Reports

Reports

Smoke rises above Jisr Al Shougur following an alleged Russian strike from a battleship off the coast of Latakia, April 9th 2019 (via LCCSY)

Published

May 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Following the capture of Al Baghouz and the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity on March 23rd, US-led Coalition air and artillery strikes in Syria effectively stopped, while actions in Iraq have also heavily declined in recent months. Consequently, Airwars has not tracked a civilian casualty event in Syria assessed as likely caused by Coalition air or artillery strikes since March 21st. However civilian harm has been reported during counter terrorism raids.

The last known civilian harm event in Iraq was recorded on March 24th  – itself the first publicly alleged incident in that country since May 2018.

The Airwars mission to monitor all casualty allegations from international actions in Iraq and Syria remains unchanged – and we will continue to track civilian harm allegations in both countries when they occur, including from Turkey and Russia, which is again on the offensive. Our tracking of civilian harm from all belligerents in Libya also continues – with our team particularly busy monitoring the ongoing battle for control of Tripoli.

From this month, our assessments will also foreground strikes and claims of civilian harm from US counter-terrorism campaigns in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, with Airwars now taking over monitoring from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In addition, our post-conflict work continues to expand. Launched in April, a major Airwars project with Amnesty International revealed that more than 1,600 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition strikes in the devastated city of Raqqa during 2017. Alongside this, our advocacy engagement with militaries and governments continues, as we seek answers on behalf of the most vulnerable peoples affected by war.

Major conflict monitoring

Libya

Libya’s two rival governments are engaged in a lethal struggle for control of that troubled nation’s capital. The Tripoli offensive of the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) began on April 4th, with the month seeing a major spike in both airstrikes and civilian harm allegations. Throughout April Airwars tracked 156 airstrikes, and monitored reports of between 37 and 65 civilians killed.

The largest known share of victims came from airstrikes from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), with between 14 and 22 civilians reported killed. LNA strikes reportedly resulted in a further 9 to 14 civilian deaths. For a further 14 to 25 civilian fatalities no blame could be apportioned, as many resulted from indiscriminate artillery shelling according to reports. Rapidly changing frontlines and disinformation about territorial control made events particularly hard to track.

In the worst known incident for April, up to 12 civilians were killed in Al-Swani south of Tripoli by indiscriminate artillery shelling. Five days later, up to 8 civilians were killed in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighbourhood, likely by LNA shelling.

In addition, internationalising of the conflict now seems likely. Remnants of Chinese made missiles were found at the sites of several airstrikes in Tripoli, almost certainly fired by Wing Loong drones. Both the United Arab Emirates and Egypt operate Wing Loongs and back Khalifa Haftar’s LNA – though it is not presently known whether either or both nations was responsible for these attacks.

For its part, the LNA said it had captured a Portuguese mercenary pilot after reportedly shooting down a Mirage flown by a GNA-supporting faction based at Misurata. Both the LNA and GNA appear to be using mercenaries to fly lethal air sorties. And both have repeatedly been accused of receiving arms from foreign backers, in violation of the UN arms embargo.

After a month of fighting there was still no end in sight to the struggle between two rival governments. Territorial control had not significantly changed, contrary to the LNA’s stated expectation to take the capital within days. A protracted stalemate will place at further risk tens of thousands of civilians caught between the two sides.

Besides events in Tripoli, one civilian casualty event was recorded on April 2nd in Kufra in the extreme south of the country. Four civilians were allegedly killed by an unknown aircraft. Both the LNA and the US’s AFRICOM denied responsibility for the attack – although an LNA spokesman insisted the victims were “terrorists.”

Radwan Milad Attiya, reportedly killed by indiscriminate shelling on April 19th (Image via Tripoli Now)

Russia in Syria

As the net continued to tighten during the Assad government’s offensive against rebel forces in Idlib and Hama governorates in Syria, April saw a 30% increase in alleged Russian or regime civilian casualty events – though the number of claimed fatalities fell slightly on March.

In total, between 29 and 59 civilians were locally alleged killed across 26 events in April – compared to between 36 and 94 such fatalities across 20 events during the previous month. Of these 26 events, seven were assessed by Airwars as likely resulting from Russian actions, killing an estimated 7 to 15 civilians. For the remaining 15 incidents, reports were conflicted as to whether Russia or the Assad regime were to blame. Some 42% of April’s 26 events were in Idlib governorate, and a further 42% in Hama.

The worst incident of the month occurred on April 23rd, when up to nine civilians were reportedly killed and dozens more wounded in alleged Russian and regime strikes on Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib. Among the named fatalities were seven year old Ghazi Nahem, eight year old Yunus Ddo, and the little girl Aysha Makhzoum.

Aysha Makhzoum, killed in shelling on Khan Sehikoun on April 23rd (via Khan Sehikoun and its countryside lens Facebook page).

The US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq

Following the announcement of ISIS’s defeat as a territorial entity in Syria on March 23rd, air and artillery strikes in Syria all but stopped. Between March 24th and May 4th the Coalition reported 23 strikes in Syria. No Syrian strikes have been publicly reported beyond that date, although counter-terrorism raids have continued.

For the first time since the start of anti-ISIS actions in August 2014, Airwars tracked no civilian harm events assessed as likely and caused by US-led Coalition air or artillery strikes in either Iraq or Syria during an entire month.

There were however two allegations of civilians killed in joint counter-terror raids by the US-led Coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces. On April 13th, between one and five civilians were alleged killed in a joint landing operation involving the Coalition and the SDF at Al Takihi, Deir Ezzor. The raids reportedly targeted the home of an ISIS fighter; however, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the victims were shot by SDF forces.

In a similar event at around 1 am on April 25th, up to six civilians including a family of four reportedly died in a joint operation by the SDF with air support from the Coalition  at Al Daman. According to Step the house of Farhan Mazhour al-Sarhan was raided, killing Farhan Mazhour Al Sarhan,  two of his adult sons and one of their wives (who was pregnant), Step alleged that the SDF fired on the house knowing that the victims were civilians. A reported eyewitness told Deir Ezzor24 that the SDF shot the family members “in cold blood”.

In a later post, Deir Ezzor 24 claimed that the Coalition and SDF held an extended meeting on May 18th with the families of victims of two “massacres”, the April 25th event in Al Daman and a later event on May 8th-9th in Al Shahil. During the meeting, which was also said to have been attended by tribal elders, the families pressed the Coalition to provide evidence that the victims had any links with ISIS – and to recognise that their intelligence had been incorrect.

Meanwhile, there were 41 strikes declared by the Coalition in Iraq between March 24th and April 20th (a 59% fall on the 99 strikes conducted in the previous four week period). Again, Airwars tracked publicly reported no civilian casualty events.

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Beginning in April, Airwars took over the monitoring of US drone strikes and reported civilian harm in three long-running counter-terrorism wars in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. In the coming months, Airwars will be incorporating the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s invaluable 17-year archive into its own site – ensuring permanent and public accessibility.

Somalia

The US has been carrying out covert strikes in Somalia since 2007, primarily focused on the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Al-Shaabab. Additionally, US special forces continue their more recent campaign against ISIS in Somalia.

During April, AFRICOM says it carried out five airstrikes in Somalia. Three of these were on Al-Shaabab. They occurred on April 9th in the Jilib, Middle Juba region; on April 11th in the vicinity of Garowle, in the Lower Shabelle region; and on April 19th in the vicinity of Jamaame, in Lower Juba. Four Al-Shabaab terrorists were reportedly killed.

Additionally, there were two declared US airstrikes on ISIS. The first of these on April 14th reportedly killed the second-in-command of ISIS-Somalia, Abdulhakim Dhuqub, in the vicinity of Xiriiro, in Bari region. On April 26th, a precision airstrike reportedly killed three ISIS terrorists in the Golis Mountains, in the Puntland region. AFRICOM has informed Airwars that no civilians were currently assessed as having been killed or injured in any of these strikes.

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, US strikes in Somalia have continued to rise. In 2018, there were 43 declared strikes. AFRICOM tells Airwars that it has already conducted 33 airstrikes during the first five months of 2019. In addition to the five strikes in April, there were nine in January, 15 in February and four during March.

The US has only admitted to two civilian deaths (a woman and a child) from its actions in Somalia since 2007. This sole admission came on April 5th this year, and concerned a strike on April 1st 2018. Those conceded deaths came in response to a report by Amnesty alleging at least 14 non-combatant fatalities in five other incidents over the last two years. This illustrates both the importance of fieldwork in uncovering civilian harm -and the significant disparity in casualty estimates by monitors and AFRICOM.

Yemen

According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during April. It is unknown whether the CIA separately carried out any attacks.

The first know US drone strike outside a regular battlefield took place in Yemen in 2002, killing six alleged Al Qaeda terrorists. In 2007, Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia merged to form Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), which then became the controversial focus of US covert and clandestine operations in Yemen under President Obama from 2009 onwards.

Yemeni soldiers and US airpower succeeded in removing AQAP from its strongholds. However, the group later became embroiled in the ongoing civil war – one of the greatest humanitarian crises of today, which killed or wounded almost 100 civilians per week during 2018, according to the UN.

US counter-terrorism strikes in Yemen have see-sawed in recent years. In the first 100 days of President Trump taking office more strikes hit Yemen than in 2015 and 2016 combined.

However CENTCOM told Airwars that it did not conduct any strikes in Yemen during April 2019. Its last two declared strikes were in Al Bayda on March 29th. The US military command assessed that no civilians were harmed in either of these actions. In total for 2019, CENTCOM says it has conducted eight strikes in Yemen (two in January and six in March). The January air strikes took place in Marib and Al Bayda governorates.

The US war against Al Qaeda in Yemen is only a small part of the conflicts wracking that nation. More than 8,400 civilians have credibly been reported killed in the ongoing Saudi-led air and ground war against the country’s Houthi government, according to the Yemen Data Project – which has been collecting and disseminating data on the war since 2016. And in April, Bellingcat launched its own investigative website examining Saudi-led strikes in Yemen.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during April.

The US began drone strikes in Pakistan in June 2004. These have been aimed at various groups including Al-Qaeda, the Pakistan Taliban, and the Haqqani Network. The US carried out 10 times more CIA drone strikes in Pakistan strikes under President Barack Obama than under George Bush. However, with the effective defeat of Al Qaeda Central and a decline in militant activity in Pakistan’s tribal areas, strikes have petered out in recent years.

In a blow to public accountability, in March of this year President Donald Trump revoked a key part of an Obama 2016 executive order, requiring US officials to publish annually the number of civilians killed in US drone strikes outside of war zones – describing the order as “superfluous”.

When contacted by Airwars and asked if the US had carried out any strikes in April, the Pentagon said it had “nothing to report on airstrikes in Pakistan”.

 

Advocacy

At least 1,600 civilians died in the battle of Raqqa – ten times more than the Coalition concedes. That  was the key finding of a major new study by Amnesty International and Airwars which published in April. The groundbreaking project, which combined Amnesty’s extensive fieldwork with Airwars’ rigorous remote monitoring of the Raqqa campaign, offers the most methodical estimate to date of the death toll from the US-led battle to retake the city from ISIS.

War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus Reality identified almost 500 incidents of civilian harm from alleged Coalition actions, and named 1,000 victims. Amnesty launched a new data-led website to expose the scale of destruction from Coalition strikes on the city. There was also an interactive exhibition at the Architectural Association in London, which included a 360 degree tour of the shattered ruins of the ancient city. This was accompanied by a series of lectures on Raqqa and modern warfare.

There was significant media pickup of the project’s findings, across multiple languages. The Coalition tells Airwars that it is currently assessing 95 Raqqa events referred to its assessors by Amnesty.

Our geolocation team also showcased the Raqqa project’s findings at a workshop in Rotterdam at the Het Nieuwe Instituut, focusing on architecture and investigative journalism. The event specifically explored how satellite image analysis and open source materials are used in our advocacy work to investigate civilian harm claims. 

During April, Airwars’ Netherlands-based conflict researcher and advocacy officer Maike Awater also attended a NATO conference on Cultural Property Protection. The event brought together experts from various domains, including NGOs, policy makers, academics and military personnel.

Back in London, former UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson announced to Parliament on April 8th that the MoD would discontinue reporting on “airstrikes” and instead start reporting on each weapon release. This small but positive move was welcomed by Airwars. Along with other NGOs, we have repeatedly stressed that weapon releases are a more useful metric for monitoring intensity of bombardment than the imprecise term ‘airstrike’ – which might refer to multiple weapons fired across a number of engagements.

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria conceded a further 34 civilian deaths in April, bringing the total number of admitted fatalities across the war against ISIS to 1,291. It noted that it is still investigating 122 incidents of alleged civilian harm.

An interview with Mohammed Othman Aswad, the only survivor of an alleged Coalition airstrike on his home in Raqqa, June 28th 2017 (via Amnesty International)


Additional reporting:
Maike Awater, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann and Osama Mansour.

Conflict monitoring and assessments (April): Ali Abbas Ahmadi, Maike Awater, Poppy Bowers, Laura Bruun, Abbie Cheeseman, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Harry Holmes, Alex Hopkins, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Hanna Rullmann, Laurie Treffers, Clive Vella, and Anna Zahn.

▲ Smoke rises above Jisr Al Shougur following an alleged Russian strike from a battleship off the coast of Latakia, April 9th 2019 (via LCCSY)