By the end of 2017, almost all the territory so-called Islamic State (ISIS) had once controlled in Iraq and Syria had been captured, but at significant cost. The year in many respects was a watershed for popular conceptions of modern warfare. Sold as the “most precise campaign in history” by US officials, the urban battlefields laid waste by bombs, artillery and improvised explosives told another story.
ISIS took every opportunity to endanger civilians, even as the Coalition increased the intensity of its own actions. The Coalition-backed assault on Mosul also grew bloodier in 2017 as fighting moved into denser pockets of the city, leaving thousands dead. In June, after months of bombing the vicinity, Coalition-support ground forces also began battling inside Raqqa. The ferocity of these simultaneous campaigns yielded the largest civilian casualty total from likely Coalition strikes ever monitored by Airwars.
Non-combatant deaths from Coalition air and artillery strikes rose by more than 200 per cent compared to 2016, rising to between 3,923 and 6,102 civilians estimated killed during the year according to Airwars tallies. By another measure, roughly 65% of all civilian deaths from Coalition actions tracked by our team since 2014 occurred over the last 12 months. This unprecedented death toll coincided with the start of the Trump presidency, and suggested in part that policies aimed at protecting civilians had been scaled back under the new administration.
The huge ramp up in Coalition actions came in parallel with a relative reduction in Russian operations in Syria. From January 2017, for eight straight months until September, Airwars tracked many more allegations per month against the Coalition than against Moscow’s forces.
Despite international concern over increased civilian deaths, Russia continues to deny any civilian harm from its strikes – while the Coalition has downplayed the devastating impact of its own actions in Iraq and Syria.
The 2017 Coalition campaign in numbers
From January 1st to December 31st 2017, the Coalition reported 11,573 air and artillery strikes against ISIS – a 49% increase from the 7,779 strikes it reported in 2016. Of these strikes, 3,348 (29%) were in Iraq and 8,225 (71%) were in Syria. While strikes in Iraq fell overall by 28%, actions in Syria increased by 161% compared to 2016, indicating a new focus for the campaign.
The active Coalition allies – the United States, the UK, France, Belgium and Australia, and possibly Jordan and Saudi Arabia – cumulatively dropped 39,577 bombs and missiles in airstrikes against ISIS in 2017. Weapon releases from the air were up 29% on the previous year. Even so, in December 2017 just 584 munitions were fired – the lowest reported number since August 2014.
A 215% rise in likely civilian fatalities and a 55% increase in injuries
In 2017 the war against ISIS moved into the most densely-populated urban centres controlled by the group, with dire results for civilians. Simultaneous assaults on Raqqa and Mosul meant that 2017 was the deadliest year yet for ordinary Iraqis and Syrians.
Across Iraq and Syria, casualty incidents tied to likely Coalition strikes more than tripled compared to the year before. To date, the Coalition has conceded 93 events in which it confirms having killed or injured civilians during 2017 – up from 58 such confirmed events for 2016. An additional 673 civilian casualty incidents were classified by Airwars researchers as ‘Fair’ for 2017. An event is assessed as fair when it has two or more uncontested credible sources, and where the Coalition has confirmed it carried out strikes in the area.
Overall, between 3,923 and 6,102 non-combatants were likely killed in these 766 events in 2017 – a 215% increase on the 1,243 to 1,904 civilians estimated as likely killed by Coalition strikes in 2016. At least 2,443 additional civilians were reportedly wounded in these 766 events over the course of 2017, a significant increase from the year before.
Russian airstrikes in support of the Assad government continued in 2017 as well, though at a somewhat lower rate. Following a claimed partial withdraw of Russian forces in December 2016, Airwars tracked 983 alleged Russian events in the following year, a 33% decrease from 2016. Between 2,708 and 4,028 civilians were claimed killed across these events, compared with 6,176 to 8,513 alleged killed the previous year. In light of the massive rise in Coalition actions and its own limited resources, Airwars had to suspend its complete assessments of Russia in March 2017, meaning that these yearly figures have yet to be fully vetted. They should therefore not be directly compared to Airwars estimates for civilian deaths from Coalition strikes, which have been more closely vetted.
The slowdown in Russian actions and major ramp-up in Coalition casualty events led to trend that would characterize nearly all of 2017: Coalition-linked civilian casualties far outnumbering those attributed to Russia. Airwars first recorded this in January 2017, and as the year progressed the gulf between Russian and Coalition events only widened. This trend finally ended in September 2017.
Syria: Coalition likely civilian deaths more than quadruple
The number of civilian casualty events tied to Coalition strikes reported in Syria outnumbered those in Iraq by nearly three times in 2017, largely due to the escalating campaign to capture Raqqa.
Civilian deaths in Syria tied to incidents rated as “Fair” or “Confirmed” (by the Coalition) rose by 335% to 633 events in 2017. Between 2,786 and 4,374 civilians were likely killed across such events compared to a minimum of 641 to 1,038 likely deaths during 2016.
“In 2016 we had seen very disturbing scenes from Aleppo, showing the destruction that indiscriminate bombing can wreak on an urban centre,” says Kinda Haddad, head of Airwars’ Syria team. “This year Raqqa showed how the International Coalition against ISIS has repeated the Russian and Regime tactics of ‘siege, bomb and evacuate’ in order to achieve the stated aims of defeating the terror group.”
By the start of 2017, Raqqa was within sight of the Coalition’s SDF allies as its ground forces battled to encircle the city. The intensity of bombing reached a new peak in March, when Airwars tracked the highest death toll yet in Syria – a minimum of 314 civilians reported killed. Almost all of these occurred in Raqqa governorate.
Potentially the worst alleged incident recorded by Airwars in Syria occurred on March 20th-21st in Al Mansoura, near Raqqa. Local sources reported that anywhere from 40 to 420 civilians died in an alleged Coalition strike on Al Badiya school, in which hundreds of displaced women and children were seeking shelter. Human Rights Watch investigators who visited the site put the death toll firmly above 40. The Coalition confirmed the strike, but denied any civilians were killed. It has yet to re-open an investigation into the event, despite HRW’s findings.
A video report by Human Rights Watch, investigating the mass casualty event at Badiya school on March 20th-21st.
This early spike in fatalities in Raqqa governorate was deeply troubling, considering that fighting had not yet entered the city and was still concentrated in its less densely populated surrounding villages and towns.
By April, Airwars was beginning to accumulate extensive evidence from the perspective of civilians themselves, that protections on the battlefield appeared to have been scaled back under the new Trump administration. Additionally, the U.S. military shifted to “annihilation tactics“, a change cited by the Trump White House.
On June 6th the official battle for Raqqa city began; civilian deaths rose that month by 41% compared to May, with a minimum of 418 civilians credibly reported killed. That same first month of fighting saw 4,400 munitions fired on Raqqa – more than four times the number fired in May. Reports emerged of whole families being wiped out. Yet despite mounting evidence, the Coalition continued to cast doubt on the toll its tactics appeared to be having on the most vulnerable people.
The death toll worsened in August, when at least 453 civilians were likely killed by the US-led Coalition in Raqqa. In a typically grim event, up to 50 civilians died on August 20th in an alleged Coalition strike on civilian homes in Raqqa’s Bedo neighbourhood, an area of the city which was repeatedly pounded throughout the month.
By the time Raqqa was liberated on October 20th, Airwars estimate that more than 1,450 civilians had likely killed been by the Coalition since the start of June. Other monitors said that at least 1,800 civilians died in the fighting. Defeat of so-called Islamic State had come at an extraordinary cost, with the UN reporting that 80% of the city was left uninhabitable – despite the Coalition’s continued insistence that is had been “waging the most precise war in history”.
The final quarter of 2017 saw a sharp fall in reported Coalition actions and civilian deaths in Syria. On November 9th, the Syrian government declared victory over ISIS, though strikes continued in Deir Ezzor governorate, where Airwars is still tracking allegations against the Coalition, Russia and the regime.
This fall-off in Coalition strikes meant that after nearly a year, Coalition civilian deaths no longer outnumbered those tied to Moscow. In December, Airwars tracked 52 Russian events in Syria with 16 variously attributed to the Coalition, all in Deir Ezzor governorate.
The Coalition campaign is not over. In December, reported strikes rose by a third to 184, and likely civilian casualties increased in line, to between 33 and 58 civilians killed in 10 incidents we assess as fair. The worst of these 10 events occurred on December 13th when up to 25 civilians including eight children were allegedly killed in Coalition airstrikes on homes in Jarthi al Sharqi, Deir Ezzor governorate, according to local sources.
Iraq: a minimum 87% rise in likely civilian fatalities
The nine month battle for Mosul that officially began on October 17th 2016 would have a disastrous impact on civilians over the course of 2017. By January 24th East Mosul had been liberated, though more than 1,000 civilian deaths had been alleged in that campaign – of which at least 324 appeared to have resulted from Coalition actions.
However, much worse was to come after operations to capture West Mosul officially began on February 19th. Caught between ISIS snipers, mortars and vehicle bombs; and Coalition and Iraqi air and artillery strikes, civilians were placed at extraordinary and sustained risk as the battle built fierce momentum over the next five months.
Minimum likely deaths in Iraq evaluated as Fair or Confirmed increased by 87% in 2017 compared to 2016. Across 133 incidents, Airwars estimates that between 1,128 and 1,717 civilians were likely killed by Coalition actions in Iraq during 2017. Between 4,514 and 6,989 additional deaths are included in “contested” incidents, where multiple belligerents – including the Coalition, Iraqi forces and/or ISIS – have been implicated.
Just days into March, hundreds of civilians were already reported killed in Mosul. During the entire month, Airwars tracked a near tripling of likely fatalities, amid reports of mass casualty incidents in which civilian homes and infrastructure was repeatedly hit.
In the greatest confirmed loss of life in any one civilian casualty event of the war, the Coalition itself admitted to killing between 105 and 141 civilians on March 17th-18th in a US airstrike on Mosul’s Al Jadida/New Mosul neighbourhood. The strike hit a house holding hundreds of displaced civilians near the Al Rahma Al Ahli Hospital. While that one incident sparked international outrage, civilian deaths continued to rise as the battle ground on.
From May, as Iraqi Security Forces pushed into Mosul’s Old City, determining who was responsible for fatalities proved exceptionally challenging. The number of ‘contested’ events in Iraq during 2017 increased more than six-fold on the previous year, to between 4,514 and 6,989 contested deaths monitored by Airwars.
The official liberation of Mosul was finally announced on June 29th as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared a symbolic end to ISIS’s caliphate, though the fighting would continue for three more weeks. However, there was another spike in deaths prior to the city’s fall, including allegations of war crimes committed by victorious Iraqi forces. The entire Mosul campaign was the biggest urban assault since World War Two, effectively lasting 256 days – three months longer than the epic Battle of Stalingrad.
Airwars’ Iraq researcher went into the field numerous times during the West Mosul campaign. “I noted dozens of injured civilians fleeing the battle without any coordination from Iraqi forces or safe corridors,” he says. “Additionally, there was repeated use of civilians as human shields by ISIS. Towards the end of the battle, it sometimes seemed that the Coalition were attacking everything in order to eradicate ISIS from the city, regardless of the high number of civilian casualties.”
From July 18th, Coalition air and artillery strikes effectively ceased in Mosul, resulting in a 41% decrease in civilian casualty events in the city and a corresponding decline in both likely and contested deaths during July. Yet for thousands of Iraqis it was too late. Airwars’ current estimate is that a minimum of between 1,066 and 1,579 civilians were likely killed by Coalition strikes in Mosul between October 17th 2016 and mid July 2017. Of these fatalities, a minimum of 626 occurred during the West Mosul assault, from February 19th to July 15th.
Additionally, between 4,191 and 6,160 more civilians were killed in contested events at Mosul, according to Airwars tracking. Associated Press recently put the number of civilians killed in the battle at between 9,000 and 11,000 – at least a third of whom it said had died in Coalition and Iraqi air and artillery strikes.
After their defeat in Mosul, ISIS’s remaining territorial control quickly crumbled. August saw a rapid victory in Tal Afar, where pre-battle warnings that 50,000 civilians remained in the city were proved incorrect. That same month, reported casualty incidents fell by a quarter.
From September to November, both likely and contested deaths in Iraq continued to plummet. In November just one likely event tied to Coalition strikes was recorded. On December 9th, the Iraqi government declared victory over ISIS. Airwars tracked no allegations of civilian deaths from Coalition actions during the month – the first time this had occurred in Iraq since the start of the war.
Key Airwars investigations during 2017
The Airwars inhouse investigations team led by Samuel Oakford began 2017 by looking back at hundreds of civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq reported in the final days of the Obama administration. That spike would only grow during the first year of the Trump presidency.
In February, Airwars revealed that the US had used depleted uranium against targets in Syria during 2015. This marked the first use of the controversial weapon type since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – in contravention of US claims that it would not do so.
In March, Airwars recorded the 1,000th alleged Coalition civilian casualty event and began to report a steep casualty escalation coinciding with the Trump administration. Additionally during March, Airwars was first to report US involvement in an attack that claimed dozens of lives at a mosque in Idlib.
In April, we released an in-depth investigation into the unilateral US “shadow war” being waged in Syria against alleged al Qaeda-linked targets, leading to incidents like that in al Jinah.
In May, Airwars released an important exclusive investigation that found Coalition allies had killed at least 80 civilians – as determined by US investigators – but that none would accept responsibility for. Airwars also revealed that as part of an arrangement with the Coalition, the US would no longer identify its own strikes — a development with further troubling implications for transparency. Airwars would later unearth Belgian involvement in two casualty events which the Coalition had determined had harmed civilians, despite public denials by Brussels.
In June, Airwars reported on conflicting instructions given to civilians in Raqqa, where operations inside the city officially began that month. And in July, with Mosul’s capture complete, Airwars reviewed the massive civilian toll from that offensive.
Also in July, Airwars reported in a joint investigation with the Daily Beast that civilian casualties from the US-led anti-ISIS war had already doubled under President Trump -after just six months.
Following the capture of Mosul, Airwars monitored heavy civilian death tolls in Raqqa. Hundreds of children were reported killed in the first months of fighting there. In a feature jointly published with Foreign Policy, Airwars drew attention to troubling comments made by the Coalition’s then-commander Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, leading to a rare and lengthy public response by the General.
Airwars monitoring of the campaign in Raqqa continued to show major death tolls. In August, 10 times more munitions were fired in the city than for all of Afghanistan. In October after the city’s fall, Airwars published estimates for civilian deaths in Raqqa that far exceeded anything the Coalition has so far admitted to.
Airwars monitoring of Russian allegations also continued through the year, and in the Fall they were blamed for a sharp rise in civilian deaths during fighting in Deir Ezzor.
Ending a strong year, in December Airwars reviewed the staggering reported casualties from anti-ISIS operations in Iraq.
Military advocacy for Iraq and Syria
A dedicated Airwars military advocacy team was formed in September 2017 thanks to targeted funding, and now consists of four specialist members. The team was created to help match the increased capacity of the Coalition’s own civilian casualty monitoring team.
As a result Airwars has been able to increase both the volume and capacity of its geolocation and investigative work. For example, if an allegation mentions a specific neighbourhood, researchers can help the Coalition find the coordinates of the area and run additional satellite image analysis to try to determine the exact location of the strike, or attempt to geolocate photographs and videos that accompany such reports.
At the request of the Coalition, Airwars directly assisted with 50 individual event assessments during 2017. Enhanced geolocations are now also provided to the Coalition where possible.
In total, during 2017 the Coalition itself processed 803 alleged civilian casualty events in Syria and Iraq, assessing 673 of them to be Non-Credible and 130 as Credible. Airwars has frequently queried such assessments against our own database. As part of this information exchange, in 2017 the Coalition also provided precise locations to Airwars for 67 Credible and 258 Non Credible cases. This information proved critical in determining where allegations and confirmed events had occurred.
Airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Libya
In September 2017, Airwars and New America began a joint Libya project, which is expected to publish its first findings in Spring 2018.
The political instability in Libya created by the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 led to civil war three years later. This in turn gave an opening to ISIS and other extremist belligerents; and further fragmented the political landscape of the country. This also led to the involvement of foreign actors such as the US, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
The new project aims to track and assess all airstrikes in Libya – both international and domestic – since the end of the NATO war in 2011. Three team members are currently gathering and assessing reports – one English-language and two Arabic-language researchers from Libya.
The Libya project is similar to Airwars work in Iraq and Syria, but is also broader in scope. As the estimated sample size of reported airstrikes in Libya is much smaller, the team will be able to conduct more detailed research and code for information such as munition types, weapons used or the structures or objects targeted. Unlike in Syria and Iraq, Airwars will also be able to track airstrikes from domestic forces such as the competing governments of the GNA and LNA, each of which control air assets.
Since September, our research team has begun building up a comprehensive timeline of locally and internationally reported allegations. When the dataset goes public later this year, we expect it to provide significant insights into the deteriorating security situation in Libya – one in which, according to the UN, airpower remains the greatest threat to civilians.
‘On Jan. 19, the Pentagon announced that U.S. airstrikes had hit two ISIS encampments in Libya, killing dozens of ISIS militants’
Airwars Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis for 2017: Kinda Haddad, Salim Habib, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Koen Kluessien, Christiaan Triebert, Tareq Haddad, Eline Westra, Oliver Imhof, Samir, Osama Mansour, Poppy Bowers, Eeva Sarlin, Samuel Oakford, Sophie Dyer, Beth Heron, Laura Bruun, and Chris Woods.