Widespread destruction in Zardana, Idlib, following an alleged Russian airstrike on June 7th (via Euphrates Post)

Airwars six monthly assessment: January-June 2018

Written by Alex Hopkins on July 25, 2018


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

Six monthly update

Russia in Syria

In the first half of 2018, Airwars monitored up to 2,882 claimed fatalities from 662 alleged Russian casualty events in Syria. This was 34% more incidents than tracked during the first six months of 2017 – making clear the deadly costs of the recent Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a assaults on ordinary Syrians on the ground.

Overall, Airwars researchers have tracked a total of 3,445 claimed civilian casualty events allegedly involving Russian aircraft between September 30th 2015 and June 30th 2018.

The total claimed civilian fatalities in these alleged events since 2015 ranges from 12,584 to 17,932. At least 5,562 of those reportedly killed in these incidents have been individually named by local outlets, on social media and by casualty recorders. According to figures recently published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian warplanes had killed a total of 7,835 civilians through June 30th 2018.

The Coalition in Iraq and Syria

Following the capture of both Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS in 2017, likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions dropped sharply in the first six months of 2018 – though in Syria in particular, have not yet ceased. .

The current Airwars estimate is that between 272 and 460 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition actions between January 1st and June 30th of this year. All of these deaths reportedly took place in Syria across a total of 71 alleged events. This is nevertheless an 88% drop on the minimum number of civilians likely killed by the Coalition in the first half of 2017, a period marked by the ferocious West Mosul campaign and the start of the battle for Raqqa on June 6th.

In total, from August 8th 2014 to June 30th 2018 in both Iraq and Syria, Airwars has to date monitored 2,640 incidents locally alleged against the US-led Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State. Among these incidents, it has been claimed locally that a total of between 17,542 and 26,112 civilians were killed. Of these allegations, Airwars presently estimates that a minimum of between 6,375 and 9,790 civilians are likely to have died as a result of Coalition actions. The alliance itself has so far conceded  939 deaths resulting from 237 events.

 

Conflict monitoring for June 2018

June witnessed a near three-fold increase in civilian casualty allegations lodged against Russia in Syria, as Moscow backed the Assad government’s assault on rebel-held areas of Dara’a governorate – the birthplace of the Syrian revolution. The violence in Dara’a came despite the governorate’s supposed status as one of Syria’s ‘de-escalation zones’ negotiated by the U.S., Jordan and Russia in 2017.

The first airstrikes in nearly a year in Dara’a hit rebel-held areas on June 23rd as Russia rapidly shifted its own air power from Idlib governorate in suport of Assad. The regime continued to ramp up pressure as its ground and air offensive gathered momentum.

The impact on civilians was immediate and deadly. From June 24th until June 30th, Airwars tracked an average of eight casualty events in Dara’a per day. On June 27th, the U.N. warned that the Dara’a assault could be as deadly as the sieges of Aleppo and eastern Ghouta combined. The onslaught was all the more jarring after May had seen all-time low allegations against Russia – with just 18 reported incidents of concern.

Meanwhile on June 2nd, the US-led Coalition announced the start of phase two of Operation Roundup, its own campaign aimed at eradicating those ISIS forces remaining in northeastern Syria. The SDF ground offensive, officials said, was supported by Coalition “cross-border air and artillery strikes” and “strikes by the Iraqi Air Force and Iraqi Army artillery positioned near the border”.

Overall, 203 air and artillery strikes were conducted, just a handful more than in May. While June saw an increase in civilian harm allegations against the Coalition, the minimum likely death toll nevertheless fell on May. At least 54 civilians were assessed by Airwars as likely killed by the alliance in June. Even so, there were several disturbing mass casualty events in Hassakah governorate, where children and women paid a particularly lethal price for SDF gains.

International powers also continued their unilateral actions in Syria – with multiple reported strikes by Israel against Hezbollah and Iranian forces during the month. On June 18th, the Coalition denied involvement in a reported strike that allegedly killed and wounded pro-regime forces near Abu Kamal.  A US official later said that Israel carried out the strike – though the Israeli Defence Forces made no comment. Israel has repeatedly warned that it will continue to target Iranian-linked forces in Syria. Unusually, however, this strike occurred in eastern Syria, whereas previous strikes targeting Iranian forces and arms shipments which have been attributed to Israel were in the western region of Syria,  to Israel’s north.

Russia in Syria during June 2018: a near quadrupling of reported casualty events

June saw a 272% rise in alleged Russian civilian harm incidents in Syria, as Moscow backed pro-government forces in a major offensive to oust rebels from Dara’a governorate. Of the 67 alleged Russian events tracked during June, 82% were in Dara’a.

Between 188 and 277 civilians were alleged killed overall by Russian actions during the month – compared with between 42 and 81 fatalities alleged during May. These figures remain unvetted by Airwars, and are based on initial monitoring. They should not be compared directly with fully evaluated estimates tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes.

“In June Russian warplanes were part of the intensive campaign launched to re-capture Dara’a and southern Syria, after earlier taking back control of Douma and evacuating its civilian population to Idlib in northern Syria, ” explains Abdulwahab Tahhan, who monitors Russian strikes for Airwars. “The Dara’a offensive led to more than 45,000 people being displaced, to June 27th, according to the United Nations – with as many as 750,000 lives in danger. Among the civilians killed were medics and whole families. In a pattern similar to what we saw in Douma, air strikes destroyed residential buildings, make-shift clinics and shelters.”

Russian incidents of concern in Syria: June 2018

During the first three weeks of June, Airwars tracked just 12 Russia-linked casualty events in Syria, nine of which were in Idlib governorate. The worst of these occurred overnight on June 7th-8th. Ariha Today reported the deaths of 15 civilians and the injuring of 80 more in four alleged Russian airstrikes on the town of Zardana in Idlib. Shaam News Network put the death toll as high as 45, including 16 women and children, reporting that there were two strikes – the second of which “targeted ambulance teams and residents” desperately searching for their children. While in this case there were no allegations against the regime, many Syrian events monitored by Airwars have conflicting reports blaming both Moscow and the Assad government.

The White Helmets attend the scene of an alleged Russian “double-tap” air strike on Zardana village in Idlib, June 7th (via Aljazeera)

The first event tracked in Dara’a governorate during June occurred on the 24th – a day which saw five separate incidents of concern. Thereafter, all alleged Russian events tracked in June were in Dara’a.

In the final week of the month Airwars researchers tracked 50 Russia-linked casualty events – an average of eight incidents per day – making this one of the worst ever periods since the start of Moscow’s Syrian campaign in September 2015.

The worst event of the month occurred on June 28th, when as many as 66 civilians – many reportedly women and children – died in al Massifra in eastern Dara’a, according to the Smart News Agency. It reported that Russian aircraft “struck three shelters containing civilians fleeing the bombing”. Activist and former head of the local council Zaher Zuabi told Smart that the victims were being buried in mass graves. All allegations tracked by Airwars were against Russia.  

Just three days later on June 30th, between 6 and 22 civilians reportedly were killed in an airstrike on Ghasem in eastern Dara’a. According to the Smart News Agency, “two large bombs” were dropped on the perimeter of the town, one hitting a group of displaced people. Smart said that the regime “likely” carried out the attack, while the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs, killing a member of the civil defence (Adnan Mohammad Mohammad) as he was helping victims from a previous bombing. Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office also pointed to Assad. However, as is so often the case with casualty events in Syria, it was difficult to ascertain which party was responsible. LCCSY instead blamed solely Russia, while the Step News Agency said that both Russia and the regime were operating in the area.

On the same day (June 30th),  Mohammad Nour reported that 17 civilians from a single family died in “Russian shelling of civilian homes” in Ma’arba. Dar’aawi named 11 victims including four members of the al-Fa’our familySyrian Al Hayat blamed the regime for the attack, reporting that it had “targeted the hideouts of terrorists and their gatherings”. Whoever the perpetrator, the impact was devastating for civilians: the White Helmets said that it was still collecting body parts from the rubble on July 3rd.

The aftermath of an airstrike on the town of Ma’arba, June 30th (via White Helmets Dara’a)

Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria and reported civilian casualties: June 2018

The known remaining active international Coalition allies – the US the UK, France and the Netherlands, and Iraq in Syria – released  356 munitions  from the air across both Iraq and Syria during June 2018, according to official AFCENT data. This represented a 17% decrease from the 431 munitions reported for May. However there were indications of significant additional artillery support for proxy ground forces in Syria .

Just 20 air and artillery strikes were conducted in Iraq during June, some 26% fewer than in May. No publicly reported civilian casualty events were tracked by Airwars during the month. International strikes in Iraq have continued to fall since November 2017 – which was the last month in which Airwars tracked any ‘fair’ civilian harm events blamed on the Coalition in that country.

In Syria, as Operation Roundup continued, Coalition actions remained steady. Throughout the month, 203 strikes were conducted – a small increase on the 198 reported in May.

Of the still-active non-American Coalition allies, the UK reported ten airstrikes in Syria – compared to two conducted in May. There was also one British strike in Iraq. Notably, a June 21st strike by an RAF Tornado in southern Syria reportedly targeted not ISIS but on an unknown group that was said to have fired on coalition partners.

France carried out no airstrikes in either Iraq or Syria during June – a first since it entered the war almost four years ago. France’s artillery deployment, Task Force Wagram, nevertheless carried out 73 ‘shooting missions’ during June – the same number as in May. On June 7th, the French reported the the US was supporting the campaign with its own Task Force Thunder.

The Netherlands publicly declared that weapons were deployed during four missions in Syria during June (down from five in May). As with the previous month, these were all near Abu Kamal and Hajin.

US Army Soldiers with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment fire artillery alongside Iraqi Security Force artillery at alleged ISIS locations near the Iraqi-Syrian border, June 5th 2018 (via U.S. Army photo by Spc. Anthony Zendejas IV)

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria: likely deaths fall by 18%

In June, as phase two of Operation Roundup began, Airwars researchers tracked 18 civilian casualty events in Syria – a 38% rise from the 13 events recorded during May. However likely deaths were down.

Of these events, 11 were assessed by Airwars as being fairly reported. This involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation from the Coalition that it carried out strikes in the near vicinity on the day. Of these 11 events, six were in Deir Ezzor governorate and the remaining five in Hassakah.

Airwars’ current estimate is that between 54 and 81 civilians likely died in these 11 events – an 18% decrease from the minimum of 66 civilians likely killed in Coalition actions during May. Troublingly, at a minimum some 16 of these deaths were reportedly children, and at least 17 were women.

“During June the coalition continued to pursue ISIS in its last enclaves in eastern Deir Ezzor and Al Hassaka provinces,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “While likely deaths fell, we still saw a number of troubling mass casualty incidents with entire families reported killed.

“We also saw a larger than usual reporting of civilians being killed alongside ISIS fighters which may indicate a lack of consideration of who else is in the vicinity when the militant group is being targeted. The worst example of this took place on June 21st when 17 people were reported killed including 8 ISIS fighters in al Shaafa, Deir Ezzor.”

The worst events of the month occurred in Hassaka governorate. On June 4th, up to 14 civilians including five children died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Jazza village. Eight members of the al Mudhi family were listed as killed. Two sources – Zaman al Wasl and Marsad al Hassaka – claimed that “internationally banned cluster munitions” were used in the strikes. Cluster munitions are not known to be used by Coalition or Iraqi forces – though have been documented as being fired by both Assad government and Russian aircraft.  There was however confirmation through tweets from the ‘SDF  Front’ and the Iraqi mobilization that they had launched a campaign in the vicinity of the Iraqi-Syrian border near al Dashisha.

Three days later, on June 7th, between ten and 18 civilians, including women and children, reportedly died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Khuweibra village school in Tal al Jair, which was  housing displaced Iraqis. SANA news agency referred to the event as “a massacre” killing “mostly women and children”.

The Shaam News Network  quoted Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan, who stated that the Coalition “did not detect the injury or death of any civilians as a result of the Coalition strikes in Al Hasakah today”. However, this statement was made on June 11th, while the alleged casualty event reportedly occurred during the night of June 7th or early hours of June 8th. Additionally, the Coalition confirmed that Iraqi and Coalition artillery had been targeting the area.

An entire family consisting of as many as 12 civilians (including up to four children and six women) was reportedly wiped out in an alleged Coalition airstrike on June 12th in the village of Hassoun al Basha near Tal al Shayer village in the south east Hassaka countryside, according to local media. Syrian state-run SANA reported that 12 people from Hassoun al-Basha’s family perished when civilian homes were struck – a claim backed up by other sources. However, the Step News Agency was among several additional outlets reporting that the deaths occurred after a civilian car was hit. While the majority of reports identified the location of this event as Hassoun al Basha – a small settlement named after the family who inhabit it – others said that the family were harmed in an airstrike on Abu Hamdah.

Four of the children allegedly killed in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the village of Hassoun al Basha, June 12th (via Hassaka Youth Union)

Libya

The situation in Libya in June was comparable to the month prior, with moderate airstrike activity by both the LNA and the United States.

The US conducted two strikes near Bani Walid which were officially acknowledged by AFRICOM. While the second event on June 13th reportedly killed one member of Al Qaeda, the first event on June 6th reportedly led to the death of three civilians. AFRICOM itself first reported that the strike had killed four ISIS members in a vehicle. Local sources, on the other hand, claimed that three people in the car that was struck were in fact civilians and that only Abdul-Ati Eshtewi, a senior ISIS member, was a combatant.

UNSMIL, the UN mission to Libya, also cast doubt on AFRCOM’s claim when it appeared to agree with local sources that three of the victims were civilians.

The LNA continued its operation with likely Emirati support at Derna, which it declared successfully captured on June 28th.

With LNA forces distracted elsewhere, the Petroleum Facility Guards (PFG) a militia consisting of former oil guards, were able to make significant territorial gains in the Oil Crescent area. The LNA responded with air strikes. According to local sources, one of them resulted in up to three civilian casualties in Ras Lanuf on June 16th.

The LNA additionally conducted an airstrike in Saddada near Beni Walid targeting the PFG and Benghazi Defence Brigades on June 23rd. Another airstrike hit Umm Al Aranib near Sebha on June 3rd. Tebu Channel accused the LNA of indiscriminately targeting civilians infrastructure but said no civilians were harmed.

Airwars advocacy

Military advocacy

In late June, the Coalition published an unprecedented number of 276 civilian casualties claims which it said it had assessed. It found only five of these (2%) to be Credible.

One of these Credible events was the March 2017 Al Mansoura school incident in which the Coalition had previously claimed not to have harmed any civilians. Now it admitted having unintentionally killed at least 40 civilians – the second highest acknowledged toll of the entire air war.

Less positively, despite having assessed a high number of events relating to the battle of Raqqa in June, the Coalition deemed all 122 of those cases to be Non Credible. This was concerning, as most reports of civilian harm for the battle of Raqqa appear to have good levels of local reporting. Overall, the Coalition has been more than ten times more likely to concede civilian harm for the battle of Mosul than for Raqqa.

June also saw the launch of the new Libya conflict casualty microsite – a project led by military advocacy team member Sophie Dyer.

European advocacy

The issue of Dutch military transparency continues to concern elected representatives. In anticipation of a June 27th parliamentary debate on the Dutch anti-ISIS mission, MPs posed 72 factual written questions. Perhaps as a result of the context provided in the third briefing paper provided by Airwars to MPs earlier in May, many of these questions were focused on civilian harm issues, and a lack of transparency regarding Dutch airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

Koen Kluessien, Airwars’s European Advocacy officer and researcher, covered the debate and posed questions, providing valuable context to an event that no other outlet was writing about.

News from Airwars

In early June, Amnesty International released an extensive investigation into the Coalition’s conduct in Raqqa. Researchers found that on several occasions, Coalition attacks appeared to violate international humanitarian law.

During the month, Airwars covered this report as well as the Coalition’s belated admission to have killed 40 or more civilians in al Mansoura. Though the acknowledgement was welcome, significant questions remained about the overall death toll – and what protocols the Coalition was following in deciding whether to re-open such cases.