In January 2019, the noose further tightened around ISIS in the last remaining scraps of territory it held in Syria’s Deir Ezzor governorate. By February 5th, there were an it was claimewd as few as 1,000 fighters in ISIS’s stronghold within a 20-sqaure-mile area near the southern Euphrates Rivers and the Iraqi border, according to US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Joseph Votel – though he added that between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters might remain in the region, mostly dispersed and underground.
Civilian harm claims also continued against the US-led assault. While January saw a 34% month on month fall in civilian casualties likely caused by Coalition actions, Airwars’ current estimate is that between 60 and 118 civilians were nevertheless killed by Coalition fire throughout the month.
Following President Donald Trump’s shock December announcement of a Syrian withdrawal, the US reportedly began to pull equipment (though not troops) out of Syria on January 11th. While it claimed this would not impact its strategic goals in the country, few indications were given of how such promises might translate in practical terms.
The withdrawal announcement did not diminish Coalition actions during the month. The US-led alliance reported 1,220 air and artillery strikes between January 1st and January 26th – a 30% rise on the 939 strikes conducted in December 2018 – and with all of this fire power concentrated on just a few towns in eastern Syria.
However in a worrying development, even as strikes accelerated the Coalition abandoned a 52-month record of stating where and when its actions occur in Iraq and Syria. Airwars protested to both the Coalition’s commanding general and to senior Pentagon officials about what it described as a short-sighted move, which would be felt most keenly by affected civilians on the ground.
For ordinary Syrians still trapped in Deir Ezzor the humanitarian situation was unremittingly dire. Reports from the ground suggested that as many as 4,000 families were on the move in ISIS-occupied areas, as heavy Coalition fire rained down. Those attempting to flee both ISIS and Coalition air and artillery strikes risked death or starvation.
After almost four months of tracking no allegations against Russia in Syria, January 2019 saw a significant rise in casualty events allegedly involving Russian warplanes. Airwars researchers tracked 13 incidents during the month, the majority of which were in Idlib and Hama governorates.
While there were a number of distressing events tied to Russia in January, it is noteworthy that the death tolls for these events were always in single figures, with a maximum of two or three civilians claimed killed per event. These Russian figures were dwarfed by the kind of large-scale casualty events often attributed to the US-led Coalition in Syria during January.
Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties
January saw a 30% increase in declared Coalition air and artillery strikes in eastern Syria. From January 1st to January 26th, 1,220 strikes were conducted, compared to 939 in December 2018. This is the highest number of strikes in any given month since September 2017 – all of which were centred on the few villages and towns still held by ISIS.
For the first time in six months, actions in Iraq also increased, though from a very low base. There were 22 Coalition strikes declared throughout January (up from 16 in December 2018). While these likely focused on more rural areas as ISIS attempted to reform, with public transparency slashed by the alliance it was impossible to say for certain where these occurred – and for Airwars to cross-match any potential civilian harm events.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence publicly reported details of an estimated 19 airstrikes in Syria for January and two in Iraq. The same web page listed an estimated 37 UK airstrikes conducted in Syria for December 2018 – almost all of them near Hajin. The MoD reported that Thursday January 31st saw “the last operational sorties by Tornado GR4s”, though they would continue to fly armed reconnaissance patrols, “on hand to support the SDF if required”. The UK continued to fly strike missions with its Typhoons and Reaper drones.
Actions by France also fell significantly. In the four week period from January 1st to 29th, Paris reported 24 airstrikes in Syria centred around Hajin – a 20% drop on the 31 airstrikes conducted in the previous four week period. Actions by France’s artillery in the Euphrates Valley fell by 11% on the previous four week period, with a total of 114 shooting missions declared during the month.
With this steep fall in strikes by the UK and France – and likiely a limited number of air actions by Iraq into Syria – it is reasonable to assume that the US was responsible for the overwhelming majority of air and artillery strikes during January, and indeed most associated civilian harm in eastern Syria during the fiercely fought last weeks of the Coalition campaign against ISIS.
The Coalition in Syria: likely deaths fall by 34%
Throughout January, Airwars researchers tracked a total of 16 incidents of concern blamed on the Coalition – the same overall number tracked in December 2018. Of these, nine incidents are presently assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation where possible that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day.
Estimated deaths across these nine January events fell by 34% on December 2018’s minimum figures. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 60 and 118 civilians likely died in these nine January events tied to the Coalition, compared to between 91 and 161 such deaths in December 2018. Of these January deaths, at least 21 were reportedly children and 15 were women.
January 2019 also saw a sharp fall in the number of civilians assessed as likely wounded from Coalition actions in Syria. Overall throughout the month between 11 and 87 non-combatants were reported wounded, according to Airwars monitoring – an 84% decrease on the minimum of 67 civilians declared injured in December 2018. However these may represent under-estimates, with reporting from within ISIS’s last stronghold on civilian harm often fragmentary.
“The Coalition was pushing hard in the last pocket of ISIS in January, with help from the SDF on the ground,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan from the Airwars Syria team. “While the number of likely deaths from Coalition air and artillery strikes had fallen from December 2018, it is very hard to imagine the real situation civilians were facing on the ground – and our monitoring numbers do not necessarily reflect that. The situation for those trapped in the last scraps of ISIS territory remained dire.”
Coalition incidents of concern in Syria
While overall there was a sharp fall in likely deaths in January, as with December 2018 the month saw a number of alarming large-scale casualty incidents in which entire families were reported slain in devastating strikes on civilian homes and infrastructure.
In the first of several alleged Coalition strikes on residential areas, between seven and 13 civilians including up to five children and three women died on January 3rd when Coalition jets allegedly struck the home of Sulaiman Mohammed al-Ahdab in Badia 24 in Al Shaafa. Local media reported that only Mr. Mohammed al-Ahdab and his daughter survived the attack, while the rest of the family perished. Two victims were named as Hak Jumah al-Shati Abu Muhammad and his wife, who had reportedly moved outside of Al Shaafa to escape the bombing.
A second civilian home was reportedly struck days later when up to 10 civilians – multiple members of the al-Khalif al-Qatmir family including children – died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the town of Al Khishkiya , east of Deir Ezzor between January 3rd and 4th. The Euphrates Post provided some context for the attack. It explained that SDF fighters raided the house of Salem Hamid (near the house of Ali Al-Khalif al-Qatmir) who was wanted by ISIS. Thinking the SDF were ISIS, Salem Hamid opened fire on them. The SDF then withdrew and called in Coalition airstrikes, and in the subsequent bombing of the area the al-Khalif al-Qatmir were killed.
The final two weeks of January were marked by a series of devastating casualty events in Al Baghouz, one of ISIS’s final enclaves in Syria. In what was to be the worst reported event of the month, as many as 39 civilians including up to 22 children and eight women from the families of Al-Ahmed Al-Mu’i, Ahmed Hussein Abu Bakr, and the family of Al – Haj Hassan Khalil Al-Azzawi died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Baghouz on January 18th.
The Al-Anis family was also reportedly killed in its entirety – except for one little boy. In a heart-rending tweet (below), Deir Ezzor 24 published an image of him. Sitting on steps, he clasps his tiny hands, eyes closed, face marked with dust and wounds as he asks for his brothers and sisters, saying that he is okay and that he wants to see them.
صورة الطفل "عمر أنيس الرميح" الناجي الوحيد بعد مقتل أفراد عائلته جراء القصف من قبل طيران مجهول المصدر الذي استهدف قرية #الباغوز تحتاني شرق #ديرالزور يوم الجمعة الفائت. pic.twitter.com/Q9KNPsowz4
— ديرالزور24 (@DeirEzzor24) January 20, 2019
In a familiar story for those monitoring civilian harm, the majority of sources reported that this event happened while civilians were fleeing areas under ISIS control. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Coalition airstrikes were visible in the area between 13.30 and 14.00 that day.
Just seven days later, there was another large scale event in Baghouz when 13 civilians along with 29 members of ISIS died in alleged Coalition shelling of farms between Al Baghouz Foqani town and Al Marashdad village during the night of January 25th-26th, according to local media. While no victims were named, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the victims included seven members of the same Syrian family, three of whom were children.
Al Baghouz’s residential buildings came under fire yet again on January 29th – and once more the victims were civilians who had been trying to escape fighting elsewhere, this time fleeing the ‘Mohsan’ area following intensified clashes between ISIS and Kurdish militias. Several alleged Coalition missiles claimed the lives of up to 14 including five children and three women, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Jisr Press. An entire family – eight members of the Mohammed al-Majd al-Kadran family – were reportedly slain in this one incident.
Russia in Syria
In January, Airwars tracked 13 civilian harm events in Syria allegedly linked to Russia – a sharp rise from the three possible incidents in December 2018 – and the highest number of events since September last year. In total, between nine and 18 civilians were alleged killed across these 13 events.
An 11-week pause in civilian casualty allegations against Russia in Syria had come to a sudden end in the week of December 31st 2018 to January 6th 2019, with up to six civilians killed in multiple reported strikes in Idlib and Aleppo governorates.
On January 4th for example, Zaman Alwasl reported that three civilians died and several others were wounded in Darat Izza, Aleppo in an alleged Russian airstrike on residential areas. According to AMC and Hadi Abdullah, the victims included a father and his child. Smart News named three victims as Umm Muhammad, Mohammed Awasha and Mohammed Awasha, who was reportedly Director of the Civil Defense Center in the village of Orma Kobra.
In total there were six alleged Russian events tracked in Hama during January – two of which were in Al Lataminah. In the first of these Lataminah incidents, multiple sources reported that a girl was killed and several other member of her family wounded on January 11th. Shabab Latamina named her as 14-year-old Rafida Sattouf al-Hudairi, stating – along with some other sources – that she was killed in “the bombing by unmanned aerial action”. Many sources blamed Russia, though others didn’t apportion blame. It is also worth noting that Russia is not known to have deployed armed drones in Syria. Step News published a video showing destruction in the town following the bombing – along with footage of the girl’s funeral.
Footage of the aftermath of an alleged Russian strike on Lataminah, Hama, January 11th – including the funeral of 14-year-old girl Rafida Sattouf al-Hudairi.
The second Lataminah incident occurred on January 17th. According to Kafr Zeta, a civilian male, named as 53-year-old Khaled Karmo Al-Hilal was killed by a Russian missile. However, Shaam News reported that a man died and several other people were wounded in artillery shelling by Assad’s forces. Baladi and several others sources also blamed the regime, reporting that it had fired shells from its camp at Qubaybat into residential areas in Lataminah. Syria TV noted that “the regime continued to breach the Sochi agreement signed between Russia and Turkey”. Media activist Khalid al-Hussein told Al 7al that local civil defence had retrieved victims from the rubble, who were then treated in the nearest medical centre.
January also saw five casualty events reportedly involving Russian forces in Idlib governorate. On Janaury 20th, LCCSY reported that two civilians died and nine more were wounded in an alleged Russian airstrike on villages to the west of Jisr al-Shughour – and it published an image (below) showing significant destruction. According to Shaam News – which also blamed Russia – the strikes resulted in the destruction of a bakery and the deaths of a man and a woman in the village of Baksriya.
January in Libya was marked by renewed militia shelling in Tripoli as well as the beginning of a new Libyan National Army (LNA) offensive in the south of the country.
In Tripoli, clashes between GNA-affiliated militias and the 7th Brigade flared up again, violating September 2018’s ceasefire. This reportedly led to the death of Mahmud Al Temzini in the south of the city on January 16th. Three days later, the respected photojournalist Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed by indiscriminate shelling while covering the clashes.
At the same time, the LNA’s ongoing offensive started in the south of Libya. Airstrikes reportedly hit targets in Kufra, Murzuq and near the border with Tunisia though without reports of civilian harm.
In addition, either the LNA or Egypt reportedly conducted an airstrike in Derna. Local reports say the city is currently completely cut off from any communication, and keeping track of the situation there is extremely difficult. Sporadic news coming out of Derna point at heavy fighting in a city that had been declared “liberated” from terrorism in June last year.
1/2 تدين بعثة الأمم المتحدة للدعم في ليبيا بشدة مقتل عدد من المدنيين في اشتباكات جنوب #طرابلس، بمن فيهم المصور الصحفي محمد بن خليفة، والذي شكلت وفاته فاجعة أليمة لليبيين والجسم الإعلامي في #ليبيا ونموذج عن الاعتداءت المتكررة التي يتعرض لها الصحفيون … pic.twitter.com/lBtHxkfihL
— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) January 20, 2019
Translation: ‘The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) strongly condemns the killing of a number of civilians in clashes in the south of Tripoli, including journalist Mohamed Ben Khalifa, whose death was a painful tragedy for Libyans and the media community in Libya, and was part of a pattern of repeated attacks on journalists.’
The UK Parliament’s Defence Select Committee heard oral evidence from Airwars director Chris Woods in January. The hearing came after Airwars submitted written evidence in September 2018 to the parliamentary inquiry into UK Military Operations in Mosul and Raqqa. This warned that UK claims of near-zero civilian harm from almost 2,000 anti-ISIS airstrikes lacked credibility.
While commending the UK for its transparency during the fight against ISIS, Woods said that UK accountability for civilian harm remained poor. He urged the Ministry of Defence to improve its own reporting and assessments of civilian harm; to engage better with external agencies; and to conduct followup investigations where possible on the ground into local reports of civilian death and injury from problematic strikes.
Woods also noted that the US-led alliance had often ceded the social media sphere to the terrorist group in the early stages of the war by claiming zero civilian casualties, or by refusing to engage publicly on individual civilian harm events. By contrast, ISIS had “courted local credibility” by sometimes reporting conservative estimates of civilian harm from Coalition actions in areas it was occupying.
Airwars was joined in the parliamentary hearing by Emily Knowles of the Remote Warfare Programme, and social media specialist David Patrikarakos, for the session titled Global Islamist Terrorism.
Online, Airwars completed uploading its back catalogue of geolocation notes and imagery. Previously only available on request, these materials show how researchers have arrived at a set of coordinates and “geolocation accuracy” via the analysis of open source materials.
January marked the first month after the Netherlands pulled back their F-16 fighter jets from Jordan. By January 2nd, all of the aircraft had safely returned to their base in Vonkel.
The Netherlands’ first mission ran from October 2014 until July 2016, during which it flew 2,100 sorties and deployed 1,800 weapons. The second mission ran from January to December 2018, during which time 900 further sorties were flown and 300 weapons deployed, according to official data.
With all pilots and aircraft safely home, Airwars will continue to press officials for more information on the Dutch campaign, which has been rated by Airwars as the least transparent among the 14 Coalition allies. The Netherlands ministry of defence still refuses to say where or when three confirmed Dutch civilian casualty events took place in Iraq – or even to say how many casualties were involved. It is unique among alliance members in witholding such information.
Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis for January: Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Sophie Dyer, Maike Awater, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Poppy Bowers, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann, Laura Bruun, Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, and Laurie Treffers.