Research

Research

Published

December 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

There has been much speculation in recent weeks about what President Biden’s first year in office shows us about his foreign policy – and in particular whether he is ending 20 years of America’s so-called ‘forever wars’.

As 2021 nears its end, Airwars reached out to US combatant commands to request strike data for conflicts. Coupled with the long-delayed release of crucial strike data from Afghanistan, Airwars can assess for the first time what the ‘war on terror’ looks like under Joe Biden.

The biggest take-home is that Biden has significantly decreased US military action across the globe.

Overall, declared US strikes have fallen by 54% globally during 2021

In total, declared US strikes across all five active US conflict zones – Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – fell from 951 actions in 2020, to 439 by mid December 2021, a decrease of 54 percent. This is by far the lowest declared annual US strike number since at least 2004, and reflects a broader trend of declining US actions in recent years.

During 2021, the overwhelming majority of US strikes (372) took place in Afghanistan prior to withdrawal on August 31st. In fact, the United States carried out more than five times as many strikes in Afghanistan this year than in all other active US conflict zones combined.

If you were to remove Afghanistan from the data, the United States has declared just 67 strikes across the globe so far in 2021.

Afghanistan dominated US military actions during 2021

Civilian casualties also down

This trend is also reflected in far lower numbers of civilians allegedly killed by US strikes. During 2021, there were no credible local allegations of civilians likely killed by US strikes in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan or Yemen.

However,  at least 11 civilians were likely killed by US actions in Syria. In Afghanistan at least 10 civilians were confirmed killed by US actions. That latter figure is almost certainly higher, since we now know the US dropped more than 800 munitions on Taliban and Islamic State fighters during the year. At least some of those strikes were in urban areas where civilians are particularly at risk. However exact estimates remain elusive, due to ongoing confusion between US strikes and those carried out by Afghan security forces up to August.

In Somalia one civilian was locally reported killed by US strikes, though this occurred before Biden assumed office on January 20th.

Biden is partly continuing a trend seen in recent years – the number of strikes has largely fallen since 2016 when the war with the so-called Islamic State reached its apex. Below, we provide breakdowns of both US and allied airstrikes and locally reported civilian casualties – as well as emerging trends – for each individual conflict.

Over the length of the ‘War on Terror’, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 still marks the highest number of declared US strikes.

Afghanistan

On December 17th 2021, Biden’s administration finally released strike data for the final two years of the Afghanistan war. Such monthly releases were standard practice for nearly two decades but were stopped in March 2020, with the Trump administration arguing that their ongoing release could jeopardise peace talks with the Taliban. The Biden administration then chose to continue with that secrecy.

Now we can see why. The new releases show that despite a ‘peace’ agreement with the Taliban signed on February 29th 2020, under which the US was expected to withdraw in 14 months, the Pentagon continued its aggressive aerial campaigns in Afghanistan. Between March and December 2020, more than 400 previously undeclared strikes took place under Trump, while there were at least 300 US strikes in Afghanistan under Biden until August.

In total, almost 800 previously secret recent US airstrikes in Afghanistan during the Trump and Biden administrations have now been declared.

While Airwars does not track allegations of civilian harm in Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has done so for more than a decade. Yet the decision by the Pentagon to stop publishing strike data in early 2020 may have led the UN to significantly underestimate casualties from US actions.

In its report detailing civilian casualties in Afghanistan from January to June 2021, UNAMA found that 146 civilians had been killed and 243 injured in airstrikes. Yet it seemed to assume these were all carried out by US-backed Afghan military forces, instead of the US.

“UNAMA…did not verify any airstrike by international military forces that resulted in civilian casualties during the first six months of 2021,” the report asserted. Such assessments will likely now require a fresh review, in the wake of recent US strike data releases.

We do know for certain that ten civilians were killed by US actions after that six-month period, on August 29th this year in Kabul – in the final US drone strike of a 20-year war. The US initially claimed this was a “righteous strike” on an Islamic State terrorist. However investigative journalists quickly showed the victims were in fact an aid worker and nine members of his young family, forcing the military to admit an error. Despite this, it recently concluded no disciplinary measures against personnel were necessary.

After the ignominious US withdrawal on August 31, US strikes have stopped. While at the time Biden discussed the possibility of continuing “over the horizon” airstrikes from a nearby country, this has not yet happened.

“The skies over Afghanistan are free of US war planes for the first time in two decades. A whole generation grew up under their contrails, nobody looks at the sky without checking for them,” Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group told Airwars. “Their absence heralds the start of a new era, even if it’s not yet clear what that new chapter will bring.”

Iraq and Syria

During 2020, the number of air and artillery strikes conducted by the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State – Operation Inherent Resolve – has continued to fall, alongside an ongoing reduction in civilian harm allegations.

OIR declared 201 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2020, and only 58 strikes by early December 2021. This represents a reduction of around 70  percent in one year, and a 99 percent reduction in declared strikes between 2017 and 2021.

In Iraq, Airwars has tracked no local allegations of civilian harm from US led actions during 2021, down from an estimated five civilian fatalities in 2020. At the height of the Coalition’s war against ISIS in 2017, Airwars had tracked a minimum of 1,423 civilian fatalities.

In Syria, however, civilian harm allegations from Coalition actions actually increased this year, up from a minimum of one death in 2020 to at least eleven likely civilian fatalities in 2021. This does still represent a low figure compared to recent history: in 2019, Airwars had identified a minimum of 490 civilians likely killed by the Coalition, a reduction of 98 percent to this year.

Since 2019, Afghanistan has replaced Iraq and Syria as the primary focus of US military actions.

One key concern in Syria is that most recently reported civilian deaths have resulted not from declared US airstrikes, but from joint ground operations with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), often supported by US attack helicopters.

These include a raid on the town of Thiban in Deir Ezzor, carried out by the SDF with the support of the US-led Coalition at dawn on July 16th 2021. Eyewitnesses reported that a “force consisting of several cars raided civilian homes, without warning, accompanied by indiscriminate shooting between the houses with the aim of terrorising the ‘wanted’”. Two civilians, a father and son, were killed in the raid, reportedly shot outside their home.

Separately, on the morning of December 3rd 2021, a declared US drone strike killed at least one man and injured at least six civilians, including up to four children from the same family. Multiple sources reported that the drone targeted a motorcycle but also hit a passing car that the Qasoum family were traveling in. Ahmed Qasoum, who was driving, described the incident; “the motorcycle was going in front of me and I decided to pass it, when I got parallel to it, I felt a lot of pressure pushing the car to the left of the road….It was horrible.” His ten-year-old son had a fractured skull, while his 15-year-old daughter sustained a serious shrapnel injury to her head.

On December 6th, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the strike had targeted an Al-Qaeda linked militant but “the initial review of the strike did indicate the potential for possible civilian casualties.”

+18 | "دوبلت الموتور إجت طيارة استطلاع ضربتني"يستمعون إلى الموسيقا وفجأة..مشهد مرعب للحظة استهداف عائلة في ريف #إدلبخاص #تلفزيون_سوريا@syriastream pic.twitter.com/ao0hy4stb1

— تلفزيون سوريا (@syr_television) December 5, 2021

A dashboard camera captures the moment a US strike also hits a passing civilian vehicle. 

Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen

Under Donald Trump, there had been a record rise both in declared US airstrikes in Somalia, and in locally reported civilian deaths and injuries – with the last likely death from a US action tracked by Airwars on the final day of Trump’s presidency.

Since then, Airwars has tracked no locally reported civilian deaths in Somalia under Biden. For the entire year, AFRICOM has declared nine strikes so far, four of which occurred under Biden. When he came to power, his administration implemented a six-month moratorium on strikes, multiple sources said. This meant that both AFRICOM and even the CIA had to have White House permission before carrying out strikes in either Somalia or Yemen.

On July 20th 2021, the day the moratorium ended, AFRICOM declared the first Somali strike of the Biden era – targeting the Al-Shabaab Islamist group. Multiple militants were reported killed, though no civilians were among them. A small number of additional strikes against Al-Shabaab occurred in the weeks afterwards, the most recent of which was on August 24th. Since then, there have been no declared strikes.

In Yemen, where the US has carried out periodic strikes against alleged Al-Qaeda affiliates since 2009, there have so far been no reliable reports of US strikes under Biden. In August, Al-Qaeda itself claimed two of its fighters had been killed in a US action, though there were no details on the date or location of this event.

Responding to an email query from Airwars on November 18th, the US military denied carrying out any recent attacks, noting that “CENTCOM conducted its last counterterror strike in Yemen on June 24, 2019. CENTCOM has not conducted any new counterterror strikes in Yemen since.”

However, in a more ambivalent statement to Airwars on December 16th, CENTCOM spokesperson Bill Urban noted only that “I am not aware of any strikes in Yemen in 2021.” Airwars is seeking further clarity, particularly since it is known that the CIA carried out several airstrikes on Al Qaeda in Yemen during 2020.

In both Libya and Pakistan, long running US counter terrorism campaigns now appear to be over. The last locally claimed CIA strike in Pakistan was in July 2018 under President Trump, while in Libya, the last likely US strike was in October 2019.

A crucial year ahead

Based on official US military data, it is clear that Joe Biden is building on a trend seen in the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency, further decreasing the scope and scale of the ‘forever wars.’

In Iraq and Syria, US forces appear to be transitioning away from carrying out active strikes in favour of supporting allied groups – although Special Forces ground actions continue in Syria, sometimes with associated civilian harm. The war in Afghanistan is now over, and it seems the long-running US campaigns in Pakistan and Libya have drawn to permanent halts. US airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen have all but stopped for now.

Still unknown is the likely framework for US military actions moving forward. In early 2021, Biden commissioned a major review of US counter terrorism policy. Led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the results are expected to be announced in the coming months. This will likely give us a far clearer idea how Biden believes the US should fight both ongoing wars and future ones.

Is 2022 the year Biden rescinds the AUMF? (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

And then there is amending – or even repealing – the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). That law, passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11, essentially granted the US President the right to conduct strikes anywhere in the world in the context of the ‘war on terror.’ Initially designed for use against Al-Qaeda, it has been employed against an ever widening pool of US enemies.

The future of the 2001 AUMF is once again likely to be debated by Congress in 2022. While unlikely to be repealed, it could possibly be significantly amended, Brian Finucane, senior advisor for the US programme at International Crisis Group, told Airwars.

“That would entail at a minimum specifying who the United States can hit – explicitly identifying the enemy. Secondly identifying where it should be used – geographical limits. And thirdly giving a sunset clause,” he said. “As it is now that AUMF is basically a blank cheque to be used by different administrations.”

▲ President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with national security advisers to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, Thursday, August 19, 2021, in the White House Situation Room. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)

Published

September 2021

Written by

Airwars Syria team

To mark the sixth anniversary of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Airwars is highlighting just five of the countless civilian harm events that characterise Russian involvement in the conflict.

Overall since 2015, we have identified 4,615 incidents where Russia is alleged to have caused civilian deaths or injuries. This September alone, we estimate that ten civilians have been killed by alleged Russian strikes – including five children. This brings the total estimate since 2015 to a minimum of 14,216 civilians killed only in incidents Airwars has deemed fair, confirmed or contested.

This figure is a conservative estimate. As many as 23,936 civilians overall are locally alleged to have been killed by Russian actions – among the worst tolls of any belligerent or conflict monitored by Airwars. However, many of these reported deaths are contested between Russia and the Syrian regime it supports, making clear attribution frequently challenging. Airwars is continuing to carry out deep research into events that took place between late 2019 and 2020, with the updated civilian harm data expected to be released early next year.

Our Syrian team members have selected five major incidents from our archives that show how Russia has waged war in Syria – and the ongoing cost of its operations on civilian life.

We focus on civilian harm caused by high-intensity vacuum missiles; the staggering numbers of children credibly reported harmed; the challenges of naming all victims during such a high intensity conflict; and finally, the use of targeted attacks on healthcare workers and first responders.

Focusing on the civilian harm caused by Russia alone does not reflect the full picture of large-scale death and destruction over the past ten years of conflict in Syria. Airwars continues to monitor all foreign interventions in the Syrian conflict; for example, our monitoring of US led coalition activities can be found here, while our monitoring of Turkish military engagement can be found here.

Syrian monitoring groups – such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; and the Violations Documentation Center – also continue to track the devastating civilian harm caused by the ongoing civil war, most of it resulting from the actions of the Assad regime.

Case 1 – Vacuum missiles

Vacuum or ‘thermobaric’ missiles are a particularly deadly weapon, allegedly used by both Russian and Syrian Regime forces throughout the conflict. Russian forces were first accused of using vacuum missiles in Syria on the first day of airstrikes, on September 30th 2015, in an attack that reportedly killed 18 civilians in Talbiseh. A doctor working at the hospital receiving casualties described the impact of the missile as causing “cases of suffocation as a result of dust and smoke”, killing civilians with “enormous pressure or shrapnel that pierced their bodies and tore some of them into pieces”.

Absolute confirmation of the use of a particular weapon in Syria remains a major challenge. Of the 4,615 civilian harm events categorised by Airwars as likely being Russian (including contested events such as Russian and/or regime attacks), we identified 244 incidents where local sources mentioned that ‘vacuum missiles’ had been used in the attack. These strikes were found to have caused at least 875 deaths.

While we may not know for sure if vacuum missiles were used in each of these events, we have chosen to highlight one case that offers some insight into the level of destruction caused by high explosive weapons, and the complexity of such events.

April 17th-18th 2017: Ma’arat Hurma

This incident took place in April 2017, where nine children and their grandmother were likely killed in repeated airstrikes on Ma’arat Hurma, Idlib. The site was reportedly hit multiple times, with buildings almost completely raised to the ground and victims buried under many layers of rubble. In the final high-intensity strike, an ambulance being used to tend to the initial victims, was left burning.

Media outlet RFS observed that “the raids were highly explosive and caused extensive destruction to civilian homes. Six houses and more than 25 shops were destroyed and other material damage occurred in the places where rockets fell”.

Our assessment identifies the victims likely killed in the attack – all members of the Al Nabo family, with the youngest child just two years old. Images posted to social media show the buildings razed to the ground, while a video posted by first responders, the White Helmets, show the bodies of small children being carried through the rubble.

Read the full assessment on our website here.

The moment missiles hit Ma’arat Hurma. 

Case 2 – Children killed and injured

At least 4,831 children have been reported killed by alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria since 2015. In 2016, one of the deadliest years for civilian casualties in Syria, an average of 169 children were killed each month by alleged Russian actions.

While ceasefire agreements in 2020 saw a downturn in Russian strikes, this temporary relief for Syrians has likely now come to an end, as we’ve seen the resumption of weekly, and sometimes daily, Russian airstrikes in different parts of Syria. In September 2021 alone, children account for half of all deaths caused by alleged Russian strikes and almost half of all injuries. This includes one child reported injured earlier this week, in alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes on the town of Majdlaya.

Taking the most conservative estimates – the minimum number of reported civilians killed – children could account for 34% of all casualties in Syria resulting from alleged Russian strikes. The indiscriminate nature of Russian airstrikes has resulted in the deaths of entire families of children, including babies just a few months old.

August 19th & 20th 2021: Balshoun and Kansafra

Two civilian casualty events took place over 48 hours in August 2021, where alleged Russian airstrikes in Idlib hit two families. At least eight children were killed and another injured.

On August 19th, four children were killed and another injured by alleged Russian or regime strikes on Balshoun. Three of the children were killed alongside their mother and their young cousin – all members of the Ajaj family.

One of the children killed was 8-year old Hamza Khaled Habib, cousin of the Ajaj family. In an event that reflects the scale of civilian harm in Syria, Hamza was being raised by his uncle, as his own father had already been killed in a previous airstrike. The Syrian Civil Defense (also known as the White Helmets) posted a video capturing Mr Mohamed Ajaj mourning for his wife, children and young nephew, all killed in this attack.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

Only a day later at Kansafra, another Idlib town, another family was almost entirely killed, including at least four children – aged three, six, nine and twelve years old, members of the Al Omar family. A reporter with AFP saw the father crying over the bodies of three of his children in a cemetery. The reporter observed that the fourth child had to be buried in a hurry, because bombing had begun again in the area.

Only one of the Al Omar children survived the attack, the youngest, who the mother managed to rescue just moments before the strike.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

The bottle belonging to one of the children killed in alleged Russian strikes on Kansafra town, Idlib – August 2021 (Image posted on Twitter by @thawrat111)

Case 3 – The unnamed

Of all civilians alleged harmed by Russian airstrikes – estimated by Airwars at as many as 23,936 killed and 41,452 injured – we have found full or partial names for just 8,472 individuals.

This means that 87% of all civilians reported harmed in Russian strikes cannot be identified using current available datasets. While on-going deeper research being conducted by Airwars might be able to address at least some of these events, it is highly likely that we may not know the identity of many thousands of victims until Syria’s conflict ends, and a substantial truth and reconciliation process can begin.

This is due to a number of reasons, not least that the use of high-intensity weapons by Russian and other forces in Syria cause significant destruction, and often make immediate identification of casualties impossible. Syria also houses the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, estimated by UNHCR at 6.2 million, including 2.3 million children. Local sources in many cases may not recognise victims, especially those recently arrived with little documentation.

March 22nd 2019: Kafriya and Al Fou’a

On March 22nd 2019 in Kafriya and Al Fou’a in Idlib, an incident that was referred to by several sources as a “massacre”, killed up to 28 civilians and injured as many as 30 others. A doctor named Abu Mohammed was quoted by Smart News as identifying more than 15 raids on the towns of Kufriya and al-Fuha and he noted that many civilians had moderate injuries, “mostly children and women”. The use of cluster bombs and high explosive missiles was pointed out in various sources and could be one of the reasons for the difficulty identifying victims.

Despite Airwars’ researchers finding 28 unique sources reporting on the incident, we were only able to identify one individual who was killed – Ali Wahid Qalla, a 50 year old man displaced from Eastern Ghouta. The identity of dozens of others, including children, remains unknown.

Read our assessment in full on our website.

ارتفاع حصيلة شهداء المجزرة التي ارتكبتها الطائرات الروسية في بلدة #كفريا شمال إدلب إلى 20 مدنياً بينهم 4 أطفال وأكثر من 30 جريحاً من بينهم حالات حرجة و 13 طفل.هؤلاء اصبحوا مجرد ارقام عند الاعلام المنافق pic.twitter.com/hRFOay4PvZ

— عبد الغفور الدياب (@abuhuzaifa_) March 23, 2019

‘The death toll from the massacre committed by Russian planes in the town of #كفريا North Idlib killed 20 civilians, including 4 children, and more than 30 wounded, including critical cases, and 13 children. These have become just numbers for the hypocritical media’

Case 4 – Attacks on healthcare workers and rescuers

In March 2020, WHO’s Regional Emergency Director in the Eastern Mediterranean, Richard Brennan, called out the international community for ignoring attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria: “What is troubling, is that we’ve come to a point where attacks on health — something the international community shouldn’t tolerate – are now taken for granted; something we have become accustomed to”.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provide on-going monitoring of attacks on healthcare centres, noting that such operations are against International Humanitarian Law and constitute war crimes. According to PHR, 244 attacks on medical facilities have been carried out by either the Syria Regime or Russian forces. One such attack was investigated by the New York Times, which showed how Russian airstrikes hit four hospitals in just 12 hours in May 2019.

As PHR notes: “When these attacks on health care become as prolonged and widespread as they have in Syria, the consequences reach far beyond the individuals and facilities lost – the attacks reverberate across the civilian community, inciting fear that seeking medical treatment or going to a hospital will result in death, injury, kidnapping, torture, or imprisonment, both for the patient and the medical provider.”

One type of event Airwars researchers often report on during monitoring of Russian strikes in Syria, are so-called double-tap strikes – where first responders are hit in a second airstrike after an initial attack has caused casualties.

These first responders are most often the White Helmets, officially known as the Syrian Civil Defense, who report that 252 of their volunteers have been killed since the start of the conflict and over 500 volunteers injured. White Helmets continue to risk their lives and are often the only response teams available in remote or poorly resourced areas.

June 26th 2019, Khan Sheikoun

An event that took place in June 2019 is one such example, where an alleged Russian strike killed two White Helmets volunteers in Khan Sheikoun, Idlib, who were tending to the victims of an earlier strike. The two volunteers, Ali Al Qadour and Omar Kayyal, had been in an ambulance treating victims of an initial strike in the east of Khan Sheikhoun; another five of their colleagues were also wounded.

The Syrian Civil Defense published a statement that said “a thorough examination of the evidence, such as eyewitness accounts and the identification of munitions used in the attack on white helmets, has proved conclusively that the aircraft that committed the crime of targeting and killing our volunteers belong to the Russian Air Force, which used surveillance aircraft”.

The assessment is available in full on our website.

The burial of a White Helmets volunteer, following a reported Russian airstrike in June 2019 (Image via Idlib Media Centre)

 

▲ A street in Ariha city raised to the ground by alleged Russian aistrikes in February 2020, including the almost complete destruction of Shami Hospital. Image via Halab Today.

Published

August 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

This article was originally published by The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on August 8th 2021.

For the little media coverage it receives these days, you might be forgiven for believing the US-led coalition’s war in Syria and Iraq to be over. Osama Al-Hamid’s family knows better. Last month, the young boy died during reported fighting between Washington’s local Syrian allies and the Islamic State, in which US airstrikes hit the building he was in. Osama was the latest of thousands of alleged victims of coalition strikes.

August 8th marked seven years since the international coalition, led by the United States, began its concerted bombing campaign against the Islamic State, the terrorist group that by 2014 had seized much of northern Iraq and Syria. Since then, the coalition has declared 34,987 strikes against the Islamist group. Today, ISIS has been reduced from a de facto state controlling territory roughly the size of Britain on either side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, to a few disparate cells living in hiding and conducting occasional terror attacks.

The final piece of ISIS territory, the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, was recaptured in April 2019. Since then, the intensity of the international campaign has dropped dramatically. Only 483 strikes, or less than two percent of the war’s total, have taken place in the last two years.

The civilian toll has also dropped sharply. Of the 1,417 civilians the Operation Inherent Resolve, or OIR Coalition, has officially admitted killing since 2014, only one has occurred since Baghouz fell.

Airwars puts the real figures of civilians killed by coalition strikes far higher — at between 8,317 and 13,190 likely fatalities between 2014 and today. And since April 2019, between 57 and 112 civilians have been likely killed, the watchdog believes.

Yet despite the near destruction of ISIS, the coalition remains in place, even as President Joe Biden’s administration withdraws from Afghanistan, and claims to be looking to end the “forever wars.” The United States retains an estimated 900 troops in Syria and a further 2,500 in Iraq. Other nations have also seemingly increased the intensity of their involvement in the campaign in recent months. Of the 44 confirmed OIR airstrikes against the Islamic State this year, more than half were French or British. Belgium, which resumed its own involvement in the war in October 2020, has provided no data on its own recent strikes.

No perfect exit

Seven years on, and with most of the war’s objectives seemingly achieved, what is to become of the anti-ISIS Coalition?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for the Coalition to remain concerned.

Thousands of family members of ISIS militants, including those with British, French, and other citizenships, remain stuck in vast prisons in northern Syria, including the infamous Al-Hol camp near Hassakeh. With some countries unwilling to repatriate their nationals, violence in the camps remains a concern and there are fears the conditions could serve to radicalize a new generation of ISIS.

Outside the camps, fears of an ISIS resurgence remain, with periodic claims of their influence increasing. Recently, reports circulated that ISIS cells were forcing villagers in one part of eastern Syria to pay them money or face punishment. The US’s allies in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, may not be able to cope without continued Western military support.

The Coalition is also yet to tackle its historic legacy, with rights groups and family members still seeking recompense for the thousands of civilians killed by its own actions. A recent report by Agence France Presse interviewed victims of the single worst disaster, when a U.S. strike killed more than 100 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul in March 2017, and found they were still waiting for compensation.

So there are arguments that supporters of the Coalition mission may may make in favour of staying. But bear in mind that just because it is not in the media that doesn’t make it a cost-free exercise — either financially for the US and partners, or for Syrian and Iraqi civilians.

Data from Airwars’ annual report shows conflicts across the Middle East were less violent in 2020

Last month, Osama Al-Hamid — who looks perhaps four or five in the images posted online of him — tragically died. The exact circumstances of his death, in Kharbet Al Janous near Hassakeh in northern Syria on July 21st, are disputed. What is clear is that the United States carried out two airstrikes against alleged ISIS members while supporting the SDF. Somewhere along the way Hamid was killed. The Coalition’s spokesman said the child was being “held captive” by ISIS, but provided no evidence for the claim.

The intensity of Syria’s civil war more generally has dipped significantly in recent years. Airwars data shows that the number of civilians reported killed last year was roughly a third of the tally during 2019. And as the level of violence decreases, so the questions that leaders have to ask themselves shift.

With US, Russian, Turkish, Iranian and other forces seemingly becoming permanent fixtures in Syria, the potential for fatal miscalculation remains. And with no clear long-term strategy currently being articulated by the Biden administration, there remains a risk of another grinding conflict with no end in sight.

In Iraq, the US-led coalition often found itself fighting alongside Iranian-backed militias during the height of the campaign against ISIS. Yet since the Caliphate’s decline, some of those same groups have begun turning their ire on US bases, particularly as tensions with Tehran again escalate. In another echo of the earlier US-UK occupation of Iraq, Shia politicians from across the spectrum increasingly call on the Americans to leave.

When President Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011 at the insistence of the Iraqi government, he later faced allegations that his purported hasty exit helped lead to the emergence of ISIS. Biden will be wary of repeating the mistake. But he is also perhaps learning from Afghanistan that there is no perfect time to end a war. Maintaining the coalition in perpetuity in Iraq and Syria, against an elusive foe, brings with it a risk of a new forever war.

▲ US soldiers make their way to an oil production facility to meet with its management team, in Syria, Oct. 27, 2020. (Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory)

Published

June 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on civilian deaths and injuries resulting from US military actions around the world has declared more than 100 recent casualties. Researchers and human rights groups, including Airwars, Amnesty International and UN monitors in Afghanistan, place the actual toll significantly higher.

For 2020 alone, the Department of Defence said that its forces had killed 23 civilians and injured a further 10 in Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. An additional 63 historical deaths and 22 injuries were reported for the years 2017-2019, mostly in Syria and Yemen.

By contrast, the minimum public estimate of civilian deaths caused by US forces during 2020 across five conflict nations was 102 fatalities – almost five times higher than DoD admits.

Casualties from US actions in Afghanistan in particular appear to have been officially undercounted. While the Pentagon reports only 20 deaths and 5 injuries from its own actions last year, UNAMA – the respected UN agency in Afghanistan – says that international forces killed at least 89 civilians and injured a further 31. United States personnel made up the great majority of those foreign forces.

For Somalia, DoD declares only one civilian death from US actions last year – while Airwars and others suggest a minimum civilian toll of seven killed.

And for Iraq and Syria, while US forces declare only one death, local reporting indicates at least six civilians killed by US actions.

Only for Yemen is there agreement, with monitoring organisations and the DoD both indicating that there were no likely civilian deaths caused by US actions during the year.

Major decline in US actions

The 21-page Pentagon document, quietly released May 28th and entitled ‘Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations in 2020,’ has been a requirement of US law since 2018.

The latest report captures the very significant fall in tempo of US military actions during the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency. According to Airwars estimates, there were around 1,000 US strikes across four conflict countries during 2020 – down from approximately 3,500 strikes the previous year and a peak of 13,000 such US actions during 2016. Declared civilian deaths fell from 132 to 23 from 2019 to 2020.

The majority of civilian deaths declared by the Pentagon during 2020 were in Afghanistan – despite a major ceasefire between US forces and the Taliban for much of the year. According to the new DoD report, 20 civilians were killed and five injured in seven US actions, primarily airstrikes.

The seven civilian casualty events conceded in Afghanistan by the Pentagon for 2020

However the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) which has been recording extensive data on civilian harm from all parties to the fighting since 2009, placed the toll far higher. According to its own annual report for 2020 published earlier this year, “UNAMA attributed 120 civilian casualties (89 killed and 31 injured) to international military forces”.

While these casualties represented just one per cent of the overall reported civilian toll in Afghanistan for the year – with most civilians killed by the Taliban and Afghan forces – of concern was DoD’s major undercounting of its own impact on civilians – with UNAMA logging four and a half times more deaths primarily from US actions than those officially conceded by the Pentagon.

Reported civilian casualties from US actions against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria have remained low since the terror group’s defeat as a territorial entity in mid 2019. According to the Pentagon, just one civilian was killed by an action in Iraq, after US forces targeted Iranian linked militias at Karbala airport on March 13th 2020. Twenty three year old security guard Karrar Sabbar was killed in that US attack. However the additional reported deaths of two civilian policemen in the attack are not acknowledged by the US.

In Syria, Airwars estimates three to six likely civilian deaths from US actions during 2020, mainly during counterterrorism raids against ISIS remnants. None of these were conceded either.

In Somalia, between 7 and 13 civilians were likely killed by US actions during the year, according to Airwars monitoring of local communities. The US military itself concedes five injuries and one death, in two events in early 2020 near Jilib.

Only for Yemen did human rights organisations and DoD appear to agree, with both reporting no likely civilian deaths from US actions during the year.

US forces in Somalia killed one civilian and injured five others during 2020, according to official estimates

Public transparency

Despite continuing disparities between public and military estimates of civilian harm, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress still represents a significant transparency breakthrough. Close ally France, for example, has refused to declare a single civilian fatality from almost seven years of air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria – and recently lashed out at the United Nations after a French airstrike struck a wedding party in Mali.

Later this year the Pentagon will also issue a major overhaul of its civilian casualty mitigation policies, which it has been reviewing in consultation with human rights organisations for several years. On May 25th, new Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr Colin Kahl confirmed in writing to NGOs that the new policy – known as a Department of Defense Instruction, or DoD-I – would be published by the Biden administration.

“We welcome the Pentagon’s publication to Congress of its latest annual civilian harm report, as well as confirmation that the DOD-I on civilian casualty mitigation will be published by the new administration,” noted Airwars director Chris Woods. “We remain concerned however that DoD estimates of civilian harm once again fall well below credible public estimates, and call on officials to review why such undercounts remain so common. Civilians surely deserve better.”

▲ Aftermath of a deadly US airstrike on Karbala Airport on March 13th, 2020 which the Pentagon admits killed a civilian.

Published

March 2021

Written by

Joseph Dyke

The US military has blamed an “administrative mistake” after conceding it forgot its own admission of the killing of up to 12 civilians during a raid on a Yemeni village in early 2017. Details of the admission feature in the Airwars annual report for 2020 which published March 2nd.

The US military led a raid targeting alleged senior Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives in January 2017, just days after President Trump’s inauguration. According to the residents of Yakla, at least 20 and as many as 56 civilians died in the attack – including women and children. One American soldier was also killed in the fierce assault.

The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) admitted the deaths of civilians just days after the assault; and CENTCOM’s then commander General Joseph Votel later told the US Senate he took personal responsibility for the deaths of “between four and 12” civilians.

However in a public statement issued November 5th, in response to Airwars’ recent findings on the Trump administration’s actions in Yemen, CENTCOM appeared to row back heavily on Gen. Votel’s earlier admission, claiming only that “there may have been civilian casualties” during the Yakla raid.

Asked by Airwars to clarify whether it still stood by General Votel’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), a contrite CENTCOM admitted it had effectively forgotten its own role in the deaths of Yemeni civilians during what it described as an intense firefight between US forces and Al Qaeda.

“USCENTCOM stands by GEN Votel’s statement to the SASC, and we have subsequently found the appropriate documentation that credibly assesses between 4 and 12 non-combatant casualties died”.

Captain Bill Urban, CENTCOM’s spokesman, also insisted that this represented an administrative error.

“Please accept our apologies for our errant ‘may have’ in yesterday’s initial statement regarding the Jan 2017 raid…Our failure to provide an accurate assessment was an administrative mistake, and not an intent to deceive.”

Bonyan Gamal, a lawyer with the Yemeni human rights organisation Mwatana, said the US mistake would be “painful” for the families of those killed at Yakla, many of whom had hoped for an official apology or compensation from the US government.

“It is shocking and I think it will cause more anger. This raid caused such sadness and shock in Yemen,” she told Airwars.

“A key criticism in our recent report on US counterterror actions in Yemen was of systemic failings in civilian casualty assessments at CENTCOM,” said Chris Woods, director of Airwars, which monitors civilian casualties in multiple conflicts. “It’s insulting to both Yemenis and Americans that the deaths of so many civilians in a recent botched US raid don’t appear to form a part of CENTCOM’s institutional memory.”

Years of unaccountable war 

Yemen, an impoverished country on the Arabian Peninsula, has been locked in civil war for half a decade. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia has also carried out a prolonged aerial campaign, supported by the United States, in a bid to unseat Houthi rebels in the capital Sanaa.

Parts of the country remain fertile territory for Al-Qaeda and more recently, for a local Islamic State franchise. Since 2009 the US has been conducting counterterrorism airstrikes and occasional ground raids. These ramped up significantly during Donald Trump’s presidency, with the US military conducting at least 190 armed actions in Yemen – but with at least 86 civilians also allegedly killed, according to Airwars research.

The most deadly single incident came on January 29th 2017, only nine days after Trump’s inauguration.

US forces snuck into the village of Yakla, reportedly to target senior AQAP leaders. In the ensuing firefight dozens were killed. Several field investigations concluded that at least twenty civilians died in the attack, including women and children reportedly gunned down from the air. US Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens also died in the attack.

“This raid was one of the worst cases we have seen in Yemen,” Bonyan Gamal said. “I can only imagine the psychological and mental impact.”

During in-person testimony to the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2017, Gen. Votel admitted his troops had killed between four and 12 civilians at Yakla.

“We lost a lot on this operation. We lost a valued operator, we had people wounded, we caused civilian casualties,” Votel told the committee. “We have made a determination based on our best information available that we did cause casualties, somewhere between 4 and 12 casualties that we accept – I accept  – responsibility for.”

An Airwars report published October 28th highlighted civilian casualties reportedly caused by US strikes and raids in Yemen during the Trump era, including the Yakla raid. Airwars provided comprehensive data and evidence on locally alleged civilian harm to CENTCOM more than two months ahead of publication, but received no reply until after the report was released.

On November 5th CENTCOM then admitted its first civilian harm case since Yakla, crediting Airwars for drawing a September 2017 incident to its attention. However Central Command rejected 39 other civilian harm allegations under Trump which had been flagged by Airwars – and claimed only that it “may” have harmed civilians in the notorious Yakla raid.

Transparency lacking

In 2016, outgoing US President Barack Obama had signed an Executive Order requiring the Director of National Intelligence to publish an annual summary of strikes against militant groups, and associated civilian harm, in countries such as Yemen.

Donald Trump, however, reversed that ruling in 2019 and critics say transparency around strikes had then decreased.

Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, said the Trump administration had a far worse record on transparency than the Obama administration, “which itself was hardly open about what it knew.”

President Joe Biden recently announced an end to US support for the brutal Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels. The status of the 12-year long US campaign against al Qaeda in Yemen is less clear – though a recent report suggested the entire US covert drone strikes campaign is now in review.

According to Mwatana’s Bonyan Gamal, unaccountable US strikes can feed extremism. “Yakla is in a very remote area in Yemen,” she noted. “They don’t get basic services such as water, schooling, or even cell phone service. Nothing reaches there except US drones.”

▲ Children standing in the rubble of Yakla following a deadly US raid on the village in January 2017 (Image courtesy of Iona Craig)

Published

February 2021

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

A renewed campaign by Turkey in mid February against a Kurdish militant faction – which has seen Turkish troops pushing deeper than ever before into northern Iraq – also saw the deaths of thirteen Turkish civilian and military captives in a highly controversial attack, Airwars monitoring of the region shows.

On February 10th, the Turkish Armed Forces launched a major air and ground operation codenamed Operation Claw Eagle 2 against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Gara Mountain in Dohuk Governorate in northern Iraq. The PKK is designated as a terrorist group by the EU and the United States among others, though some Kurds view the group as a liberation organisation. 

Turkey has launched a number of operations against the PKK in northern Iraq in recent years, the most recent being Operations Claw Eagle and Tiger in June 2020, which took place in the Qandil Mountains, the Sinjar District, and Makhmur. 

According to Turkish military expert Levent Kemal, the military campaigns against the PKK have been effective in reducing the group’s operational capabilities. “The PKK’s [ability to] infiltrate into Turkey has been noteworthily reduced thanks to these operations. In particular, PKK infiltration routes have been under control and guerrilla hideouts in the Bradost area have been destroyed. In the West, in Zakho and Duhok areas, cooperation between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdistan Democtatic Party’s (KDP) Peshmerga forces annihilated PKK’s presence near the Turkish border, forcing the PKK to retreat further south”.

According to the Turkish Ministry of Defence, the purpose of the most recent operation was to clear the PKK from the mountains, which it said had been used as a transit area for PKK fighters to cross from Iraq to Turkey; and also to secure the border to prevent what the ministry described as an imminent “large-scale attack” on Turkish forces in Iraq. 

Another stated goal of Operation Claw Eagle 2 was to rescue Turkish captives held by the PKK. More than a dozen civilians and military personnel had been abducted by the PKK within Turkey in recent years, and were being held captive in Duhok. 

The early hours of Operation Claw Eagle 2 saw Turkish aircraft reportedly bombing six villages in the area, causing severe damage to local vineyards and agricultural lands. The Turkish Minister of Defence, Hulusi Akar, claimed that 50 PKK targets were destroyed including air raid shelters, ammunition depots, and headquarters in the initial aerial bombardment. While no civilians were believed harmed during the attack as almost all inhabitants had apparently fled the area, locals say that the operation had nevertheless severely affected their livelihoods. 

Kurdish analyst Abdulla Hawez assessed the impact of the campaign on local communities, saying that while civilians weren’t killed in the operation, “Turkish warplanes and drones were extensively bombarding dozens of locations; overall 90 villages were affected and were within the scope of the operation”.

The airstrikes were followed by a ground attack led by Turkish commandos against the  People’s Defence Forces (HPG), the military wing of the PKK. According to Minister Akar, 50 PKK fighters were killed in the operations and three members of the Turkish forces died. However, figures from Kurdish sources differed considerably, with ANF claiming that only 14 PKK fighters were killed as well as more than 30 Turkish soldiers.

‘Prisoners of war’

On the third day of operations, thirteen Turkish nationals that were being held captive by the PKK in a location close to the village of Siyane were found dead by Turkish forces. According to both Kurdish and Turkish sources, some of those killed were civilians. Among the civilians killed were Sedat Yabalak, a civilian police officer and father of three in charge of Şanlıurfa Police Department; and Aydin Köse, a resident of the city of Adıyaman. Along with others, both men had been seized in Turkey by the PKK and held captive for several years in Kurdistan. 

12 of the 13 Turkish captives killed in the Gara Mountain (via Muhsin.guler Facebook)

According to the Turkish Ministry of Defence, Turkish forces discovered the dead bodies of the thirteen captives after entering a bunker, suggesting that the PKK had executed them. However, the PKK has contested these claims, asserting that the captives were instead killed by Turkish airstrikes during the initial bombardment of Gara Mountain. 

According to a PKK statement, the “camp where prisoners of war belonging to the Turkish security forces were held has been attacked in Gare. The camp was intensively bombed from the air at five o’clock [not clear if am or pm] on February 10th…. After this strike, the occupying Turkish army retreated a bit. Although it knew that there were prisoners there, the camp was again intensively bombed by fighter jets. The bombardment, which lasted for three days, and the fierce battles inside and outside the camp resulted in the death of some of the MIT members, soldiers and policemen we had captured.”

The deaths of the prisoners caused outrage across Turkey, with the Presidency’s media director, Fahrettin Altun emphasising Turkey’s intent to “chase down every last terrorist hiding in their caves and safe houses” and exact “painful” revenge and “swift” justice. There were fears that Turkey could use the captives’ deaths as a pretext to expand operations against Kurdish militant groups in northern Iraq, causing more peril for civilians.

“I expect the Turkish government to use the deaths to expand its military operations against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey may also attack Sinjar but this may have far more ramifications as pro-Iran militias are widely present in Sinjar and are allied with PKK-backed Yazidi groups”, explained Hawez.

These expectations may soon be realised, given the increasingly hawkish rhetoric adopted by Ankara following Operation Claw Eagle 2. Speaking at a party rally on February 15th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed his desire to expand operations outside of Turkey in response to the botched rescue attempt in Gara, saying “we will extend our operations to areas where danger exists. We will stay in those areas we secure as long as necessary.”

▲ Relatives of Sergeant Mevlut Kahveci, one of the captives killed in the Gara Mountains of northern Iraq, mourn at his funeral ceremony on February 15th (via duvarenglish)

Published

December 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Chris Woods, Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Joseph Dyke, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Oliver Imhof and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

Civilian harm from foreign military action in all tracked conflicts have remained low, with little change observed in November compared to previous months. In Syria, Russian actions have decreased from October. It has also been a quieter month for US-led actions in Syria, although reports of US-led strikes on Iranian forces in Syria have continued. While most belligerents have seen their military activity in Syria scale back, Turkey began escalating its shelling of key towns held by the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with Ain Issa bearing the brunt of the military escalation.

In Iraq, Turkish strikes on fighters belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) continued during the month, with civilians caught in the crossfire once again. Meanwhile, International Coalition-led actions against ISIS remained sporadic throughout the month, especially in central and northern Iraq.

In Libya, the ceasefire that was officially signed between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) at the end of October has largely held, with only sporadic reports of strikes taking place in the country.

November also saw a major breakthrough for Airwars, with the launch of The Credibles, published in conjunction with The Washington Post. After several years of patient engagement with the US military, the US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State provided Airwars with the near locations of nearly all of the 344 publicly confirmed civilian harm events in the war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. In total this interactive dataset allows for the first time the accurate location of almost 1,400 civilian deaths the coalition has admitted to causing since 2014. These located events represent the most accurate and comprehensive data ever publicly revealed by the US military about the harm it causes in war and raises hopes for families of those killed for potential apologies and ex gratia payments.

Turkish actions in northern Syria escalate as fears loom over possible offensive 

November saw a marked increase in Turkish military activity in northeastern Syria, centred largely around the town of Ain Issa and other areas controlled by the SDF. Airwars tracked six civilian harm incidents in Syria during the month, five of which occured in the last two weeks of November in and around the town of Ain Issa. According to local reports, four civilians were killed and up to 20 others were injured. In addition to this, there have been numerous reports suggesting that the Turkish-led shelling of the town has targeted residential homes, leading to large levels of displacement in Ain Issa.

While Turkish pressure on Ain Issa had been constant in the weeks prior to the establishment of a Turkish military base just north of Ain Issa on November 19th, the situation for civilians has deteriorated significantly since then. Tensions between the SDF and Turkish-backed forces in the region reached new heights on November 24th after an attempted offensive by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) near Ain Issa failed and resulted in the deaths of 31 SNA fighters. This incident prompted a significant increase in Turkish shelling on Ain Issa.

The recent escalation has further raised fears that Turkey is preparing to gear up for another offensive in northeastern Syria. Turkey’s weariness over the continued influence exerted by the PKK-affiliated YPG so close to the Turkish-Syrian border has not gone away despite the military gains made last October, which saw Turkey take control of the border strip between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain and Kurdish forces pull back 32 kilometers from the Turkish border. While support for the SDF by the United States remains strong, the current presidential transition period may serve as an opportunity for Turkey to launch an offensive against the Kurdish-led group. Kurdish officials believe that Joe Biden’s arrival to the Oval Office could make it significantly harder for Turkey to achieve its objectives through military means, given the strong support Kurdish groups had under previous Democratic President Barack Obama.

The last week of the month saw the highest number of civilian casualties. On November 23rd, Turkish-led forces launched an attack on the Ain Issa camp and the villages of Maalak and Sidon, north of the Ain Issa district. The attack took place at night, with local sources claiming that the areas were targeted with “hundreds of mortar shells and rockets”. At least eight civilians were injured in the attack. Just five days later, two civilians were reported killed and up to four others including a woman and her two children were injured as Turkish forces targeted the city once again at night. 

In Iraq, Turkey’s campaign on the PKK has continued this month, albeit at a lower intensity compared to the summer. With PKK fighters dispersed in the mountains of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, most of Turkey’s strikes target remote areas with low population densities. Despite this, reports of civilian harm from these strikes have continued. 

On November 8th, one civilian was reportedly killed in a Turkish drone strike on an alleged PKK vehicle near the town of Khalaf in the Sinjar district, Nineveh province. Up to five militants were reportedly also killed and at least three others wounded. According to Hawar news, the strike killed a civilian who was working on a nearby water well.

Additionally, tensions between the PKK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) increased during the month. This came when the PKK and some Peshmerga affiliated with the KDP clashed directly in Chamanke District on November 4th. According to Rudaw, PKK fighters attacked Peshmerga forces in the area, killing one soldier and injuring two more. Although the two groups did not reconcile following this incident, no further clashes were reported during the month. 

People looking at the vehicle that was targeted by alleged Turkish drones near Sinjar on November 8th, 2020 (via Hawar News).

Sporadic Russian strikes on Idlib continue

The beginning of the month saw a notable escalation in Russian strikes and Syrian Regime-led shelling on rebel-controlled parts of Idlib Governorate. This came off the back of rising tensions between Turkish-backed opposition groups and Russia following Russian strikes on a Faylaq al-Sham camp on October 26th near the town of Kafr Takharim in northern Idlib, close to the border with Turkey, killing dozens of fighters. Airwars researchers tracked four civilian harm incidents during the month – a slight decrease from October’s tally of six incidents resulting in civilian harm. Up to nine civilians were killed in the attacks.  

On November 4th, at least four civilians, including a child, were killed in alleged Russian or Syrian regime artillery strikes on the city of Ariha, Idlib governorate. Among the victims were two men working for the Ihsan Relief and Development Organization. Up to six others were reportedly wounded. The bombardment also targeted the Martyr Zakariya Saedou School, partially destroying the yard and lightly damaging other parts of the school. Local sources named the victims as Raghid Zakariya Al Jasri, a driver for the Ihsan Relief and Development Organization, Samer Madi, Rimas Hindawi, a child who was killed while at school and Ibrahim Al Younis, a psychological support worker at Ihsan Relief and Development Organization

Injured civilians being brought to an ambulance after alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes on Ariha on November 4th, 2020 (via SNHR).

The week after, on November 13th, a number of Russian soldiers were wounded after entering a minefield in Jabal al-Zawiya. Following this, further strikes were reported on towns in Idlib including Arab Saeed in Idlib’s western countryside. No civilians were reportedly harmed in the airstrike. 

This month has seen local sources recording the long-term impact that Russian raids on populated areas have on civilians. On November 17th, two separate incidents of civilians being harmed as a result of previous Russian actions were reported. In the town of Qastoun in Hama, a civilian by the name of Nassar Ahmad Nassar died when his house collapsed on him. According to local sources, the man’s home had been previously severely damaged by alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes. A similar incident occurred in the Sarja village of Idlib, where a civilian died and another civilian was injured when the roof of their home also collapsed after being subjected to heavy bombing from Russian warplanes.

Meanwhile, Russian and Syrian regime forces resumed clashes with ISIS militants in northwestern Syria. The clashes have mainly been centered in the desert areas that stretch between the governorates of Hama, Aleppo, and Raqqa. Major clashes were reported on November 28th, when regime forces lost at least ten soldiers and 16 ISIS militants were killed in clashes. 

Syrian Civil Defence teams carrying a victim after a civilian home in Sarja village collapsed on November 17th, 2020, following alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes on an unknown date (via SNHR).

US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq

The International Coalition continued its operations across Syria and Iraq during the month of November. Civilian harm once again fell to low levels, with only one incident reported in November in Syria. 

In both Syria and Iraq, the US-led Coalition and its partners on the ground were relatively active in the first week of the month. According to the Coalition’s spokesperson, Colonel Wayne Marotto, local forces carried out 15 operations against ISIS militants during the first week of November.

In Syria, the only alleged civilian harm incident took place during this period. Local media sources reported that on November 7th, the US-Led Coalition conducted a joint operation with the SDF against suspected ISIS members in the village of Ghariba Al Sharqiya, north of Deir Ezzor and arrested three suspected ISIS members. Local sources reported that during this operation a man by the name of Mohammed Abdullah Al Dibs, also known as Abu Fatima, was killed in the crossfire. His body was later found near the Al Khabour river. While some local sources claimed that this man was a civilian, some outlets insisted that Abu Fatima was not a civilian, and instead had been an assistant of Saddam Al Jabal, ISIS commander of the Euphrates area during the group’s control of the territory. 

The body of Mohammed Abdullah al-Dibs, which was found near the Khabour River on November 7th (via Euphrates Post)

Furthermore, Iranian positions in Syria were reportedly targeted by US warplanes. It is not clear whether these strikes were carried out unilaterally or as part of the International Coalition. There are also doubts about whether the US was involved at all in these attacks. On November 8th local sources reported that airstrikes conducted by US warplanes targeted Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers in Albu Kamal. Further strikes were reported on both November 12th and 13th targeting Iranian-backed groups in the deserts of Mad’an and Al Sabkha, in Raqqa’s southern countryside. Another airstrike was allegedly carried out targeting Iranian-backed groups around the town of Mohsen in Deir Ezzor’s eastern countryside on November 14th.

Meanwhile in Iraq, the US-led Coalition coordinated with local Iraqi forces on a number of operations against ISIS across the country. The operations focused mainly on the Makhoul, Khanouka and Hamrin mountain ranges, where ISIS continues to maintain a presence. The Coalition confirmed that it had conducted a series of strikes on ISIS targets in the Hamrin Mountains on November 7th as well as assisting Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in their operations in the Makhoul Mountains on November 8th.

Later in the month, Iraqi forces, in conjunction with the US-led Coalition, carried out a major operation in the area between Wadi Zgaitoun and Wadi al-Khanajer in Kirkuk Governorate on November 19th and 20th. The Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services released footage of airstrikes that were carried out on alleged ISIS guesthouses in that area.

جانب من الضربات الجوية التي إستهدفت مضافات بقايا داعـش في المنطقة الرابطة بين وادي زغيتون – وادي الخناجر ..#جهاز_مكافحة_الإرهاب

Part of the air strikes that targeted ISIS remnants' guesthouses in the area linking Wadi Zgaitoun – Wadi Al-Khanajer pic.twitter.com/wt5QeJ77tU

— جهاز مكافحة الإرهاب (@iraqicts) November 20, 2020

Libya: Month of calm following official ceasefire

Fighting in Libya has remained minimal into November following the official ceasefire deal that was signed in Geneva on October 23rd.

Only two airstrikes were reported in November in Libya, the same number as in October. Both strikes were allegedly conducted by Turkish drones on fuel smugglers. 

The first event took place on November 16th near Sabratha. The second incident took place one day later in Al Ajaylat. Neither resulted in reports of civilian harm.

(Fuel truck burning after alleged Turkish drone strike near Al Ajaylat on November 17th, 2020)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Yemen

In Yemen, local reports surfaced of a possible US drone strike in Marib province on November 14th. According to local media sources, a US drone hit a farm near the Bin Maelli station and the al-Nakhil Resthouse in Wadi Obeida. According to reports, the drone strike targeted three al-Qaeda members. The strike injured one member, but the other two managed to survive the attack.

CENTCOM claimed that there were no US military strikes during November 2020 in Yemen. The last publicly declared CENTCOM action was on June 24th 2019 in Al Bayda province.

#مارب طائرة بدون طيار امريكيه تستهدف ثلاثه اشخاص من تنظيم القاعده بالقرب من استراحة النخيل ـ محطة بن معيلي صباح اليوم السبت

حيث اصيب احدهم جراء الضربه فيما نجى الاثنين الاخرين منها #علي_النسي

— علي النسي (@aalnaasi) November 14, 2020

Somalia

Only one event with potential US involvement was reported in November, one less than in the previous month.

One CIA officer officer, later named as John Goodboe by The Intercept, was allegedly killed by an IED or VBIED. The exact circumstances of the incident remain unclear. A Guardian report said he was killed on November 6th while other sources reported he died later in November.

AFRICOM stated in an email to Airwars that no other US actions have been conducted in November.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during November 2020. The last such reported US strike was in August 2018.

November also saw a major breakthrough for Airwars, with the launch of The Credibles, published in conjunction with The Washington Post. After several years of patient engagement with the US military, the US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State provided Airwars with the near locations of nearly all of the 344 publicly confirmed civilian harm events in the war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. In total this interactive dataset allows for the first time the accurate location of almost 1,400 civilian deaths the coalition has admitted to causing since 2014. These located events represent the most accurate and comprehensive data ever publicly revealed by the US military about the harm it causes in war and raise hopes for families of those killed for potential apologies and ex gratia payments.

Advocacy

November also saw a major breakthrough for transparency, with the launch of The Credibles, published by Airwars in conjunction with The Washington Post. After several years of patient engagement with the US military, the US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State provided Airwars with the near locations of nearly all of the 344 publicly confirmed civilian harm events in the war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. In total this interactive dataset allows for the first time the accurate location of almost 1,400 civilian deaths the coalition has admitted to causing since 2014. These located events represent the most accurate and comprehensive data ever publicly revealed by the US military about the harm it causes in war and raise hopes of potential apologies and ex gratia payments for the families of those killed.

UK advocacy

Airwars UK Advocacy team participated in the UK’s Protection of Civilians Working Group meeting in November to discuss updates in the UK and plan for a meeting with Lord Ahmad, the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Minister of State, following a letter sent by the group requesting that Protection of Civilians be prioritised throughout different parts of the government. The group is awaiting details about the meeting. 

Airwars participated in a closed-door round table discussion organised by Saferworld about the UK’s training of local, national and regional forces titled ‘“Are we speaking to the right people when undertaking monitoring, evaluation and learning?”  The discussion drew on experience from different fields and organisations and participants unanimously concluded that local populations are not engaged enough in the monitoring and evaluation of operations and they should be represented well.

Airwars also took part in Save the Children’s parliamentary launch of the latest report ‘Stop the War on Children’, which discussed the devastating impact of conflict on children living in or near war zones. The launch focused on the trends and themes identified in the report, the experiences of children living in conflict, and how the UK can play a pivotal role in protecting children in war, an aim shared by Airwars. 

European advocacy

Following the October release of Seeing through the Rubble, our joint report with PAX for Peace which examines the long-term effects of the use of explosive weapons in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah, we presented the report to our partners at the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) in a virtual meeting on November 2nd.

On November 12th, Airwars attended the starting session of the so-called Roadmap Process with the Dutch Ministry of Defence. The process is a chance for civil society and the Ministry to review how the Dutch transparency and accountability practices in regard to civilian harm can be improved. Airwars director Chris Woods emphasized in his opening statement that, despite the different perspectives, there is a shared goal among the civil society consortium and Defence officials: to see fewer civilians harmed in conflict. 

Airwars deputy director Dmytro Chupryna attended webinars organised by INEW on November 19th and 26th, which discussed the common misconceptions that states often have regarding the Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA) political declaration. The purpose of the webinars was to agree on a joint position in tackling common pushbacks and misconceptions.

▲ Locals in Idlib commemorating child victims of the war in Syrian on International Children's Day, November 20th (Idlib Plus)

Published

December 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Joseph Dyke, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Riley Mellen, Samuel Brownsword and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

The months of September and October 2020 saw a flurry of activity from Airwars. Starting with the launch of new interactive mapping of reported civilian harm during the recent siege of Tripoli; through to our major joint report with PAX examining the civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in cities; and the launch of our latest project , tracking the ongoing US counterterrorism campaign in Yemen.

Meanwhile, military activity continued across all tracked conflicts during September and October, with the latter month seeing a notable rise in civilian harm incidents in Syria. Meanwhile, after the single worst month for reported civilian harm incidents in Iraq from Turkish action since 2015 in August, no locally claimed Turkish civilian harm incidents were tracked by our team in the country during the months of September and October. In Syria however, civilian harm incidents involving Turkish-led forces continued to be reported throughout this period.

In Libya, military activity remained minimal, as it had done since June 2020. In a major breakthrough, the GNA and LNA jointly agreed to a UN-brokered official ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd, four months after hostilities had already effectively ceased.

Gradual increase in civilian harm from Russian actions

The month of September saw a continuation of a trend observed the previous month – low levels of civilian harm from Russian actions in Syria. Airwars researchers tracked a total of four locally claimed civilian harm incidents attributed to Russian forces – an increase of one from the previous month’s tally. According to local reports, two civilians were killed and up to six more were injured in these attacks. This was down from at least five civilian deaths and up to 11 others injured from alleged Russian incidents reported in August.

The only known incident which led to civilian deaths occurred on September 7th in the town of Ariha in Idlib Governorate. A local source reported that Russian and/ or Regime missile strikes on the town killed two civilians and injured at least two others. 

However, October saw alleged Russian aggression on both civilians and Syrian rebel groups rise significantly. It was also characterised by a notable rise in both the number of civilian harm incidents allegedly resulting from Russian actions in the country; and the total number of civilians killed and injured. Airwars tracked six claimed civilian harm incidents from Russian actions in October. According to local reports, six civilians were killed and up to 33 more were injured by these airstrikes. 

One significant incident occurred at the end of October on Turkish-backed Syrian rebels. On October 26th, Russian airstrikes reportedly targeted a training camp run by Faylaq al-Sham, near the town of Kafr Takharim in northern Idlib, which is close to the border with Turkey. The strike killed at least 78 rebel fighters and injured over 100 more. According to Airwars’ assessment of the incident, at least two civilians were also killed, including local journalist Rashid al-Bakr. 

Journalist Rashid al-Bakr was killed in alleged Russian airstrikes on a Faylaq al-Sham camp on October 26th 2020 (via Euphrates Post)

The attack was met with outrage by Ankara and prompted a fierce counterattack by Syrian rebel factions on Regime positions in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. While there had been previous periods of heightened tension between Turkey and Russia since a major Idlib ceasefire came into effect in March, this attack posed the most serious threat to the agreement to date. However, observers noted that Russia’s motivation for the initial attack was more a statement against Turkey itself rather than an indication that Russia and the Regime might restart their offensive against Syrian rebels. The attack came in the context of Russia’s wider concerns regarding Turkey’s growing military involvement in the war in Libya, and in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

October also witnessed a possible increase in Russia’s use of armed drones in Syria. On October 31st, two alleged Russian drone strikes in Idlib governorate resulted in civilian harm. The first occurred in the village of Taltuna, near Maarate Misrin. A drone strike on the village killed one civilian and injured five others. However, there were also conflicting reports as to which belligerent launched the attack, with some sources blaming the Syrian Regime and Iran. According to reports, the type of drone used by Russia is a ‘suicide drone’, which is designed to destroy remote ground target by carrying a small warhead. Meanwhile on that same day, more consistent reports emerged of an alleged Russian drone attack on Nahla village in Idlib, which injured three civilians including an elderly woman. According to Shaam News Network, the civilians injured were harvesting olives when the strike occurred.

An elderly woman injured in a reported Russian drone attack on Nahla village in Idlib on October 31st (via Idlib Plus)

Civilians continue to pay the price of Turkish drone strikes in Syria

In Iraq, following the single worst month during August for civilian harm incidents in Iraq from Turkish actions, there were no reports of civilian casualties during the past two months, although Turkey’s military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continued. 

Across September and October, Airwars researchers tracked eight alleged Turkish civilian harm incidents in Syria. The team tracked two civilian harm incidents in Syria involving Turkey during September. On September 12th, local sources reported heavy Turkish shelling on the villages of Aqiba, Soghanka and Burj al-Qass in the Shirawa area of Aleppo. According to reports, ‘several’ people from the village of Burj al-Qass were injured in the attack.

Eight days later on September 20th, Turkish-led shelling on the village of Awn al-Dadat in northern Manbij, Aleppo, was reported. According to local sources, two women were injured and a house destroyed as a result of the shelling. Local outlet, Manbij MC, named the two civilians as Maryam Al-Kadro, aged 50, and Ali Al-Daher. 

Maryam Al-Kadro was reported injured in an alleged Turkish forces artillery attack on Awn Al-Dadat in Aleppo on September 20th, 2020. (via ManbijMC).

October 2020 then saw a rise in reported civilian harm incidents in Syria involving Turkey. Airwars tracked six civilian harm claims during the month, resulting in three civilian deaths and injuring up to 27 more. Four of the six incidents occurred during the third week of the month (October 13th – 22nd), suggesting a notable escalation in Turkish-led military activity in SDF-held areas during this time.

The first incident occurred on October 9th in al-Boraz village, near Kobani in Aleppo Governorate. According to local sources, Turkish-led shelling on the village injured two children, identified as Muhammad Kamel aged 12, and his brother Mahmoud Kamel aged 14. 

The first civilian death occurred on October 16th in Ain Issa. Hatem Hazem, aged 13, died of injuries he sustained as a result of alleged Turkish-backed shelling on the Ain Issa area and its camp. The Free Burma Rangers, an on-the-ground humanitarian organisation, reported that the first mortar rounds were reported at 9:30am. One reportedly landed in the midst of a herd of sheep, killing many and lightly injuring two men and the young boy Hatem Hazem. Shrapnel reportedly tore through the boy’s left leg just above the ankle, a serious injury that claimed his life. According to local reports, as many as eight other civilians were injured in the attack. 

Four days later, on October 20th, an alleged Turkish drone strike struck a car near Mazra village, Hasakah governorate, killing two civilians. According to local reports, at least two other civilians were injured in the strike.

Meanwhile in Iraq, clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members continued. Tensions reached a critical point after two Turkish soldiers were killed and another was wounded after Kurdish militants fired rockets at a military base in northern Iraq on September 18th. Turkey later responded with heavy strikes on PKK positions. On September 20th, a Turkish drone strike then targeted a vehicle near the Yazidi Sharaf al-Din shrine in Sinjar. According to Iraqi security officials, three PKK fighters were killed in the attack.

Meanwhile, on October 7th, the Turkish Parliament ratified a motion extending authorisation to launch cross-border ‘anti-terrorist operations’ in northern Iraq and Syria. The motion, submitted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, claimed to give authorisation to the Turkish military to carry out operations for another year, from October 2020 until October 2021. This was the sixth time this motion had been extended since it was first approved in 2014.

Hatem Hazem died of injuries sustained as a result of Turkish or pro-Turkey forces shelling Ain Issa on October 16th, 2020. (via ANHA)

US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq

The International Coalition continued its operations across Syria and Iraq during the months of September and October. According to local sources, four civilian harm incidents locally attributed to the international alliance were reported, resulting in up to nine civilian deaths and the wounding of ten more. One civilian harm incident was reported in September and three in October.

The US-led Coalition reported that between September 1st and September 30th 2020, a total of 15 strikes were conducted in Iraq and Syria. Seven took place in Iraq, reportedly killing 18 ISIS members, destroying six cache sites and four tunnels. In Syria, eight strikes against ISIS were conducted – up from six conducted the previous month.

On September 29th, local sources reported that a civilian was killed and two others wounded when Coalition forces and the SDF undertook a joint landing operation in Jadid Uqaydat in Deir Ezzor. Two other people, locally described as oil merchants, were reported arrested as a result of the operation. The fatality was identified by local sources as 50 year-old Faisal Al-Khalfu, nicknamed Dakar. The two arrested people were named as Ghannam Al-Mahmoud Al-Haloush, and his nephew Kamel Hisham Al-Haloush. 

However, the status of the victims has been contested. The Coalition’s spokesperson tweeted that the victim was an ISIS member. “Early this morning we removed three terrorist fighters from Jadid Uqaydat, Syria. Together, we’ll keep fighting to keep Syria safe from Daesh,” OIR Spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto asserted.

@CMOC_SDF and @CJTFOIR are keeping up the pressure on Daesh. Early this morning we removed three terrorist fighters from Jadid Uqaydat, Syria. Together, we’ll keep fighting to keep Syria safe from Daesh. #defeatdaesh

— OIR Spokesperson (@OIRSpox) September 29, 2020

 

However, local Facebook sources such as Euphrates Eyes and Eye on Hasakah reported that the slain victim was instead a civilian, and even alleged that the operation was conducted by the SDF in a bid to ‘steal money from civilians’ in the area.

Faisal Al-Khalfu (with his son), was killed in a joint Coalition-SDF operation in Jadid Akidat on September 29th (Image via Euphrates Eyes)

In October, three civilian harm incidents involving the US-led Coalition were reported by local sources. All took place within a single week (October 15th – 22nd). On October 15th, local reports alleged that an International Coalition warplane targeted a vehicle belonging to Huras al-Din, an affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria, killing three people including a child. Among those slain was Abu Dhar al-Masr, a senior figure within the terror group. The incident took place in the village of Arab Saeed, west of Idlib.

White Helmets volunteers putting out a fire resulting from an airstrike in Arab Saeed on October 15th (via Edlib Media Center).

Later, local sources revealed that the incident had also led to the death of a humanitarian worker. According to Bonyan Organisation, Dima Abdan, an employee with the NGO, died of her injuries after she was critically wounded by shrapnel as a result of the strike. Bonyan is described as an “Independent Non-government, Non-profit organization established for building human capacity and rehabilitating war-torn communities”, working in northwestern Syria. Another humanitarian worker was also injured in the attack.

The next day, local sources reported that a civilian was killed and another arrested during a ground operation conducted by the SDF and the US-led Coalition in the village of Al Majbal, Deir Ezzor governorate. Al-Khabour news identified the slain civilian as Asad Suleiman Al-Sawadi. Al-Sawadi was reportedly shot in the neck and died immediately. According to a Deir Ezzor 24 correspondent, “the operation resulted in one death, two injuries, including a woman, and one arrest, in addition to the bombing of an abandoned house in the village”. 

The third civilian harm incident reportedly took place in the village of Jakara in the Salqin countryside near the Syria-Turkey border. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a strike on a gathering of Haya’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) members on a farm in the area killed up to 22 people, including five civilians. It was later revealed that the strike was in fact conducted by CENTCOM. Major Beth Riordan, the spokeswoman for United States Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that US forces carried out a drone strike on a meeting in Idlib against “a group of Al-Qaeda in Syria (AQ-S) senior leaders”.

Libya: GNA and LNA agree to official ceasefire

Libya only witnessed three reported artillery strikes during September, four less than in the previous month, as parties to the conflict mostly continued to respect the ceasefire. Two strikes were allegedly conducted by the Libyan National Army (LNA) and one by the Government of National Accord (GNA), none of which resulted in civilian harm.

In October, there were reports of two airstrikes. One of these allegedly resulted in civilian harm, on October 19th in Al Jaghboub near the border with Egypt. An Egyptian airstrike allegedly hit two people claimed to be fishermen, whose bodies were later found in the desert.

In the other event the GNA alleged LNA shelling on its forces in Buerat. However, the LNA later denied a breach of the ceasefire.

On a more positive note, the GNA and LNA agreed to an official UN-brokered ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd, after hostilities had already effectively ceased in June. The agreement was largely received positively by commentators, as it contained more solid mechanisms than the previous agreement struck in Berlin in January.

Representatives of GNA and LNA shake hands after striking a ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd, 2020 (via UNSMIL)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Yemen

On October 28th, Airwars launched its new investigation into the ongoing US counterterrorism campaign in Yemen. A new report, Eroding Transparency, examined US air and ground actions against both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Islamic State in Yemen, since 2017 under President Trump, as well as incidents leading to alleged civilian harm.

More than 230 declared and alleged US military and CIA actions were identified by the team – among them 41 events reported to have led to civilian casualties. The report indicated that US operations in Yemen too often lacked both the transparency and accountability standards of other recent US military interventions, and identified a significant recent increase in both clandestine and covert activity.

Airwars’ accompanying public database detailed every alleged US action in Yemen since 2017 under Donald Trump. The all-source monitoring approach adopted by Airwars has allowed the research to be significantly reoriented towards Yemeni voices and experiences. There were approximately 4,400 unique sources in the new public database, 60% of these in Arabic. Additionally, more than 140 alleged or confirmed US actions had also been geolocated by Airwars to village-level accuracy.

According to reports, on September 4th an alleged US drone strike targeted a car reportedly carrying al-Qaeda operatives, including Abu al-Bara al-Qifi, a senior figure within the group, in Shaqra, east of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan governorate. However, some local sources claimed that the strike was in fact carried out by the UAE.

And on October 27th, another alleged US drone strike took place in the Arak al-Shabwan area of Marib governorate. The attack reportedly targeted a car carrying three people on board. According to local sources, two militants were killed and a third seriously injured.

With CENTCOM denying any US military strikes in Yemen since June 2019, there was speculation that one or more recent events were the work of the CIA. 

Somalia

In September, Somalia saw four alleged US actions – one less than in August.

On September 7th at least one US service member was injured in an exchange of gunfire between Somali troops supported by US forces and Al Shabaab militants. Al Shabaab claimed a higher casualty toll among Somali and US forces.

The only alleged civilian harm event of the month occurred on September 20th when a local source alleged that US-trained Danab forces had killed eight civilians in a Mosque in Moyiloow. An AFRICOM investigation into the incident is reportedly ongoing.

In addition, AFRICOM confirmed two airstrikes during the month. A September 9th strike allegedly killed 17 Al Shabaab fighters near Amreereey. The second event, confirmed at Airwars’ request to AFRICOM for details of recent strikes, destroyed a vehicle in Jana Cabdalle on September 21st.

In October, only two US actions were reported. A single source claimed that an unidentified strike killed ten or eleven Al Shabaab in Weelshit on October 6th. And in the second event, again confirmed following an Airwars request, an Al Shabaab member was targeted on October 18th. The event did however not result in any casualties.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during September and October 2020. The last such reported US strike was in August 2018.

Advocacy

UK, US and international advocacy

Airwars and CIVIC submitted their joint submission to the UK Government’s call for evidence to the Integrated Review – an examination of foreign policy, defence, security and international development goals. The joint paper included recommendations by both organisations for the UK to mainstream the protection of civilians in conflict within government policies; to establish systems for casualty tracking and investigations; and to improve UK accountability for civilian harm. The Integrated Review is expected to be published in late January 2021. 

Following the UK’s publishing of the latest paper on the Approach to Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, Airwars, together with UK partners, sent a joint letter to Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State and the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict,  welcoming the newly released Paper on Protection of Civilians (PoC) and calling for Protection of Civilians to be embedded across government and for the Policy to be regularly updated in consultation with stakeholders. Lord Ahmad responded to the letter, welcoming a requested meeting with the group to discuss issues raised in the letter.

Airwars Deputy Director Dmytro Chupryna took part in NATO’s 2030 Online Stakeholder Dialogue on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), Human Security and Humanitarian Issues, contributing to the discussion on NATO’s role in minimising the impact of conflict on civilians. Participants stressed the importance of the Protection of Civilians framework, which has to be implemented in all of NATO’s operational theatres. The rise of hybrid tactics and fighting in urban areas are placing civilian populations at greater risk. There is therefore a need for NATO to address this component strategically; and to set civilian harm reduction standards which can positively influence other States. 

In response to recent sanctions imposed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on senior figures within the International Criminal Court, Airwars together with US and international partners, published an open statement in September calling upon the US Government to end its targeting of ICC officials; and regretting what was referred to as the US’s recent abandonment of key international mechanisms designed to protect civilians. “As condemnatory statements from close US allies make clear, the United States has lost significant international standing through these sanctions, which have undermined the international rule of law and provided succour to war criminals seeking to evade justice,” the joint statement noted. 

European advocacy

On September 24th, our European advocacy officer Laurie Treffers wrote an opinion piece for Belgian daily De Standaard regarding a new Belgian aircraft deployment to the US-led Coalition against so-called Islamic State. The op-ed questioned how much longer Belgium could continue to insist that previous military actions in the fight against ISIS had led to zero civilian casualties. 

A group of 11 international and Belgian NGOs also sent then-interim Minister of Defence Philipe Goffin an open letter regarding the new Belgian weapon deployment on September 30th. Organisations including Airwars, Amnesty Belgium and Humanity & Inclusion, called on the Minister to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harm and – following a recent parliamentary motion – to ensure cooperation with external monitoring groups and human rights organisations. 

On October 26th, Seeing through the Rubble: The civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in the fight against ISIS, a joint report by Airwars and Dutch NGO  Pax for Peace, was published. The report was officially launched at a virtual event for Members of Parliament from Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. 

The Irish ambassador to the United Nations, Michael Gaffey, who has been leading efforts to draft a political declaration on limiting the use of explosive areas in populated areas, opened the event. “We would not have reached the point of acceptance for the need for a political declaration [on explosive weapons] if it was not for the work of civil society organisations. Their research and advocacy are vital to the process,” Ambassador Gaffey noted.

▲ Locals in Idlib protesting against Russian military intervention in Syria on October 2nd (via Idlib Plus)