Research

Research

Published

October 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars and PAX have published a new joint report, Seeing Through The Rubble, examining the dire and long-lasting effects of explosive weapons on civilian populations in urban areas in recent international military campaigns in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah. The report calls upon States to develop and support an international political declaration to better protect civilians against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The report was launched at a virtual event on October 26th. Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, which is spearheading efforts to create an international consensus on limiting the use of explosive weapons in cities, told participants: “We would not have reached the point of acceptance for the need for a political declaration [on explosive weapons] if it was not because of the work of civil society organisations. Their research and advocacy are vital to the process.”

The new report concludes that ‘precision’ when using explosive weapons in urban areas is not the key determinant of civilian harm. “Rather”, write the authors, “it is the wide area effect of an explosive weapon in relation to the proximity of civilians in populated areas.”

The PAX and Airwars report furthermore concludes that the cases of Mosul, Raqqah and Hawijah show that States acting in accordance with International Humanitarian Law is not enough in itself to prevent immense civilian harm and civilian suffering when explosive weapons are deployed in populated areas.

Co-author of the report Roos Boer, programme leader of the Humanitarian Disarmament programme at Dutch peace organisation PAX, states: “Large aircraft bombs and heavy artillery are intended for open battlefields. When bombing and shelling take place in towns and cities, civilians are killed and suffer life-changing injuries, and vital infrastructure like hospitals and schools are destroyed. We need to see states agree to stronger rules that will stop these urban attacks.”

Explosive weapons in populated areas

According to data monitoring by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), 92 per cent of the 19,401 civilian deaths and injuries tracked by the organisation from the worldwide use of explosive weapons in 2019 occurred in urban areas. Furthermore, AOAV concludes that when explosive weapons, such as artillery, grenades, missiles, rockets and aircraft bombs, are used in towns and cities, nine out of ten casualties are civilians.

Explosive weapons are a major driver of forced displacement of civilians – not only because of fear of death and injury and the destruction of homes, but also because of their devastating impact on critical infrastructure services such as health care, education and water and sanitation services.

Cities in rubble

Two nations particularly affected by recent urban fighting are Iraq and Syria. While a variety of actors have caused major civilian harm and widespread destruction in both countries, the report focuses on military operations by the US-led International Coalition against ISIS. Using publicly available sources, the report analyses the short- and long-term effects of the use of explosive weapons in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah.

These cases illustrate that the effects of explosive weapons continue long after the bombs have exploded. In Mosul, the costs of the 2016-17 campaign to drive ISIS out of the city were high: at least 9,000 civilians were reportedly killed in the fighting. Around 700,000 Moslawis were displaced; and city officials have stated that 80 per cent of the inner city’s buildings were destroyed.

In June 2019, the UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that entire neighbourhoods of Mosul had yet to be rebuilt and that a lack of essential services and poor sanitation were still threatening public health. Additionally, unexploded bombs, missiles, rockets and shells prevented civilians from returning to the city.

A federal Iraqi recovery team removes a body from the ruins of west Mosul, May 2018. (Image courtesy of Mosul Eye).

New details on Hawijah disaster

Seeing Through The Rubble also adds fresh information on the current situation in Hawijah. Six different sources, including Hawijah’s mayor, were interviewed for the report on the recent state of the city after a devastating 2015 Dutch airstrike on an ISIS IED factory, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and hundreds more injured.

The report estimates that the secondary explosions triggered by the Dutch airstrike damaged between 400 and 500 buildings in the area, including many shops, homes and schools. Sources also reported that the airstrike caused major damage to crucial infrastructure, including roads and water pipelines.

According to the Mayor of Hawijah, Subhan Al Jabouri, less than 40 per cent of the buildings have been rebuilt and much rubble remains. The industrial area in Hawijah still suffers from a shortage of water and electricity.

Chris Woods, director of Airwars and a co-author of the report along with Laurie Treffers and Roos Boer, notes: “In highlighting the negative consequences for civilians of recent Western military interventions at Mosul, Hawijah and Raqqa, our new report demonstrates why militaries can’t rely simply upon compliance with the laws of war when trying to reduce civilian casualties during urban fighting. Large scale civilian harm during city battles is a terrible reality – and greater international safeguards are urgently needed.”

International political declaration 

Since 2019, Ireland has been leading a series of consultations in Geneva, aimed at drawing up an international political declaration to ban the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a network of NGOs, urges states to take immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. “These case studies show once again the unacceptably high levels of civilian casualties and destruction as a result of bombing and shelling in cities and other populated areas,” says Laura Boillot, coordinator of INEW, responding to the new report.

“Every year we see tens of thousands of civilians killed and injured, that suffer psychological trauma, and are forced to flee for safety. Cities are being torn apart – housing, hospitals, schools and vital infrastructure is destroyed which has disastrous consequences for the survival and wellbeing of the people that live there”, continues Boillot.

“This pattern of civilian harm should not be considered an inevitable consequence of war. Using heavy explosive weapons such as heavy artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers and large bombs and missiles in populated areas – even against military targets – is not acceptable and must stop.”

▲ An airstrike targets a civilian neighbourhood in Mosul in March 2017 operations to drive out so called Islamic State (Reuters/ Alaa Al-Marjani)

Published

September 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

While civilian harm from foreign actions in the conflicts monitored by Airwars mostly decreased during August, Ankara’s continuing air and ground campaign against Kurdish militants led to the worst reported civilian harm tally in northern Iraq from Turkish action since 2015.

Civilian harm incidents involving Russia in Syria (already at a low tempo) were less than half the previous month’s tally. Meanwhile the US-led Coalition continued its own operations against ISIS in Syria at a seemingly higher intensity, though with no local claims of civilian casualties.

Reported civilian harm incidents, as well as air and artillery strikes in Libya, saw a further significant decrease after warring parties continued their military stalemate at Sirte. Despite this – and increased international calls to end the fighting – both sides seemed unable to reach an agreement, with Khalifa Haftar’s LNA seemingly rejecting the Government of National Accord’s offer of a ceasefire.

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Turkish-led actions against Kurdish irregulars in both Iraq and Syria continued throughout the month. Airwars researchers tracked 12 alleged civilian harm incidents in both countries during August – double the previous month’s tally and reflecting an escalation in Turkish actions. Five reported incidents took place in Syria, while seven occurred in Iraq. In total, between 12 and 18 civilians were alleged killed across all the locally reported events, and up to eight more were injured.

In Syria, three civilian deaths were reported across five events, and seven others were injured. The first incident took place in Ain Issa, where alleged Turkish shelling wounded three children. ANHA named the children as Hussam Ali (aged 12), Mahdi Ali (aged 10), and Muhammad Ali (aged 11). 

Additional civilian harm event took place in the village of Efdikê in western Tal Abyad on August 4th; in Qamishlo on August 6th; in Ain Issa on August 17th; and in Sheikh Hassan village in Raqqa Governorate on August 26th. The incident near Ain Issa caused the most civilian harm, with two civilians reportedly killed and two injured following Turkish shelling in the vicinity of the M4 highway.

BreakingA civilian injured by a shell probably from a drone on Allaya neighborhood, east to #Qamishli, northeast #Syria, Sources from Internal Security Forces told pic.twitter.com/oMKhoMSAdw

— (زانا العلي) Zana Al-Ali (@ZanaAlali) August 6, 2020

In Iraq, up to 15 civilian deaths were reported from seven civilian harm allegations – a stark increase from the previous month’s tally of two fatalities. In fact, according to Airwars data, August 2020 marks the highest civilian harm allegations against Turkey in Iraq since our tracking began in 2015. 

The first week of August saw two civilian harm incidents in northern Iraq. On August 1st, two civilians were killed in an alleged Turkish strike in Amediye in Dohuk province. Two days later, another strike reportedly took place in Nohadra in Dohuk province, also killing two civilians.

The incident which reported the highest number of civilian deaths occurred in the Bradost region of Erbil province on August 11th. Five civilians were killed along with five Iraqi border guards, and five Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members, in one of the deadlist mass-casualty incidents involving Turkey this year. According to AFP, two high-ranking Iraqi military officers were additionally killed in the attack, prompting public outrage in Iraq. Following the event, Baghdad cancelled a visit by the Turkish Minister of Defence to Iraq, and summoned Turkey’s ambassador.

Other civilian harm incidents took place in the Ardana area of Dohuk on August 13th; in Kani Mazi in Dohuk on August 19th; in the village of Bhrava in Nineveh on August 25th; and in the Zab area of Dohuk on August 30th.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no locally reported civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of July. Since the end of March 2020, Airwars researchers have tracked only one civilian harm incident allegedly involving Kurdish factions in Syria.

Doctors treating one of the children injured by alleged Turkish shelling of Ain Issa on August 1st 2020 (via ANHA)

Civilian harm in Idlib down as high-profile assassination shifts Russian focus to ISIS

August 2020 once again saw relatively low levels of civilian harm from Russian actions in Syria. Airwars researchers tracked a total of three reported civilian harm incidents – less than half the previous month’s tally of eight civilian harm claims. According to local reports, between five and six civilians were killed and up to 11 more were injured in these latest attacks. Two of the incidents took place in Idlib Governorate, while one took place in Homs Governorate.

The first incident of the month took place in the town of Binnish on August 3rd, where three civilians from one family were killed and seven others were injured. According to STEP Agency, those killed were displaced civilians who were residing in camps in the area. Later, the Syrian Network for Human Rights revealed their names to be Majed Jasem al Muhammad, and two brothers, Zaid and Majed Mesleh al Muhammad from Burj village in the eastern countryside areas of Idlib. The apparent Russian strike was linked with artillery shelling carried out by Syrian regime forces in the same area.

The second incident took place on August 14th in the Syrian Badia, although reporting on this incident was scarce. According to local reports, Russian planes targeted a civilian car, wounding those in it. 

On August 18th, Russian Major General Vyacheslav Gladkikh was killed on August 18th by an improvised explosive device that detonated under a convoy of Russian soldiers and Syrian pro-regime forces in the desert near the city of Deir Ezzor. Three other Russian military personnel were wounded and a local commander of Syria’s National Defense Forces was also reportedly killed in the attack. The killings prompted several days of continuous Russian strikes against ISIS targets in the eastern Homs countryside; in southern and western Raqqa governorate; and in Deir Ezzor. 

The final civilian harm incident tracked by Airwars took place on August 30th after shrapnel from a Russian strike fell on a displacement camp near the village of al-Sheikh Bahr in the Armanaz area of Idlib, reportedly injuring an unspecified number of civilians.

The children of Majed Mesleh al Muhammad, killed by a reported Russian airstrike in Binnish on August 3rd (via @abuhuzaifa_)

US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

The month of August saw no locally reported civilian harm incidents involving the US-led Coalition in Syria. This was the second recent month in a row where no civilian harm claims were made against the International Coalition. However, US-led Coalition actions in Syria continued throughout the month, in conjunction with local partners.

According to the International Coalition’s Strike Summary Report for August 2020, the alliance conducted six strikes in Syria against ISIS targets throughout the month, a slight increase on the four strikes conducted in July. Throughout August, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also continued to carry out anti-ISIS operations. The SDF confirmed for example that on August 7th, they were able to capture eight ISIS militants in a major operation in Deir Ezzor, following air support from the US-led Coalition.

.@CJTFOIR air strike in support of our security partners, 20 Aug. in Iraq🇮🇶. The @coalition provides aviation, intelligence and logistical support to @modmiliq in the fight to #DefeatDaesh https://t.co/FDpoeWGqGr

— Operation Inherent Resolve (@CJTFOIR) August 27, 2020

Meanwhile, reports of unilateral US airstrikes were reported throughout the month. On August 13th, a drone targeted a car in the town of Sarmada. Local sources reported that Abu Yahya Al Uzbaki, a leading figure in the al Qaeda linked group Huras al-Din, was killed in this attack. There were conflicting reports about whether the drone strike was conducted by the International Coalition, or unilaterally by the United States.

Tensions later flared up between Regime forces and the US-led Coalition in the town of Tal al Zahab in Qamishli’s countryside areas in northern Hasakah Governorate. This came as a result of clashes between both sides on August 17th. According to local sources, the Coalition launched airstrikes that targeted regime forces, killing two members. However, the Coalition, in an official statement, denied launching an airstrike in the area saying that its routine patrol came under fire at the time and that Coalition troops returned fire in self-defence.

Meanwhile in Iraq, the International Coalition was significantly more active. The alliance declared 11 strikes against Daesh targets which it said consisted of 36 engagements, killing nine suspected ISIS militants. The Coalition confirmed it had conducted strikes in Wadi al-Tharthar, in the Qara Chokh Mountains; and at Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad, in a bid to provide air cover for Iraqi Special Forces in their own operations against ISIS. 

Amidst these actions, International Coalition forces once again came under fire in Iraq from unidentified armed groups during the month. On the evening of August 15th, two rockets landed near the Taji military base, although there were no casualties reported. This came eight days before the International Coalition officially departed the Taji military base, transferring $347 million in equipment and property to Iraq. It was described as the eighth base transfer by the International Coalition to Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) so far this year.

White Helmet members near the car that was targeted by a US drone strike in Sarmada (via SCD)

Libya ceasefire brings month of calm to beleaguered country

The number of air and artillery strikes in Libya once again dropped in August as most parties to the fighting abided by a ceasefire deal. Only seven strikes were locally reported, two less than in July. No civilian harm was reported from any of these actions.

Six of the strikes were allegedly conducted by the Libyan National Army (LNA), while one Government of National Accord (GNA) attack was reported.

Reports continued that both sides were continuing to re-arm, even as international efforts to secure a lasting peace continued.

Smoke rising after an alleged GNA drone strike on fuel smugglers near Zintan on August 12th, 2020 (via 218TV)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

Airwars recorded five reported US actions in Somalia in August, one more than in the previous month.

On August 8th two US strikes were claimed by local sources – one in Haway and the other in Sablale, allegedly killing one senior Al Shabaab operative in each. However AFRICOM denied conducting the strikes, leaving open the possibility either of an AMISOM or CIA operation..

Twelve days later, the US confirmed conducting an airstrike on al Shabaab near Kurtun Warey. An “unnamed senior member of the group’s local bomb-making and IED explosives unit was killed in the strike”, according to VOA.

An August 24th US strike in combination with US and Somali ground operations killed six Al Shabaab fighters and injured three more near Darusalaam in Lower Shabelle, AFRICOM said. Al Shabaab claimed that US service members had been injured in the fighting, an allegation which Africa Command later rebutted.

One day later Sheikh Abduqadir Kumandos, an Al Shabaab senior leader was killed by a confirmed US strike near Saakow.

Yemen

According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes during August 2020 in Yemen.

The last publicly declared CENTCOM action was on June 24th 2019 in Al Bayda province. Airwars researchers also tracked no local claims of US actions in Yemen during the month. 

Pakistan

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

Advocacy

UK advocacy

The Integrated Review is a strategic look by the UK Government at its foreign policy objectives, along with its future defence, security and international development strategies. During August, Airwars and our UK partners continued discussions and the sharing of policy ideas, in preparation for our evidence submission to the Integrated Review. 

Furthermore, Airwars continued coordination with the Security Policy Alternatives Network (SPAN) Accountability group coordinated by Saferworld. The group is currently working on a research paper examining accountability for military actions in West Africa. 

European advocacy

During August, Airwars continued building a coalition of partners in Belgium. Given that Belgium has been one of the least transparent countries in the International Coalition against ISIS, and there are no accountability mechanisms in place for potential civilian casualties, Airwars aims to conduct a collective engagement approach with the Belgian government to improve its poor track record in this regard. The initial steps of the joint advocacy approach will be discussed at the roundtable scheduled for early September.   

Military advocacy

For the sixth successive month, the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria conceded no additional civilian harm during August from its long running war against ISIS.

During the same six month period, the alliance rejected 190 further locally reported civilian harm claims from Iraqis and Syrians as ‘non credible.’

▲ The family of civilian Khalid Ebdulrehman who was killed in a reported Turkish drone strike in Kani Masi, Dohuk on August 19th (Image via Rudaw)

Published

September 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Header Image

Civilian casualty situation at the beginning of the LNA's Tripoli offensive on April 4th, 2019

Two months after the brutal siege of Libya’s capital ended, new interactive Airwars mapping shows the impact of 14 months of fighting between two rival governments on the city’s beleaguered civilians.

Airwars has visualised every allegation of civilian harm from air and artillery strikes during the period of war in and around Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020. Glasgow-based consultants Rectangle designed the innovative mapping, in an effort to find fresh ways of visualising civilian harm on the modern battlefield.

The new Airwars mapping uses a sliding timeline to enable an overview of often indiscriminate air and artillery strikes on Tripoli and its suburbs. A fine-detail satellite map of Tripoli and its suburbs makes it possible to see the siege evolving over the 14 months of its duration.

The map utilises a 1km radius hexagonal system, whose height represents the number of civilians reported killed in an incident. This in turn enables users to see the extent of shelling on various neighbourhoods, with casualty spikes clearly revealed in heavily hit areas such as Salaheddin, Abu Salim and Tajoura. The new mapping can also be used as a portal to access individual civilian harm assessments on the Airwars website.

Lizzie Malcolm and Daniel Powers of design consultancy Rectangle explain their rationale behind the new approach: “The challenge of mapping and visualising civilian harm is to balance the presentation of aggregated information and individual details. Maps of large areas and timelines of conflicts are useful for understanding scale. But any visualisation should be a gateway to the evidence and stories about individuals and families,” they tell Airwars.

Over the course of the siege, Airwars recorded 339 civilian harm events in Libya, 197 of which around Tripoli, nearly tripling the number of locally reported incidents since the end of the NATO campaign in 2011. At least 197 civilians were killed by the violence and another 537 were injured by the violence, as the LNA and GNA fought for control of Tripoli.

The LNA’s Tripoli offensive introduced Libyans to a degree of conflict violence not seen since NATO’s intervention almost a decade earlier. Even when the conflict was over, LNA forces and Wagner mercenaries reportedly booby-trapped houses and planted landmines, leading to gruesome additional reports of killed and injured civilians.

The siege of Tripoli has previously been visualised by other organisations, though not via an interactive map. UN agency OCHA has for example provided infographics summing up their findings. And Dzsihad Hadelli has previously visualised Airwars data on civilian casualties for the Libya Observer.

The war on Tripoli is now one year old. But already in this period, as many civilians have been killed by air raids as in all Libyan civil war conflicts since 2012 (Airwars annual report 2020).

Here's a map of all reported air strikes/shellings of the last 12 months. pic.twitter.com/tTYoEaaDSM

— Dzsihad Hadelli (@dhadelli) April 5, 2020

Is justice possible?

Mapping and recording harm in conflicts can help both with the proper investigation of civilian casualties, and of possible war crimes – potentially leading to reconciliation and justice in those parts of society affected by the fighting. “There is no way out of this without people being held accountable,“ says Elham Saudi, Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya.

Her organisation seeks to document violations of humanitarian and human rights law in Libya, in turn hoping for accountability. “If you’re aiming for criminal responsibility, the threshold is really high. First hand accounts and witnesses are the most important thing,“ Saudi explains. Establishing the chain of command that leads to an event in question is another crucial point, she adds.

As a former resident of Tripoli suburbs, Saudi knows from friends and family what the siege did to Tripoli’s population: “The impact was felt throughout the city, the fear and anticipation of being targeted was quite overwhelming – even if you didn’t live in the areas being targeted, because of the indiscriminate nature of the attacks. You always felt like you were a target.”

However, her organisation does not focus only upon recent events around Tripoli but investigates violations committed in the civil war across the country. The highly polarised political landscape poses an additional challenge, as activists and media in Libya are often affiliated with one of the parties to the conflict: “The hyper-politicisation of everything makes it very difficult to keep the distance from what’s being said in the media. I don’t disregard anything just because it belongs to a certain party.”

“Things get lost if you don’t preserve evidence in a conflict. Preserving evidence is absolutely vital, it’s not just about the present but also about the future for civil society,“ the lawyer elaborates. Social media plays an increasing role there as “Perpetrators help you because they incriminate themselves.“

Mahmoud Werfalli’s arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, for example, was based on social media accounts of extrajudicial killings. The former LNA commander is accused of executing ten prisoners in Benghazi in 2018, a case that was widely documented on social networks – as are many cases of potential war crimes in Libya.

At this point it remains difficult to predict which alleged incidents might potentially bear fruit in court. War crimes were alleged on both sides of the conflict. “The US is promising because Haftar, as a US citizen, is subject to its jurisdiction; it also allows for individuals to pursue civil responsibility,” Saudi says. Three civil lawsuits attempting to do that have been filed in the US for example, whereby affected families are suing the General for compensation for his alleged responsibility in the deaths of family members as a result of the indiscriminate shelling of Tripoli neighbourhoods by his forces.

Links to individual case assessments that occurred in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Tripoli

Bringing Libyans back to the negotiations table

Even as the search for accountability continues, rifts remain deep within Libyan society after so many years of civil war. The big question is: how might Libya finally find a way towards a peaceful future?

A pause in fighting between Libya’s rival camps might be expected to generate optimism in a country riven by intermittent civil war since 2011. But instead of improving the livelihoods of the population, both seem keen to return to the status quo that partly led to the siege of Tripoli in the first place. Infighting within both the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA); profound economic problems; and deep distrust between all the main political actors, make a peaceful future more uncertain.

Recently popular protests erupted in both GNA- and LNA-controlled territories, that were in turn met with violence by both governments. At the same time, a new military build-up around Sirte has raised fears of another escalation in violence – while a dire economic situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the population into ever deeper poverty.

Virginie Collombier, Professor of Social and Political Dynamics in Libya at the European University Institute of Florence, has been working on grassroots mediation processes led by Libyans for many years. She sees the first step to a lasting ceasefire taking place at the international level – getting countries now meddling in Libya to respect the commitments they made during the Berlin peace conference: “The aim of the mediation process is to find someone who has the capacities to provide guarantees and enforce things. The UN can’t do anything alone as we see; and the EU doesn’t have the capacities or willingness.“

“Who has the capacities to influence things on the ground: Russia? Turkey?“ Collombier asks.  Neither seems a likely candidate given the ongoing geopolitical struggle between these two states: “Most importantly [there is] the US, but will they work as a guarantor on broader issues related to the economy, and the political framework?“

The current stalemate may however make things easier, Professor Collombier believes: “There is clearly a sense of exhaustion, the meaning of the war is lost, which is something we can see on both sides of the divide.“ She adds: “There is not much we can achieve through violence and weapons, the situation has stabilised around two camps that can block each other.“

However, internal divisions in both the GNA and in Haftar’s camp show that the situation could turn violent again if issues are not resolved. Collombier stresses the need for a dialogue that includes all Libyans, beyond the GNA and LNA: “Voices of Libyans can be heard and put pressure on politics; and diversifying the political sphere is absolutely crucial. There is a need for alternative voices and leaders. There is deep distrust in the current political elite.”

Whatever the result of both reconciliation and accountability processes in Libya, there is a long way ahead for the country to finally find peace. Documenting and archiving the crimes committed during the civil war is only an initial step towards accountability that can then lead to reconciliation between former enemies.

▲ Civilian casualty situation at the beginning of the LNA's Tripoli offensive on April 4th, 2019

Published

August 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

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

Major Conflict Monitoring

July 2020 saw a continuation of a trend observed the month before, with foreign action in Syria slowly increasing, particularly by Russia. Meanwhile, the US-led Coalition continued its operations against both ISIS and Iranian-backed groups in Syria, though at a seemingly lower intensity.

In Iraq, ISIS’s insurgency had slightly increased in tempo, owing to a renewed campaign by the group at the end of the month known as the ‘Raids of Attrition’, which saw 60 synchronised attacks in both Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, Turkey’s air and ground campaign against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq continued, though also at a lower intensity

Meanwhile, reported civilian harm incidents in Libya decreased significantly, as warring parties reached a military stalemate. Fears remained that Egypt’s potential intervention in the conflict could escalate tensions further – as well as signs that both the GNA and LNA were using the pause in fighting to secure fresh arms shipments.

Air and artillery strikes see a sharp decrease in Libya

Both reported strikes and civilian harm majorly decreased in July as the military stalemate between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA) continued. The number of tracked air and artillery actions by all parties to the fighting fell from 94 to nine, while alleged civilian deaths dropped from between 44 and 54 casualties to zero.

Most reported strikes during July were LNA actions, with four attributed to Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Two further strikes were allegedly conducted by the GNA and/or Turkey. Three more strikes were either contested between parties, or conducted by an unknown belligerent.

Even though none of these events led to reported civilian harm, explosive remnants from the recent battle for Tripoli posed a significant problem for the local population. Many deaths and severe injuries were reported from landmines, allegedly planted by LNA and Wagner forces after abandoning the capital.

In a major political development, Egypt threatened to intervene in Libya should GNA and Turkish forces go east of what was described as a ‘red line’ at Sirte and Jufra airbase. However, parliamentary approval in Cairo of sending troops has so far only contributed to the standoff in central Libya.

Civilian allegedly injured by a landmine explosion near Ain Zara, Libya on July 6th 2020 (via Field Medicine and Support Center)

Russian strikes resume as fears of an imminent Idlib campaign increase

Following on from June, which saw Russian airstrikes resume after three months of calm in northwestern Syria, Russian actions saw a notable increase in July, particularly in the middle of the month. Airwars researchers tracked a total of eight civilian harm incidents – doubling the previous month’s figure. According to local reports, five civilians were killed and up to 27 others injured in these incidents. Two occurred in Hama Governorate, while the other six events took place in various towns in Idlib Governorate.

Four incidents occurred on a single day: July 14th. This sequence of strikes came after a roadside landmine hit a joint Russian-Turkish patrol in the M4 area, wounding three Russian soldiers. Immediately following that attack, Russian warplanes carried out more than a dozen airstrikes on rebel-held parts of Idlib and Latakia, with the Syrian Observatory for Human rights claiming that 23 separate Russian airstrikes occurred on that day.

This sudden escalation raised fears that Russia’s aerial campaign on Idlib might resume. Tensions between Turkey and Russia seemed to escalate even further after Russian airstrikes were conducted on July 15th on the city of al-Bab, where Turkey and its proxies enjoyed a significant military presence. These strikes – the first to occur in the city since 2017 – resulted in the reported death of one civilian and left as many as eleven more injured, eight of whom were children. However, just one week later, Russia and Turkey resumed their joint patrolling of the M4 highway and completed the first end-to-end patrol, which many observers saw as a sign of de-escalation.

Apart from the airstrike on al-Bab, the town of Ariha witnessed a brutal action on July 14th which killed two civilians, named by Ariha Today as Muhammad Deeb Halbiya (40 years old) and his son, Karam Halbiya (12 years old), and injuring up to five others, including four children [Mohammed Al-Mady (13 years old), Mohammed Al-Hassan (12 years old), Noor Aberas (30 years old) and Youssef Al-Hassan]. According to MMC, this came after Russian warplanes allegedly launched 40 missiles on the town of Ariha on that day.

The destructive aftermath of the alleged Russian airstrike in al-Bab on July 15th (via Syrian Civil Defence)

US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

July 2020 saw no locally reported civilian harm incidents involving the US-led Coalition in Syria. This follows on from just one such claim in June.

However, US-led Coalition actions in Syria continued throughout the month, in conjunction with local partners. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) conducted a number of raids on suspected ISIS hideouts in eastern Syria with the support of the Coalition. The first took place on July 3rd in Deir Ezzor province, where SDF special forces dismantled an ISIS terror cell and arrested three suspected ISIS members, confiscating a number of weapons and equipment. The second phase took place on July 17th-18th in the areas of al-Busayrah and al-Shuhail in Deir Ezzor, with the International Coalition providing advice and intelligence. According to the Coalition, ‘several’ ISIS militants were arrested and dozens of weapons were seized during the operation.

Meanwhile, local sources reported that an International Coalition drone targeted a vehicle, north of the town of Ahtamilat in Aleppo’s northern countryside on July 20th. According to Step News, the vehicle belonged to a man named Shujaa al-Muhammad from the town of al-Safira in Aleppo. Local sources said that the driver and two others in the car who were reportedly killed had been ISIS operatives.

Local sources also reported one strike against Iran-backed groups by planes locally identified as belonging to the International Coalition on the town of Duwair in Deir Ezzor’s countryside areas. 

The Iraqi Falcons Intelligence Cell and Baghdad Intelligence Directorate🇮🇶, alongside the 54th Brigade, eliminated 4 suicide bombers💀💣with a fifth self destructing🔥, in the village of Ma'amra al-Zaidan. CJTF-OIR drones supported the operation.💪 #defeatdaesh https://t.co/vlZdAkoXXr pic.twitter.com/QFJnh95RyG

— Operation Inherent Resolve (@CJTFOIR) July 13, 2020

In Iraq, the International Coalition supported Iraqi Security Forces in their own operations against ISIS throughout the month. On July 1st, two French Rafale jets launched a series of strikes in northern Iraq, destroying three ISIS caves and killing an unspecified number of reported ISIS militants. A day later, Coalition F-15E jets targeted an ISIS cave complex in Wadi al-Shai, in the Tuz Khurmato district of Kirkuk. Additionally, during the last week of July, the Coalition provided close air support for Iraqi Special Forces in operations on the outskirts of Baghdad, and south of Kirkuk.

The aftermath of a reported Coalition drone strike Ahtimalat on July 20th (via Step News)

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Turkish-led actions in both Iraq and Syria continued. Airwars researchers tracked six civilian harm incidents in both countries during the month of July. Four took place in Syria, while two occurred in Iraq. Tracking for Iraq indicated a notable decrease in Turkish operations after it had launched an aggressive campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in June, which had seen up to 150 PKK positions targeted by Turkish jets, helicopters, drones and artillery.

The four incidents in Syria caused up to eight civilian deaths and as many as 15 injuries. Meanwhile, the two civilian harm incidents in Iraq resulted in two civilian deaths and five more injuries.

The first incident in Syria took place at 10am on July 16th in the district of Derbasiyah. Local reports suggest that the incident was either caused by Turkish shelling or by a drone strike which injured a civilian. Later that day, another more significant strike, allegedly launched by a Turkish drone, took place in the same district targeting a Russian communication centre. According to local sources, this attack injured two Russian soldiers, a Regime soldier and two Asayish members. The event came amidst heightened tensions following recent Russian airstrikes on al-Bab [see above].

The incident which reported the highest number of civilian deaths occurred in the villages of Qurt Wiran and Willanli, just northwest of Manbij on July 27th. According to local reports, six civilians were killed and up to ten more were injured after Turkish-led forces shelled the two villages. Three of those killed were reportedly children Hawar news agency obtained the names of five of the victims: Alia Diab (60 years old), Fatima Makhlouf (35 years old), Fares Diab (13 years old), Ghofran Diab (7 years old) and Jamila Diab (11 years).

The incident in Qurt Wiran and Willanli on July 27th prompted a large number of locals to come out to protest Turkish action in Syria on July 30th. (Image via ANF)

Meanwhile in Iraq, the two Turkish strikes resulting in civilian harm occurred within the space of three days. The first took place in Hasinpirka village in the Amedi district of Dohuk. According to reports, a Turkish strike hit two vehicles in the area, reportedly killing two civilians. However, Hamid Zubair, the mayor of the sub-district of Bamarne told Rudaw that the vehicles in fact belonged to PKK fighters, and not civilians. According to reports, the victims’ names were Abdulla Ahmad and Dilovan Shahin. On July 29th, another incident involving Turkish forces occurred in Mount Shekif in Erbil province. According to ANF, Turkish forces shelled the area and injured civilians collecting herbs in the mountains. One woman was reportedly severely injured in the attack.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of July. Since the end of March 2020, Airwars researchers have tracked only one civilian harm incident involving Kurdish factions in Syria.

Russian soldier limping out of hospital following a Turkish drone strike in Derbasiyah on July 16th (via FM Dirbesiye)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

After a lull in airstrikes from mid-May – likely at least partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic – the US resumed activities in Somalia in early July. Three strikes were confirmed by AFRICOM, with one allegedly leading to civilian harm. 

On July 9th, one Al Shabaab fighter was allegedly killed by a US strike on a checkpoint near Hantiwadaag.

On July 21st the US conducted its first strike against ISIS Somalia since October 2019 near Timirshe, killing seven members of the terror organisation. The operation was accompanied by Puntland Security Forces on the ground who allegedly killed around 12 ISIS fighters in an exchange of gunfire. US partner forces assisted.

And on July 29th a US strike in Jilib killed one Al Shabaab member and injured another one, according to AFRICOM. However, local media sources close to the terror organisation said  that in fact three named children had been killed when their home was hit by a US missile.

AFRICOM also published its second quarterly civilian casualty assessment report, acknowledging responsibility for one civilian death and three more injured during an event on February 2nd 2020. For six further incidents, AFRICOM denied causing civilian harm, while four recent cases were described as still pending.

Home allegedly destroyed by US strike on Jilib on July 29th, 2020 (via Somali Memo)

Yemen

Airwars tracked one US drone strike allegation in Yemen during July.

According to some local reports, a strike took place in the town of Ateq in Shabwa province on July 3rd. This reportedly hit the house of Bin Adio, the Governor of Shabwa. However, this claim has not been corroborated by other reports from prominent Yemeni outlets such as the Yemeni Press Agency, which says that the fire was instead caused by an electrical fault. CENTCOM itself told Airwars that its forces did not carry out any strikes in Yemen during the month.

Image showing a house on fire after an explosion in Ateq on July 3rd (Image via @Mohamme19780462)

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during July. The last such reported or claimed US action was in July 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

In July, our UK Advocacy Officer attended a virtual Panel Discussion on preventing internal displacement due to armed conflict/violence and disasters. Among the suggestions made was that belligerents avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, as a way to prevent reasons of internal displacement.

Also, Airwars and others in the UK’s Protection of Civilians (PoC) working group – which consists of partners including Crisis Action, STC, AOAV, and the APPG on Drones -resumed regular meetings, and agreed to request an update from the UK Government on its ongoing PoC strategy review. Members also discussed upcoming opportunities for engagement and future actions. 

Airwars additionally attended a webinar organised by EveryCasualty on ‘COVID-19 and Casualty Recording’. Insights into statistics gathering and data analysis will help inform our own work at Airwars. 

European advocacy

On July 3rd, our European advocacy officer virtually attended a meeting with the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges (Utrecht University). One of the topics discussed was how Community Service Learning (CSL) programmes can connect academia and practice. Airwars is currently exploring with the Centre how we can help create spaces for students, for example those studying Conflict Studies, International Affairs or International Humanitarian Law, to better learn from and engage with the work we do at Airwars.

On July 7th, we published a story with updates on progress at the Dutch Ministry of Defence on revising its transparency and accountability practices, in the aftermath of the Hawijah scandal. In a letter to Parliament on June 29th, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld laid out a number of changes which she claimed would improve both transparency and accountability regarding civilian harm.

“While Airwars welcomes this next step towards a more transparent Defensie, the content of the data [of airstrikes] is still below standard,” Airwars deputy Dmytro Chupryna noted at the time. ”Other Coalition allies such as the UK already report the specific date, targets and near locations of their airstrikes. For Defensie to become more transparent, improving their reporting on airstrikes really is one of the first steps to take.”

▲ Local Syrians volunteer to help rebuild a hospital damaged in the fighting to oust ISIS from Al Shaddadi, Syria, July 16th 2020. (Image via @SOJTFOIR)

Published

August 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

June 2020 saw a slight resurgence in foreign action in Syria, with sporadic Russian strikes being reported in Idlib; and with the US-led Coalition continuing its operations against Iranian-backed groups in Syria. In Iraq, ISIS’s insurgency has decreased significantly as Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have increased the tempo of their own Counter-Terrorism campaigns. Meanwhile, Turkey launched a major joint air and ground operation against Kurdish militants over the border into northern Iraq, in a bold attempt to dislodge the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the region. This led to several disturbing civilian casualty events. 

While the conflict in Libya continued to rage on, the number of strikes decreased significantly as the Government of National Accord (GNA), with Turkish support, continued to consolidate its gains from the previous month against the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its foreign allies. A stalemate at the frontline in Sirte led to almost complete inaction between the two sides. However, foreign actors reportedly used the impasse to funnel more weapons into Libya.

As the chart below shows, the number of civilian harm incidents decreased during June across all major conflicts tracked by Airwars apart from Iraq (due to Turkey’s Operation Tiger Claw against the PKK.) The number of reported civilian harm incidents in Libya decreased by almost 75%.

Air and artillery strikes decrease in Libya as GNA advances continue

June marked the first month in Libya where the GNA and Turkey allegedly caused more civilian harm than the LNA and its allies. While the number of tracked air and artillery strikes dropped significantly from 274 to 94, locally reported civilian deaths only decreased from 64-81 to 44-54.

The GNA and Turkey allegedly conducted 25 air and artillery strikes leading to between 24 and 32 civilian deaths in a successful effort to regain territory from the LNA. In the worst event of the month, between 12 and 20 civilians were killed by a GNA or Turkish drone strike on Qasr Bin Gashir on June 3rd.

Civilian harm reported from LNA and Emirati strikes significantly decreased compared to previous months, as the GNA finally managed to oust Khalifa Haftar’s forces from Tripoli. The siege of Libya’s capital officially ended on 4th June after more than 400 days. Between 16 and 17 civilian deaths were alleged from 59 LNA and Emirati actions in June. The most severe incident took place in Gheryan on June 2nd, when five civilian males were reportedly killed by a drone strike.

Another six strikes by unknown belligerents allegedly led to a further four to five civilian deaths.

The vast majority of these strikes were conducted at the beginning of June, with only seven reported towards the end of the month. Military activity had effectively stalled due to a stalemate at the Sirte frontline, where both sides were sending in reinforcements. AFRICOM also once again overtly called out Russia for supplying the LNA with fighter jets. Strikes by Russian-supplied MiGs reportedly led to civilian harm on two occasions.

Lujain Muhammad Buresh, allegedly killed by GNA shelling on Qasr Bin Gashir on June 1st, 2020 (image via Tarhuna 24)

Russian strikes resume in Syria as ceasefire slowly unravels

After three months of relative calm in northwestern Syria, Russian airstrikes were reported for the first time on June 3rd and then again on June 8th-9th, with some reportedly leading to civilian harm. These actions brought into sharp focus the fragility of a major ceasefire initially agreed in March – raising fears that Russia’s aerial campaign on Idlib could resume. In total, four civilian harm incidents allegedly involving Russia were reported during the month, resulting in eight civilian deaths and the injury of 16 others.

The June 3rd airstrikes took place in an area where the boundaries of Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces meet, close to the highly strategic M4 highway, where Turkish and Russian forces conduct their joint patrols as part of the truce agreement. These strikes were aimed at pushing Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants – who enjoy a significant presence in this area -further away from the M4 highway, to create a buffer from the Sahl al-Ghab area in northern Hama province. 

Five days later, Russian warplanes began reportedly striking a number of areas in Idlib. On June 8th, local sources reported that Russian warplanes hit the al-Muzarra village in Jabal al-Zawiya in southern Idlib, According to SMART News Agency, two civilians were killed and three others were wounded in the attack. According to Baladi News, four civilians from the same family were injured. 

The next day saw alleged Russian strikes in Balyoun, Kansafra, and Idlib city resulting in civilian harm. In Balyoun, one civilian was killed and eight others were injured in an aerial bombardment on residential areas in the western part of the village. According to Baladi News, the civilian killed was Abdullah Ahmad al-Dani from the neighbouring town of Kansafra. In Kansafra, Russian raids killed one civilian and injured four others. Meanwhile, on the same day, three children (Salah Ghajar, Rand Saed al Din and Rand’s brother Huthaifah) were killed when a cluster munition left behind from the previous bombing by Russian warplanes exploded near a farm in the al-Jedar area.

Following this June 8th spike in alleged Russian action, there were no further reports of civilian harm from Russian strikes for the rest of the month.

Civilian body being carried following an alleged Russian airstrike in Balyoun on June 9th (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

The month of June saw only one civilian harm incident locally reported to have involved the US-led Coalition in Syria. This was a welcome decrease from the four incidents reported for the previous month, which remains the highest monthly tally of the year to date.

On June 24th, on the road between Idlib city and the town of Binnish, a Coalition drone reportedly targeted a ‘Santa Fe’ car, allegedly killing Abu Adnan Al-Homsi, a senior figure in Huras al-Din, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. According to SMART, the drone strike also killed a civilian riding a motorbike near the targeted car. This came ten days after a similar incident, when a drone targeted a car carrying two members of Huras al-Din, known as Qasim al-Urduni and Bilal al-Sana’i. However, no civilians were reportedly harmed in that event. 

Another strike on Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham was reported by locals on June 16th, south of Sarmada in northern Idlib. According to local sources, the strike hit an Islamic tribunal in the area. However, both the number and combatant status of people killed in that event is still not known.

Meanwhile, military operations against ISIS targets were also reported throughout the month. On June 20th, the US-led Coalition allegedly launched a strike on the road between al-Dana and al-Bad in eastern Aleppo, killing ISIS commander Fayez al-Akkal, who also served as the former ‘governor’ of Raqqa. On June 21st, another International Coalition strike took place on a motorcycle belonging to an unidentified ISIS militant near the Kubaiba oil field in southern Hasaka Governorate.

Local sources also reported four strikes against Iran-backed groups by planes locally identified as belonging to the International Coalition. The first took place in the town of Maizilliah in Deir Ezzor province on June 6th, killing approximately eight people. The second was in the Thalathat area, west of al-Boukamal on June 8th. Another airstrike was reported in the al-Akershi desert, southeast of Raqqa city, and finally, the last locally reported strike took place in al-Abbas village near al-Boukamal, where according to reports, six headquarters were targeted in a major raid on June 28th.

In Iraq, there was one civilian harm incident reported in the Abu Zuwair area near Baiji. This came after a US MQ-IC Gray Eagle armed drone crashed in the area, which led to shepherds approaching the fallen drone. However, another drone arrived and struck the same area killing the four shepherds near the crashed drone. According to other sources, the shepherds had carried parts of the drone in a pickup truck and were then pursued by a second drone and killed as they tried to leave the area.

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Turkish-led actions varied considerably in Syria and Iraq during June. The number of civilian harm incidents involving Turkish action decreased considerably in Syria, while Iraq saw Turkey escalating its ongoing anti-PKK campaign, after launching Operation Claw-Tiger.

Airwars tracked one civilian harm incident in Syria involving alleged Turkish action. On June 23rd, a Turkish drone strike reportedly killed three women in the village of Helince, east of Kobani. According to local reports, the house of Amina Waysi, was hit, killing her and two other women – Zehra Berkel, a coordinating member of the Kongra Star women’s movement; and Mizgin Xelil.

#UrgentThree civilians lost their lives due to the targeting of a drone believed to be a #Turkish drone in the village of Helinc east of #Kobanê. pic.twitter.com/0sRPoexp99

— Hoshang Hassan (@HoshangHesen) June 23, 2020

In Iraq, Turkey launched a major joint air and ground operation against the PKK in northern Iraq on June 17th. According to reports, Special Forces were airlifted to the border region of Haftanin in the early hours of Operation Claw-Tiger. According to the Turkish Ministry of Defence, the campaign targeted 150 suspected PKK positions with jets, helicopters, drones and artillery. 

The unprecedented scale and scope of these latest operations posed a significant risk to civilians living near the Turkish border of northern Iraq. The week following the beginning of operations was particularly harmful to civilians in Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. 

As a result, five civilian harm incidents were reported during Juneh, four of which took place following the beginning of Operation Claw-Tiger. In these events, seven people were reported killed and at least nine others injured. 

The first alleged civilian harm case from Turkish actions took place in Sinjar on June 14th, where local sources reported that “several civilians” were injured in Turkish airstrikes on civilian areas – though the exact number of injured civilians was not specified in local sources. In the first two days of the campaign, three more? civilian harm incidents were reported. The first took place on June 17th, within hours of the launch of the operations in Bradost, northern Erbil province, where a shepherd by the name of Ebas Mexdid Nimet was killed and up to three others were injured. 

Two days later on June 19th, two civilian harm incidents took place. One took place in the Kokar area near the Avamark Resort in Dohuk province, where a Turkish airstrike killed three people and injured two others. Another airstrike on the same day in Barwari reportedly killed a civilian.

#BREAKING #Turkish war planes bombs #Shiladze town in #Dohuk province Iraqi #Kurdistan , killed 3 civilians injured 2 2 hours ago#TwitterKurds @AzadiRojava pic.twitter.com/vIEsaoEYCY

— Hana Çômanî (@HanaComani) June 19, 2020

The final incident took place in Kunamasi, near a resort in the Sulaimaniyah province on June 25th. That airstrikes hit a vehicle carrying PKK fighters, but also struck a mini market belonging to a local family. According to some reports, two civilians were killed and up to five others were injured. A widely shared video showed children playing nearby showered with debris. 

Turkish attacks in northern Iraq in the first week of the campaign drew widespread condemnation from neighbouring countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Iraqi Government also condemned the latest incursion by Turkey into Iraq’s territory as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

Is this okay with you? @masrour_barzani @qubadjt @jensstoltenberg this is my brother playing with my nephew when a Turkish bomb drops 20 meters away from them in Kuna Masi. #TwitterKurds pic.twitter.com/tNUK8HeWt0

— Jîl Şwanî (@thejilswani) June 25, 2020

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

After more than three months without any civilian harm incidents allegedly resulting from Kurdish counterfire, local Syrian news outlets said that a child was killed after a mortar shell, reportedly from the YPG, exploded near the city of Mare’a in Aleppo province on June 28th. According to Bawabat Aleppo, the child killed was 14 year-old Hamza Ibrahim. The explosion reportedly took place on the road to the nearby village of Esnabel. 

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

There were no publicly alleged or announced US strikes in Somalia during June, with the last declared AFRICOM action taking place on May 17th.  

Yemen

Airwars tracked one alleged US drone strike in Yemen during the month of June. According to local reports, the strike took place on Wadi Obeida, just northwest of Marib city on June 24th. The strike reportedly hit al-Qaeda militants, who had just escaped a battle with Saudi-backed Yemeni forces in the Qaniyah front of Baydha province. According to one source, the airstrike killed an unnamed senior figure within AQAP. However, this claim has not been corroborated by other reports on the airstrike.

CENTCOM itself said that it did not carry out any strikes in Yemen during the month. However it remains possible that the June 24th event was conducted by the CIA, which carries out a parallel, covert campaign in Yemen. 

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during May. The last such reported or claimed US action was in July 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

Airwars participated, along with 1,000 other organisations, in a high level virtual convening on United Nations Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, which reflected on how the UN’s present counter-terror policies impact on peace, human rights and development

Airwars also observed discussions and side events of the ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region – Brussels IV Conference,’ and sent a followup question to the panel on ‘Ensuring accountability and civilian protection in Syria’. The question focused on the need for accountability from all the actors involved in the Syrian conflict: 

While casualty tracking indicates that the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Syrian civilians, including women and children, as a result of airstrikes on civilian residential areas, research from monitoring organisations shows that other international actors – such as Turkey and the US-led Coalition – are also responsible for civilian harm, often at significant levels. How can we hold the Syrian regime and its allies to account, while ensuring that other States calling for the protection of civilians are themselves fully committed to meeting accountability standards?

The US State Department – which hosted the ‘Brussels IV’ discussion on Syria – has yet to respond to those questions which resulted from the session.

European advocacy

In June, the Airwars European advocacy team held several roundtables with our Dutch civil society partners. As Dutch Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld wrote in her letter to Parliament on June 30th, several NGOs, including Airwars, have been meeting with the Ministry to discuss our previously submitted roadmap to improve Dutch policy regarding transparency and accountability for civilian harm. The aim is to agree on a joint plan by the end of the summer, as stated in the Minister’s letter. 

On June 25th, the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges (UCGC) at the University of Utrecht launched its latest project War/Truth: Civilian harm in remote warfare. In January, Airwars’ European advocacy officer moved into the UCGC office as a societal partner of the centre in order to help facilitate better collaboration on the topic of civilian harm. The goal of our collaboration is to “connect Airwars’ work recording civilian harm with research carried out by the Intimacies of Remote Warfare programme (Utrecht University) into wider questions of transparency, accountability, responsibility and legitimacy.”

Military advocacy

All 38 historical civilian harm allegations from US-led Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria, covering a period from January 2015 to July 2017 – and reviewed by the Coalition for its June report – were rejected as ‘non credible. Each of the 38 cases had been an Airwars referral. 

As Airwars noted in a letter of concern to Coalition commanders, this meant that of the 257 incidents so far reviewed by OIR for 2020, only eight had been deemed Credible – or just 3.1%. 

Airwars expressed concern “that OIR may once again be moving away from engaging with external sources on civcas claims – and instead [is] institutionally focusing on self-reported events. If that is the case it would represent a backward step – particularly with DoD itself now emphasising the value of external sources.”

▲ 'From Idlib to Suwayda. Together we will save the boat from sinking. Revolution from the North to the South' Mural in Idlib, June 8th 2020 (via Enab Beladi)

Published

June 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

Following on from April, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to deliver a limited ‘peace dividend’, at least in some conflict nations. Civilian harm allegations against international actors in Syria continue to be minimal – though with a spike in claims against the US-led Coalition. In Iraq – despite reports of an ISIS resurgence – no civilian harm incidents from International Coalition actions were reported. And in Somalia too, the most intensive US campaign ever seen against al Shabaab, which began earlier this year, now appears to be on hold. 

Meanwhile, the violence in Libya continued unabated, with the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey, making significant headway in its bid to retake areas in western Libya recently lost to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

The above graph shows the number of alleged civilian harm incidents from tracked belligerents in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Somalia. In Syria, all the incidents reported were conducted either by the US-led Coalition, or by Turkish-led forces. In Iraq, the solitary incident was allegedly the result of a Turkish airstrike. More than six times the number of civilian fatalities resulting from actions by tracked belligerents were reported during the month in Libya than in Syria.

Civilian harm in Libya increases as Turkey and GNA turn the tide against the LNA

Libya saw another increase in both airstrikes and reported civilian harm during May, with the GNA and Turkey for the first time since the beginning of the Tripoli offensive out-bombing the LNA and its allies. However, the LNA was still reportedly responsible for the majority of civilian harm.

The number of overall reported air and artillery strikes by all belligerents slightly rose month on month, from 245 in April to 274 in May. The number of locally reported civilian deaths also increased, from 44-52 to 64-81.

Between 33 and 44 civilian deaths were reported from 52 LNA or Emirati airstrikes. The high ratio of civilian harm stemmed from the often indiscriminate nature of shelling on Tripoli neighbourhoods. In one of the worst LNA incidents, six civilians were killed and up to 24 injured on May 9th on the capital’s Al Sour road.

Some 120 reported GNA and Turkish air and artillery strikes allegedly resulted in 18 to 21 civilian deaths. Between nine and ten civilians were allegedly killed by a Turkish airstrike in the worst event of the month in Qasr Al Hajj on May 8th, 2020.

While 95 further strikes could not be attributed to any one belligerent, 6 were contested between GNA and LNA. These allegedly led to 10 to 13 additional civilian deaths.

After the LNA’s withdrawal from Tripoli in late May, landmines and IEDs left behind by Haftar’s forces posed an additional risk for civilians. AFRICOM also called out Russia for allegedly supplying combat aircraft to the LNA. According to the US military command “there is concern these Russian aircraft are being flown by inexperienced, non-state PMC mercenaries who will not adhere to international law.”

Tariq Mustafa Homs, who reportedly lost a leg after shelling by LNA on Tripoli on May 31st, 2020 (via Burkan Al Ghadab)

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

The month of May saw an unexpected increase in US-led Coalition military activity in Syria. Airwars researchers tracked four separate claimed civilian harm incidents throughout the month, the highest monthly tally this year so far, leading to eight locally reported civilian deaths. All four incidents took place in Deir Ezzor governorate, which has seen most of the Coalition’s military actions in Syria during 2020.

The first incident took place on May 1st in the Koniko oil fields of Deir Ezzor. According to local reports, a civilian was killed by a US sniper. The victim, who worked as a teacher in Raqqa city, was identified as Yasser Al-Asman. According to Step News, he “was heading on the main road from the countryside of Deir Ezzor Al-Sharqi to Raqqa, but his car veered off the road towards the [oil] field by mistake, which drove the American forces to kill him instantly.”

On May 16th, a major air raid was conducted in the vicinity of the Abu Bakr Mosque in al-Basira, Deir Ezzor. As part of a joint operation between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the International Coalition, a number of houses were reportedly bombed. According to Euphrates Eye, Coalition forces struck three buildings housing Internally Displaced People (IDP) in the town, killing five civilians in Ibrahim al-Baraka’s house. The day after saw another civilian harm allegation in al-Zir town. According to local reports, a civilian named Muhammad Khleif Al Hamra was killed on the roof of his own house, while watching Coalition forces conduct a raid on neighbouring properties in al-Shouhaibi town.

The final incident took place on May 22nd in al-Shabaka, once again in Deir Ezzor. According to Euphrates Post, Muhammad Al-Ouda Al-Khaled Al-Addad from the city of Al-Shuhail was killed during a joint operation led by the International Coalition. Further details of the raid are not presently known.

Reports also emerged that a senior ISIS figure, Mu’taz Numan Abd Nayif Najm al-Jabouri, was killed in a Coalition airstrike. Al-Jabouri, who went by the nom de guerre, Hajji Taysir, was known as the group’s ‘Governor’ of Iraq and head of foreign operations. He was also claimed to have overseen the group’s chemical and biological weapons research, as the deputy head of ISIS manufacturing in Syria.

Additionally, there were six other unilateral actions that were allegedly conducted by the US during the month. These took place in a number of different Governorates in Syria such as Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Hasaka. Most of these incidents targeted Iranian-backed groups in Syria – suggesting that these attacks may instead have been the work of Israel.

Meanwhile, International Coalition airstrikes in Iraq also continued. On May 13th, the US-led alliance conducted a major strike on a cave system used as a hideout by ISIS cells in the southwestern desert of Hadar, in Nineveh province. The attack reportedly killed four militants. Five days later, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (ICTS) confirmed that 11 airstrikes were conducted against ISIS remnants in Mount Ghurra, south of Dibis in Kirkuk. Additionally, the US-led Coalition conducted another strike on ISIS targets in Wadi Ashi in Kirkuk on May 31st, as part of the Iraqi-led “Heroes of Iraq” operation.

May 13, @modmiliq requested Coalition bombs an ISIS cave. We did. ISF found 4xEKIA. #ReadyAF #DefeatDaesh 💥🇮🇶 في 13 آيار ، قصف التحالف كهف لداعش في نينوى، ممّا أدى الى مقتل 4 إرهابيين وقد تبين ذلك من خلال عمليات التفتيش التي قامت بها الفرقة 20 في الجيش العراقي بعد الغارة pic.twitter.com/MPTzYaGSqA

— OIR Spokesperson (@OIRSpox) May 15, 2020

The Royal Air Force (RAF) has also remained active in Iraq, conducting four airstrikes against ISIS targets in May. On May 8th, an RAF Reaper targeted an ISIS bunker west of Tuz Khurmato in northern Iraq. On May 10th, a pair of Typhoons struck a cave system reportedly used by ISIS militants southeast of Hatra, on the banks of the Tharthar Lake in Anbar province. The third strike took place three days later in Tuz Khurmato against an ISIS bunker, and finally, on May 23rd a RAF Reaper targeted a group of ISIS militants in an unidentified location in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service forces advance across a field near Dibis, southern Kirkuk on May 18th 2020 (via ICTS social media)

In total, the US-led Coalition confirmed that in the month of May, Partner Forces in Iraq and Syria conducted 52 anti-ISIS operations.

Syria: Another quiet month for Russian airstrikes  

For the second month in a row, Airwars did not monitor a single locally reported civilian harm incident from Russian actions in Syria. April and May of this year mark the only complete months without civilian casualties claimed from Russian military actions – and the longest continuous period without reports of civilian harm since the beginning of Moscow’s campaign began in Syria in September 2015.

Despite the absence of Russian actions, there were concerns that hostilities could resume at any moment. Sporadic reports emerged throughout the month of attacks by both Syrian Government forces and rebels.

On May 10th for example, al-Qaeda-linked Huras al-Din reportedly attacked regime forces in the Ghab plain area of Idlib. It was said the fighting had left 21 troops and 13 Huras al-Din members dead. Additionally, on May 15th, there were reports that regime shelling on the town of al-Bara in Idlib killed at least two civilians and injured up to five others.

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Airwars tracked five separate civilian harm allegations against Turkish-led forces over the course of May – three less than last month’s tally. According to local sources, these incidents led to three civilian deaths, compared to two such deaths in April. At least one child was harmed from alleged Turkish actions.

All the civilian harm incidents which took place in May occurred in the week starting May 13th. That day in the town of Maranaz in Aleppo governorate, a young boy was reportedly severely injured after being peppered by shrapnel from alleged Turkish shelling on the town. Three days later, up to two civilians were killed when according to pro-regime outlets, Turkish-backed forces opened fire on a van coming from Raqqa city near a checkpoint in Ras al-Ain. Kurdish expert Wladimir van Wilgenburg reported that the two civilians killed were Mihemed Xidir Husên and Ziyab El-Elî.

The third incident occurred in Deir Ghosn in Hasaka Governorate on May 17th, when Turkish forces allegedly opened fire on farmers in the area. Just two days later, 30-year-old Mohammed Hajj Hussein Al Khalaf was wounded by an artillery strike on the village of Arab Hassan Kabir, Aleppo governorate. Hawar News spoke to the uncle of the victim, Ali Al Khalaf, who stated that the shelling occurred at 5am while his family was sleeping. The final incident took place in the town of Şiyûx, west of Kobani city after Turkish forces shelled the town, reportedly injuring two civilians.

In Iraq, Turkish fighter jets continued to target Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions throughout the month. On May 30th, a Turkish airstrike reportedly hit the Deralok sub-district of Amedi, close to the border with Turkey in the province of Dohuk. The strike killed a father and a son in the area and injured another person. The Turkish Ministry of Defence, however, claimed that the attack had killed two PKK fighters, and not civilians.

Mohammed Hajj Hussein Al Khalaf was injured in alleged Turkish-backed artillery strikes on the village of Arab Hassan Kabir on May 19th, 2020 (via Hawar News).

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of May. This is the second month in a row that no civilian harm allegations against Kurdish armed groups have been locally reported – and marked the longest period without reports of civilian harm from Kurdish actions since July 2019.

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

Airwars recorded four locally alleged US strikes in Somalia during May, of which only one was officially declared. In two events, civilian harm was claimed against AFRICOM.

Up to two civilians were allegedly killed by a US or Kenyan strikes on Araboow on May 13th. The strikes reportedly hit minibuses departing from Mogadishu. AFRICOM denied any involvement in the event.

On May 17th, a US strike allegedly injured four civilians in Kunya Barrow. Sources close to Al Shabaab reported that the strike hit a civilian home, injuring a mother and three of her children.

Picture of an alleged victim of US strike on Kunya Barrow on May 17th, 2020 (via Halgan Media)

Yemen

On May 13th, Yemen Press Agency alleged that US drones had targeted positions in both Marib and Abyan. The first attack occurred in the Wadi Obeida area of Marib city. According to reports, a drone strike hit a house, killing an al-Qaeda operative named Shurfan and injuring the group’s alleged communications officer, Abdullah al-Maliki. Photographs published locally showed an injured Maliki receiving medical treatment.

Yet according to an email from CENTCOM to Airwars, there were no US military strikes during May 2020 in Yemen. This was despite the US Justice Department confirming that a senior Qaeda operative was targeted in a drone strike during the month, with an official press release on May 18th noting that “a counterterrorism operation targeting AQAP operative Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Alshamrani’s overseas associates, was recently conducted in Yemen.”

Meanwhile, a reported US strike in Abyan targeted an al-Qaeda site near the Shakra area, and resulted in the death of Abu al-Bara al-Qifi, a senior figure within the terror group. A third claimed US action took place in al-Arqoub in Abyan on May 16th, killing senior al-Qaeda figure Saad al-Atiqi al-Awlaki. According to Yemen Press Agency, the attack took place between the Laudar district in Abyan province and the Mokiras district of Bayda province. The action came as Saudi-backed forces also launched an attack in the area, which is held by fighters allied to the al-Islah party.

With multiple reports from local sources of US drone strikes in both Marib and Abyan provinces during May – and confirmation of a US attack on al-Maliki, despite CENTCOM denials – this strongly indicates that the US’s covert CIA campaign in Yemen is continuing.

Abdullah al-Maliki who was injured in a US drone strike on Wadi Obeida in Marib on May 13th 2020. Image via @YemeniFatima

Pakistan

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

Advocacy

UK advocacy

Airwars marked the UN’s Protection of Civilians week in May 2020 with the Conflicting Truth project, in partnership with the Scottish-American design team Rectangle, who also produce the complex mapping and data representations on the Airwars website.

The project live-streamed the names of 8,337 civilian casualties which Airwars has documented in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia in recent years. The Airwars/Rectangle project aims to show that those killed and injured in conflict are not mere statistics – they are people with names, friends and families. Their loss inflicts severe pain on relatives, and the communities they belong to.

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

Airwars’ Deputy Director additionally joined with US partners in a three-day virtual workshop hosted by InterAction, ‘Building the Evidence Base:  Addressing the Reverberating Effects of  Military Operations on Civilian Life’. This gathered together experts undertaking systematic research on the effects of explosive weapons in populated areas. Participants came up with a number of practical and methodological challenges associated with analysing the reverberating effects of conflict, and outlined a way forward to overcome them.

European advocacy

May was a busy month for European advocacy. In the run up to the fourth Dutch parliamentary debate on the Hawijah case, we published a blog with our partner the Open State Foundation (available in Dutch) about the poor quality of the Dutch Ministry of Defence’s recently released weekly reports on Dutch airstrikes as part of the US-led Coalition between 2014 and 2016. 

The parliamentary debate was itself held on May 14th. Our livetweeting of the nine-hour-long event was widely followed by international media. One topic discussed during the debate was our news story from March, in which Airwars revealed that at least one other Coalition ally had refused the airstrike on Hawijah, based on the available intelligence. During all four debates, Airwars was mentioned no less than 54 times.

Military advocacy

On May 1st, the US-led Coalition published its fifth civilian harm report of 2020, declaring that from August 2014 to March 31st 2020 it had conducted 34,819 strikes against so called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Of the 41 historic assessments reviewed by Combined Joint Task Force – Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), 40 locally reported civilian harm events were rejected as ‘non credible’ – with a single additional event flagged as a duplicate assessment. All but one of the events – covering civilian harm claims in both Iraq and Syria between September 2015 and November 2019 – were Airwars referrals.

This blanket rejection of all locally reported civilian harm events reviewed during May reflected a recent and concerning trend. Of 217 locally alleged civilian harm events in Iraq and Syria assessed by CJTF-OIR to May 2020, only eight events (3.6%) had been accepted as Credible.

On May 6th, the Pentagon also published its third annual report on civilian harm to Congress. This declared that US forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia had between them killed at least 132 civilians and injured 91 more during 2019. The Pentagon also reported a further 79 historical deaths from its actions in Syria and Iraq during 2017-18.

Of the 21 historical cases officially conceded from US actions in Iraq and Syria for 2017 over the past year, 18 had been Airwars referrals. Yet every single allegation referred by Airwars to the Coalition for both 2018 and 2019 was rejected – amounting to many hundreds of dismissed local claims.

As Airwars director Chris Woods noted at the time, “Many hundreds of civilian deaths which were credibly reported by local communities appear to have been ignored. This goes against the Pentagon’s repeated promise to engage better with external NGOs including monitors, and we will be asking for an urgent explanation from officials of this apparent backward step.”

▲ An Iraqi Counter Terrorism officer overlooks fields reportedly burnt by ISIS in Dibis, Kirkuk (via @iraqicts)

Published

June 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Chris Woods, Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

The COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as the most serious public health crisis this century and continues to dominate most governments’ domestic and foreign policy. Airwars research shows that the crisis has brought about a significant though perhaps short-lived peace dividend in a number of conflict nations. April 2020 saw an almost unprecedented reduction in civilian harm incidents in Syria for example, whilst Iraq continues to see minimal reported civilian harm allegations against  foreign actors.

However, this peace dividend has failed to extend to Libya. That conflict has escalated significantly, as Turkey has stepped up its armed intervention on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA), against the opposition Libyan National Army. As both sides sought military dominance in Tripoli and other towns and cities across Libya, civilian suffering also multiplied from previous months. 

As shown by the below graph, since the outbreak of COVID-19, civilian harm in Syria, usually the most active conflict which Airwars monitors, has decreased significantly. However, this welcome trend has not applied to Libya, where the fighting became more intense in April, following the escalation of Turkey’s air campaign against the LNA. For the first time since we began tracking civilian harm in both nations, reported deaths in Libya outstripped those in Syria.

Civilian harm in Libya grows as Turkey escalates air campaign

Libya witnessed a significant increase in both reported civilian casualties and airstrikes in April, partly due to the Turkish air campaign in favour of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The number of reported civilian deaths rose from 17-19 in March to 44-52. The number of alleged air and artillery strikes increased by 50% from 163 to 245.

The majority of civilian harm was still allegedly caused by the Libyan National Army (LNA), which reportedly shelled civilian neighbourhoods of Tripoli on many occasions. This led to between 20 and 23 locally reported civilian deaths. In the worst incident, up to four civilians were allegedly killed and up to eight more injured by LNA shelling on Tajoura on April 9th.

Civilian harm from GNA or Turkish actions spiked in April as a result of combined efforts to recover territory previously lost to the LNA in Western Libya. Between eight and ten civilians were reportedly killed by 55 GNA or Turkish air and artillery strikes. On April 28th for example, a GNA/Turkish drone strike allegedly killed up to five civilians in a civilian truck near Ra’s at Tabal.

Once again during the month, many civilian harm events could not be clearly attributed because of indiscriminate shelling in urban areas. These led to 16 to 19 reported civilian deaths either contested between the GNA and LNA, or where the responsibility of no one belligerent could be determined.

Image via Tk Yahroug Kl shy of a truck carrying beehives that was allegedly hit by a Turkish/GNA drone on April 28th 2020

 

Syria: Ceasefire brings month of calm from Russian airstrikes  

As countries across the world battled to contain the spread of COVID-19, the campaign in Idlib was brought to an almost complete halt. Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents involving Russia during all of April – the first such month of no reported civilian casualties since Moscow first intervened in Syria in September 2015.

The pause in fighting came after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire at the end of March so that governments could focus on fighting the virus, and allow for humanitarian workers to reach populations in conflict zones that were most vulnerable to the spread of the virus. The absence of civilian harm attributed to Russia suggested that the ’ceasefire dividend’ brought about by COVID-19 may have been quite effective in bringing about much-needed respite from conflict, at least in Syria.

However, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian airstrikes were carried out during April in desert regions of Syria against ISIS positions, killing 28 alleged militants. Additionally, there were sporadic reports of Regime shelling in Idlib Governorate in areas near the southeastern Jabal al-Zawiya region on April 2nd.

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

April was once again a relatively calm month for the US-led Coalition in Syria, with no civilian harm allegations reported. 

However, there were reports of Coalition strikes against ISIS positions in Syria, as well as claimed unilateral US strikes on Iran-backed forces in the country. On April 18th, a Coalition aircraft targeted two people riding a motorbike, near a school in Al-Hawaij town in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. According to Deir Ezzor 24, the strike came moments after ISIS militants had destroyed a school with explosives. Most sources reporting on the airstrike say that the two people killed were ISIS militants that were likely involved in the destruction of the school.

On April 21st, local sources reported that a convoy carrying up to 15 members of Iranian-backed groups in Syria was allegedly targeted by a US strike. The convoy reportedly came from Iraq to the al-Thalatat area in the Al-Bukamal desert area, east of Deir Ezzor.

Meanwhile, International Coalition airstrikes in Iraq also continued. On April 10th, the UK declared its first actions against ISIS targets since September 2019. According to a statement by the Ministry of Defence, a pair of Royal Air Force Typhoon jets, assisted by an RAF Reaper drone, struck ISIS militants in Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk, “removing several Daesh fighters from the battlefield and further degrading the terrorist movement.”

Three days later, US F-15s conducted airstrikes on ISIS locations near Kirkuk in Iraq. The strikes reportedly took place in a river valley, 15 kilometres south of Daquq. According to the Iraqi Security Media Cell, the joint operation with Iraqi Security Forces led to 23 ISIS militants being killed. These attacks came after a recent uptick in ISIS activity in northern Iraq.

Image via CENTCOM of the USAF airstrike in Kirkuk on April 13th 2020.

Turkey in Syria

While fighting in Syria had largely subsided following the ceasefire deal signed between Presidents Putin and Erdogan in Moscow on March 5th, civilian harm incidents resulting from Turkish-led actions continued to be sporadically reported, albeit at a slightly lower rate than previous months. 

Airwars tracked seven separate civilian harm allegations against Turkish-led forces over the course of April. These incidents led to two civilian deaths and the injury of up to 14 more, according to local sources. This represents a significant decrease from the previous month, which saw four civilian fatalities and 27 injuries from ten Turkish-led civilian harm incidents. Additionally, according to Airwars data, children were less harmed from alleged Turkish incidents compared to the previous month when three of the four civilians reported killed were children. In April only one child was reportedly injured.

All the incidents took place in the first ten days of the month (again suggesting a possible ‘Covid effect’.) The deadliest took place on April 2nd in the villages of Qabr al-Saqir and al-Abosh in the Tal Tamr district of Hasakah Governorate. According to local sources, two people lost their lives and four others were injured after Turkish forces fired a barrage of shells on residential neighbourhoods in the villages.

In Iraq, there were local reports of two civilian harm incidents resulting from Turkish airstrikes on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq during the month. On April 15th, an alleged Turkish airstrike on the Makhmour IDP camp killed three women and injured up to four others. In a separate incident on April 28th, Turkish warplanes struck the Xakurke area, on the Iran-Iraq border. The airstrike reportedly killed two civilians, whose identities were later given as Fakher Tazewared (35 years old) and Rashid Miroir (36 years old). The victims were reportedly from the town of Shino in Iran.

Image via Politika of a funeral held for the three women killed in the airstrike on the Makhmour IDP camp on April 15th.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of April. This is the first month that no civilian harm allegations against Kurdish armed groups have been reported since September 2019 – before Turkey’s offensive in Northeastern Syria.

However, on April 28th a large VBIED was detonated in the city of Afrin, killing as many as 42 people and injuring more than 50 others. The explosion took place near the densely populated main market in the city. Some sources claimed that the YPG was responsible for the attack, though these reports were not confirmed.

Image via SCD of a fireman putting out the flames from the car bomb in Afrin city on April 28th.

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

The number of reported US strikes in Somalia decreased sharply in April, presumably because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. AFRICOM declared conducting eight strikes at the beginning of the month, seven less than in March. It claimed these had killed 32 Al Shabaab fighters in total.

Local sources at times conflicted with AFRICOM’s own press releases, alleging civilian harm on two occasions. On April 6th, between two and three civilians were reportedly killed by a US strike near Jilib. In addition, one child was allegedly injured, while AFRICOM said no civilians were harmed in the attack.

Additionally, on April 10th one elderly clan leader was allegedly killed according to some local sources. However, AFRICOM later vehemently refuted the claims in a statement: “Immediately prior to the airstrike, this al-Shabaab terrorist displayed the murdered bodies of Somali National Army (SNA) soldiers in a village. Following this act of coercion and intimidation, the al-Shabaab terrorist departed the village. Once isolated in a remote and secluded area, the terrorist was killed by an airstrike executed by the command in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia.”

On April 27th, AFRICOM for the first time released a quarterly civilian harm report, conceding two civilian deaths – believed to be a father and child – from an incident in Kunyo Barrow on February 23rd, 2019. AFRICOM had originally dismissed the claim. But it reopened an assessment after Airwars submitted a detailed dossier on the incident in January 2020, including what were believed to be precise coordinates for where casualties took place.

Image via Morad News of Ahmed Hussein, allegedly injured in a US strike on Jilib on April 6th, 2020.

Yemen

According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes during April 2020 in Yemen. However, there were multiple reports from local sources of two US drone strikes in Marib and Shabwa provinces. It remains possible that one or both of these incidents was conducted by the CIA, which has intermittently been conducting strikes in Yemen since 2002 – but which neither confirms nor denies such actions. 

On April 11th, the Yemen Press Agency reported an alleged US drone strike on the home of a leading figure of the Islah party in Marib, Ali bin Ghareeb, under the pretext of combating al-Qaeda’s presence in the area. Although Ali bin Ghareeb was unharmed, there were reports of civilian casualties from the attack, although no details have emerged on the number harmed or their identities. There were conflicting reports which suggested that the attack was instead carried out by a Houthi ballistic missile, though most sources seemed to allege that US drones were responsible.

A second claimed drone strike took place in Wadi Amaqin in the district of Bayhan in Shabwa Governorate on April 26th. According to Associated Press, two strikes were conducted in the area killing six al-Qaeda militants. Bayhan has long been a stronghold for al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and has therefore been the subject of numerous drone strikes over the last few years. 

Map via Intelligence Fusion-Asia showing the claimed location of a recently alleged US drone strike in Shabwa on April 26th.

Pakistan

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

Advocacy

UK advocacy

Airwars gave a presentation, ‘Using casualty monitoring to hold militaries to account’ in a webinar hosted by EveryCasualty’s Casualty Recorders Network. This was a great opportunity to present Airwars’ work and experience and our recent investigation into European civilian harm, as well as a chance to meet and talk with other organisations who work in this domain.

Airwars also signed a joint letter coordinated by Crisis Action to the UN Security Council, to support calls for a global ceasefire in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

We additionally submitted a short paper to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, concerning the impact of the diversion of arms and unregulated or illicit arms transfers on the human rights of women and girls in Libya.

In April Airwars also signed the NGO Global Compact coordinated by InterAction, which includes commitments towards environmental action and sustainability as a result of the climate crisis.

And finally, Airwars has updated its Arabic-language Methodology, which can be accessed on our website. 

European advocacy

With the past few months heavily focused on Dutch advocacy after the Hawijah scandal broke in October 2019, our deputy director and European advocacy officer have taken the opportunity to reconnect with our partners and allies in France and Belgium. Several digital meetings were held to discuss how civil society in both countries might better encourage progress in terms of transparency and accountability, following our Europe’s Shame investigation in March.  

We also held several online roundtable meetings with our Dutch partners to discuss a conceptual roadmap towards greater transparency and accountability from the Dutch Ministry of Defence, which we plan to present to the Ministry in early June.

As a member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), Airwars’ advocacy team also sought with opur partners to improve the forthcoming Political Declaration by nations, which is expected to address the humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Military advocacy

The US-led Coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria published no monthly civilian harm reports during April. However the Coalition’s civilian casualty assessment team reached out to Airwars on several occasions during the month to request clarification from our specialists on a number of publicly claimed civilian harm events.

 

▲ Image via Enab Baladi of a fighter in Syria resting amidst the rubble, April 2020.

Published

May 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

The Department of Defense (DoD) informed Congress on May 6th that US forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia had between them killed at least 132 civilians and injured 91 more during 2019. The Pentagon also reported a further 79 historical deaths from its actions in Syria and Iraq during 2017-18.

The 22-page Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations is the third such public declaration, mandated in law by Congress since 2018.

According to the report – which included details of continuing Pentagon efforts to improve both accountability and transparency for civilian harm – “U.S. forces also protect civilians because it is the moral and ethical thing to do. Although civilian casualties are a tragic and unavoidable part of war, the U.S. military is steadfastly committed to limiting harm to civilians.”

During 2019, the majority of declared civilian deaths from US actions took place in Afghanistan. According to the Pentagon, 108 civilians were killed and 75 injured in 57 incidents. Fourteen of those events involved US ground forces.

That casualty tally represented a significant undercount according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has been comprehensively monitoring civilian deaths from all parties for more than a decade. According to UNAMA’s own Annual Report, at least 559 civilians were killed and 786 injured by international military actions during 2019 – almost all by airstrikes.

Table from UNAMA’s 2019 annual report, showing the number of civilian deaths and injuries it believed had resulted from pro-government forces that year.

Iraq and Syria: ‘backward step’

Officially confirmed civilian deaths from US actions in Iraq and Syria fell steeply – down from 832 fatalities declared to Congress last year, to 101 deaths conceded in the latest report.

That sharp reduction was partly expected, given the significant reduction in battle tempo following the bloody capture of both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. However, in early 2019 very significant civilian fatalities were locally alleged from Coalition air and artillery strikes during the final stages of the war – only a fraction of which have been admitted.

Of the 73 known civilian harm claims against the US-led Coalition during 2019, Airwars presently estimates that at least 460 and as many as 1,100 non combatants likely died. However in its own report to the Pentagon, the US has conceded just 22 civilian deaths for the year across Iraq and Syria, in eleven events.

The Defense Department’s report reveals other worrying trends. Of the 21 historical cases officially conceded from US actions for 2017 over the past year, 18 had been Airwars referrals. Yet every single allegation referred by Airwars to the Coalition for both 2018 and 2019 was rejected – amounting to many hundreds of dismissed local claims.

According to Airwars director Chris Woods, the apparent move by the US-led Coalition away from engaging with external sources marks a backward step, which the organisation plans to take up with both Congress and DoD officials.

“Almost all of the deaths conceded by the US in Iraq and Syria for 2019 represented self referrals from pilots and analysts, with external sources cited on only three occasions. Many hundreds of civilian deaths which were credibly reported by local communities appear to have been ignored,” says Woods. “This goes against the Pentagon’s repeated promise to engage better with external NGOs including monitors, and we will be asking for an urgent explanation from officials of this apparent backward step.”

Mosul mystery resolved

The Pentagon’s latest report to Congress also brings further clarity to a controversial June 2017 Coalition attack in Mosul, Iraq which killed 35 members of the same extended family – including 14 children, nine women and two respected imams.

In January 2019 the Australian Defence Force (ADF) accepted responsibility for some of those deaths – confirming that a strike by one of its aircraft had killed between 6 and 18 civilians.

However the ADF also made clear that there was a second attack on the location by another Coalition ally that day – the identity of which was until now not known.

It its May 6th report to Congress, the Pentagon revealed that US aircraft conducted that second strike, additionally killing at least 11 civilians at the scene.

In February 2019, surviving family elder Engineer Amjad al-Saffar told the Sydney Morning Herald: “The level of accuracy of the bombing had always indicated to us that the attack couldn’t have been by Iraqi forces, because the house was targeted twice at the same point without any damage to the neighbouring building, and with very high accuracy.”

Asked to comment from Mosul on the Pentagon’s recent admission that its aircraft too had played a role in the mass casualty event, Engineer Amjad told Airwars: “As a well known and respected Mosul family, we feel both very sad and disappointed to learn of the US’s confession – three years after our catastrophe.- of their own role in an airstrike which killed so many. Along with Australia we hold the US fully responsible for our heavy loss of 35 family members, and demand both an apology and financial compensation.”

Other than this one case, the Pentagon’s report to Congress also revealed that all civilian harm events conceded by the US-led Coalition for Iraq and Syria over the past 12 months had been caused by US forces.

This contrasted with the previous report – which had inadvertently ‘outed’ fourteen strikes by America’s European allies which according to the Coalition itself had killed at least 40 civilians – but which the UK, France and Belgium refused to acknowledge. It remains unclear whether the Coalition’s civilian casualty cell has now ceased assessments of claims against other nations within the alliance.

Photo montage of some of the 35 victims of June 13th 2017 strikes by Australian and US aircraft, courtesy of the Al Saffar family.

One new Somalia event admitted

Two more civilian deaths from US actions in Somalia were officially conceded on April 27th, as US Africa Command issued its first ever quarterly civilian casualty report. Those same deaths were also reported to Congress two weeks later.

The newly admitted event – which according to local reports involved the death of a father and his child, and the injuring of at least three more civilians – relates to a US strike on the al Shabaab-occupied town of Kunyo Barrow on February 23rd 2019. AFRICOM had originally dismissed the claim. But it reopened an assessment after Airwars submitted a detailed dossier on the incident in January 2020, including what were believed to be precise coordinates for where casualties took place.

The latest admission has doubled both the number of cases and deaths publicly admitted by AFRICOM, during its sometimes controversial 13-year campaign to defeat the regional terror group al Shabaab. However those four deaths remain dwarfed by Airwars’ own current estimate of at least 70 civilians killed in 29 separate US actions in Somalia since 2007.

The US military’s campaign in Somalia has intensified significantly under President Donald Trump, with at least 186 declared actions since 2017 – more than four times the number of strikes officially carried out by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations combined. Local civilian harm claims have also intensified under Trump, with as many as 157 non combatant deaths locally claimed to date.

Until recently AFRICOM had routinely denied any civilian harm from its actions in Somalia – leading to complaints of poor accountability. In April 2019, AFRICOM conceded its first civilian casualty event – though also had to admit to misleading Congress on the issue. Three months later, General Stephen Townsend took command.

When previously head of the US-led Coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Townsend had overseen key transparency reforms including the publishing of regular civilian harm reports; and routine engagement with external casualty monitors such as Airwars. Those same key reforms are now being implemented at AFRICOM.

Here's the precise geolocation work that our Airwars specialists recently provided @USAFRICOM for the Kunyo Barrow strike – and which likely played a role in today's Credible determination. pic.twitter.com/idlgKAHz0f

— Airwars (@airwars) April 27, 2020

 

▲ Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died at Mosul on June 13th 2017 - in what is now known to have been US and Australian airstrikes (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)