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.
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.
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
— 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.
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).
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.
US counter-terrorism campaigns
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”