed as taking place in Iraqi border areas may have hit Syrian territory.

Belgian raids have been carried out exclusively with 500 lb or 2,000 lb bombs – and not the 250 lb Small Diameter Bombs (SDB) that were said to have been  ordered for raids in urban areas. In November 2016, Major-General of the Belgian Air Force, F. Vansina, told the Belgian daily De Morgen that munition had been ordered “which has only half of the explosive load and can therefore be used in densely populated areas.” According to Vansina, Belgium would refuse strike orders in residential areas until the smaller and more accurate bombs had arrived.

Last month however, Defence Secretary Vandeput revealed that the American-made precision munitions had still not been delivered and would not arrive before 2019. This raised key questions about Belgium’s involvement in the bloody battle for Mosul. Contrary to what Major-General Vansina had suggested, nearly half of all Belgian raids since July 2016 were reportedly launched above Iraq’s second city – clearly a densely-populated urban zone.

Moreover according to the Minister, compared to the 2014-2015 Belgian campaign the “duration of missions has increased over time, as well as the intensity of strikes.”  

▲ Two Belgian Air Force F-16s flying in support of Operation Inherent Resolve June 23, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Battles)

Published

July 28, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Seven weeks into US-backed operations to capture Raqqa from so-called Islamic State (ISIS), more than 100 children are among the many civilians reported killed by heavy Coalition airstrikes and artillery fire targeting the city – as well as in actions by proxy SDF forces on the ground, and from attacks by ISIS itself.

In June, Airwars estimated that at least 340 civilians in Raqqa were likely slain by Coalition strikes and artillery. That pattern has continued into July. According to a running assessment, at least 140 additional civilians perished due to Coalition strikes in the first three weeks of the month.

Since June 6th as many as 119 children are among those killed in and around Raqqa according to local reports, with most of the young victims named.

Local accounts describe street fighting and dangerous explosive fire into the city that has increased dramatically since the official start of operations on June 6th. By mid-July, the US confirmed that Syrian Democratic Forces were suffering heavy casualties – a toll so high that the Pentagon had to publicly counter reports that ground operations were paused.

Instead the US insists the joint campaign will employ new strategies, but that these are not due to the civilian toll. At least one SDF commander disagrees however – telling Syria Direct that the tempo of the assault on the eastern half of Raqqa had been reduced ‘to prevent civilian casualties and preserve historic sites.’

The Coalition says that 45% of Raqqa has so far fallen to SDF forces – though a tough fight remains.

Map of progress made by our partner forces in the operation to liberate #Raqqa as of 24.07 via @SyriacMFS pic.twitter.com/E9lPrDMxvG

— The Global Coalition (@coalition) July 25, 2017

Intense barrage

Over the past month and a half, an already heavy barrage of airstrikes and artillery aimed at the city has turned more ferocious. According to US Central Command (CENTCOM) data supplied to Airwars, roughly 4,400 munitions were fired into Raqqa by the Coalition during June alone – a huge rise from the 1,000 unleashed in May. These numbers rival what was seen during the worst fighting in Mosul – a city many times larger in size.  

Airwars researchers monitoring events in Raqqa say that reports of strikes killing multiple family members, often children, are common. At least 30,000 civilians are believed to still remain trapped in the city, many having already fled there from other parts of Syria. ISIS is forcibly preventing these civilians from leaving.

“Although we are still seeing some incidents where one or two people are being killed there are also many incidents of entire families being wiped out by air and artillery strikes. Often they are described as internally displaced,” said Kinda Haddad, the chief Syria researcher at Airwars.

US officials maintain that Islamic State fighters are using civilians as human shields, much as they have in other cities besieged by Coalition-backed forces. In Mosul, Amnesty International recorded testimony of residents who said ISIS had set booby-traps with explosives to keep civilians penned in, and in some cases had welded them into buildings amid fighting. A representative of the monitoring group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS) confirmed that in Raqqa too, ISIS was putting civilians between their own fighters and the Coalition.

“Every day there is heavy shelling, whether by artillery or aircraft,” RBSS said, adding that according to the group’s estimates, 50,000 civilians are in ISIS-held areas of the city. “No one is providing guidance to civilians, the civilians are the biggest losers.”

On July 6th, a mother and her three children were reported killed and at least two other family members were injured after Coalition strikes hit the al Ferdos neighborhood of Raqqa. Several local sources named the children as Jana Nour al Hariri, Shatha Nour al Hariri and Mohammed Nour al Hariri. A picture of Jana posted by Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered showed a baby of no more than a year or two, smiling when still alive.

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)

Seven more children were reported killed on July 13th, when an airstrike reportedly hit close to a bakery near Fern al Ma’ari in Raqqa. On the same day, another girl named Bayan Awwad al Billo was reported killed in the city, according to local sources. Photos showed her limp body after an airstrike allegedly hit the house of her family.

That children have so often been the victims of such strikes was predictable, said Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Of those with the means to bribe their way out of Raqqa, many were men who feared mandatory conscription by ISIS as the battle for the city approached.

“Children remained, and a huge amount of the killing is of children,” he said.

The list of slain children continues to grow. On July 16th seven members of the Salah Al-Mana family were reportedly killed in an alleged Coalition strike. A week later, local outlets reported that two children – Ro’a and Ahmad Aliji – were killed alongside their father Husam and at least three others in a strike near the Tariq Bin Ziad school in Raqqa.

And on July 25th, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered posted graphic photographs of children it said had been killed by “Coalition airstrikes and #SDF shelling on Raqqa.”

In total, Airwars has tracked as many as 119 children alleged killed in Coalition actions since June 6th. Based on the quality of local reports, at least 87 and as many as 100 of those deaths appear likely to have resulted from US-led actions.

Those who made it out of Raqqa in recent weeks have relayed to aid officials that civilians injured by strikes are cornered, and unable to reach help.

“Patients say large numbers of sick and wounded people are trapped inside Raqqa city with little or no access to medical care and limited chance of escaping the city,” said Vanessa Cramond, medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Turkey and north Syria. “MSF is extremely concerned for the wellbeing of those who can’t get out.”

Investigating civilian deaths

Even as civilians are cut down inside Raqqa, investigators are just beginning to grapple with the heavy toll from strikes that took place during the encirclement of the city earlier this year.

Since the start of 2017, Airwars has recorded more than 1,300 likely civilian deaths tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes in support of Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa governorate. The Kurdish-dominated SDF surrounded Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital in the months leading up to June: more than 700 civilians were estimated killed in attacks during March, April and May.

Human Rights Watch recently visited Tabqah and al Mansoura, to the west of Raqqa. Both cities are now controlled by the SDF, but reportedly suffered major civilian casualties from airstrikes before being captured. One raid, on a school in Mansoura  on March 21st, was by some accounts the deadliest of the entire Coalition air campaign. At least several dozen civilians were likely killed – though there were claims by some that 200 or more died in the event.  

However even before an official investigation could be concluded, Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters on March 28th that he believed no civilians had been killed in the incident.

“We haven’t completed our assessment of that event yet,” said General Townsend. “But my initial read is: not credible. I think that was a clean strike.”

The Coalition’s civilian casualty assessors subsequently echoed the General’s conclusion, determining the incident to be Not Credible. It remains unclear to what extent Townsend’s remarks might have influenced the Coalition’s investigative process. However, Human Rights Watch, along with an independent UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, have determined that many civilians – largely internally displaced people – did die in the attack.

Airwars monitored multiple local reports at the time of the event which also suggest such a toll. Airwars also provided the Coalition with local media reports detailing an influx of IDPs to the al Mansoura area a few weeks prior to the event – something the US-led alliance appears to have been unaware of at the time of the attack.  

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there; got a single allegation it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there; it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend told reporters.  “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that.”

“What we were able to confirm is that several Coalition attacks in these two towns resulted in significant civilian casualties,” said Ole Solvang, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s emergencies division. “In some cases, the civilian casualties happened when Coalition aircraft carried out close air support attacks to support Syrian Democratic Forces who were in direct contact with ISIS fighters on the ground, striking houses where civilians were hiding.”

“In other cases, it really seems that the Coalition failed in its homework, launching attacks before properly understanding what buildings were being used for, and how many civilians were there,” he added.

Lt. Gen. Townsend has made additional comments which raise questions about the Coalition’s civilian protections. After the UN’s Commission of Inquiry rang alarm bells at significant numbers of civilians being killed in airstrikes around Raqqa, the General responded incredulously.

“Show me some evidence of that,” he said to the BBC.

On July 2nd, Townsend also told the New York Times “we shoot every boat we find” along the Euphrates River. The Euphrates and nearby riverine land has been the site of dozens of documented civilian deaths in the past month, including civilian boats attacked and sunk; and numerous residents killed as they searched for drinking water as clean supplies in Raqqa have dwindled.

Lt Gen Stephen Townsend has recently downplayed Coalition civilian casualties – despite the contrary findings of international agencies and NGOs and local monitors  (Image via US Army/ Sgt. Von Marie Donato)

Russia returns

Adding to the woes of civilians in Raqqa governorate, Airwars researchers have also monitored an increase in pro-regime strikes in the area. In recent weeks regime forces, backed by airstrikes have captured areas to the southeast of Raqqa as they move to capture Deir Ezzor – itself the site of deadly Coalition air raids in July.

Local monitors have reported that Russian planes are dropping leaflets instructing residents to evacuate towns in eastern Raqqa. The use of cluster munitions and barrel bombs has also been reported, along with civilian casualties.

On July 23rd, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported upwards of 60 pro-regime airstrikes “on the villages and towns of the eastern Raqqa countryside.” Strikes on the town of Zour Shamar that day reportedly claimed the lives of six civilians and left nearly 20 injured.

The worst raid in recent weeks appears to have taken place on July 24th, when a purported Russian raid hit the Juweizat camp near Al-Sharida in the southern countryside, allegedly killing 40 civilians.

“The most startling thing to note the last few days is that a big chunk of the incidents we have picked up were contested between the Coalition and Russia and in some cases the regime,” said Airwars researcher Haddad.  

Amid the carnage, international media and NGOs are thin on the ground at Raqqa compared to their recent presence in Mosul. Without local monitors, little information about civilians being killed — including their names — would find its way out. As Coalition-backed forces and the regime race one another to capture ISIS strongholds, civilians are likely to continue to pay a significant price.

Syrian army advances against Islamic State southeast of Raqqa city in push to reach Deir e-Zor, SAA source tells us. https://t.co/owkh1YlCkW pic.twitter.com/LYuhIdpaZG

— Syria Direct (@SyriaDirect) July 26, 2017

Published

July 17, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Civilian casualties from the U.S.-led war against the so-called Islamic State are on pace to double under President Donald Trump, according to an Airwars investigation for The Daily Beast.

Airwars researchers estimate that at least 2,300 civilians likely died from Coalition strikes overseen by the Obama White House—roughly 80 each month in Iraq and Syria. As of July 13, more than 2,200 additional civilians appear to have been killed by Coalition raids since Trump was inaugurated—upwards of 360 per month, or 12 or more civilians killed for every single day of his administration.

The Coalition’s own confirmed casualty numbers—while much lower than other estimates—also show the same trend. Forty percent of the 603 civilians so far admitted killed by the alliance died in just the first four months of Trump’s presidency, the Coalition’s own data show.

The high civilian toll in part reflects the brutal final stages of the war, with the densely populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa under heavy assault by air and land. But there are also indications that under President Trump, protections for civilians on the battlefield may have been lessened—with immediate and disastrous results. Coalition officials insist they have taken great care to avoid civilian deaths, blaming the rise instead on the shifting geography of battles in both Iraq and Syria and Islamic State tactics, and not on a change in strategy.

Whatever the explanation, more civilians are dying. Airwars estimates that the minimum approximate number of civilian deaths from Coalition attacks will have doubled under Trump’s leadership within his first six months in office. Britain, France, Australia, and Belgium all remain active within the campaign, though unlike the U.S. they each deny civilian casualties.

In one well-publicized incident in Mosul, the U.S. admits it was responsible for killing more than 100 civilians in a single strike during March. But hundreds more have died from Coalition attacks in the chaos of fighting there.

“Remarkably, when I interview families at camps who have just fled the fighting, the first thing they complain about is not the three horrific years they spent under ISIS, or the last months of no food or clean water, but the American airstrikes,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Many told me that they survived such hardship, and almost made it out with the families, only to lose all their loved ones in a strike before they had time to flee.”

Across the border in Raqqa, where the U.S. carries out nearly all the Coalition’s airstrikes and has deployed artillery, the civilian toll is less publicly known but even more startling. In the three months before American-backed forces breached the city’s limits in early June, Airwars tracked more than 700 likely civilian deaths in the vicinity of the self-declared ISIS capital. UN figures suggest a similar toll.

A girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 12th 2017 (Image by Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

Annihilation Tactics

A number of factors appear responsible for the steep recent rise in civilian deaths—some policy-related, others reflecting a changing battlespace as the war enters its toughest phase.In one of his first moves as president, Trump ordered a new counter-ISIS plan be drawn up. Second on his list of requests were recommended “changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.”

In short, Trump was demanding that the Pentagon take a fresh look at protections for civilians on the battlefield except those specifically required by international law. That represented a major shift from decades of U.S. military doctrine, which has generally made central the protection of civilians in war.

On Feb. 27, Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered the new war plan to Trump.

“Two significant changes resulted from President Trump’s reviews of our findings,” Mattis later said at a May 19 meeting of the anti-ISIS Coalition. “First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities. Second, he directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS.”

Though the U.S. military had shifted to such annihilation tactics—a change cited with glee by the Trump White House—Mattis claimed there have been no updates to U.S. rules of engagement. “There has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties,” he told reporters.

We are winning because @realDonaldTrump and Sec. Mattis have jettisoned a strategy of attrition for one of

ANNIHILATION. https://t.co/08xfMF2KX3

— Sebastian Gorka DrG (@SebGorka) July 11, 2017

When Airwars asked the Department of Defense whether, once implemented, the new plan was expected to lead to more civilian casualties, officials did not answer the question and only pointed to Mattis’ remarks.

Yet beginning in March 2017—the month after Mattis handed over the new plan—Airwars began tracking a sharp rise in reported civilian fatalities from U.S.-led strikes against ISIS. In part this was due to the savagery of the battle for Mosul. But in Syria—where almost all strikes are American—likely civilian fatalities monitored by Airwars researchers increased five-fold even before the assault on Raqqa began.

Local monitors including the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have also reported record Coalition civilian deaths in recent months.

Airwars itself tracks local Iraqi and Syrian media and social media sources for civilian casualty allegations, then makes a provisional assessment of how many were killed. The Coalition’s own casualty monitoring officials recently described Airwars as “kind of part of the team” when it comes to better understanding the civilian toll. However the US-led alliance has also contested many of the allegations tracked by Airwars, and its researchers are currently engaging with the Coalition to assess these incidents.

Reported Coalition civilian deaths jumped up steeply shortly after US Defense Secretary Mattis’ new plan to defeat ISIS was adopted in late February 2017

Despite disagreements over estimates, all parties agree that casualty numbers are steeply up. There is less agreement on why. Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council under the Obama administration, says recent reports strongly suggest the kind of change in rules that Mattis is denying.

“There is a tremendous disconnect between what we’ve heard from senior military officials who are saying there has been no change in the rules of engagement and clearly what we are seeing on the ground,” he said in an interview.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration had reportedly already become more tolerant of civilian casualties towards the end of the president’s second term. Authorization procedures for anti-ISIS strikes were loosened prior to Trump taking office, amid high attrition among Iraqi ground forces as they battled to capture East Mosul.

“The rise in allegations is attributable to the change in location of Iraqi operations against ISIS, not strategy,” said Coalition spokesperson Col. Joe Scrocca. “East Mosul was much less populated than west Mosul and the infrastructure is more modern and more dispersed. The month of March saw the start of ISF operations in the much more densely packed west Mosul. West Mosul has many more people, is much more densely populated, and the infrastructure is much older and more tightly packed.”

“In regard to Syria, where previous to March, the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] was predominantly operating in sparsely populated terrain, strikes increases is attributed to Coalition support to SDF operations to liberate Tabqah and isolate Raqqah,” he added.

In Syria, there are a number of other potential factors at play. The U.S. has deployed its own troops on the ground to advise and call in airstrikes for the SDF, and fire artillery into ISIS controlled areas. Protecting those forces will now be a priority for U.S. airstrikes—though may place any nearby civilians at greater risk of harm. Local monitors say the SDF’s own spotty track record of accuracy in their strike requests over the past several years has also been magnified by the stepped up pace of the campaign in and around Raqqa.

“I think it’s not helpful to get into an argument about whether the ROE [Rules of Engagement] have or have not been changed,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington Director at Human Rights Watch. “The bottom line is more civilians are dying. Whatever the reason, that should concern the U.S. greatly.”

At the State Department, Larry Lewis—in January still its top official dedicated to civilian casualties—felt the implications of Trump’s request to the military were clear. “If we are losing opportunities to hit ISIS because we are nervous about civilian casualties, if it is not required by law—then we are saying really look at it hard,” he told Airwars in an interview, explaining the new messaging. “To me that is a striking contrast with the past administration.”

For Lewis— who was the lead analyst for the Joint Civilian Casualty Study, which inspected ways that U.S. forces could reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan—the new administration is making a wrongheaded assumption.

“There is this misnomer that mission success is inversely proportional to reducing civilian casualties,” said Lewis. “That’s not what the data said.”

When his position was not renewed by the Trump State Department, Lewis left in late April.

“We have spent a long time advancing the idea that preventing civilian casualties is not only a moral imperative, it’s also an operational one,” said another former State Department official who recently worked on civilian casualties. “These lessons come directly from our military’s counterinsurgency experiences in Afghanistan and are endorsed by members of our military at some of the highest levels. But so far we haven’t seen or heard anything that shows President Trump understands that.”

‘I’m going to lose my sh*t’

By most accounts, the Obama administration became increasingly focused on reducing civilian casualties from U.S. actions—both on and off the conventional battlefield. In July 2016, Obama issued a new executive order, one which Lewis helped draft, that codified procedures for limiting civilian casualties in war, and put in place interagency reviews and annual reporting. (A former State Department official confirmed that interagency consultations on civilian casualty trends are no longer taking place under the Trump administration.)

Early in the campaign against ISIS, tolerance for civilian casualties outside of dynamic attacks was minimal, said Col. Scott “Dutch” Murray, who served as the Director of Intelligence for Air Forces Central Command. Murray led all deliberate targeting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria until 2015.

“The default answer was zero civilian casualties for all deliberate strikes,” he said.

Civilian casualties nevertheless grew as the campaign wore on under Obama. The U.S.-led Coalition continued to drop thousands of bombs targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, killing more than 2,300 civilians in airstrikes under Obama according to Airwars estimates. Still, there was a sense among some in the military that they had been shackled, and were being prevented from pursuing ISIS with heavier firepower.

“I was one of those people—some days it was like if I see another article about ISIS folks going around the Corniche in Raqqa and the U.S. does nothing, I’m going to lose my sh*t,” said a former senior counterterrorism official who served in the region under the second Bush administration and Obama. “I think Trump wanted to give the military what they wanted, and I think the military got it.”

Deaths up 400%

As conflicts intensify, it can be difficult to assign culpability for all strikes—especially in Mosul, where deaths are blamed variously on the Coalition, Iraqi forces, or ISIS.

But in March alone, Airwars could still estimate that the number of civilian deaths likely tied to the Coalition in both Iraq and Syria rose by more than 400 percent. The month after Mattis delivered the new plan, U.S.-led forces likely killed more civilians than in the first 12 months of Coalition strikes—combined.

The deadliest incident so far admitted by the Coalition in either country took place on March 17 in the al Jadida neighborhood of Mosul. According to U.S. investigators, at least 105 civilians were killed when an American jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building where they sheltered. The U.S. said its forces aimed for two ISIS fighters on the roof, but the entire building gave way—a clear sign, claimed investigators, that the building had been rigged with explosives by ISIS. Survivors and Mosul civil defence officials denied the U.S. narrative, insisting they had seen no evidence of ISIS explosives.

The scenario itself—a small number of gunmen darting in and out of view before drawing heavy fire from Coalition forces—was one which Airwars had repeatedly highlighted as leading to civilian deaths. In one profiled case from December, eleven members of a family were killed when the Coalition bombed a house—reportedly after a single ISIS fighter had been seen on a roof two houses down. The toll in al Jadida represents a significant portion of the 603 casualties publicly conceded by the Coalition. That tally has grown considerably in recent months, but is still many times lower than Airwars’ own estimates of at least 4,500 civilians likely killed.

Devastation in Raqqa following an alleged Coalition airstrike on May 27th 2017 (via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Better than the Russians?

On April 13 of this year, U.S. forces in Afghanistan deployed a 21,000-pound GBU-43/B “Mother of All Bombs” against ISIS forces in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan. The bomb was the largest used by the U.S. in any conflict since World War II. Explaining the decision to use the weapon, which the White House evidently hadn’t directly approved, Trump told reporters at the time he had given the military “total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.” Later that day, a reporter from The Hill called CENTCOM’s press office, where a purported spokesperson answered.

“We mean business,” said the person who picked up. “President Trump said prior that once he gets in he’s going to kick the S-H-I-T out of the enemy. That was his promise and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Though the response was later called unauthorized by CENTCOM leadership, a new tone had emerged—or reemerged. “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment,” said Tom Malinowski, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State until this January.

“But I’m not sure how to disentangle that from other factors,” he added. “It was inevitable that civilian casualties would rise as the fight moved into densely populated areas, where ISIS would use civilians as a shield. By how much, I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, in Syria, the understaffed Coalition investigations team was struggling to keep pace with the number of civilian casualty reports. At Airwars, there were so many Coalition allegations that its own researchers temporarily had to pause their full vetting of Russia’s strikes in Syria to stay on top of the fast growing workload. Airwars tracking also shows that in every month of 2017, more alleged civilian casualty events have been attributed to the U.S.-led Coalition than to Russia—a remarkable reversal. “We know that the Russians target civilians and Assad drops barrel bombs,” said the former senior counterterrorism official. “DoD wants to be better than that, but it’s the fog of war—how do we know we are being better?”

#InternationalCoalition forces is the second perpetrator of massacres in #Syria after #SyrianRegime forces in the first half of 2017 pic.twitter.com/crw7cY9gj3

— Syrian Network (@snhr) July 5, 2017

‘Critical Flaw’

With reported Coalition civilian casualties steeply rising, international agencies rang the alarm bells.

In May, the UN’s human rights chief called out the bombing campaign. Then in June a UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry for Syria, which previously wasn’t even investigating foreign airstrikes in the country, now said the U.S.-led campaign was causing a “staggering loss of life.” By the end of the month, at least 173 civilian deaths from air and ground strikes were reported by the UN, which suggested that both the SDF and Coalition could be skirting the edges of international law.

The Coalition dismissed the most serious of the Commission’s allegations—that many civilians sheltering in a school near Raqqa were killed by an airstrike on March 21st—after an investigation that did not involve interviewing locals.

U.S. officials similarly dismissed well-documented allegations that a March raid in Aleppo on al-Qaeda linked targets had left dozens of civilians dead without speaking to a single witness. Lack of interaction with sources on the ground—who readily speak with groups like Human Rights Watch — has been identified as a “critical flaw” in the U.S. government’s methodology.

Instead of addressing the issue of high reported civilian deaths, top Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend has gone on the offensive. He lashed out at the UN Commission, calling into question their description of civilian casualties as staggering.

“Show me some evidence of that,” he told the BBC.

On July 2nd, Townsend reported that Coalition forces were firing on anything moving on the River Euphrates, along which Raqqa lies. “We shoot every boat we find,” he told a reporter from the New York Times. Airwars has documented numerous civilians reported killed in recent weeks as they had attempted to flee Raqqa by way of the river. Shortly after Townsend’s remarks, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported that at least 27 people in Raqqa had recently been killed attempting to fetch water around the Euphrates.

2) Four June cases where (mostly named) civilians reportedly bombed as they fled Raqqa by boat. Cars also being bombed as civilians flee pic.twitter.com/HX3SqJoJgF

— Airwars (@airwars) July 3, 2017

Then, on July 11th, Townsend lashed out at Amnesty International, after it cited the Coalition in an investigation for potentially unlawful attacks that took place in Mosul.

“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’re speaking from a position of authority,” Townsend told reporters.

Amnesty responded by pointing out the Pentagon never replied when the group’s investigators provided them with preliminary findings and asked for their input. With the battle in Mosul all but complete, organizations like Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) have instead called on the U.S. to be more cautious in their deployment of firepower inside Raqqa. The group wrote in a recent assessment that the Coalition should “avoid, to the extent feasible, airstrikes as a primary tactic, and consider tactical alternatives—for example, properly trained SDF conducting more door-to-door clearing operations to minimize civilian harm.”

But a massive casualty toll among Iraqi partner forces in Mosul—coupled with new demands from President Trump to speed up the war while reducing protections for civilians—could mean there is less appetite among U.S. officials on the ground to hold back approval for strikes. “I think the U.S. has to conduct a balancing test of a quick win and the accompanying high civilian casualty rate, versus a longer, more cautious victory, which might result in more civilians harmed at the hands of ISIS, or more coalition casualties,” said Jay Morse, CIVIC’s military liaison and a former Pentagon JAG. “It’s not an easy decision, and either route will prove harmful to civilians.”

Kori Schake, a former director at George W. Bush’s National Security Council and editor author of a recent book with Mattis, agreed that allowing local forces to call in U.S. airstrikes could increase the number of civilians killed. But the Obama White House was too careful, she said.

“The previous administration seemed to believe wars could be fought and won without casualties, and the professionals in this administration have the grim experience that’s not possible,” she added. “I am skeptical our military is any less careful without the White House second guessing them.”

Col. Murray says that while the current White House is clearly more permissive, it may not be fair to directly compare the conflict as it existed under successive administrations.

“Now when you bomb Raqqa there is actually potential to have success on the ground,” he said. “I think they’ve now erred more on the military advantage gained by a strike versus holding back for the sake of not killing civilians.”

But Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network For Human Rights, said that what his organization and others have monitored speaks for itself. On July 1st, the Network reported that the Coalition had killed more than 1,000 civilians in the first half of 2017.

“We believe that the U.S. administration is seeking a quick victory,” said Abdul Ghany. “But the speed comes at the expense of accuracy, and therefore at the expense of the loss of more lives.”

▲ Multip[le bodies are removed June 13th by civil defence (via Mosul Ateka)

Published

July 1, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Additional reporting by Latif Habib, Alex Hopkins and Eline Westra

Mosul is almost completely back in the hands of Iraqi government forces, after one of the most brutal city assaults witnessed in decades. While there has so far been no formal declaration of an end to the assault, Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has already said that “We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state, the liberation of Mosul proves that.”

Yet even as Iraqis celebrate the routing of the terror group ISIS (so-called Islamic State) from their nation’s second city, the scale of death and destruction visited upon Mosul is becoming clearer.

Thousands of Moslawis have credibly been reported killed since October 2016, with West Mosul in particular devastated. The Coalition alone says it fired 29,000 munitions into the city during the assault. Five times more civilians were reported killed in west Mosul versus the east of the city, Airwars tracking suggests – an indication of the ferocity of recent fighting.

Doctors working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) near the last frontlines report that they have still been receiving mass civilian casualties – up to half of whom are children.

“They come with shrapnel wounds, bleeding even from their eyes, shot in the head, after being buried under the rubble, traumatized by the air strikes, the artillery, the snipers, the bombs, having lost their whole family – and too, often, dying on arrival,” said Iolanda Jaquernet, a spokeswoman for the ICRC. “They have survived with very little food or water, without any access to healthcare, in hiding, and often indeed unable to reach a health facility until it was too late.”

“We have no overall figures, but certainly our colleagues from the mobile surgery team at the hospital have seen a tremendous increase in civilian casualties over the past weeks,” she added.

According to city officials, as much as 80 per cent of West Mosul has been completely destroyed. Civilians still emerging from the battlefield are often bloodied and starving – traumatised by Iraqi and Coalition bombardments; and by atrocities commited by ISIS.

According to reporters accompanying Iraqi forces, the stench of death is everywhere in the Old City – with civil defence officials reporting that as many as 4,000 bodies still remain unrecovered in the rubble. It is likely to be many months before the full death toll is known.

https://twitter.com/iraqi_day/status/880698291792605184

Bloodied civilian survivors are escorted from the Old City – ISIL’s last stronghold in Mosul – by Iraqi federal police on June 30th

Three months longer than battle for Stalingrad

Operations to retake Iraq’s second largest city from ISIS began on October 17th 2016, and effectively lasted for 256 days – three months longer than the epic Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi security personnel, 40,000 Kurdish fighters and about 16,000 pro-government fighters took part in the battle. Military casualties have been high. Although the government refuses to release official figures, thousands of Iraqi forces have been credibly reported killed or injured.

The Coalition is declining to estimate how many ISIS fighters were killed in the battle for Mosul. Instead an official told Airwars: “Through our operations, the Coalition has degraded ISIS fighters on the front lines, but also their command and control apparatus, leaders, industrial base, financial system, communication networks, and the system that they use to bring foreign fighters in to fill their ranks in both Iraq and Syria.”

But the civilian toll too has been high. Over the course of the Mosul assault, Airwars tracked over 7,200 alleged civilian fatality allegations in the vicinity of Mosul which were blamed on the US-led Coalition. Most of these incidents remain difficult to vet, and in the majority of cases several actors in addition to the Coalition are blamed – including ISIS and Iraqi security forces.

Even so, Airwars researchers presently estimate that between 900 and 1,200 civilians were likely killed by Coalition air and artillery strikes over the course of the eight month campaign. Many hundreds or even thousands more may have died in Coalition actions – though it may be impossible in many cases ever properly to attribute responsibility. Coalition airstrikes on the city were carried out by the United States, Britain, France, Belgium and Australia – while both the US and France also conducted heavy artillery strikes in support of Iraqi forces. French forces alone have reported over 1,160 artillery actions.

In one tragic incident confirmed by the US, up to 12 civilians were killed or wounded after one of its airstrikes hit a school in Faisaliyah neighborhood in East Mosul on January 13th. In its March civilian casualty report the Coalition conceded that  “during a strike on ISIS fighters in a house it was assessed that eight civilians were unintentionally killed. During post-strike video analysis civilians were identified near the house who were not evident prior to the strike.”

Airwars was able to speak with a witness, Qusay Saad Abdulrazaq, who lost his two young children in the attack. The father said in a letter that the Coalition strike had hit the Al Marafa private school at 9am that day. His children, Abdulrahman and Aesha, did not survive. When Airwars spoke with Mr Abdulrazaq two months after the incident, he had finally been able to bury the recovered body parts of his children.

فريق بي بي سي يصل إلى مدنيين عالقين في #الموصل. روى العالقون قصصا مؤلمة وهم يشاهدون أحبائهم جثثا هامدة ولا يستطيعون دفنها. #العراق pic.twitter.com/qznnBMhtns

— BBC News عربي (@BBCArabic) June 30, 2017

BBC Arabic’s Feras Kilani reports from devastated Old Mosul, June 30th 2017

Victory declared

Victory was effectively declared by Iraqi forces on June 29th after they captured what remained of the once-treasured al Nouri Mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the terror group’s ‘caliphate’ in a 2014 speech. On June 23rd Iraqi and Coalition officials accused the group of rigging the structure with explosives and blowing it up as fighting closed in. By most accounts only a few Mosul city blocks now remain under ISIS control, though fears remain of terrorist sleeper cells in liberated neighbourhoods.

In addition to copious and often indiscriminate fire from Iraqi forces and ISIS, the Coalition has launched over 1,000 airstrikes in Mosul since October 17th, in addition to artillery, helicopter, rocket and mortar fire. With high civilian casualties reported, Airwars joined with international NGOs during the battle to urge Iraqi and Coalition forces to end their use of heavy and indiscriminate weapons on the city.

Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the battle has wrought devastation on civilians, their homes and the city: “With the massive spike in airstrikes and indiscriminate ground-fired munitions by Iraqi and US forces, we have seen entire city blocks obliterated, and hundreds of civilians wounded and killed in the crossfire,” she told Airwars. “ISIS has used the civilians still under its control as human shields and carried out numerous abuses including chemical weapons attacks and executions of those trying to flee.”

The deadliest incident so far admitted to by the Coalition took place on March 17th, when US planes bombed a building in the city’s al-Jadida neighborhood. The structure collapsed, leaving at least 105 civilians dead according to military investigators – though locals claimed the true toll was far higher. The Coalition also claimed the structure had been rigged with explosives by ISIS, though the city’s civil defence officials deny this. The al Jadida incident was ranked “contested” by Airwars until the Coalition admitted to it months later – suggesting that many more civilian deaths may yet be ascribed to international forces.

ISIS’s remaining strongholds in Iraq, including Hawijah, are likely to be the next target of Iraqi and Coalition actions. But for the people of Mosul many troubles remain. Almost 700,000 Moslawis are still displaced by the fighting according to the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Even after liberation, some Mosul residents are still being forced to leave. On June 30th, the UN’s human rights office reported that it was alarmed by a “rise in threats, specifically of forced evictions, against those suspected of being ISIL members or whose relatives are alleged to be involved with ISIL.”

It will likely be a long time before many can return. The physical destruction in Mosul – and most of all in the more densely packed western side – is still being assessed. But footage of neighborhoods, including those around the Old City, show a catastrophic level of damage that will take years to reconstruct. According to Iraqi officials, the cost of phsyical reconstruction is likely to be tens of billions of dollars.

▲ 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)

Published

June 27, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

On the evening of March 16th 2017, US forces repeatedly struck a mosque complex near al-Jinah, located in Aleppo governorate along the border with Idlib. Local civil defense reported that at least 38 bodies had been recovered. Investigations by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture all concluded that not only had the US hit a mosque – which it at first denied – but also that a significant number of civilians had died.

On June 7th Brigadier General Paul Bontrager, deputy director of operations at CENTCOM, briefed an invited group of reporters. Bontrager insisted that only one civilian was killed, a person of “small stature’ – most likely a child. The death of the one civilian was approved beforehand as proportional and the strike was considered legal, said Bontrager. This, despite multiple failures to identify religious structures in the area before attacking.

To date no version of the investigation Bontrager summarized has been released. The transcript of his briefing — the only official documentation of the American investigation into al-Jinah – has also not been posted publicly. Public knowledge of the investigation consists of what Pentagon reporters chose to include in their coverage. Airwars was invited on the June 7th call and has received permission to post the transcript in its entirety, which we do so here in the interests of public accountability.

“This should not be the end of this investigation, and the Pentagon should release much more detail about what it knows,” Ole Salvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, told Airwars after the briefing.

BEGIN:

Presenters:  Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office; Colonel John Thomas, Director, Public Affairs, Central Command; Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager, Deputy Director for Operations, U.S. Central Command

June 7, 2017

Department of Defense Off-Camera Press Briefing by Brigadier General Bontrager

CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS:  Hi.  Good morning, everybody.

And we’re here at the Pentagon, going to be joined here by General Bontrager, who will walk us through this.  We’re at the Pentagon here today about — what do we have? — a couple dozen reporters here that are covering us.

So today, we’re going to be joined by U.S. Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager — B-O-N-T-R-A-G-E-R.  He currently serves as the deputy director for operations, the deputy J-3, at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa.

He will be discussing the command investigation into a U.S. airstrike that took place March 16th near Aleppo, Syria.  After the general’s opening statement, we’ll pause and allow some questions here from this group.

General Bontrager, we’ll turn it over to you.

SPEAKER:  Hey, this is (inaudible) in Tampa.

Good after — good morning.  Thanks for attending today’s discussion about the investigation.  I want to offer a few scene-setting remarks and then we’ll turn it over to the investigating officer for his description of what he found.  And then we’ll take questions.  We’ve got about 45 minutes set aside for the discussion.

We are on the record for the investigating officer.  My words right now are on background, so we don’t confuse what I say in your reporting with what the investigating officer says on the record.  His comments take precedence over mine.

About this investigation, each case is unique.  We investigate the unique circumstances of each case, and then we take the findings of each case and seek to apply what we can learn more broadly with the goal of continuous improvement.

So, you’re going to be hearing conclusions from the investigating officer about what happened and recommendations for the future.  To make sure we’re all talking about the same strike, it was March 16th, 2017 in Syria.  This is the investigation that involved the photo that you should have in front of you, where we reported initially that we struck close to a mosque.  This is a case where our bombs hit an Al Qaida meeting in the building next to that mosque.

One more thing I know the investigating officer will discuss and answer your questions about, what it is that we mean when we say we hold ourselves to the highest standards.  This investigation is part of us being unsparing in our self-critique of whether we are meeting the highest standards.

In this case, I’ll tell you right up front that the investigation was an important event, and this investigation highlighted things we can do better.  Specific improvements have stemmed from this investigation.  Things have been improved because of the investigation report.

Commanders have used this information from this investigation to initiate some remedial actions and process reviews to ensure we are meeting the highest standards.  All of the recommendations the investigating officer brings up and shares with you today have already been considered and addressed in command channels.

One more aside.  I can tell you that we have seriously reviewed information from a Human Rights Watch report that came out recently concerning this strike, and we used it to further assess if we could learn from their conclusions and their research.

As always, the investigating officer is not in a position to discuss policy.  His role here today to keep us — to keep us all focused, is to discuss the specifics about what happened in this case and what we might be able to do continuously to improve the processes for ensuring that target engagement authority has the best, most complete information available at the rights times to enable the right decisions.

You’ll hear reference to what we believe are common terms for you, this group of reports, like dynamic versus deliberate strikes, and target engagement authority.  But if you need to ask for an explanation of those terms, feel free to ask.

With that, the next voice you’ll hear is the investigating officer, Brigadier General Paul Bontrager.

BRIGADIER GENERAL PAUL BONTRAGER:  Okay, good morning.

I am U.S. Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager.  And I was appointed as the investigating officer for this investigation, following the U.S. airstrike in al-Jinah, Aleppo province, Syria on March 16th of this year.

Joining me on the investigation were military officers and civilian specialists who assisted me as subject-matter experts in intelligence, targeting, joint fires, and legal matters.  None of us were involved in the strike or the decisions leading up to the strike.

As the Army Regulation 15-6 investigating officer per the appointing order, it was the role of our team to gather information surrounding the facts of the al-Jinah strike, analyze those facts, and provide recommendations to the commander.

As always, there are ways to improve the strike processes and base our investigation.  This is what we found in this case.  Although we did not have access to the scene, the investigative team interviewed dozens of people.  We reviewed all available video and images, operational reports, and intelligence reports associated with the strike, while researching all regulations, standing operating procedures, commander’s guidance and other pertinent information.

We simply were following every bit of information to see where it led, leaving no stone unturned.  We finalized our report findings and recommendations, and now that it is complete, we are following through with our promise to be open and transparent, which leads us to this media opportunity today.

We want to tell you what we can about what we found in the investigation, with the exception of classified information, of course.

Okay?  Now, I’ll take a few moments to summarize the facts, details and findings of the investigation.

On the afternoon of March 14th, 2017, intelligence indicated that Al Qaida and Syrian militants would be attending a meeting with Al Qaida leaders from the region near al-Jinah village, Aleppo province.  On March 15th, our forces received additional intelligence which reinforced the likelihood of a meeting taking place in the immediate future.

On the afternoon of March 16th, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets confirmed reports of a meeting forming in the specific building that intelligence had pointed to previously.  Of note, this is an ungoverned area of Syria that is not in the control of the Assad regime government, nor under the control of any militias that we support in the fight against ISIS.  It is a confirmed and well-known Al Qaida operational area.

Once it was confirmed the meeting was imminent, the dynamic targeting process began with the intent to strike the target building while the Al Qaida meeting was in session.  At that point, a strike cell began working to support the target engagement authority.  The target engagement authority — this is the individual with the authority to approve the strike.  The strike cell took the process for action to ensure all information was made available before the final decision to strike, and of course, that any strike could comply with all laws and regulations.

The strike cell confirmed that the meeting was a valid military target and that the target could be struck proportionally to avoid unnecessary collateral damage.  When the target engagement authority believed he had complete information, he made the decision to conduct a kinetic strike.  The strike came from above by F-15 Strike Eagle aircraft and MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft.

The F-15s dropped 10 bombs on the building and the MQ-9 shot two missiles to strike a target that emerged outside the building.  The munitions penetrated the building and caused superficial damage to adjacent structures.  We are unable to ascertain exactly how many individuals were killed.  We estimate approximately two dozen men attending an Al Qaida meeting were killed in the strike with several injured.

Importantly, this investigation found that the strike complied with operational and legal requirements.  The strike hit an Al Qaida meeting.  We simply found no credible information to discredit the initial intelligence.

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Sadly, we did assess that there was likely one civilian casualty.  Our assessment is due solely to the individual’s stature relative to other fighters attending the meeting.  We believe the individual was a male and through — and though the evidence is not conclusive, he was not a fighter.

There is a possibility he was a civilian.  We are unsure if that person survived, but we do believe that he was injured in the strike at a minimum.

One of the factors we were tasked to explore in this investigation was whether reports of large numbers of civilian casualties were true.  In short, we considered media reports that indicated a large number of civilians were killed, but our investigation did not uncover evidence to support those claims.  We are not aware of large number of civilians being treated in hospitals after the strike.  We are confident this was a meeting of Al Qaida members and leaders.  This was not a meeting of civilians.

Next I will draw your attention to the image that was released to the public after the strike and consider some of the discussion around that photograph.  That picture that I’m told you have there in front of you, shows pretty dramatically that our bombs struck a building between a small building and a larger building that appears to be under construction.  The small building on the left is a small mosque that sustained slight damage.  The larger building on the right is also mostly untouched.  One of the things this image shows us and our investigation validated was that the strike was remarkably precise.

The munitions struck the exact building they were intended to strike and did not cause significant damage to adjacent structures.  And I will avoid classified details, but the effects visible in the photograph are evidence the bombs were appropriately fused to limit collateral damage.  You can see that vehicles parked outside the building are still intact and right side up.  You can see that the mosque was slightly damaged but left standing.  You can see that the adjacent larger building was left mostly untouched as well.  The target, a meeting of Al Qaida, that we aimed for was the only structure that was hit.

To summarize up to this point, those are the basic facts and conclusions of the investigation.  Now, I will talk about our findings and how the investigation shows that there are things we could have done better.  Moving forward, we need to be as hard on ourselves as the situation requires, ensuring we improve in the future, and there were things that did not meet our highest standards.

A concern from the strike is that all the best information did not make it to the target engagement authority at the time he had to make the decision about the strike.  A word here about dynamic versus deliberate targets.  Once a target is deemed a fleeting target, a series of decisions and timelines follow.

Dynamic targets drive immediate actions.  Setting the scene of — seeing the — setting the scene in a certain way creates a lens, for instance, through which intelligence indicators are interpreted and deciding a target is a dynamic target accelerates the process, which sometimes, if not vigilant, can cause a rush to the most obvious answers.

In this case, when the decision to strike was made, the target engagement authority was not made aware that the small building on the left was actually a mosque or that this complex of buildings under construction had, under normal conditions, a general religious purpose.

What we determined afterwards was that the building on the left of the image you have there in front of you was a small mosque in a complex in which a new larger mosque was under construction, more specifically the Omar al-Khatab mosque.  None of the buildings were annotated on our no-strike list as category one facilities, which is a register of entities that must be carefully evaluated before an approval to strike.

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Again, looking at the photo in front of you, you can clearly see — you can clearly see the building that was struck.  And you can see the small mosque to the left.

Now, if you look to the right of the building that was struck, you can see the larger building.  That building is actually attached to the building we struck by a stairwell and a breezeway walkthrough.  These two buildings, the one we struck and the larger building that we did not strike, were both under construction and actually had a religious purpose.

We believe the building we struck was intended to be a school or madrassa, and the larger building a future mosque.  We have a responsibility to identify and characterize no-strike entities as accurately as possible and provide this information to decision-makers in a timely manner.

To summarize, neither the small mosque nor the two buildings under construction were on the category one no-strike list.  The small mosque certainly should’ve been, and I will come back to this point in a moment.

As previously — as previously mentioned, the failure to identify the religious nature of these buildings is a preventable error.  This failure to identify the religious purpose of these buildings led the target engagement authority to make the final determination to strike without knowing all he should have known.  And that is something that we need to make sure does not happen in the future.

Let me reemphasize, the investigation found that at the time of the meeting, the structure hit and the people who were targeted were valid targets because they were engaged in an Al Qaida meeting.  They were using the religious facility for an Al Qaida meeting.

When that is determined, it is not a difficult process to seek authority to strike a target that is being used at the time for militant purposes.  Since the target engagement authority did not know it was a religious complex, he never invoked the process to remove the category one no-strike protection.

Most frustrating was that some of the intelligence team did know this was a religious complex, but the analysis did not get to the no-strike list nor to the target engagement authority.

A more deliberate pre-strike analysis should have identified that the target was part of a religious compound.  Having that information could have been relevant to the target engagement authority’s decision to strike.

Before engaging a no-strike list entity, there are further approvals that need to be granted.  In this case, the real time use of the meeting place for an Al Qaida meeting would have permitted the strike.  But the target engagement authority should have had all the information needed to make the more informed decision in real time.

Our standards are simply higher than that.  One of our team’s recommendations would require buildings under construction be granted the same protection status as their intended end use.

Finally, a couple more topics.  Our team recommended we pay particular attention to manning associated with shift changes and manning related to our red team of skeptics who play a valuable role in getting to good decisions with agility.

On shift changeovers, the investigation found irregularities that contributed to a lack of situational awareness, knowledge and understanding among the strike cell individuals.  Specifically, important information was not adequately communicated during personnel changeover to the incoming shift.

We also found an imbalance of subspecialties assigned to the strike cell.  They did not have in place to best possible complement of experienced trained people who could have better developed and vetted the information in front of them, even in a — a dynamic strike.

Therefore, we recommended a manpower review be conducted to ensure the right mix of personnel are assigned to the strike cell and are present at the right place at the right time.  I think implied here is an understanding of the desire for us to have the most robust, red team possible process to apply to every strike.  Red team is military speak for experts who are given the challenge of asking the toughest questions, providing a skeptical eye to the analysis as it forms in real time.  This is not a situation where individuals are overly deferential to rank or position.

There is an expectation, rather there is a requirement for anyone to speak up and question any facts, assumptions or decisions at any time throughout the strike process.  Our team believes that a robust red team environment was lacking on the strike floor.  There should have been more questions asked.  We should have — would have given the target engagement authority a better chance to make decisions with full knowledge of the intelligence and information available at the time.  These are not things that we can get wrong as we work to ensure the individuals who make the decisions whether to strike have the best and most complete information in front of them when they need it.  The best red team is an important mechanism to allow us to make the best decisions.

In conclusion, we struck our intended target and — and eliminated several Al-Qaida terrorists.  Though our investigation identified some critical information gaps that contributed to a misinformation and an overall lack of understanding of the situation, we ultimately struck a blow against Al-Qaida.  But that does not excuse us from taking a hard look at what we could do better, particular in terms of process and procedures.  We hold ourselves to a high standard.  We cannot let desire for good results degrade our standards.  We need to get it right and with certainty and we will.  With that, I am happy to take your questions.  And let me add, if I don’t adequately answer your questions, please re-ask them there.  I’m here to provide full visibility as I see it and I don’t — I don’t want — to — be let off the hook on a hard question although I might regret saying that later.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Oh they won’t let you off sir, I assure you.  We’re going to start with Phil Stewart with Reuters.

Q:  Just first of all, you said you interviewed dozens of people.  Were any of those people connected to the — were actually in — in — on the ground at the time?  Or were these all, you know, officials involved in the strike?  And did you speak to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights which has a very different assessment of the people that were killed.  And then lastly, could you give us any information on the individual, this lone individual civilian who was wounded.  How do you know?  Did you see him in a video feed leaving the compound?  How do you know about that lone individual?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  OK, Phil.  So I — (inaudible) — three parts there.  Let me start nugging away at this, if I don’t get it right again please come back and re-ask.  So, the — the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, no, we did not speak to — to anyone there.  We did reach out to the organizations that had published different documents, for example, the Human Rights Watch asking for any information that they had with regard to the strike.  To again, try and get — gather any evidence that was out there and that offer still stands for Human Rights Watch, Syrian Observatory, anybody else who has something we would — we would be — we would welcome.  We would welcome it.  Can you repeat the other parts of the question please?

Q:  Well just on that one point, so did you speak to anybody who was actually on the ground.  You said you spoke to dozens of people.  How do you — how would you characterize those people?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Right.  So we did not — we did not speak with any — anyone on the ground in Syria except for the — the individuals in the unit that conducted the strike.  We simply didn’t have access to — to anyone in the location of the strike.  So — so the answer to that is a simple no.  We spoke to dozens of people throughout the process — the approval process, the strike cell, as well as — as anyone who had any — any information with regard to the — the intelligence available or the — or what else was available.

Regarding the last part of your question, which I think concerned the lone individual.  Let me be completely clear here, what we — what we saw was a small-in-stature – smaller-in-stature person accompanying an adult, clearly an adult, into the meeting site.  And that alone is what — what we saw that made us call this individual a civilian.

However, it should also be known that this was known to the target engagement authority pre-strike.  He was identified — the T.E.A. — the target engagement authority was aware.  The proportionality assessment was made, and it was still deemed a legal strike.  So with regard to that, the proper authorities were — were consulted.

Q:  And you don’t believe he’s a child?  They aren’t ready to say that.  You think he might have been an adult?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  I frankly don’t know — don’t know who he was.  It was a civilian is how we’re characterizing him.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Okay.  Next to Bill Hennigan, the L.A. Times.  Bill, make sure you speak up.

Q:  Okay.  So, you didn’t talk to anybody on the ground and nobody visited the site.  Is that — that correct, right?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  That is correct, Bill, and that’s common.  It’s a rare thing with strikes like this that we can get on the ground in person, or that we can talk to anybody on the ground is not uncommon at all.

Q:  Can you talk a little bit about what — what you actually did sit through in order to come to the conclusions that you did?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Yes, Bill, so we — we sifted through every — from the initial time when intelligence was made available about the strike, we sifted through every bit of e-mail, documents, chat screens.  It was as comprehensive as we could.  There was nothing that was possible to be presented that we did not look at.  We looked at all available video over the — that was available considering this target.

This was a fairly quick-turn target once the — the events, once it was determined dynamic.  And then it was over very rapidly as well.  So, the individuals involved in it, it was both in-country forward and elsewhere with the strike cell.  Those are the folks we — we focused on with regard to determining what information was available at the time and whether or not the target engagement authority had that information.

Q:  That strike cell is in — is that in Erbil or Syria?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  The strike cell is the cell that had the responsibility for conducting the strike in this situation.  And they’re primary role is to inform the target engagement authority.

Q:  Where — where — is it in-country?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  I don’t believe that’s in the scope of what I’m going to discuss today.

Q:  Okay.  So — so if — and you also mentioned that there was a shift changeover.  So approximately how long did this process take — take through?  And also, on top of that, you know, there was — last year, we had a strike where Syrian forces were accidentally hit because of a changeover, because information did not make its way from one — one staff to the next.

Were there any learned lessons that were applicable in this particular incident?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, this — this particular event took place over days, as I said — three days total.  Once the event itself, the dynamic strike process began, that’s when it was a matter of hours and that’s when it was a very quick turn.  And during that process, there were a couple of key individuals that swapped out.  That’s what I’m talking about with regard to shifts — shift-change.

It wasn’t like a full-scale, you know, group of people got up and left and a new group came in.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  He’s talking about certain — certain folks that swapped out and again, we’re being — maybe being unfairly critical of ourselves, but they simply could have done a better job passing information from one individual to the next.

Q:  And the learned lesson from that Syria strike last year?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  All other strikes and investigations inform our processes.  This is — this is how up to this point we’re able to have a remarkably high amount of success.  I mean, literally thousands of strikes with a tremendously small percentage of strikes that go poorly.  So any other investigation definitely informed the process up to this point.

However, every — every process, every event is unique and I only know the particulars about this particular one right here.

Q:  Okay.  You said that there were members on the team that perhaps knew that this was — could be on the no-strike list.  And that that information did not find its way to the right authority.  Was there anybody — was there any — has anybody been reprimanded or punished as a result of this oversight?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, let me go back and clarify something.  None of these buildings — the small mosque, the — the building we struck, or the larger mosque under construction — none of them were on the no-strike list.  What we’re saying is that there were people in the process that had — that had identified that the small mosque as a mosque.  That mosque should have been put on the no-strike list, but it wasn’t.

Let me be clear also that there was no requirement to address the — the status of that small mosque because it was not to be struck.  We weren’t — there was never a plan to strike it.  So that — that was fine.  The bottom line is it should have been on the list and it wasn’t on the list.

Regarding the building that was struck and the larger mosque, the one — the building under construction, by letter of the law, there’s no requirement that they had to be on the list as well, because they were not — they were not completed structures.

What we’re saying is — common sense, and in fact practice up to this point, we have had times similar to this where somebody was savvy enough to say this might be a religious structure; let’s treat it as a cat-1 no-strike structure, even though it’s not on the list.  And they would have pushed it up higher for authority.

The problem that we have with this one is there were people that saw the mosque, the small mosque, didn’t add it to the list immediately when they should have.  And there were other people that looked at the building to be struck and the building to the right of it, the larger building, with skepticism and thinking this might be religious in nature, and they didn’t raise that concern either.

So the bottom line — and that — and that ultimately was one of our recommendations.  And that was we believe, and that is a change that is being codified in regulation, that anytime a structure, even under construction, is deemed to possibly have a no-strike category of protection, it immediately gets that level of protection.  You don’t wait until something is done and that sort of thing.

So that is — that is an area that we think we can do better.  And again, we’re — I can’t speak to whether or not it would have changed the outcome.  What I can speak to is the information that was available to the target engagement authority was not as complete as it could have been.  And we need — those individuals, we need to give them every benefit with regard to every bit of information that is available and we simply did not do that in this case.

Q:  So there were no letters of reprimand or any punishments doled out?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, I’m — I’m glad this came up because I did not include this in my opening statement.  But — but I wanted to address it.  And that is also that there was no negligence found at any part of this investigation.  And again, this is — this is not some — this is not an investigation that we just breezed through.

We sifted through every detail.  There was not — there was no negligence found.  There was no, sort of, anything malicious at all that could be determined.  So none of our recommendations reflected that anyone should receive any sort of reprimand.

That being said, that’s not our decision anyhow.  It is a command decision and whether or not somebody was reprimanded is — is — is again not for me to say.

Q:  (inaudible) — just lastly — (inaudible) — was there any HVIs there at the strike?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  What we know with certainty is this was an Al Qaida meeting and there were Al Qaida regional leaders present.

Q:  Thank you.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Next to Tara Copp, Stars and Stripes.

Q:  Hello.  (inaudible) — most of my questions, but if a madrassa — if the adjoining buildings had been known as a madrassa, potentially a school, that would have also put them on the cat 1 list.  Is that correct?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  You’re — you are exactly right, Tara.  That would have afforded them cat 1 no-strike protection.

Q:  OK.  I actually — (inaudible) — did actually ask most of the questions that I had.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Okay.  We’ll go to Lucas Tomlinson, FOX news.

Q:  General, knowing everything that you know now, would you still have conducted the strike?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Well, Lucas, that is a hypothetical that I — I don’t think is — I’m in a position to — to answer.

Q:  Is it?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  What I can speak to — did you have another question?

Q:  Is it a hypothetical?  Knowing what you know now, would you go back and do the strike at the same time, same place using the same assets?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Lucas, yeah, that’s — were I a target engagement authority, I think that would be a more appropriate role for me to answer.  I was not the target engagement authority.  I did not have the real time information flowing in as it — as it was coming in.  I can say with all certainty that at the time of the strike, before the strike, at the time of the strike and now, it remains a valid military target and it remains a — a legal strike.

Q:  So you would do it again, or the targeters would do it again if presented the opportunity at that time and place?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  I simply do not — do not — I’m not in position to answer that question, Lucas.

Q:  And lastly, was striking this target, considering it was Al Qaida regional leaders, was it worth it given the proximity to these other religious structures?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, Lucas, I think you’re talking with regard to proportionality and it was certainly determined a proportional strike with regard to — to the Al Qaida meeting that was in place.  And again, let’s go back to review what we had, which was a — credible intelligence of this Al Qaida meeting with — with leaders present.  And if you can imagine what that means with regard to pay-off — possible pay-off and a blow to Al Qaida in the area.  It would possibly be significant and that was the mindset moving forward that day.

Q:  Thank you very much.

Q:  Can I jump in real quick?

CAPT. DAVIS:  Sure.

Q:  Just as a follow on that.  If the buildings would’ve been on a do-not-strike list, how is it still considered a legal strike now, just to clarify?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  OK.  A very — very relevant question to — and I’ll try and explain that.  So, the fact that something is on the no-strike list does not mean that it cannot be struck, it just means that it requires a different process and a different approval.

So, any structure, madrassa, or other — or any other structure at all, if it’s being used for a military purpose can be struck.  It is a — it can be a legal target to strike.  It simply has to go to a different level for approval authority.

And that — that did not happen in this — in this instance.

CAPT. DAVIS:  We’ll go to T.M. Gibbons-Neff, Washington Post.

Q:  Thanks for doing this, General.   First question, were there any non-DOD assets involved in the targeting of this meeting?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  This was a solely and completely DOD strike, T.M.

Q:  Got it.  And — and we talked a lot about accountability.  But who exactly would be held accountable?  Which command was this?

Was it an Air Force strike?  Was it a special operations strike?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  T.M., this — this was in fact a — a special operations task force with responsibility in that — in that region.

Q:  Got it.  And last question, kind of regarding this shift changeover and people aware of that it might have been a mosque.  It just sounds like, with everything that you’re saying, that there was no clear pattern of life established on this structure before it was struck.  Is that kind of what you’re talking about by being the cutting corners?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, the intelligence that — that — that brought us to the point of — of considering the strike, and then the — the surveillance that was placed over the — the building location gave the team a high level of confidence that knew — they knew precisely who was in the building and what the target consisted of.  So — so, I would say that the pattern of life was certainly suitably established prior to this strike.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Next to Lolita Baldor, Associated Press.

Q:  General, I just wanted to make sure you — other than this one smaller-in-stature person, do you have a high degree of confidence that the only people killed or injure were al-Qaida members or a — how high of a confidence are you that those who were killed were injured were al-Qaida members?  And I guess, just to — and — and how do you reach that conclusion if other groups suggest they were not?

And you weren’t able to talk to anyone on the ground.  How certain can you be that they were all al-Qaida members?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, so, Lita, in — in a — I’ll — I’ll just have to come back to the — the intelligence that was available to us before the strike, at the time of the strike, and post strike.  And every effort we made to gather evidence, talking to anybody who anything to provide with regard to this — to this strike.

And we’ve simply found no — zero credible evidence to discredit the intelligence.  And that includes additional intelligence collected post-strike regarding the strike itself.

CAPT. DAVIS:  OK, Nancy Youssef, Buzzfeed.

Q:  You mentioned that there were a series of recommendations.  Can you tell us how many recommendations there were?  Who those recommendations go to?  And who — and if — who determines whether to follow through on them?  And what happens if they’re not followed through?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So Nancy, the — the recommendations go to the — the commander of the — of the unit that — that assigned me to do this investigation.  And it is completely his responsibility to determine which — which recommendations to follow and to follow up to make sure that they are — they are implemented.

And the — and I’ll run down a brief summary of the findings that I — I — I mentioned in my earlier dialogue.  There was the overarching problem of incomplete information flow to the target engagement authority.  There was the problem that we found of individuals swapping duties in the strike cell without an adequate hand-off of available information as well there.

There was the category one no-strike list issue, where individuals had noticed that the — there was a small mosque not on the strike — no-strike list and did not immediately add it.  And there was other individuals that suspected that this was a religious compound under construction and they didn’t bring up somewhat of a common sense approach of should this be considered as a cat 1 structure.  So that was another significant thing that we found.

There was the manning review.  There was a couple positions that, and again we are — we are being somewhat harsh on ourselves, but there were people that we thought could have been more experienced and — and could have been more emboldened with regard to their duties in the strike cell.   So that’s — that’s something else that we pointed out.

And the last — the last point was about the overall environment — the climate in the strike cell has got to have — it has to be almost an argumentative environment where folks are — are pointing out things and regardless of rank, they’re — they’re being critical of — of each other.

So — so those are the — the — the main parts and I would — and to the best of my knowledge having talked to the commander, I believe each and every one of those has been acted on in a positive way.  But if I can go back, all the things I just talked about with regard to passing of information and not being bold enough to speak up and that sort of thing, that’s what we’re talking about here.  This is not a place where we found any negligence on any individual or group of individuals.

Q:  What unit is that?  And how long were they in charge of the strike operations in Syria?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  I’m sorry.  Can you repeat the question please.

Q:  Which unit did this — did this report go to?  Or who requested it?  And how long are they in charge of such operations?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, this is a special operations task force and they are in charge of these operations throughout several theaters forever.

Q:  (inaudible) — but is it a specific unit that like a brigade or a battalion?  Or is it — does it transcend that?  That’s what I’m trying to understand.

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Yes.  You’re right.  It transcends that.  It is a special operation task force.

Q:  And then you mentioned regional leaders that were targeted.  Can you give us any more specifics?  Did they know the names of the people who were there?  Or was it a belief that a group of regional leaders were there?  And when you say “regional,”  what does that mean?  What kind of responsibility do they have within Al Qaida?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Yeah, right.  And that’s sort of specific — specific parts of the intelligence that we simply can’t talk about.  But very confident in the intelligence that was available at the time.

SPEAKER:  So we’ve got time for one or two more questions.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Yeah, we’ve got a couple of follow ups.

First from Tara Copp.

(CROSSTALK)

CAPT. DAVIS:  You’re good.

And next from T.M. Gibbons-Neff.

Q:  Yes, back to the special operations task force for just a few minutes.  I assume that that’s JSOC.  Did the engagement or the approval for this engagement ever leave that task force?  As in, did anyone else in CENTCOM review the information prior to the strike?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, the — the approval process worked correctly when we’re talking about the level that it went to, except for the removal of the no-strike protection.  That’s one that should have — that should have been elevated that wasn’t.

Other than that, everything was done at the correct level.

Q:  And that level was within the task force?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  It was within the strike cell at the appropriate level.

CAPT. DAVIS:  All right.  I just wanted to check with the operator to make sure we didn’t have anyone dial in from out of town that wanted to ask anything.

OPERATOR:  If you would like to ask a question, please press star-one.  One moment.

CAPT. DAVIS:  We may not have anybody there.

(CROSSTALK)

CAPT. DAVIS:  Yeah, well, I think CENTCOM might have had someone dial in from down there.  But I don’t think we have anybody in the category, but just checking.

Okay.  Last call for anyone else.

General, thank you for your time in doing this.  I know (inaudible) down at CENTCOM will be available for any follow ups you may have.

Thanks, everybody.

-END-

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

Published

June 9, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

As many as 100,000 civilians trapped inside the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa are being given conflicting evacuation instructions according to Coalition statements and local reports, as US-backed ground forces finally assault the city supported by air and artillery strikes.

Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) started their slow encirclement of Raqqa last November. Artillery and airstrikes have rained down since then killing hundreds of civilians in the near region according to monitors, though the final operation to take the city commenced officially only on June 6th. In a press release published that day, the Coalition stressed that “The SDF have encouraged civilians to depart Raqqah so that they do not become trapped, used as human shields or become targets for ISIS snipers.”

A Coalition spokesperson elaborated that the SDF “have communicated with the citizens of Raqqah through several means, to include leaflets dropped by Coalition aircraft, urging them to evacuate the city if it is safe to do so.”

On May 28th, the monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) uploaded to social media two such leaflets it said had been dropped over the city. One told residents to use the document as they sought refuge with SDF soldiers. Leaving ISIL-held areas is not without risk, with militants routinely documented firing upon and killing men, women and children attempting to flee.

Another leaflet reportedly dropped by the Coalition instructed civilians to hide the paper and – without telling anyone they were leaving – to approach an SDF soldier with a strip of something white. “This is your last chance,” said the leaflet, translated by an Airwars researcher. “Failing to leave might lead to death. Raqqa will fall, don’t be there at that time.”

The Coalition initially dropped leaflets telling people in Raqqa to flee the ISIL-occupied city – only to reverse its decision days later. This leaflet was reportedly dropped on the city. (Via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Reversed decision

However only a day after the Coalition’s announcement, officials informed Airwars on June 7th that ground forces had reversed tactics and no longer wanted civilians to leave. “Since transitioning to offensive in Raqqah yesterday, SDF is now encouraging civilians to stay in their homes, shelter in place, and avoid ISIS fighting positions,” said spokesperson Colonel Joseph Scrocca. Earlier efforts, he stressed, had “helped evacuate more than 200,000 civilians from Raqqah.”

“However, as the SDF enters the city, they do not want civilians placed in harm’s way by the fighting so they have asked them to remain indoors and away from ISIS positions,” said Scrocca. The SDF, he added, “are using a variety of technical and non-technical means such as leaflets, radio broadcasts and internet messages.”

Airwars reached out to local monitor Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, which said it was unaware of the new posture and stated that residents were still under the impression that they were best off leaving.

“They dropped these papers and told the people who want to flee to take them and go to SDF areas,” said a member of the group who spoke to Airwars via the organization’s Facebook account. “If they want them to stay, then why did they drop papers and tell them to leave?”

SDF spokesperson Jesper Soder claimed that the leaflets posted by RBSS were not genuine, though he largely conceded that residents had received mixed-messages.

“We have told the ones closest to our positions to try to flee towards us,” said Soder. “And the ones that are far away to stay inside and hide inside. Also flyers have been dropped in Raqqa telling civilians to hide or seek refuge at our positions.”

It was unclear however exactly how the SDF was able to differentiate populations in the city.

“If the Coalition is going to issue directions to civilians, they should be coordinated and consistent,” said Marla Keenan, senior director of programs for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC). “Conflicting instructions create even more confusion on the ground in an already confusing and dangerous situation for civilians.”

Airwars has been tracking high civilian casualties in Syria – predominantly around Raqqa – for some months.

It remains unclear exactly how many civilians are still inside Raqqa. Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA, told Airwars that reports indicated some 95,000 people had fled the city, but that between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remained. The Coalition estimates that roughly 2,500 fighters are lodged among them.

ISIL has systematically put civilians in danger, and the Coalition has repeatedly highlighted the terror movement’s use of non-combatants as human shields in Mosul – a tactic the alliance says could be repeated in Raqqa. Human rights officials caution that the dropping of leaflets and dissemination of other warnings does not change the legal responsibility of the Coalition and SDF to protect civilians caught up in the fighting.

“The presence of ISIS fighters among civilians does not absolve anti-ISIS forces from the obligation to target only military objectives,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The issuance of effective advance warnings of attack to the civilian population do not relieve attacking forces of their obligation to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians, and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm.”

The stakes remain incredibly high in Raqqa and its environs, where the likely death toll from airstrikes in recent months surpasses anything Airwars has previously monitored – all before the start of fighting inside the city itself (see graph.)

In the three months leading up to June, researchers at Airwars estimate that over 600 civilians were killed in more than 150 Coalition or SDF attacks. That tally includes a minimum 284 civilian deaths in March, 215 in April and at least 220 in May. Already in the first eight days of June, dozens of civilians have been reported slain in air and artillery strikes.

Coalition data further illustrates the intensifying campaign. In May, the number of declared airstrikes around Raqqa more than doubled from the previous month, from 116 to 289.

According to a spokesperson, “In Syria, over 1,800 munitions were fired [in May] of which approximately 1,000 were in support of operations to isolate Raqqah.” Those Coalition figures also include artillery and rocket strikes, but do not include attacks by allied SDF ground forces.

‘Insufficient precautions’

As reports of casualties around Raqqa mount, there are concerns that the Coalition and its SDF allies are not taking enough care to protect civilians.

At the end of May, the UN’s human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein raised alarm at airstrikes in Raqqa and other parts of northeast Syria. The UN pointed to several incidents, including a May 14th strike in Al-Akershi that reportedly killed 23 farm workers, including 17 women.

“The same civilians who are suffering indiscriminate shelling and summary executions by ISIL, are also falling victim to escalating airstrikes,” said Zeid. “Unfortunately, scant attention is being paid by the outside world to the appalling predicament of civilians trapped in these areas.”

“The rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries already caused by airstrikes in Deir-ez-Zor and Al-Raqqa suggests that insufficient precautions may have been taken in the attacks,” Zeid said. “Just because ISIL holds an area does not mean less care can be taken. Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIL or by any other party.”

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, during May the alliance was responsible for more non-combatant deaths in Syria than the Assad regime, Russia, or so-called Islamic State.

A total of 964 civilians were killed in #Syria in May 2017https://t.co/Xfp8qpA7Yz pic.twitter.com/7JlEZtkG0M

— Syrian Network (@snhr) June 2, 2017

Accounts of civilian casualties from airstrikes around Raqqa are often well sourced and, unlike contested reports in other theatres such as Mosul, generally indicate one clear culprit: the Coalition.

For instance, several dozen accounts cite the Coalition for an airstrike on May 21st in Kdeiran village, located in western Raqqa governorate. ISIL-controlled media released a graphic video of the aftermath, but many other sources, including the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Syrian Observatory also reported the incident. The Syrian Network said that at least 15 civilians were killed, including 4 children. At least nine victims were named by local sources.

In another event, Airwars was able to gather more than three dozen reports of an attack that left at least four civilians dead in Al Suweidiya village on May 30th. A number of outlets concurred that a Coalition strike had hit a house belonging to the Al-Razaj family. Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered named four victims: Rima Al-Enezan; Abdul Rahman Hussein Al-Razaj; and Aya Hussain Al-Razaj.

On June 5th, the day before the Coalition announced the start of final operations inside Mosul, its planes allegedly fired on civilians gathered near boats along the Euphrates River, killing at least eleven. Some outlets put the death toll higher and said the civilians were attempting to flee Raqqa – as they had been instructed by the SDF.

Fresh concerns for the safety of civilians were raised June 8th after ISIL released video footage apparently showing the use of white phosphorous shells on the city by US or Coalition forces.

Isis claims US led coalition using White phosphorous in Raqqa video dated June 8 #Syria pic.twitter.com/5Ul5J1c0MH

— Fazel Hawramy (@FazelHawramy) June 9, 2017

How long the fighting in Raqqa will continue remains uncertain. Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, estimates that if ISIL is allowed to leave the city – as was the case in nearby Tabaqa – battles could cease in as little as two months. But US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has since warned that the Coalition plans to annihilate remaining ISIL forces.

“We have already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics where we surround them. Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa,” he recently told CBS News.

If the heavily fortified city is instead encircled, cut off and assaulted one neighbourhood at a time, the operation could last far longer, with associated risks for trapped civilians. Operations to capture Mosul in Iraq are still continuing eight months after they first began.

▲ U.S. Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fire an M777 Howitzer during a fire mission in northern Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, Mar. 24, 2017. The unit provided 24/7 support in all weather conditions to allow for troop movements, to include terrain denial and the subduing of enemy forces. More than 60 regional and international nations have joined together to enable partnered forces to defeat ISIS and restore stability and security. CJTF-OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Zachery C. Laning)

Published

June 8, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

The battle involving Iraqi and US-led Coalition forces against the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) in west Mosul’s Old City poses a considerable threat to civilians and civilian objects, international humanitarian and human rights organizations said today. All warring parties should cease using explosive weapons with wide area effects and inherently indiscriminate weapons in densely populated west Mosul. ISIL’s unlawful use of civilians as “human shields” and the difficulty of identifying civilians in buildings increases the risk of civilian casualties.

The United Nations has estimated that 200,000 civilians remain in the two-square-kilometer area in west Mosul’s Old City, which Iraqi and US-led coalition forces are encircling in preparation for the battle there.

“More than 12,000 munitions were used by the US-led Coalition at Mosul between March and May alone, according to official data – comprising airstrikes, rocket and artillery salvos, mortar attacks and helicopter actions. In addition, thousands more munitions were released by Iraqi air and ground forces – at times with little apparent discrimination. This despite the city still containing hundreds of thousands of trapped civilians,” says Airwars Director Chris Woods.

“The result of this ferocious bombardment on a densely populated city has been inevitable – with thousands of Moslawis reported killed in Coalition, Iraqi government and ISIL actions. Determining responsibility is proving particularly challenging, given the high number of munitions involved. We urge both the Coalition and Iraqi forces imediately to end the use of wide area effect and indiscriminate munitions in Mosul, in order to save lives.”

The groups expressing concern are: Airwars; Amnesty International; Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC); Human Rights First; Human Rights Watch, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), and War Child.

‘Disproportionate military attacks’

On May 25, 2017, anti-ISIL forces dropped leaflets urging civilians to immediately leave areas under ISIL control. Anti-ISIL forces should take all feasible precautions to minimize harm when carrying out attacks and ensure that civilians can safely evacuate the Old City and get humanitarian assistance both inside and outside the besieged area. With the offensive to take west Mosul entering its 109th day, the situation for civilians trapped there is growing increasingly perilous. Those fleeing Mosul have told humanitarian and human rights organizations that markets are being emptied of food, with civilians subsisting on little more than wheat and rainwater.

In mid-February, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) supported by the US-led coalition, known as the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), began the offensive to retake west Mosul, a densely populated set of urban neighborhoods.

Rising civilian casualties from aerial operations have heightened concerns regarding coalition and Iraqi forces’ use of airstrikes. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects such as air-dropped bombs of 500lbs and above, which have been used in the context of the operation, in densely populated civilian areas of western Mosul may be resulting in civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects that is excessive to the anticipated military objectives of the strikes. Such disproportionate military attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Iraqi forces have also been launching locally fabricated rockets, commonly known as improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs), into west Mosul. Images published by media outlets and the US military also depict US forces and Iraqi forces firing mortars and unguided artillery rockets into western Mosul. Both of these weapons are inaccurate and can be unlawfully indiscriminate if used in heavily populated areas.

The difficulty of detecting civilians in the packed city, even with advanced targeting systems and continuous observation, make it difficult to determine accurately the number of civilians occupying a target area prior to approving strikes. The dangers are increased by ISIL’s use of civilians as “human shields,” which is a war crime.

Dozens of newly displaced people from west Mosul, including the Old City, have told humanitarian and human rights organizations that ISIL fighters forced them and their families to move with them up to three times, packing large numbers of families into small neighborhoods still under their control. They witnessed fighters summarily killing dozens of men as punishment as they and their families tried to flee ISIL control. They also saw ISIL fighters fire on groups of civilians as they fled; and some saw fleeing civilians shot and killed.

As the fighting intensifies and ISIL increases its use of civilians as shields, anti-ISIL forces should use all available means to verify the presence and location of civilians in the immediate vicinity of any fighters or military objectives targeted. In December 2016, US forces made procedural changes in its targeting that may increase the likelihood of civilian casualties.

All parties to the conflict are prohibited under the laws of war from conducting deliberate attacks against civilians or civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks. Indiscriminate attacks are attacks that strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. An attack is disproportionate if it may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.

Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are responsible for war crimes. Individuals also may be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime.

The laws of war require that the parties to a conflict take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. When used in populated areas, munitions with large payloads of high explosives can have a wide-area destructive effect, and it is not possible when using them to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants, almost inevitably resulting in civilian casualties.

Weapons such as mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers when firing unguided munitions and IRAMs are fundamentally inaccurate. This can make discriminating between civilians and combatants during an attack on a densely populated area virtually impossible. Human rights and humanitarian organizations and journalists have documented the use by Iraqi forces of IRAMs that lack the ability to be aimed beyond a basic orientation toward the target and are inherently indiscriminate.

Mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers firing unguided munitions used by anti-ISIL forces can be aimed and adjusted by an observer, but are area-fire weapons and, when used in densely populated areas, are prone to unlawful indiscriminate use. Iraqi and US-led coalition forces should avoid all use of these weapons in the densely populated Old City of west Mosul.

Signatories: Airwars Amnesty International Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) Human Rights First Human Rights Watch International Network on Explosive Weapons War Child

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Published

June 7, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

US military investigators have concluded that despite a series of errors, a deadly March air raid in northern Syria was legal and may have killed just one civilian, a child – an account starkly at odds with those of human rights groups and locals.

Yet at the same time officials now concede that in a “preventable error,” targeters and pilots were unaware at the time that they were conducting air strikes on part of a mosque complex.

Speaking to reporters on June 7th, Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager, deputy director of operations at CENTCOM, said that though US officials had failed properly to classify religious buildings that were in the strike zone, the unilateral American attack on the Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque complex in Al Jinah was lawful, and had achieved its objective of disrupting a gathering of “al Qaeda leaders”.

US investigators now argue that what they targeted was a structure attached to a mosque. They identified two separate buildings that they claim were under construction, something Bontrager said meant they did not technically have to be on No Strike Lists – though he said it would be recommended that this practice be changed. Bontrager said the US believed that what it had targeted was planned eventually to be a “school or madrassa” and that the larger part of the complex – which was relatively less damaged – was a “future mosque.”

However, analysis carried out by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture – backed by footage of the site taken before the attack – said that the al-Khattab mosque complex was fully functional.

Locals told Human Rights Watch that the structure appeared unfinished because of insufficient funding. The northern section, reported Human Rights Watch, contained a kitchen and eating area, toilets and washing room. The upstairs held “several rooms that were sometimes used for religious classes for children and the imam’s apartment.” This section of the mosque was directed targeted, determined the three groups.

According to local reports, at least 38 people were killed in a hail of bombs and missiles that began around 7pm on March 16th.  Investigations carried out by the three NGOs established that US forces fired on the northern part of Al-Khattab mosque while it contained worshipers. Hellfire missiles then reportedly targeted many of those who fled the initial attack. Military investigators now say that F-15 jets released 10 bombs, while a single MQ-9 reaper drone subsequently fired two missiles.

“Legal Strike”

US authorities had said publicly in the aftermath of the attack that they were targeting an al Qaeda meeting place at al Jinah, and that they had purposefully avoided a mosque they knew to be in the area – which they identified as a smaller structure adjacent to Al-Khattab.

Yet remarkably, Bontrager now says that even that smaller mosque was not something the “target engagement authority” was actually aware of – meaning that approval of the strike was made without knowledge that either the older and smaller mosque, or the newer and larger al-Khattab facility, had any religious significance. That in turn indicates the pilots carrying out the attack were unlikely to have been aware that they were striking a mosque complex.

“None of the buildings were annotated on our No Strike List as Category 1 facilities, which is a register of entities that must be carefully evaluated before an approval to strike,” said Bontrager, describing the misidentification as a “preventable error.”

“This failure to identify the religious purpose of these buildings led the target engagement authority to make the final determination to strike without knowing all he should have known, and that is something we need to make sure does not happen in the future,” he said.

Had the mosque been identified as such and put on a No Strike List, it would have been subject to more rigorous vetting. Nevertheless, the strike would have been permitted due to the alleged gathering of militant leaders inside, claimed Bontrager. And even the presence of a child did not deter the attackers. 

“What we saw was a smaller in stature person accompanying an adult into the meeting site, and that alone is what we saw that made us call this individual a civilian,” said Bontrager. That likely presence of a child was known to planners of the final stages of the attack. “The target engagement authority was aware, the proportionality assessment was made and it was still deemed a legal strike.”

“The investigation found that at the time of the meeting the structure hit and the people who were targeted were valid targets because they were engaged in an al Qaeda meeting,” reporters were told in a Pentagon briefing. “It was certainly determined a proportional strike with regard to the al Qaeda meeting that was in place.”

Investigators did not divulge which al Qaeda “leaders” were present or killed during the attack, something they have done previously after unilateral American airstrikes in Syria. The outcome of the attack from a counter-terrorism perspective remains vague.

’38 civilians killed’

CENTCOM’s findings, which have not yet been released outside of a briefing for select reporters, are likely to raise further questions about the incident. Investigators did not visit the site of the attack, which is in a militant-held area. But they also did not speak with any locals who witnessed the attack. Still, Botranger said investigators were “confident” that they did not hit a gathering of civilians, instead killing “approximately two dozen men attending an al Qaeda meeting.”

By comparison, in examining the strike Human Rights Watch spoke with 14 people with close knowledge of the incident, including four people who were at the mosque, as well as first responders and local journalists. Those witnesses told HRW that a religious lecture had concluded and many attendees were lingering ahead of night prayers when the bombing began.

Syrian Civil Defense reported the recovery of 38 bodies, and published the names of 28 victims. Among the named dead were five children, the imam as well as his wife, Ghousoun Makansi.

“It is hard to understand how the Pentagon can determine with such confidence who was killed and not in the attack without having spoken to anybody on the ground,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

“The absence of any details about what intelligence the attack was based on and whom the Pentagon thinks it killed in the attack only compounds questions about how it reached these conclusions. This should not be the end of this investigation, and the Pentagon should release much more detail about what it knows.”

▲ Post by Aleppo White Helmets on March 17th, 2017, depicted the aftermath of an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Jina.

Published

May 9, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

After nearly three years of anti-ISIL airstrikes, Coalition member Australia has begun to release bi-weekly strike reports detailing its operations in Iraq and Syria.

The first strike report, issued on May 8th, references the period from April 18th to the 30th. The Australian Ministry of Defense says its pilots carried out airstrikes on seven days during that time, all in Mosul. 

Civilian casualties from airstrikes were alleged in the city on five of the seven days that Australia reported striking Iraq’s second largest city. However with multiple allies bombing the city from the air and ground – as well as attacks by so-called Islamic State – attribution for recent incidents has proved very challenging. Australia did not make any reference to civilian casualties in the strike report, only stating that “All ADF [Australian Defense Force] personnel comply with International Law and limitations designed to protect coalition forces and minimise the risk to civilians.”

Australia has released its first detailed strike report in more than 30 months of airstrikes

‘Welcome step’

The strike report and new posture is a far cry from the ADF’s stance earlier this year, when it replied to a Freedom of Information request by stating it “does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq and Syria and certainly does not track such statistics.” The ADF later told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to speak with US officials – not Australia – about civilian casualties involving its forces.

In December 2016, Australia was also prominently featured in an Airwars audit of the Coalition as one of the alliance’s least transparent members. Airwars called on the country’s military to release both the time and location of its strikes in Iraq and Syria and any details of cases where it assessed and investigated possible civilian casualties resulting from Australian strikes.

“We’ve been calling on the ADF for some time to join other allies in reporting the date, place and target of strikes, so this is a significant and welcome step forward for Australian transparency and public accountability,” said Airwars director Chris Woods, who authored the December audit.

Earlier this month, the ADF said that a March decision by the Coalition to review its strike reporting had led to Canberra’s move to review its own procedures.

“This decision comes after weighing the importance of reporting ADF airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against the potential propaganda advantages it might provide Daesh and any risk to the safety of ADF personnel on operations,” said the ADF. Authorities will release their own civilian casualty assessments, said the ADF, “in addition to CJTF-OIR’s monthly civilian casualty report.”

Casualty cases

To date, Australia has admitted that its forces took part in Coalition attacks on two occasions that led to “credible claims of civilian casualties.” Both cases were brought to light in September 2015 as a result of Airwars working with Australian media.

However, Australian officials said that a review of video of the first strike, which took place on October 10th 2014 near Ramadi, “assessed that no civilian casualties occurred.” Two people were observed in the target area of the second strike, on December 12th, 2014 in Fallujah, but the AFD stated “there were no reports of civilian casualties occurred” due to the strike. “Neither of these incidents resulted in substantiated civilian casualties,” the ADF concluded.

As of May 8th, Airwars estimates that the Coalition is likely responsible for at least 3,294 civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria. No non-US partner has admitted to killing a single civilian.

Airwars is also calling for the ADF to release details of all previous Australian strikes in Iraq and Syria so that all reports can be checked against public claims of civilian casualties.

Published

May 5, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

To date the Coalition has admitted to 272 civilian deaths across 93 separate known incidents in Iraq and Iraq and Syria – with 80 more deaths recently confirmed in an unknown number of further undeclared events.

The Airwars best estimate of civilians killed by Coalition strikes is nearly ten times that figure – a minimum of 3,294 to 5,281 killed as of May 3rd. More than 1,400 civilians who died in these strikes are already known by name.

Coalition officials have admitted that their casualty monitoring team is struggling with a backlog of many hundreds of alleged incidents it has yet to assess. To March 31st of this year the Coalition recently told the Los Angeles Times it had so far assessed 396 incidents.  By that point Airwars had already tracked 1,135 claimed cases – indicating that 65 per cent of incidents have yet to even be assessed.

The Coalition team has just two people, and thanks to military protocols also has limited web access, making it difficult in particular to view social media websites where many civilian casualty reports originate.

Despite their meagre resources, Coalition investigators have attempted to incorporate greater outside reporting, and have also increased the number of cases considered in the past several months, rising from 11 completed assessments in December to 17 in May. While most initial assessments were overly reliant on flight recordings and internal reporting by pilots and analysts, the Coalition now says it looks more broadly at media reports and monitoring work. In late March, CENTCOM’s commander General Votel highlighted to Congress the military command’s relationship with groups including Amnesty, CIVIC and Airwars.

However despite these improvements the backlog of cases yet to be considered has only grown due to the large number of civilian casualties now being reported from Mosul and Raqqa. Airwars is also concerned that the Coalition – which costs the US alone some $13 million per day – may become overly reliant on groups like Airwars to bring cases to their attention, without devoting necessary additional resources themselves.

In its most recent monthly civilian casualty report, the Coalition reported that it had “carried over 43 open reports of possible civilian casualties from previous months, received 27 new reports, and completed the assessment on 28 reports.” In comparison, Airwars researchers have monitored more than 320 civilian casualty event allegations in Iraq and Syria over the course of just March and April.

As Airwars noted in a transparency audit of the Coalition late last year, “the widening gap between military and public reporting of civilian fatalities on the battlefield risks significant reputational harm, in addition to further risk to civilians and lack of accountability for victims.” To date, despite 4,000 airstrikes between them no non-US Coalition member has admitted to involvement in a single civilian casualty – a statistically implausible outcome that casts a shadow on the entire alliance’s credibility.

Here we present just a few of those publicly well-reported cases – often with significant civilian fatalities – which the Coalition has either failed to investigate, or which it presently denies responsibility for or deems ‘not credible.’

These are just 10 of 500 incidents currently assessed by Airwars as likely having killed between 2,800 and 4,400 additional civilians which the Coalition has yet to concede.

September 23, 2014

Basmala, who died with her young brother and parents in a reported US cruise missile strike, September 23rd, 2014 (via SN4HR)

On the first night of US strikes in Syria, cruise missiles hit the town of Kafar Daryan, in Idlib governorate. At least 13 civilians, including 2 women and 5 children were reportedly killed in the attack, in which the United States unilaterally targeted the al Nusra Front.

A preponderance of evidence, including video from the scene, field investigations and multiple eyewitness reports, confirmed these accounts.

Among the dead was a young girl named Basmala, who was killed along with her young brother and both parents.

April 22, 2015

Muthana Ghassan Salem Hadeed, killed with his family in an alleged coalition strike on April 22 2015 (via Mosul Ateka)

At least four members of the same family died when their home was destroyed in an airstrike on the Bareed neighborhood of Mosul.

Their names were Sumiah Ibrahim Mohammad Ali Hadded, age 53; Muthana Ghassan Salem Hadeed, age 23 (pictured); Fadheela Wesam Salem Hadeed, age 23 and Muthana’s wife; and their four year old son Abdullah Ghassan Salem Al Hadid.

Even prior to operations aimed at recapturing Mosul, the city was the sight of the highest number of civilian casualties in Iraq or Syria.

This family, which died more than a year before that assault began in October 2016, were just a few of them.

 

 

 

July 9th, 2015

Twelve year old Fares al-Khadour, who perished in an alleged Coalition airstrike, was well know prior to his death. After the outbreak of war Fares had fled to Beirut, where he worked selling flowers on the street. Well dressed, locals on Beirut’s Hamra street would photograph the boy. In early July, Fares travelled back to Al Hassakah, reportedly to see family members. He was killed several days later.

Few details are known about the event, though heavy coalition airstrikes were confirmed in the area for July 9th-10th 2015: “Near Al Hasakah, seven airstrikes struck an ISIL large tactical unit and six ISIL tactical units destroying four ISIL vehicles and six ISIL fighting positions.“

Pictures of Fares al Khodour, taken in Beirut, where he fled with his family after the outbreak of war in Syria (via Hamra Street Facebook page)

 

December 7, 2015

Ali Sleiman Al Abdallah and his children, killed in a reported Coalition strike December 7th 2015 (via Hassakah Youth Union)

At least 40 civilians were reported killed when airstrikes hit the village of Ein al Khan, near al Hawl in Syria’s Hassakah governorate.

According to an investigation carried out by the Global Post, the attack took place in the early hours of December 7th. Some reports indicated that local Kurdish forces gave incorrect coordinates to the Coalition.

Though CENTCOM said it was assessing the incident, it appears it never launched a full investigation – even after Amnesty International cited the attack, calling it “indiscriminate.”

The Syrian Network named 41 civilian victims, while Hasskah Youth Union gave others, including Ali Sleiman Al Abdullah and his children (pictured).

March 22, 2016 

At least 10 civilians were killed, including at least 3 women and 3 children, after an alleged Coalition strike hit academic residences associated with Mosul University.

The local outlet Yagen described the buildings as housing professors. “One university professor recognized his wife from her hand only, specifically a wedding ring, after her body was torn to shreds,” said another local outlet.

Among the dead was Professor Dhafer Ramadan Al Badrani, pictured, who reportedly perished along with his wife and daughter.

June 3, 2016

Reported child victims of a Coalition strike near Manbij on June 3rd 2016 (via Manbij Mother of the World)

At least 22 civilians, including 13 children were reported killed by a suspected Coalition strike in the village of Ojkana, near Manbij in Aleppo governorate.

The dead were mostly from three families – that of Saad Allah Al Hussein al Hilal; that of Bahjat al Hussein al Hilal; and the family of Fouad al Hussein al Hilal.

The Coalition has not announced an investigation into the incident.

October 15-16, 2016

Borsan Naser Al Ahmad Al Borsan

Twelve civilians, including at least 3 women and 3 children were killed in a reported Coalition attack on Al Jurnia town in Raqqa governorate. Raqqa has been the scene of hundreds of civilian deaths over the past year.

Among those reported killed in overnight attack were three generations of the family of a man named Mohammad Abdallah al Borsan, according to Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. Included was the one year old child Borsan Naser al Ahmad Al Borsan.

March 1, 2017

Image via Mosul Ateka

March was the deadliest month to date for civilians in both Iraq and Syria. One of the worst events in a series of reported catastrophies inside Mosul took place on the very first day of March.

According to local reports, at least 50 civilians were killed when airstrikes hit in the vicinity of a mosque in the al-Faruq neighborhood.

One local resident, named Thanon Alaa Younis (pictured), was named as a victim.

 

 

March 22, 2017

The child Udday Hasan Khalif, 10 years old, killed in an alleged coalition raid on the Al Thani neighbourhood bakery in Tabaqa.

At least 36 civilians, and as many as 50, were killed in the Al Thani neighborhood of Tabaqa in one the deadliest incidents in the violently contested Raqqa governorate town.

Multiple reports said that the Coalition bombed a central area where a bakery was located, killing employees and dozens of civilians. At least one report said an ISIL headquarters was nearby. VDC named 27 of the victims, and blamed the Coalition. Among those reported killed by other outlets was 10 year old Udai Hasan Khalif.

Raqqa remains the site of many of the Coalition’s deadliest incidents. More civilians were killed in the governorate during April than at any point since the Coalition began bombing Syria. Yet no mention of this March 22nd event or many others in Raqqa province are made in the latest Coalition casualty report.

 

April 20, 2017

In yet another attack on the governorate, local reports indicated that at least 4 civilians were killed in an alleged Coalition strike in the Raqqa countryside. Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently named three victims as Mohammed Ali Al-Abd, Hamad Rajab Al-Jalad and Juma’a Al Sha’aban – pictured below holding his child.

Juma’a Al Sha’aban (right), killed in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Maysalon Farm, April 20th (via RBSS)

 

Published

May 5, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

Shihab Halep is the nom de plume of one of Airwars’ Syrian researchers, now based in Turkey. Over the past year Shihab has helped Airwars document hundreds of alleged Russian casualty events. Originally from Aleppo and now a refugee, Shihab marks the 1,000th day of Coalition airstrikes with his personal reflections on the devastating impact that airstrikes and shelling can have on civilians in Syria.

The night the University Entrance Exam results were announced in my hometown, Aleppo, my family and friends came down to our flat in Seif Al-Dawla to say congratulations and have some sweets and special drinks we use when celebrating such milestones. I was the first one in my family to go to an engineering school, so my family was very excited and happy despite the tough time we were having in Aleppo in general.

Suddenly, loud explosions were heard from afar, and our guests decided to head home to make sure their beloved families were safe. Gradually, the noises got nearer to the point we felt our flat shaking – and suddenly we were under fire [from the regime]. In the middle of the night we were forced to leave our flat with nothing on us but the clothes we were wearing, though we were lucky as we were dressed up since we were supposed to be celebrating.

Our flat was on the highway, so we decided to move towards the home of my uncle. Suddenly, mortar shells started falling around us. It’s a horrifying experience when you hear the whistle of the shell, a silence for a second or two which feels like a lifetime, and then an explosion, I looked around, my family is still alive, and the same thing keeps repeating. It was too late for us to go back to our flat, and we couldn’t march forward. There was an empty, isolated building nearby, so we decided to hide inside it as it was the best shelter.

Shihab filmed the damage to his family home, in his last moments before becoming a refugee

‘My baby nephew was crying’

My nephew, who was a couple of months old, was crying but we had to flee with nothing on us and weren’t able to provide him with any food. We stayed there until the morning and when the shelling stopped, we quickly went back home to find it partially destroyed and lots of shrapnel and holes everywhere. We tried to quickly grab a few things, mostly food for my nephew, and ran to another shelter.

By this time, helicopters started striking the neighbourhood and we doubted if we were going to make it out alive. Somehow, we did. September 2013 was the last time I saw our flat and our neighbourhood.

Though I couldn’t graduate in Aleppo, I continued studying in Turkey and did not give up on my education. Now as a researcher for Airwars, I am always reminded of my experience fleeing home, especially when I see videos and photos of children in Raqqa and other parts of Syria where civilians are forced to flee. Only the lucky ones make it. The look of those children who are not able to go to school anymore is pretty much the same one I had when I was forced to leave my neighbourhood for the final time.

The schools in Syria all look identical, so when I see schools in Raqqa province being struck and destroyed – like the one in Mansoura on March 21st – I get some flashback and remember my own school in Aleppo. These poor students could have been me or my classmates. We all had dreams and parents who love us. What’s worse, when I escaped Aleppo with my family, I knew where I was going. These civilians don’t. There have been reports that the Euphrates Dam might collapse, which imposes more pressure and adds to the struggle the civilians go through on a daily basis. Airstrikes do not differentiate between babies, elderly or extremists. Death is everywhere and poor civilians are paying a heavy price.

Those feelings are universal, being forced to leave home not knowing if you’d go back at all. I was lucky, I made it to Turkey and managed to continue studying, but civilians in Raqqa are not lucky. They are living under extremist terrorists and can’t escape, while they might die at any minute in airstrikes. Their situation is like mine, only I had an escape route. They do not.

▲ The aftermath of raids on Zee Kaar school and the Ibn Khaldoun of the city of Raqqa, May 12th 2016 (via RBSS)

Published

May 5, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

A version of this article is published by Bellingcat.

Christiaan Triebert is Airwars’ volunteer geolocator, helping us to determine coordinates for civilian casualty incidents. As an award-winning researcher at Bellingcat, he focuses on a variety of topics, including post-strike analysis of attacks like that on the mosque in al-Jinah.

Note: Hundreds of official videos showing airstrikes against targets of the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq have recently been removed from the public YouTube channel of the Coalition. In a written statement to Bellingcat, the Coalition said higher-quality versions of the videos were being uploaded to DVIDS for “greater transparency and increased availability.” However, an initial assessment appears to show that not all videos have been migrated. Coalition offficials have also given a different account to Airwars in the past as to why the videos were removed, suggesting their presence on the official YouTube channel no longer matched strategic goals. Airwars is permanently archiving all known Coalition and CENTCOM videos issued since August 2014, to ensure their continued availability.

The publicly provided locations issued by the Coalition for its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria may be off by as much as 93 kilometers, according to a new and detailed analysis of released military videos. After 1,000 days of the anti-ISIL campaign, these disparities pose question marks for monitors attempting to understand where US and allied strikes took place, and then match them to civilian casualty reports from the ground. They also makes clear that Coalition casualty assessors would be unwise to use their own published reports as a guide to where airstrikes have actually taken place,

In its Transparency Audit of the Coalition, published in December 2016, Airwars noted problems with the public reporting process. Difficult to navigate internal logs “in turn led to quite vague military reporting.” Locations, then, could only be taken as approximate. One CENTCOM senior official explained the situation in some detail:

“When the aircrew come back [from a strike mission], as you drill into a geographic location, some of those areas have towns that consist of three or four people. So typically what’s going to be in the strike log is going to be the largest city nearby. And they’ll annotate, ‘Conducted a strike near Mosul.’ In fact it’s going to be some small town that’s 23 clicks [kilometers] outside of Mosul. If they put that on the strike log, once it goes through the ‘Enterprise’ [slang for the Combined Air Operations Centre] no one knows where that is.”

Officials were keen to stress that if an incident was being investigated, “we do have the ability to go back and drill down into the detail.”

200 videos

While earlier videos were posted by CENTCOM, the first video depicting an airstrike was uploaded to the Coalition’s own official Youtube channel on April 11, 2015. Over 200 airstrike videos followed over nearly two years. By far the majority (around 68% as of April 24, 2017) of Coalition airstrikes have been conducted by the US. Airstrike videos are also disseminated through other channels, such as the ministries of defence of Coalition members, including the British, the French, the Jordanians, and the Iraqis.

Additionally, at least one US Navy air squadron had also uploaded videos separately to their own YouTube channel (since taken down.) While Bellingcat has crowdsourcing projects running for those specific MoD videos as well, they are not included in this analysis.

So far, 67 percent of the airstrikes shown in the Coalition airstrike videos have been successfully geolocated. You can access all Bellingcat data, which will be updated as soon as there are new geolocations, including from DVIDS HUB, on Silk. Bellingcat used Meedan’s Check platform to geolocate the videos, and the project is open to everyone to join By far most of the strikes shown in videos uploaded to YouTube (as of April 28, 2017) were geolocated to Iraq.

Broken down by provinces, the highest number of airstrikes were geolocated to the Iraqi governorates of Nineveh and Anbar, followed by the Syrian governorate of Aleppo, as of April 28, 2017.

Generally, the Coalition gives an indication of a geographical location by labeling the videos “near [location X]”. There are only a handful of videos that do not contain the word “near” but simply mention a location. This analysis considers “near” as being within a 10 km range of the claimed location and a label is considered “accurate” when it falls within that range. Of all geolocated videos, 68 percent were determined to be accurate. Videos outside of the 10 km range strayed up to around 93 km of the claimed location, and for one video no location approximation was given.

Many of the videos with a significant distance from the claimed location are oil-related facilities that are indeed ‘near’ Deir ez-Zor or Al-Bukamal, such as an oil separation facility at the Al-Ahmar oil field. In a desert with few or no settled areas nearby, these location claims may still be considered relatively accurate.

However, there are other incidents that appear to be less concisely located. Perhaps the most concerning incident of all the geolocated videos was a strike on an IS “concealed tactical vehicle” that was claimed to have been conducted on March 23, 2015, which was labelled as “near Al Hawl”, a town in north-eastern Syria. However, the targeted building has been successfully geolocated to a building in Jayar Ghalfas, a town in northwest Iraq.

A screenshot from a Coalition video claiming to show an airstrike on an IS ‘concealed tactical vehicle’ near Al-Hawl, a town in eastern Syria. The building was geolocated to Jayar Ghalfas, a town in northwest Iraq, as the Microsoft Bing satellite imagery (36.137411, 41.297414) on the right shows. The location is around 30 km southwest of Al-Hawl.

Though this video was labelled as being in a different country than where it actually took place, it is still relatively near Al-Hawl — around 30 km away.

When Col. Steve Warren, at the time the Coalition’s spokesperson, gave an “Ask Me Anything” on the social media and news aggregation website Reddit, this author asked him about this particular incident. Col. Warren replied that this was “an administrative error that it’s listed as Syria rather than Iraq”, explaining that Al-Hawl in Syria “was the nearest identifiable city to the strike.”

The reply by Col. Warren, the Coalition’s spokesperson on the question why it was labelled near to a town in Syria but showed a location in Iraq.

More recently, the US erred in its labelling once more, when a controversial strike on a group of individuals gathered in a mosque in Al-Jinah, Syria, was initially labelled as being in the Idlib governorate. While close, the building was actually in nearby Aleppo governorate. This strike was not an official Coalition attack – and was instead the United States unilaterally targeting alleged al Qaeda fighters. The US carries out nearly all of the alliance’s anti-ISIL bombings in Syria, and military assets can be used for both campaigns.

When asked for clarification about this incident, a CENTCOM spokesperson told Bellingcat that they “don’t mean to cause any confusion. Different internal reports may have listed this differently.”

The Coalition thus seems to use a limited number of labels for their targeted location areas. The “Al Hawl, Syria” label was probably closer than their nearest other Iraqi location label, “Sinjar”, around 50 km northeast of Jayar Ghalfas.

The Coalition’s ‘region’ labels

Which region does the Coalition use to label one airstrike as “near Mosul” but the other one as “near Al Hawl”? To get a better insight in which regions are used by the Coalition, the geolocator @obretix mapped all geolocated airstrike videos, and then used a Voronoi diagram – which is a partitioning of a plane into regions based on distance to points in a specific subset of the plane. In this case, the points are thus all “near” locations mentioned by the Coalition. The geolocations are then corresponding to a region that is closer than any other point.

As the following image shows, Al-Hawl is indeed the closest location to the target struck by the Coalition (circled in red) in the number of areas the Coalition has used.

An excerpt from a Voronoi diagram of an impression of the regions used by the Coalition, based on the geolocated videos. The geolocated airstrike of March 23, 2016 that was labelled near ‘Al Hawl’ is circled in red. Map by @obretix

There are more interesting insights the maps reveals. While the Coalition does use a label for “near Kubaysah”, a city in Iraq, some strikes within the city’s perimeters were labelled as “near Hit” — a city nearby but still less accurate than using a label there was for that city.

A detailed view on the Kubaysah/Hit region on the Voronoi diagram map, showing that two videos labelled as “near Hit” were in fact closer to Kubaysah, which also has its own ‘location label’.

Another example of remarkable region labels is the use of hamlets, such as “near Washiya” and “near Sultan Abdullah” – places with only a few houses. but close to respectively Aleppo and Mosul. “Near Aleppo” is not used in any of the YouTube videos, while “near Washiya” has been twice for a target only a double dozen kilometres away from Aleppo city. Why would these small hamlets be used as a region label, while the case of Jayar Ghalfas could not get its own region label? Is this intentional? This is a question that remains unanswered.

Overall, all location claims were all within 100 km distance of the claimed location, and all of these claims were relatively accurate as to the location it referred to — unlike the Russian airstrike videos, which were in some cases massively inaccurate.

A detailed view of the area around Aleppo city in Syria. A video close to Aleppo was not tagged as “near Aleppo” but “near Washiya” (orange dot), a tiny hamlet in the northern countryside

Civilian Casualties

It is possible that civilian casualties take place in a portion of these videos. Some, such as the video of airstrikes on the University of Mosul in March 2016, may in fact show airstrikes that caused significant civilian casualties.

Perhaps the most striking example of a video showing civilian casualties came from an airstrike on September 20th-21st, 2015, targeting an IS “VBIED network” according to the Coalition at the time. The video – which showed a structure destroyed by an explosion – was deleted after questions were raised, but  was archived and re-uploaded by others, including investigative journalist Azmat Khan.

But was this really a “VBIED network”? Under the original upload, a commenter posted that the structures shown were his family’s home in Mosul.

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike. Do you really know who these people were? They were innocent and happy family members of mine.”

Days after the strike Dr Zareena Grewal, a relative living in the US wrote in the New York Times that four members of the Rezzo family had died in the strike. On April 2nd 2017 – 588 days later – the Coalition finally admitted that it indeed bombed a family home which it had confused with an ISIL headquarters.

“The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition told Airwars.

Even though the published strike video actually depicted the unseen killing of a family, it remained – wrongly captioned – on the official Coalition YouTube channel for more than a year.

It is worth mentioning that all of the targets in the Coalition’s videos appear to be ‘clean’ objects like vehicles, factories and fighting positions. It almost looks like video game, just like IS’s propaganda videos of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). The Coalition’s videos appear only to showcase the precision and efficiency of Coalition bombs and missiles. They rarely show people, let alone victims.

Published

May 4, 2017

Written by

Alex Hopkins

At 2,45pm local Iraqi time on August 8th 2014, two US F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil being operated by so-called Islamic State fighters. That attack marked the beginning of a major war which would draw in twelve other partners; spread to Syria and beyond; and which would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of soliders, militant fighters and civilians.

For 1,000 days the US-led Coalition has now bombed ISIL targets across Iraq and Syria. While the terror group has been pushed back in both countries, the civilian toll has been significant. Some of the deadliest incidents and highest numbers of casualties have been observed in recent months, as parallel operations have unfolded in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and in Raqqa governorate, where Kurdish forces backed by Coalition airstrikes continue to pummel the city and surrounding villages. 

To mark this significant milestone in the aerial campaign Airwars is publishing a series of articles written by its researchers, who between them have tracked reports of civilian deaths over 33 months. Though the Coalition has so far admitted to more than 350 civilian fatalities – and has taken steps to improve the quality of its own monitoring – this number is nearly ten times lower than Airwars’ own minimum estimate.

Majed Mohammad al Aswad, the latest of 1,400 likely Coalition victims so far named

These civilian casualties also have names. Of the more than 3,200 civilian deaths presently assessed as likely by Airwars, the names of more than 1,400 Iraqi and Syrian victims are so far known. Majid Mohammed Al Aswad (pictured), Hussein Al-Mohammed Al-Aklah and Hassan Al Abdullah Al Aswad are the latest additions – killed in a likely Coalition strike on Tal al Jayer in Syria on May 2nd.

A significant amount of information has been posted online by civilians affected by Coalition strikes, with the Airwars public database already at half a million words and growing. Yet it would take the US-led alliance nine months to admit their first civilian casualties – and international media too was slow to report on civilian deaths. Compared to coverage of Russia’s brutal aerial operations in Syria, relatively little space was devoted until recently to investigate what has been happening to the men, women and children harmed by Coalition bombs and missiles.

In Mosul, where in recent weeks reporters have proven capable interrogators of the campaign and its civilian toll, Iraqi and Coalition efforts to limit casualties have been haphazard at best, says Airwars’ Baghdad-based researcher, who has visited the front lines five times since October.

The head of the Airwars Syria team reflects on why coverage of Russian and Coalition actions has been so different – even as the civilian casualties inflicted by both parties has converged. And our Amesterdam-based researcher describes a stark contrast between the bloody daily reports tracked from the battlefield, and the sterile, casualty-free war described by most Coalition partners.

Experts also give their thoughts on 1,000 days of war. “Our goal is always for zero civilian casualties,” says Colonel Joseph Scrocca of the US-led alliance. “Coalition forces comply with the law of armed conflict and take extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties.”

Yet Fadel Abdul Ghany of the Syrian Network for Human Rights is one of a number of monitors criticising the 1,000 day campaign. “By not identifying who in the Coalition forces is committing the massacres in Syria, and not offering frank and clear apologies or starting to compensate the victims, it is implied that there are no consequences to such flagrant violations. This has given the military command a green light, promoting a culture where there is no real interest in taking careful decisions or carrying out serious investigations,” Abdul Ghany argues.

The air war against ISIL is simultaneously one of the most public of campaigns, and one whose victims are still easily lost. How are we to make sense of the ongoing war after 1,000 days? We start by explaining the big numbers – from bombs dropped to civilians killed.

The big numbers

Every day since August 8th 2014, Airwars has received a daily public strike report from the US-led Coalition. This is our primary source for information on where and when the US and its allies say they are are bombing, and forms a crucial component of our extensive datasets and graphics. What does this data tell us?

Through May 2nd 2017, the Coalition had carried out a total 21,064 strikes: 12,562 in Iraq and 8,502 in Syria (these figures also now include ground artillery.) The US continues to be the most active partner, carrying out 95% of all Coalition strikes in Syria and 68% of all actions in Iraq according to the latest official data. 

The first of more than 21,000 strikes so far declared by US-led Coalition, August 8 2014

Among the allies, the British remain the second most active partner, with 1,214 airstrikes declared in Iraq and 92 in Syria. France follows with 1,206 reported total strikes. The Netherlands (which paused its campaign on June 27th 2016) is responsible for an estimated 493 strikes, while Australia has carried out an estimated 489 actions. 

The term ‘strike’, however, can be misleading. One strike report may actually include multiple targets hit by numerous aircraft from different allied nations, over some hours. Munitions data released during the war can therefore be a more reliable indicator of the significant degree to which the war has intensified.

From August 2014, the start of kinetic operations, through the end of March 2017, 76,649 munitions had reportedly been dropped on Iraq and Syria – though the real number may be much higher. 

There was a seven per cent rise in bombs and missiles dropped between 2015 and 2016. However, the first three months of 2017 saw a sharp increase in munitions released, representing a 58% rise over January–March 2016. 

However US Army strikes, some unilateral actions and helicopter attacks are still not counted in these monthly tallies, and recent figures provided to Airwars showing 5,500 munitions dropped by the Coalition on Mosul only in March were far higher than the supposed tally for all of Iraq and Syria. 

Marked intensification: January – March 2017 were each record months for munitions dropped across Iraq and Syria

$13 million per day

According to the US Department of Defense, to March 31st 2017 the war against ISIL had cost the United States $12.5 billion since August 8th 2014 – an average daily expenditure of $13 million over 967 days of operations.

So what has the bombing achieved? Latest estimates released by the Pentagon claim that over 70,000 ISIL fighters have been killed since June 2014 – a number which does not appear consistent with earlier government assessments, such as one in September 2014 which claimed that ISIL had between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters combined in Iraq and Syria. The international Coalition itself has lost seven fighters in the war. In February 2015, ISIS released a video showing a Jordanian pilot being burned to death.

Additionally,  many thousands of allied Iraqi and Syrian forces have died. According to Middle East Monitor citing Al Jazeera, 8,000 Iraqi soldiers and Federal Police  have likely been killed in the fight against ISIL.

The rampup in the Coalition-assisted campaign from 2016 onwards has seen much ISIL territory rolled back. At its peak in 2014, the terrorist group controlled more 100,000 square kilometres of Iraq and Syria containing around 11 million people. According to an April 2017 assessment by RAND, it had since lost 57% of its territory – and there had been a 73% reduction in the number of people living under its control as of early 2017.

Graph via RAND Corporation

Syria: over six million civilians displaced

The real impact of the 1,000 day war has been on those civilians on the ground still trapped in ISIL-held territory in Iraq and Syria. Airwars estimates that at least 3,294 non-combatants have died in almost 600 events assessed as having likely carried out by Coalition warplanes in Iraq and Syria.

Furthermore, Russian actions in Syria in support of the Assad regime and against ISIL have killed thousands more civilians. Due to the volume of allegations, Airwars has been unable to fully assess Russian events beyond April 2016. However from September 30th 2015 to April 30th 2016 alone – the period for which strikes have been fully vetted – it is our provisional view that between 2,210 and 2,984 civilian non-combatants are likely to have died in Russian airstrikes.

Millions of other civilians are experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. From the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, an estimated 6.3 million people have been internally displaced inside Syria and more than five million have fled the country and have been registered as refugees, according to figures from the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A further 13.5 million Syrian people are in need of humanitarian protection, including basic items such as food, medicine, clean water and shelter. This figure includes five million people in hard to reach and besieged areas.

The escalation of the campaign to oust ISIL from Raqqa which began on November 6th 2016 has exacerbated the humanitarian situation there. “We are concerned for the safety and protection of an estimated 400,000 people in Raqqa who live in hard-to-reach areas under ISIL control,” says Linda Tom, Public Information Officer for OCHA Syria. “This may change, as we are getting reports of population movements in several areas including in the south-east, Shahid Azid Camp and Jib Al-Shaair Camp, but we now estimate the number of recently displaced people to be over 100,000.”

The aftermath of heavy shelling in Central and Western Mosul neighbourhoods (via Amjed Gk, Facebook)

Iraq: millions still homeless

The humanitarian situation in Iraq also continues to worsen. According to figures from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), from January 2014 to April 2017 nearly five million Iraqis across the country had been displaced. Of these more than three million are still currently displaced, while more than 1.7 million have returned to their areas of origin.

The battle for Mosul has had a profound impact on civilians, forcing increasing numbers to flee their homes as the fighting has intensified and moved into more densely populated areas. From the official start of the Mosul campaign on October 17th 2016 to April 20th 2017, IOM estimates that more than 400,000 Iraqis had been displaced due to operations there, while only 100,000 have so far managed to return. 

“Many of those in need of urgent assistance are in close proximity to the battlefield, and some of them are still at great risk due to military operations in the western part of Mosul [under ISIL control],” said IOM Iraq Chief of Mission Thomas Lothar Weiss. 

The battle for Mosul has been described as the most bitterly fought campaign since World War Two, with comparisons being made between ISIL’s ferocious resistance and Japan’s last stand on the island of Okinawa. Yet the enemy in Iraq and Syria is like few encountered before – one which will reportedly go to any lengths, including purposefully putting civilians in the firing line, to hold on to their final strongholds.

Climbing every week: 400,000 civilians have been displaced by Mosul operations since October 17th 2016. (graph courtesy of UN Migration Agency (IOM))

Different data: human sentiment

The huge number of munitions fired and forces deployed against a diminishing number of enemy fighters who are consistently losing territory, means that ISIL will most likely be defeated outright militarily. This leads to questions about whether the force used by the Coalition and local forces is productive or counterproductive in the longer term, in order to bring stability to the region.

“Because there appears to be no strategy in place which integrates the political and diplomatic challenges and how military forces support those desired political and diplomatic outcomes, then we are at high risk of essentially fighting one of these never-ending conflicts,” warns Chris Kolenda Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London. “Even if ISIS is defeated, have we just set conditions for the next insurgency – or have we even set conditions for the US and UK to no longer be relevant actors in Iraq and Syria, because we have so lost the political and diplomatic contest and neither country is welcome anymore?”

Winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of Iraq and Syria’s civilians is therefore essential, and as civilian casualties mount, the Coalition risks losing much-needed goodwill. As part of the report he co-authored, The Strategic Costs of Civilian Harm – Applying Lessons of Afghanistan to Current and Future Conflicts, Kolenda referenced research carried out by Jason Lyall into sentiments expressed by civilians following airstrikes on Afghan villages. It revealed that in areas where the Taliban had a greater local affinity than the government, that when the government or Coalition caused civilian harm the Taliban were given a boost.

Kolenda – who also sits on the advisory board of Airwars – suspects a similar situation may be playing out in Iraq and Syria with ISIL. Furthermore, he believes that this vital tracking of local sentiment is missing from the current war. “There’s a huge gap in the Coalition’s understanding of the nature of this conflict and the effects of civilian harm on our long-term aims of gathering and analysing that data,” he says.

“What we haven’t learned from these kind of wars is that people vote with their feet to the side they view as most credible and most able to protect them. Failure to gather and analyse the population sentiment data for these airstrikes shows that we just don’t understand one of the basics of this kind of war  – that people have agency.”

Destruction at Raqqa December 12th 2016 following a Russian or Coalition raid which killed 21 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered)

A ‘just war’: Are the big numbers warranted?

As we move beyond the first 1,000 days of the air war against ISIL, these already giant numbers – the thousands of airstrikes, the munitions dropped, the billions of dollars spent – continue to rise. With the marked escalation of the Coalition campaigns in both Raqqa and Mosul there is also now a sense that we are reaching the ‘end game.’ Yet also likely to rise are those numbers detailing the profound human impact of the war – the alarming rate of civilian casualty incidents, and the ever-rising number of people forced to flee their homes as they seek refuge from the fighting.

Yet how much do the big numbers of this complex war resonate with people away from the battlefield? Moreover, is there perhaps a general view that no matter how bad the metrics, they are somehow justified?

“The prevailing view in the United States,” says Chris Kolenda, “is that ISIS is a terrorist organisation which just needs to be eliminated and it’s unfortunate that there are civilian casualties in the process. Americans tend to believe that the ISIS cancer will metastasize if left unaddressed. Most believe that ISIS causes far more damage to civilians in Iraq and Syria and that ineffectual US military efforts, due to excessive restrictions, will prolong the war and place more civilians at risk of harm.”

Ordinary Iraqis and Syrians on the ground – who have already endured 1,000 days of airstrikes in the effort to defeat Islamic State – might disagree. For too many civilians, each new day brings the ominous sound of yet another air raid, once more putting them in fear of losing their homes, their loved ones and their own lives. It is a situation which we, far away from the battlefield, can barely begin to comprehend.

Bodies are removed from the scene of a US airstrike at Fadhiliya, which killed eight members of one family on October 22nd 2016 (Picture courtesy of Fazel Hawramy)

Published

May 4, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

For two years Kinda Haddad has tracked and assessed for Airwars more than a thousand alleged Coalition and Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria. In recent months, as the battle against ISIL has intensified, reports of civilian deaths around Raqqa caused by the US-led alliance have risen steeply. Yet in contrast to the siege of Aleppo, international media coverage has largely been absent. Here Kinda offers her thoughts on why two bombed cities might be treated so differently.

Researching allegations of civilian casualties made against Coalition and Russian air strikes in Syria in real time – while listening to the radio news as I do in my daily life – has become a vivid exercise in cognitive dissonance.

Claims against Russia are, it seems, often quickly picked up and reported on extensively, and especially so at times when Moscow’s actions are at their harshest and most intense.  In the autumn and winter of 2016 for example, Russia and the regime of Bashar al Assad were doing their utmost to retake Aleppo from the rebels. The two allies put the city under a crippling siege and bombed it without any discernible consideration for the presence of civilians. Indeed, on many occasions both Russia and the regime appeared to purposefully target civilian infrastructure and medical facilities.

That brutal campaign succeeded in gaining control of eastern Aleppo in December 2016.  The cost in civilian lives was enormous, and a great proportion of those killed were women and children.  In less than four months leading up to the fall of Aleppo more than 1,000 civilians were reportedly killed by Russian strikes. In November alone, the Syrian Network for Human rights tied 358 civilian deaths to Russia. During all of 2016, the group estimates that Russian forces killed more than 3,900 civilians.

Whatever one thinks of the regime and of Russia, the fact that the plight of civilians was highlighted is what I would expect from a free media in a free society, as part of their job of ‘speaking truth to power’. And they did so in spades.

There was a considerable degree of attention paid by international media to events on the ground, with Russia’s actions in the news all day, every day. Civilians who had escaped were interviewed extensively and the misery and losses they had endured were highlighted. It was so bad I would often turn the radio off. Despite all the awful material I view daily I still find the recorded sounds of shelling and the voices of people more distressing.

The White Helmets rescue civilians from the rubble following Russian or Assad regime airstrikes on Aleppo, July 8th 2016. (via, Alsharq News)

Crippling assault

A few months on and Airwars is monitoring a very similar situation with the Coalition both in Raqqa province in Syria, and in Mosul city in Iraq – each ISIL strongholds for several years.

As with Aleppo, Mosul is under crippling assault – and like the Russians who work alongside the Syrian army, the Coalition is working alongside Iraqi government  forces, carrying out air and artillery shelling.

Despite repeated statements that the Coalition takes great care to avoid targeting civilians, events on the ground reflect a different version of events. The level of casualties has been shocking, with between 1,308 and 2,435 civilians claimed killed by the Coalition in Mosul in March 2017 alone. There remains a high level of confusion as to what degree the Coalition and Iraqi forces – and ISIL – are causing these deaths. The same happened in Aleppo, where it became very hard for people on the ground to distinguish between Russian and regime warplanes. Artillery in particular – used heavily in Mosul – is difficult to tell apart.

While the Russian campaign has shown a clear pattern of targeting civilians, the Coalition insists that it pursues a much more careful operation.  Yet the level of civilian casualties from both the Coalition and Russian operations are simply too high – and in the case of the Coalition it is not appropriate, or just, to dismiss hundreds of incidents as “mistakes.” Every day – not week – we are seeing several such “mistakes,” with no explanation from the Coalition. This gives the distinct impression that when faced with a military target,  neither side cares much as to whether civilians are present or not.

Raqqa Silence

International media was slow to report on high civilian deaths at first. However recent weeks have seen major field reports and investigations from international and regional news groups – which have helped pressure both the Coalition and Iraqi forces into reducing harm to civilians.

But across the border in Syria’s Raqqa province it’s a very different story – even though many of its cities and towns have been put under siege by the Kurdish SDF, and with Coalition air raids escalating in a way we have not seen since the beginning of the war against ISIL in Syria in September 2014. March saw the worst casualty levels yet with between 320 and 860 civilians likely killed in Coalition strikes in Syria, a sixfold increase on the previous month. Ninety per cent of these deaths were around Raqqa.

Where we used to see a handful of allegations a week we are now monitoring several cases a day. Many of these bear high death tolls. For example up to 17 people, most of them women and children, were reportedly killed as they tried to escape Al Tabaqa on April 24th 2017. Their cars were targeted and everyone in the vehicles perished.

#IntlCoalition forces committed #massacre against children and women in al Tabaqa city in #Raqqa on Apr 24 #SNHRhttps://t.co/p2h7VpYPYr

— Syrian Network (@snhr) April 24, 2017

And there are so many incidents like this every week. Sometimes there is very little information. But other times there is a flood of detail from local outlets and social media, including names and photos of the victims. On those days I check how the incident is being reported internationally, and invariably there is…. radio silence

Unlike the allegations made against Russia at Aleppo, claims of civilians killed by the Coalition around Raqqa seem to attract little to no international media attention. Yet the sources for allegations both against the Russians and the Coalition are often identical -activists on the ground, with access to a network of people in the various locations where civilian casualties are occuring.

As in Aleppo, Coalition strikes are many times occurring right in the middle of city and town centres – Mosul, Raqqa, Al Tabaqa, al Mansoura and so many other urban locations. These are civilian villages, towns and cities occupied by ISIL. Some of the residents may be sympathetic to the terror group but most of them are not. It is not a democracy, not a choice to live under ISIL. These are places full of people who have no other option but to remain.

The Coalition is likely to win the war with a high civilian toll, just as Russia helped win at Aleppo. But in order to win the peace, a new strategy is needed with civilians at its heart. We can see in the opposition areas where Russia is operating how hated Moscow is. Inevitably, the same now appears to be happening in areas where the Coalition is operating, with local monitors routinely claiming ‘massacres’ and ‘war crimes’.

Leaving scores of civilians dead, wounded, lame and traumatised is not a wise long term strategy for winning a war that is avowedly being fought on behalf of those exact same civilians.

▲ A man carries a young girl in the aftermath of an airstrike on Al Haydariya, Aleppo, on April 26th, 2016 (via RFS news).

Published

May 4, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

The stark contrast between local accounts of civilian deaths in Iraq that I analyse each day, and the sterile portrayal of the air campaign against ISIL by Coalition militaries, is often striking. As the Airwars researcher focused on Belgium and the Netherlands, bridging the gap between these two positions has become a key part of my daily work.

On a regular working day I move back and forth between military discourse about a ‘clean track record’ and ‘zero civilian casualties’ (Belgium) and ‘we are transparent enough’ (the Netherlands) on the one hand – and counting the number of dead after airstrikes on a West Mosul neighbourhood.

Belgium and the Netherlands launched their first bombs in October 2014 – and have carried out respectively about 390 and 500 airstrikes each (although the most recent numbers are lacking). In almost 1,000 days of war, they have not admitted a single civilian casualty between them.

For the United States the gap between its killing a civilian and publicly admitting the fact is now around six weeks. The Netherlands says it is still investigating one incident from December 2014 – more than two years ago – and refuses to divulge any details of a second case.

Belgium, for its part, had firmly claimed “zero civilian casualties” – until it was revealed that the country was possibly involved in a catastrophic incident in New Mosul on March 17th 2017. The Minister says he now awaits the results of Coalition investigations – but the country’s own Public Prosecutor has already decided not to investigate.

Transparency “behind closed doors”

Last month Airwars presented its civilian casualty data to the Belgian Parliament’s Defence Committee and called for more openness. Yet that same day, the Committee’s Chair claimed in an opinion article that Airwars dealt in “semi-truths” and that our “conclusions were wrong”. She suggested that YouTube and Facebook were unreliable sources for civilian casualty investigations. Instead, she argued, “an entire team of professionals at the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC)” was best suited for this job. Moreover, she claimed “full transparency in Parliament” and deemed Belgian parliamentary control sufficient to check the actions of the military.

Yet the Belgian parliament is only informed about the country’s airstrikes in secret closed-door sessions, while the public is told nothing. And the Coalition only employs two civilian casualty assessors – with a backlog of more than 700 alleged incidents yet to be investigated. 

In fact social media can be crucial in identifying civilian casualty events: for instance in a September 2015 Mosul case that the US has recently admitted. International media ignored the event completely at the time, which was only known at first by locals posting reports on Facebook. 

Both the Netherlands and Belgium continue to lurk at the bottom of transparency tables for Coalition participants, generally still refusing to say where, when or what they bomb. Yet on the ground, affected civilians continue to be at great risk from airstrikes, and they suffer too from a lack of accountability and recognition. A closed-door parliamentary meeting does not equate to public accountability, in our view.

An Iraqi-Dutch perspective

On the occasion of 1,000 days of war, Airwars also spoke with Mahmood and Husain Al Sabari, both students and members of the Union of Iraqi Youth in the Netherlands, about their view on the war and the involvement of the Netherlands. The two Dutch-Iraqi brothers – one now living in London – said that what troubled them most were not the Dutch airstrikes or lack of transparency, but the absence of awareness about the role of Western countries in contributing to instability in the Middle East.

Mahmood thinks that launching bombs is not the way to get rid of dictators or extremist groups. “Yet the Dutch military contribution is marginal, compared to the role of the US and other countries. What is most painful for us, is the lack of knowledge among fellow Dutch youth about the Western involvement in the region. This is regarding the bombs, but more importantly in terms of the ongoing arms trade and the decision to choose sides by training certain groups. And then it seems that people do not see the link with migration, which is framed as a problem, a crisis. That is really frustrating sometimes.”

Husain agrees. “That is why we don’t really talk about this topic with peers anymore. The lack of knowledge makes it feel like we’re on a different wave-length; we really speak a different language when it comes to this.”

When asked what they think of the poor transparency records in the Netherlands, the brothers say they are not really shocked. Mahmood admits that “since six or seven years, I have come to view Western democratic principles as rather hypocritical.” Husain, for his part, said he did not really know why the Dutch are so silent about the air campaign. He suggests that it might be an attempt to keep a reputation of  “a dove of peace”. He continues: “But you know, people don’t really care. They don’t care about accountability. Maybe just a few people, like you, do.”

This 1,000 days of war highlights once again the continuing importance of accountability and the need to bridge realities. Airwars’ call for more transparency and visibility is gaining support in both the Netherlands and Belgium, and is a view shared by supportive media, NGOs and political parties.

(Belgian MoD/ Sedeyn Ritchie)

▲ A Belgian Air Component F-16 Fighting Falcon approaches a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron before aerial refueling during a Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve mission over Iraq, April 11, 2017. The F-16 has been a major component of the combat forces committed to the war on terrorism, flying thousands of sorties in support of operations in the Middle East. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua A. Hoskins)

Published

May 4, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sixty per cent of West Mosul destroyed’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

May 4, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

We asked key experts who have been closely following the Coalition’s military campaign against so-called Islamic State what 1,000 days of war means to them. Here’s what they had to say.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights

After 1,000 days have passed since the beginning of the international coalition forces’ raids against Daesh, I believe that the human cost has been high if we consider what was achieved in terms of destroying headquarters and undermining their manpower. We believe that it is in no way justifiable to cause this high level of casualties, not to mention the extent of the material losses.

Several days ago, we issued a report on the bombing of bridges by international coalition forces in the governorate of Deir Ez Zawr. This is a simple indicator of what we believe to be negligence, and the result of the lack of accountability. By not identifying who in the Coalition forces is committing the massacres in Syria, and not offering frank and clear apologies or starting to compensate the victims, it is implied that there are no consequences to such flagrant violations. This has given the military command a green light, promoting a culture where there is no real interest in taking careful decisions or carrying out serious investigations.

Colonel Joseph Scrocca, Coalition Director of Public Affairs

Since 2014, the global coalition of 68 international partners has supported our partner forces in Iraq and Syria with more than 21,000 strikes against ISIS fighters, equipment and resources. These strikes allowed our partner forces to liberate 50,000 square kilometers of territory and more than a million people; and are helping to ensure the peace and security of the region and all our homelands. 

Our goal is always for zero civilian casualties. Coalition forces comply with the law of armed conflict and take extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties.

The Coalition takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and goes to great lengths to ensure transparency in our assessment and reporting processes. ISIS is the cause of massive human suffering and the greatest threat to the people of Iraq, Syria, and the world, and they must be defeated.

Belkis Wilke, Senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch

For the last 1,000 days we have seen a broad coalition of states, led by the United States, supporting Iraqi, Kurdish, and non-state armed groups   in military operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A mounting number of civilian deaths over recent months has raised concerns about the way the battle against ISIS is being fought. Iraqi, Kurdish, and other ground forces supported by the coalition have been responsible for serious violations including enforced disappearances, forced displacement, and the use of child soldiers.

The coalition should take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian loss and should thoroughly and transparently investigate reported civilian deaths, and in the case of wrongdoing, hold those responsible to account. Coalition members should investigate whether foreign military assistance contributed to laws-of-war violations and should end military assistance to units repeatedly involved in violations. They should also use their leverage with parties they support on the ground to undertake credible investigations into alleged war crimes and hold perpetrators to account.

Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

It is really an air campaign created for today’s media age: releasing daily strikes totals, routinely declaring estimates of enemy combatants and civilians killed, and posting always-flawless video clips. This data and imagery shapes perceptions of the war by feeding the insatiable demands for information. It is as if the lens through which the outside world sees the war is as important a mission as finding and striking the enemy.

Lily Hamourtziadou, Iraq Body Count

What was the coalition’s strategy, what were its objectives in embarking on another military campaign of air strikes over Iraq? Compellence, posturing and, mostly, offence seem to be the objectives, all of which contain their own political, ethical, and economic strategic goals and implications. After 1,000 days of striking, at least 49,081 civilians have been killed overall in Iraq, of which over 26,000 have been killed by Islamic State forces and 5,318 by the coalition.

If the objectives were the extermination of IS, or their retreat, surrender, or confinement, the campaign has failed; if the objectives were the protection of civilians and the provision of stability, the campaign has failed; if the objectives were the demonstration of military might and political and technological superiority, the campaign has failed; if the objectives were the control of resources, finances and regimes, the campaign has failed. If on day 1,001 and on day 1,002 and on day 1,003, and every day, more civilians die from shelling, air strikes, IEDs, suicide bombers, car bombs or executions, the campaign has failed.  No victory can come at such a human cost.

Hassan Hassan, Senior Fellow at Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

My hometown is still under ISIS control, and has been since the summer of 2014. With some exceptions, civilians there often praise the US strikes especially if compared to Russian and regime bombings in Syria. Most complaints I hear are about the destruction of infrastructure like bridges, roads and oil facilities. Civilians in those areas had lived on a wartime economy that was functioning before ISIS took control, but the airstrikes disrupted that without providing alternatives to the people there.
There is now more fear over civilian casualties than ever before, and this is because of the stage at which the operation against ISIS has reached. In crowded western Mosul and Raqqa, more people are dying or expected to die. This is most unfortunate for the anti-ISIS fight because this should be the time to show restraint and focus more on making ISIS, and only ISIS, look bad, as its caliphate collapses. The reality is that abuses are back in Iraq and Syria, and people will soon turn their anger toward their new overlords.
 

James Rodehaver, coordinator, Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria

The Commission has noted repeatedly that while civilian protection should be a paramount concern for all parties to the conflict, it is often noticeably absent. All parties using air power in the Syrian armed conflict must adhere to the laws of war and core civilian protection principles of distinction and proportionality in the use of such weaponry under international humanitarian law. All means necessary should be employed to distinguish properly between civilian and military targets and to respect protected sites, particularly hospitals, medical personnel, mosques and religious objects, and schools.

The Commission has opened investigations into incidents of civilian casualties caused by all parties to the conflict, including civilian deaths and injuries resulting from air strikes. We only publish findings from our investigations once we have been able to gather evidence to meet our legal standard of proof.

Violations Documentation Centre

The Violations Documentation Centre confirms that, during almost three years, the International Coalition forces failed, in many instances, to respect the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). A number of the attacks carried out against the so-called Islamic State, breached the principle of “Proportionality in Attack” of Rule 14 of customary IHL against the targets, and caused many civilian deaths most of which are elderlies and children – in addition to many injured and missing people. Additionally, the coalition forces breached on many occasions the principle of distinction between military and civilian targets and failed in estimating the collateral damage in civilian lives. The verified direct testimonies VDC collects after each attack, confirm that many of them did not prove to be of any military importance for the International coalition.

Thus, VDC reminds all conflict parties in the “International Coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham”, of the absolute requirement, under IHL, to avoid targeting civilians and that targeting civilians is a described war crime. The VDC calls for the sparing of civilians completely in accordance with the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the first and second additional protocols of 1977, and the rules of customary International Humanitarian Law.

Published

April 18, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US denials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

April 4, 2017

Written by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Opening salvo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wider goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unclear authorization

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insurgents vs. terrorists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) March 16, 2017

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

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

From Obama to Trump

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

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

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

HUGE news via source:

Al-Qaeda deputy leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri has been killed in a U.S drone strike near Al-Mastoumeh in #Idlib. pic.twitter.com/RORT6sU8Sj

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Published

April 2, 2017

Written by

Chris Woods

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

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

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

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

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

A family’s home destroyed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A long time coming’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backlog of allegations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

March 28, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We are investigating the incident’

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

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

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

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

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

https://twitter.com/samueloakford/status/846764385301344257

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

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

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

This scene will haunt me for a while: Turkya Azudin watches workers pull out corpses from her home and count relatives she had lost: 18 pic.twitter.com/ig3sInm5Mp

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

400,000 still trapped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

March 17, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

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

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

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

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

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

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Intense fighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— IOM Iraq (@IOMIraq) March 15, 2017

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

Looser rules of engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exclusive: US Says it Carried Out Deadly Strike that Hit an Aleppo Mosque https://t.co/Y45M05Dplz

— Airwars (@airwars) March 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Strategically beneficial’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

March 17, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No civilian casualties’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

March 16, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) March 16, 2017

https://twitter.com/SyrianLense/status/842492968846180352

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

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

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

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

Northern side of mosque has collapsed due to American airstrike, but largest part still standing. https://t.co/ak75roognl h/t @CT_operative pic.twitter.com/jM1CG2y8Ci

— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) March 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

 

Published

March 7, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Hundreds of civilians have allegedly been killed in western Mosul during the first week of March during battles to capture the city, according to reports monitored by Airwars.

Airwars has reviewed eleven separate incidents that occured over the first six days of the month, each of which was blamed – in part or wholly – on the Coalition by at least one source. Local reports allege that between 250 and 370 civilians were killed in these attacks. Four of these incidents have thus far been graded by researchers as fairly attributed, meaning there were two or more credible reports blaming the US-led alliance, and with Coalition airstrikes confirmed in the area. Those four incidents alone indicate between 71-79 civilian deaths.

https://twitter.com/PatrickOsgood/status/839030754080395264

News agencies and local monitors have also reported significant civilian casualties in west Mosul in recent days

The other events feature contesting reports that also blamed Iraqi forces or so-called Islamic State. Whoever the perpetrator, the reported upswing in civilian casualties in the first days of March serves as a bloody harbinger of the civilian toll in western Mosul. The right bank of the Tigres River was left by Iraqi forces for last, as it contains the bulk of Mosul’s civilian population and is far more densely settled than neighborhoods in the city’s east, which Iraqi security forces declared liberated in late January.

Iraq launched operations to capture western Mosul on February 19th – four months after it entered the eastern side. The UN estimated at the time that some 750,000 people remained in west Mosul, a figure that has only marginally diminished since then.

Thanon Alaa Younis, reported killed in Coalition airstrikes in the Farouk neighborhood on March 1st. Image courtesy of Mosul Ateka.

Civilian casualty incidents from airstrikes in western Mosul were already being reported during the campaign to liberate the east of the city, and continued into the last weeks of February. However the reported death toll appear to have escalated in March. (For reference, an analysis of civilian deaths in January can be read here).

One of the deadliest recent incidents occurred on March 1st, when a mosque used for shelter by displaced family was hit by several airstrikes. Ninevah Media Center reported more than 80 civilians were killed or wounded, while Mosul Eye put the number killed at “more than 50.” The outlet MNN attributed the attack to the Coalition, while Reuters cited three local eyewitnesses who blamed unidentified aircraft. One victim, identified as Thanon Alaa Younis, was listed by Mosul Ateka as among the dead.

On the same day, Airwars researchers monitored reports of at least four more civilians killed and 14 injured after airstrikes in the vicinity of Sha’aren Market. Reports did not attribute the strike.

On March 2nd several outlets – at least one of which cited ISIL affiliated media – reported that 20 civilians were killed and 18 wounded in a Coalition bombardment of west Mosul’s Shifa neighbourhood. Some reports said a strike hit a residential building. Also in west Mosul – this time in the Nabi Sheet neighbourhood – 14 civilians from three families were alleged killed by a Coalition airstrike that targeted what may have been a car bomb. FaceIraq identified one of the families as that of Nazim Abdul Rahman.

Though reports do conflict and are not always entirely clear, there are confirmed signs that the civilian toll in western Mosul has been massive. According to the UN’s humanitarian agency, more than 500 people escaping the city have been treated at “trauma stabilization points” for conflict-related injuries. The number of displaced also indicates a clear trend: In the week between February 27th and March 4th, the UN estimated that some 42,000 people were displaced fromn Mosul, including 13,350 on March 3rd alone.

The following day, March 4th, saw fresh attacks on west Mosul – centered this time in the Al Mahatta neighborhood – that allegedly left at least 36 civilians dead, including five children. Those estimates and associated images appeared to originate with ISIL-controlled media, though the incident was picked up by more than a half-dozen outlets. Iraqi Spring Media Center published extremely distressing photos, apparently taken from a video, that showed several dead toddlers lying in what appeared to be a hospital or morgue. Both the Coalition and Iraqi forces were blamed for the attack.

Children reportedly killed in a March 4th strike in western Mosul. Photo is a screenshot of a likely ISIL propaganda video that was archived by Iraqi Spring Media Group.

What may have been the deadliest incident in western Mosul to date occurred on March 5th, when local sources indicated that as many as 130 civilians were killed during an assault on a government compound in the Dawassa neighborhood. Both Coalition and Iraqi forces were cited for attacks, and several outlets reported that US Apache helicopters were involved. Images reportedly of the neighborhood that were posted to social media showed the area in ruins.

https://twitter.com/Moghred_Ninawa/status/838459085334974464

Sigtnificant damage is being reported locally in some west Mosul neighbourhoods

On March 6th, new reports indicated that between 25 and 33 imprisoned Iraqi police and security forces were killed by Coalition strikes near the central railway station. There were reports that the site of the attack had been used as a detention facility, and a number of ISIL fighters was also reported killed.

As Reuters also reported on March 6th, Iraqi officials now believe the fight in Mosul “will enter a more complicated phase in the densely populate old city.” The Iraqi military estimates that “several thousand” militants remain. Unless measures are taken to reduce civilian harm, death tolls similar to those seen in the first six days of March may well continue for weeks to come.

▲ A March 2017 airstrike during the battle for Mosul against Islamic State. While the US-led Coalition has admitted almost 1,400 civilian deaths during the war, European allies have remained almost silent about their own responsibility. (Via Reuters/ Alaa Al-Marjani)

Published

February 14, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Officials have confirmed that the US military – despite vowing not to use controversial Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria – fired thousands of rounds of such munitions during two high-profile raids on oil trucks in Islamic State-controlled Syria in late 2015. The air assaults mark the first confirmed use of this armament since the 2003 Iraq invasion, when hundreds of thousands of rounds were fired, leading to outrage among local communities which alleged that toxic remnants caused both cancer and birth defects.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Major Josh Jacques told Airwars and Foreign Policy that 5,265 armor-piercing 30mm rounds containing depleted uranium (DU) were shot from Air Force A-10 fixed-wing aircraft on November 16th and 22nd 2015, destroying about 350 vehicles in the country’s eastern desert.

30mm fire hits targets on November 16th in Syria. Image captured from CJTF video release.

Earlier in the campaign, both Coalition and US officials said the ammunition had not and would not be used in anti-Islamic State operations. In March 2015, Coalition spokesman John Moore said, “US and Coalition aircraft have not been and will not be using depleted uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve.” Later that month, a Pentagon representative told War is Boring that A-10s deployed in the region would not have access to armor-piercing ammunition containing DU because the Islamic State didn’t possess the tanks it is designed to penetrate.

It remains unclear if the November 2015 strikes occurred near populated areas. In 2003, hundreds of thousands of rounds were shot in densely settled areas during the American invasion, leading to deep resentment and fear among Iraqi civilians and – later – anger at the highest levels of government in Baghdad. In 2014, in a UN report on DU, the Iraqi government expressed “its deep concern over the harmful effects” of the material. DU weapons, it said, “constitute a danger to human beings and the environment” and urged the United Nations to conduct in-depth studies on their effects. Such studies of DU have not yet been completed, and most scientists and doctors say as a result there is still very limited credible “direct epidemiological evidence” connecting DU to negative health effects.

The potential popular blowback from using DU, however, is very real. While the United States insists it has the right to use the weapon, experts have called the decision to use the munition in such quantities against targets it wasn’t designed for — such as tanks — peculiar at best.

The US raids in 2015 were part of “Tidal Wave II” — an operation aimed at crippling infrastructure that the Islamic State relied on to sell millions of dollars’ worth of oil. The Pentagon said the November 16th attacks happened in the early morning near Al-Bukamal, a city in the governorate of Deir Ezzor near the border with Iraq, and destroyed 116 tanker trucks. Though the Coalition said the strikes occurred entirely in Syrian territory, both sides of the frontier were completely under the control of the militant group at the time. Any firing of DU in Iraqi territory would have had far greater political repercussions, given the anger over its previous use there. The November 16th video below shows tankers hit first by larger ordnances, before others are engulfed in sparks and are ripped apart by fire from 30mm cannons.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQkG-RWxFfY

Video of the second DU run on November 22nd destroyed what is described as 283 “Daesh Oil trucks” in the desert between Al-Hasakeh and Deir Ezzor — both capitals of governorates of the same names.

The use of DU in Syria was first reported by this author in IRIN News last October. CENTCOM and the US Air Force at first denied it was fired, then offered differing accounts of what happened, including an admission in October that the weapon had been used. However, the dates confirmed by CENTCOM at that point were off by several days. It is now clear that the munitions were used in the most publicized of the Tidal Wave II attacks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IC-GzY2SRw

Armoured targets

Depleted uranium is left over from the enrichment of uranium 235. It is exceptionally hard, and has been employed by militaries both to penetrate armoured targets and to reinforce potential targets like tanks against enemy fire. Though less radioactive than the original uranium, DU is toxic and is considered by the US Environmental Protection Agency to be a “radiation health hazard when inside the body.”

The most likely way for such intake to occur is through the inhalation of small particles near where a munition is used. But doctors and anti-nuclear activists alike say there hasn’t been enough research done to prove the precise health effects and exposure thresholds for humans. This lack of comprehensive research on illnesses and health outcomes in post-conflict areas where DU was used has led to a proliferation of assumptions and theories about DU’s potential to cause birth defects and cancer. Firing rounds near civilian populations also has a powerful psychological effect, causing distress and severe anxiety, as the International Atomic Energy Agency noted in 2014.

Internationally, DU exists in a legal gray area. It is not explicitly banned by UN conventions like those that restrict land mines or chemical weapons. And although the United States applies restrictions on the weapon’s handling domestically, it does not regulate its use overseas in civilian areas with nearly the same caution.

“I think this is an area of international humanitarian law that needs a lot more attention,” says Cymie Payne, a legal scholar and professor of ecology at Rutgers University who has researched DU. “As we’ve been focusing more in recent years on the post-conflict period and thinking about peace building… we need a clean environment so people can use the environment.”

Major Jacques, the CENTCOM spokesman, says the ammunition was fired that November because of a “higher probability of destruction for targets.” Shortly after both attacks, the US-led Coalition released the videos showing multiple vehicles lit up by bombs, missiles, and prolonged fire from the 30 mm cannons of Air Force A-10s — but did not specify that the flight crews had loaded those cannons with DU. Those videos — along with dozens of other strike recordings — have been removed from official Coalition channels in recent months.

When DU rounds are loaded in A-10s, they are combined with a lesser amount of non-DU high-explosive incendiary (HEI) rounds, amounting to a “combat mix.” In November 2015, a total of 6,320 rounds of the mix were used in Syria: According to CENTCOM, 1,790 30 mm rounds — including 1,490 with DU — were fired on November 16; on November 22, 4,530 rounds of combat mix were fired containing 3,775 DU armor-piercing munitions. Though DU rounds have been fired in other theaters — including the Balkans — much of the attention centers on Iraq, where an estimated 1 million rounds were shot during the first Gulf War and the 2003 invasion.

A recent analysis of previously undisclosed firing data from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq showed that most DU rounds were fired at so-called soft targets, such as vehicles or troop positions, instead of targeting the tanks and armoured vehicles according to Pentagon guidelines that date back at least to a 1975 review by the US Air Force. The Pentagon’s current Law of War Manual states, “Depleted uranium (DU) is used in some munitions because its density and physical properties create a particularly effective penetrating combination to defeat enemy armored vehicles, including tanks.”

A line of tanker trucks in the Syrian desert on November 22nd, 2015. Image taken from CJTF video release of Coalition attacks on that day.

‘At risk of exposure’

The oil trucks hit in November 2015 were also unarmoured and would qualify as soft targets, the researchers who performed the analysis of the 2003 targeting cache contend. The trucks, in fact, were most likely manned by civilians rather than Islamic State members, according to US officials. A Pentagon representative said the United States had dropped leaflets warning of an imminent attack before the November 16th strike, in an effort to minimize casualties.

“The use of DU ammunition against oil tankers seems difficult to justify militarily on the basis of the arguments used by the US to support its use — that it is for destroying armoured targets,” says Doug Weir, head of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons. “Tankers are clearly not armoured, and the alternative non-DU HEI [high-explosive incendiary] rounds would likely have been sufficient for the task.”

The spent ammunition littering eastern Syria after the attack, along with the wreckage of the trucks, was almost surely not handled appropriately by the occupying authority — that is, the Islamic State. Even if civilians driving the trucks were not initially exposed to the toxic remnants of DU, scavengers and other local residents will likely be placed at risk for years to come.

“What will happen with the destroyed vehicles? Usually they end up in scrapyards, are stripped of valuable parts and components, and dumped,” says Wim Zwijnenburg, senior researcher at the Dutch research NGO Pax. “This puts scrap-metal workers, most likely local civilians, at risk of exposure.”

If there are few ideas for what post-Islamic State governance will resemble in eastern Syria, there are none at all about how to safely handle the depleted uranium that the US-led Coalition has placed into the environment.

Published in conjunction with Foreign Policy