Reports

Reports

The aftermath of an alleged Russian or regime airstrike on Saraqib, Idlib, June 22nd (via the White Helmets)

Published

August 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Six monthly update

The first half of 2019 saw the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity in Syria by the US-led Coalition, though the cost to civilians trapped in Deir Ezzor governorate was significant. Airwars research indicates that civilian deaths likely caused by Coalition strikes rose by 34% between January and June on the first six months of 2018 – with at least 416 civilians killed.

Russia’s campaign in support of the Assad government led to a similar reported civilian toll, with increasingly ferocious assaults on Idlib and Hama governorates claiming the deaths of at least 410 non combatants, mostly since May 1st. 

Elsewhere, in Libya a bloody fight for control of the capital Tripoli between two rival governments saw tens of thousands displaced by fighting. Airwars estimates that locally alleged deaths between January and June 2019 rose more the fivefold on claimed deaths during the first half of 2018.

Meanwhile, in Somalia, the US had already conducted as many counter-terror strikes by June 30th than in all of 2018. 

Russia in Syria

In the first half of 2019, Airwars monitored between 410 and 737 claimed fatalities from 293 alleged Russian casualty events in Syria. This was a fall of 56% on the reported 669 incidents tracked during the first six months of 2018, which had been driven by the ferocious Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a assaults.

However, 75% of Russia’s actions during January to June 2019 took place in the nine weeks from May 1st – as the Assad government’s focused onslaught against both Idlib and Hama intensified, killing hundreds of civilians still trapped on the ground.

Given the volume of allegations, some of these incidents have not yet been fully vetted by Airwars. Initial figures indicate that responsibility for around 70% of the 293 events tracked in the first half of 2019 is currently contested between different belligerents, with sources blaming both Russian and Assad government forces. That does not generally mean such allegations are in doubt – but rather reflects the frequent challenge of positively determining exactly which belligerent inflicted civilian harm.

Overall, Airwars researchers have tracked a total of 3,835 claimed civilian casualty events allegedly involving Russian aircraft between September 30th 2015 and June 30th 2019. The total locally claimed civilian fatalities in these events ranges from 13,305 to 21,441. At least 8,198 of those reportedly killed in these incidents have been individually named by local outlets, on social media, and by casualty recorders.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 6,347 civilians have been killed by Russian warplanes from September 2015 to July 2019. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts this figure at 8,114 civilians, giving an averaged estimate of 7,231 non combatants slain by Russian strikes.

The US-led Coalition in Syria

Early 2019 saw the culmination of more than four years of fighting by the US-led Coalition and its Kurdish ground allies the SDF, when ISIS was defeated as a territorial entity in its last Syrian stronghold. However the cost to civilians was again significant. 

In total between January and June 2019, Airwars tracked 46 alleged civilian harm incidents involving the US-led Coalition – significantly below the 293 alleged Russian civilian harm events during the same period in Syria. All but three of these 46 Coalition incidents were in Syria.

The current Airwars estimate is that between 416 and 1,030 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition actions between January 1st and June 30th this year. All but one of these deaths occurred in Syria across 32 fairly reported incidents. This marks a 34% rise on the minimum number of 310 civilians likely killed by the Coalition in the first half of 2018, according to Airwars estimates.  The Coalition has so far conceded causing civilian harm in five incidents in 2019, killing a total of three civilians and wounding six more.

Despite US President Donald Trump’s shock December 2018 claim of an imminent withdrawal from Syria, from January 2019 civilians faced increasing danger as Coalition air and artillery strikes pounded a fast-diminishing slice of ISIS-held territory. Indeed as previously reported, an Airwars analysis of both strikes and engagements in the so-called MERV (Middle Euphrates Valley) indicates a sometimes higher tempo of Coalition actions in Syria in the first two months of 2019 than were recorded at Mosul during March 2017, the most intense and deadly period of the battle  for Iraq’s second city.

The impact on civilians trapped in just a handful of towns and villages was often devastating: some 98% of the minimum 416 civilians likely killed by Coalition in the first six months of 2019 perished between January 1st and the final announcement of the liberation of  Baghouz, Deir Ezzor from ISIS on March 23rd.

For January to June 2019, in a reflection of the ferocity of this final stage of the campaign, Coalition air and artillery actions in Syria increased by 102% on the first six months of 2018, with 1,898 strikes reported. Most were by the US.

Airstrikes conducted by both the UK and France, Washington’s most active allies in the Coalition, instead continued to fall from January onwards. Between January and June the UK declared approximately 30 airstrikes, while France reported that its Rafales had carried out 34 strikes. However, this decline in airstrikes was deceptive; French artillery played a crucial early role in the final assault on Deir Ezzor, with Task Force Wagram conducting 126 strikes in the Euphrates Valley between January and June 2019 – of which 114 occurred during January.  The French artillery task force was finally disbanded on April 29th.

With this steep fall in strikes by the UK and France – and likely 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 the first half of 2019 – and indeed most associated civilian harm in eastern Syria

Meanwhile, despite the defeat of ISIS in Iraq in late 2017, the US-led alliance reported 231 strikes in that troubled country in the first half of 2019 – a 76% increase on the 131 strikes publicly reported in the first six months of 2018. However, with the Coalition slashing public transparency in December 2018, it is now impossible to assess where or on which specific dates these strikes occurred – and for Airwars to cross-match any potential civilian harm events 

In total, from August 8th 2014 to June 30th 2019 in both Iraq and Syria, Airwars has to date monitored 2,877 incidents locally alleged against the US-led Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State. Among these incidents, it has been claimed locally that a total of between 19,048 and 29,324 civilians were killed.

Airwars presently estimates based both on its own assessments, and events confirmed by the US-led alliance, that a minimum of between 8,175 and 13,051 civilians are likely to have died as a result of Coalition actions. The alliance itself has so far conceded at least 1,321 deaths resulting from 317 events.

Footage from Sky News of Al Baghouz, following the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity in Syria on March 23rd 2019.

Libya

The first six months of 2019 saw a sharp increase in civilian casualties and airstrikes in Libya compared to the same period the previous year. Between 70 and 117 civilians were locally alleged killed between January and June, while in the first six months of 2018 between 13 and 20 civilians were alleged killed.

A total of 163 air and artillery strikes were allegedly conducted between January and June 2018, while 556 reported strikes were monitored in the first six months of 2019 – a 241% increase.

The sharp rise in actions and civilian harm can be explained by the relatively calm political environment in the north African state in early 2018, where the only major battle occurred in Derna, which was later conquered by the Libyan National Army from jihadist forces. The great majority of civilian casualties in that period therefore come from LNA actions.

While early 2019 was also relatively quiet, the situation escalated with the LNA’s offensive on Tripoli beginning in April. Many civilians have died in that battle – slightly more from Government of National Accord strikes in an attempt to defend the capital. The GNA was reportedly responsible for between 28 and 39 civilian deaths, while the LNA allegedly killed between 17 and 38 civilians. 

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia 

The Trump presidency has seen a steep hike in US strikes in Somalia focused on both the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Al-Shabaab and a more recent campaign against ISIS in Somalia. AFRICOM has informed Airwars that in 2019 to July 2nd, it had conducted a total of 46 strikes – one more strike than the 45 declared during all of 2018.

Yet despite this steep rise in actions, the US has only admitted to two civilian deaths (a woman and a child) from its strikes in Somalia since 2007. This one admission came on April 5th, and concerned a strike a year earlier on April 1st 2018.

However, an investigation by Amnesty International documented what it says were 14 civilians killed in just five recent US airstrikes in Somalia.

Yemen

The US campaign targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Yemen continued into the first half of 2019, though at a far slower pace than in previous years.

US Central Command told Airwars that it had carried out nine strikes in Yemen from January 1st to June 30th. It added that during all of 2018, it had carried out a total of 36 air strikes.

There have been no allegations of civilian harm from these January to June 2019 strikes, though up to six terrorists were claimed killed in total. In a January 1st strike on Yemen’s Marib province for example, the US confirmed the death of al Qaeda operative Jamal al Badawi, who had been indicted for his role in the October 12th 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

Pakistan

No US drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan so far in 2019, with the last claimed CIA strike locallly reported in July 2018.

In a blow to transparency, on March 7th US president Donald Trump revoked those parts of former president Barack Obama’s executive order which had required officials to publish annual figures on the number of civilians killed in US strikes outside of war zones. This order, which had applied to both the CIA and JSOC, covered US strikes in Pakistan as well as Yemen and Somalia.

 

Major conflict monitoring for June 2019

Russia and the regime in Syria

During June 2019, the Assad government’s assault on Idlib and Hama governorates continued to intensify, with civilians once again paying a major price. Overall, our researchers monitored 118 locally reported civilian casualty events blamed on Russia during the month, a 12% increase on May’s 105 alleged incidents.

This significant volume of allegations meant that at time of publication, Airwars was still researching and assessing June’s civilian harm incidents. Unrefined estimates show that across these 118 incidents, up to 223 civilians were allegedly killed by Russian and/or regime actions. That tally included at least 38 children and 38 women. As many as 395 additional civilians were reportedly injured. As Airwars researchers uncover further information on these events, it is likely that this death toll will rise.

Of June’s incidents, 72% were in Idlib governorate and 21% in Hama. As in May, there were also a small number of events tracked in Aleppo.

Once more, most larger scale casualty events were reported in Idlib. On June 10th for example, between 4 and 13 civilians died in an alleged Russian or regime airstrike on the village of Jbala, Idlib. According to Syria.liveuamap five of the fatalities were children.

At least 10 civilians, including 5 children and a woman, were killed as Syrian or Russian aircraft fired missiles on residential neighborhoods in Jabala, Idlib governorate on June 10th 2019 (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Worse still was to come on June 19th when as many as 12 civilians including up to six children died in an alleged Russia or regime airstrike on the village of Benin.  Multiple sources referred to this incident as “a massacre”, with the White Helmets adding that the strike “targeted shops and a main road in the town”. Sources named 11 victims, including several members from the Al Jasem, Dabbas, and Al Qa’oud families.

Video of the aftermath of an alleged airstrike that struck Benin on June 19th (via @abuhuzaifa_)

Libya

As the battle for control of Libya’s capital Tripoli entered its third month, the intensity of the fighting slightly dropped as a result of an ongoing military stalemate and high temperatures. Local sources reported 116 air and artillery strikes, a 47% fall compared to the previous month. Civilian casualties also fell from an estimated 19 to 25 in May, to between 6 and 14 deaths in June. A further 25 civilians were reported injured.

In the worst known incident of the month, up to nine civilians were reported killed by an alleged Libyan National Army (LNA) strike on Tajoura. Additionally, the Tajoura Heart Hospital was apparently damaged in the attack, raising concern about the increased targeting of civilian infrastructure in Libya.

June was also the first month since the beginning of hostilities between two rival governments, where the rebel LNA reportedly caused more civilian harm than the Government of National Accord (GNA). Between 2 and 10 civilians were allegedly killed by LNA strikes, while only one civilian was reportedly slain in a GNA strike. Another three civilians were allegedly killed in a contested event resulting from indiscriminate shelling.

While no foreign airstrikes were publicly reported, the LNA released a prisoner of war, initially believed to be a Portuguese mercenary, who turned out to be an American air force veteran, shot down while flying sorties for the GNA.

The US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq

No Coalition strikes have been publicly reported in Syria beyond May 4th 2019. However, strikes in Iraq have continued. During June, the Coalition publicly reported 13 strikes up from 11 in May.

The UK’s MoD said that it had carried out one airstrike against members of ISIS on an area of marshland some 27 miles south-west of Kirkuk on June 13th. The month also saw a detachment of the UK’s “formidable new, fifth generation combat aircraft” the F-35B Lightning flying their first sorties over Syria on June 16th – with more since.

Meanwhile, France reported that two of its Rafales carried out a planned strike mission in Iraq on June 24th as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. The French MoD said this was conducted in cooperation with several other nations of the Coalition.

Airwars tracked one alleged civilian harm event during June. On June 30th, a confirmed unilateral US strike with high-explosive missiles against Al Qaeda at Rif Al Mouhandessen near Aleppo, Syria, on the afternoon of June 30th is also locally reported to have injured at least two children and two women, and killed a number of foreign Al-Qaeda linked fighters. According to Step News, a total of seven injured people were evacuated including the two children and two women, in addition to the bodies of three men.

The US-led Coalition reported that the attack had killed eight members of Al-Qaeda including commanders, though made no mention of civilian harm. A senior official later confirmed the strike to have been a unilateral US action, noting to Airwars, “That was not a CJTF strike.”

Video showing bodies of stuck under the rubble caused by a unilateral US strike in Aleppo on June 30th (via @jalaysalshuhada)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

US Africa Command declared that it carried out six strikes in Somalia during June, down from seven the previous month. It currently assesses that no civilians were harmed in these attacks.

Five of these strikes targeted the terror group Al-Shabaab. On June 5th, one alleged terrorist was killed in an airstrike in the vicinity of Tortoroow. On June 16th, two strikes in the vicinity of Jilib killed two alleged militants; on June 24th a further strike near Jilib killed another alleged militant; and finally a strike on May 25th in the vicinity of Kunyo Barrow killed one more alleged terrorist.

Additionally, there was one declared US airstrike on ISIS in Somalia. As with the three May strikes on ISIS, this event occurred in the Golis Mountains, reportedly killing six alleged militants.

Yemen

According to CENTCOM, there was one US military strike against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during June. This occurred on June 24th in Al Bayda. The US command assessed that no civilians were harmed in this strike.

According to Xinhua, five members of AQAP were killed in strike on the Dhi Nhim district in the northwest of al Bayda late in the evening

It is unknown whether the CIA separately carried out any attacks in Yemen during June.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during June. The last alleged strike was in July 2018.

Advocacy

Military advocacy

Between January and June, the US-led Coalition assessed several hundred alleged civilian harm events for Iraq and Syria – finding 50 of them to be ‘Credible’, and 169 events to be ‘Non Credible.’ A further 131 civilian fatalities were added to the official tally – with the Coalition declaring that it had killed at least 1,321 non combatants during the five year fight against ISIS.

Airwars held several meetings with senior European defence officials in the first six months of the year, calling on militaries to improve their own public transparency – and to adopt some of the accountability better practices recently pioneered by US forces.

Team members also held several meetings with US defense officials in Washington DC, as part of a broader engagement by NGOs and international agencies on civilian harm mitigation issues.

European advocacy

In June, our Netherlands-based conflict researcher and advocacy officer Maike Awater attended a gathering organised by Stichting Democratie en Media to meet other organisations working on stimulating public debate. The meet-up was intended to connect organisations working on similar issues, to share thoughts and ideas and to find potential opportunities for collaboration.

UK advocacy

Members of the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Human Rights and Drones collaboratively organised a parliamentary debate on ‘The continued importance of IHL in the Protection of Civilians’ on June 18th.

In order to create a preparatory briefing for MPs, the APPG’s coordinators organised a roundtable discussion in advance of the debate, and Airwars was invited to participate.

A transcript of the parliamentary debate is available here, during which many MPs noted the changing nature of warfare, including the shift to the use of airstrikes and the related fallacy of the precision narrative.

Among others, Ann Clwyd, MP for Cynon Valley, highlighted her “concern about the Ministry of Defence’s ludicrous claim that there was only one civilian casualty resulting from its operations in Mosul and Raqqa in the fight against IS”. She added that the UK could not expect to lead on the global stage in the protection of civilians until a dedicated civilian casualty team, among other measures, was put in place.

The debate comes as the Foreign Commonwealth Office is in the process of revising the UK government’s own lapsed strategy on the Protection of Civilians. Airwars will continue to engage on this critical issue.

 

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

Conflict monitoring and assessments (June): 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 and Anna Zahn.

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Russian or regime airstrike on Saraqib, Idlib, June 22nd (via the White Helmets)