Major Conflict Monitoring
June 2020 saw a slight resurgence in foreign action in Syria, with sporadic Russian strikes being reported in Idlib; and with the US-led Coalition continuing its operations against Iranian-backed groups in Syria. In Iraq, ISIS’s insurgency has decreased significantly as Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have increased the tempo of their own Counter-Terrorism campaigns. Meanwhile, Turkey launched a major joint air and ground operation against Kurdish militants over the border into northern Iraq, in a bold attempt to dislodge the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the region. This led to several disturbing civilian casualty events.
While the conflict in Libya continued to rage on, the number of strikes decreased significantly as the Government of National Accord (GNA), with Turkish support, continued to consolidate its gains from the previous month against the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its foreign allies. A stalemate at the frontline in Sirte led to almost complete inaction between the two sides. However, foreign actors reportedly used the impasse to funnel more weapons into Libya.
As the chart below shows, the number of civilian harm incidents decreased during June across all major conflicts tracked by Airwars apart from Iraq (due to Turkey’s Operation Tiger Claw against the PKK.) The number of reported civilian harm incidents in Libya decreased by almost 75%.
Air and artillery strikes decrease in Libya as GNA advances continue
June marked the first month in Libya where the GNA and Turkey allegedly caused more civilian harm than the LNA and its allies. While the number of tracked air and artillery strikes dropped significantly from 274 to 94, locally reported civilian deaths only decreased from 64-81 to 44-54.
The GNA and Turkey allegedly conducted 25 air and artillery strikes leading to between 24 and 32 civilian deaths in a successful effort to regain territory from the LNA. In the worst event of the month, between 12 and 20 civilians were killed by a GNA or Turkish drone strike on Qasr Bin Gashir on June 3rd.
Civilian harm reported from LNA and Emirati strikes significantly decreased compared to previous months, as the GNA finally managed to oust Khalifa Haftar’s forces from Tripoli. The siege of Libya’s capital officially ended on 4th June after more than 400 days. Between 16 and 17 civilian deaths were alleged from 59 LNA and Emirati actions in June. The most severe incident took place in Gheryan on June 2nd, when five civilian males were reportedly killed by a drone strike.
Another six strikes by unknown belligerents allegedly led to a further four to five civilian deaths.
The vast majority of these strikes were conducted at the beginning of June, with only seven reported towards the end of the month. Military activity had effectively stalled due to a stalemate at the Sirte frontline, where both sides were sending in reinforcements. AFRICOM also once again overtly called out Russia for supplying the LNA with fighter jets. Strikes by Russian-supplied MiGs reportedly led to civilian harm on two occasions.
Russian strikes resume in Syria as ceasefire slowly unravels
After three months of relative calm in northwestern Syria, Russian airstrikes were reported for the first time on June 3rd and then again on June 8th-9th, with some reportedly leading to civilian harm. These actions brought into sharp focus the fragility of a major ceasefire initially agreed in March – raising fears that Russia’s aerial campaign on Idlib could resume. In total, four civilian harm incidents allegedly involving Russia were reported during the month, resulting in eight civilian deaths and the injury of 16 others.
The June 3rd airstrikes took place in an area where the boundaries of Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces meet, close to the highly strategic M4 highway, where Turkish and Russian forces conduct their joint patrols as part of the truce agreement. These strikes were aimed at pushing Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants – who enjoy a significant presence in this area -further away from the M4 highway, to create a buffer from the Sahl al-Ghab area in northern Hama province.
Five days later, Russian warplanes began reportedly striking a number of areas in Idlib. On June 8th, local sources reported that Russian warplanes hit the al-Muzarra village in Jabal al-Zawiya in southern Idlib, According to SMART News Agency, two civilians were killed and three others were wounded in the attack. According to Baladi News, four civilians from the same family were injured.
The next day saw alleged Russian strikes in Balyoun, Kansafra, and Idlib city resulting in civilian harm. In Balyoun, one civilian was killed and eight others were injured in an aerial bombardment on residential areas in the western part of the village. According to Baladi News, the civilian killed was Abdullah Ahmad al-Dani from the neighbouring town of Kansafra. In Kansafra, Russian raids killed one civilian and injured four others. Meanwhile, on the same day, three children (Salah Ghajar, Rand Saed al Din and Rand’s brother Huthaifah) were killed when a cluster munition left behind from the previous bombing by Russian warplanes exploded near a farm in the al-Jedar area.
Following this June 8th spike in alleged Russian action, there were no further reports of civilian harm from Russian strikes for the rest of the month.
US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria
The month of June saw only one civilian harm incident locally reported to have involved the US-led Coalition in Syria. This was a welcome decrease from the four incidents reported for the previous month, which remains the highest monthly tally of the year to date.
On June 24th, on the road between Idlib city and the town of Binnish, a Coalition drone reportedly targeted a ‘Santa Fe’ car, allegedly killing Abu Adnan Al-Homsi, a senior figure in Huras al-Din, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. According to SMART, the drone strike also killed a civilian riding a motorbike near the targeted car. This came ten days after a similar incident, when a drone targeted a car carrying two members of Huras al-Din, known as Qasim al-Urduni and Bilal al-Sana’i. However, no civilians were reportedly harmed in that event.
Another strike on Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham was reported by locals on June 16th, south of Sarmada in northern Idlib. According to local sources, the strike hit an Islamic tribunal in the area. However, both the number and combatant status of people killed in that event is still not known.
Meanwhile, military operations against ISIS targets were also reported throughout the month. On June 20th, the US-led Coalition allegedly launched a strike on the road between al-Dana and al-Bad in eastern Aleppo, killing ISIS commander Fayez al-Akkal, who also served as the former ‘governor’ of Raqqa. On June 21st, another International Coalition strike took place on a motorcycle belonging to an unidentified ISIS militant near the Kubaiba oil field in southern Hasaka Governorate.
Local sources also reported four strikes against Iran-backed groups by planes locally identified as belonging to the International Coalition. The first took place in the town of Maizilliah in Deir Ezzor province on June 6th, killing approximately eight people. The second was in the Thalathat area, west of al-Boukamal on June 8th. Another airstrike was reported in the al-Akershi desert, southeast of Raqqa city, and finally, the last locally reported strike took place in al-Abbas village near al-Boukamal, where according to reports, six headquarters were targeted in a major raid on June 28th.
In Iraq, there was one civilian harm incident reported in the Abu Zuwair area near Baiji. This came after a US MQ-IC Gray Eagle armed drone crashed in the area, which led to shepherds approaching the fallen drone. However, another drone arrived and struck the same area killing the four shepherds near the crashed drone. According to other sources, the shepherds had carried parts of the drone in a pickup truck and were then pursued by a second drone and killed as they tried to leave the area.
Turkey in Syria and Iraq
Turkish-led actions varied considerably in Syria and Iraq during June. The number of civilian harm incidents involving Turkish action decreased considerably in Syria, while Iraq saw Turkey escalating its ongoing anti-PKK campaign, after launching Operation Claw-Tiger.
Airwars tracked one civilian harm incident in Syria involving alleged Turkish action. On June 23rd, a Turkish drone strike reportedly killed three women in the village of Helince, east of Kobani. According to local reports, the house of Amina Waysi, was hit, killing her and two other women – Zehra Berkel, a coordinating member of the Kongra Star women’s movement; and Mizgin Xelil.
Three civilians lost their lives due to the targeting of a drone believed to be a #Turkish drone in the village of Helinc east of #Kobanê. pic.twitter.com/0sRPoexp99
— Hoshang Hasan (@HoshangHasan1) June 23, 2020
In Iraq, Turkey launched a major joint air and ground operation against the PKK in northern Iraq on June 17th. According to reports, Special Forces were airlifted to the border region of Haftanin in the early hours of Operation Claw-Tiger. According to the Turkish Ministry of Defence, the campaign targeted 150 suspected PKK positions with jets, helicopters, drones and artillery.
The unprecedented scale and scope of these latest operations posed a significant risk to civilians living near the Turkish border of northern Iraq. The week following the beginning of operations was particularly harmful to civilians in Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah.
As a result, five civilian harm incidents were reported during Juneh, four of which took place following the beginning of Operation Claw-Tiger. In these events, seven people were reported killed and at least nine others injured.
The first alleged civilian harm case from Turkish actions took place in Sinjar on June 14th, where local sources reported that “several civilians” were injured in Turkish airstrikes on civilian areas – though the exact number of injured civilians was not specified in local sources. In the first two days of the campaign, three more? civilian harm incidents were reported. The first took place on June 17th, within hours of the launch of the operations in Bradost, northern Erbil province, where a shepherd by the name of Ebas Mexdid Nimet was killed and up to three others were injured.
Two days later on June 19th, two civilian harm incidents took place. One took place in the Kokar area near the Avamark Resort in Dohuk province, where a Turkish airstrike killed three people and injured two others. Another airstrike on the same day in Barwari reportedly killed a civilian.
#BREAKING #Turkish war planes bombs #Shiladze town in #Dohuk province Iraqi #Kurdistan , killed 3 civilians injured 2 2 hours ago#TwitterKurds @AzadiRojava pic.twitter.com/vIEsaoEYCY
— Hana Çômanî (@HanaComani) June 19, 2020
The final incident took place in Kunamasi, near a resort in the Sulaimaniyah province on June 25th. That airstrikes hit a vehicle carrying PKK fighters, but also struck a mini market belonging to a local family. According to some reports, two civilians were killed and up to five others were injured. A widely shared video showed children playing nearby showered with debris.
Turkish attacks in northern Iraq in the first week of the campaign drew widespread condemnation from neighbouring countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Iraqi Government also condemned the latest incursion by Turkey into Iraq’s territory as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
Is this okay with you? @masrour_barzani @qubadjt @jensstoltenberg this is my brother playing with my nephew when a Turkish bomb drops 20 meters away from them in Kuna Masi. #TwitterKurds pic.twitter.com/tNUK8HeWt0
— Jîl Şwanî (@thejilswani) June 25, 2020
Kurdish counterfire in Syria
After more than three months without any civilian harm incidents allegedly resulting from Kurdish counterfire, local Syrian news outlets said that a child was killed after a mortar shell, reportedly from the YPG, exploded near the city of Mare’a in Aleppo province on June 28th. According to Bawabat Aleppo, the child killed was 14 year-old Hamza Ibrahim. The explosion reportedly took place on the road to the nearby village of Esnabel.
US counter-terrorism campaigns
There were no publicly alleged or announced US strikes in Somalia during June, with the last declared AFRICOM action taking place on May 17th.
Airwars tracked one alleged US drone strike in Yemen during the month of June. According to local reports, the strike took place on Wadi Obeida, just northwest of Marib city on June 24th. The strike reportedly hit al-Qaeda militants, who had just escaped a battle with Saudi-backed Yemeni forces in the Qaniyah front of Baydha province. According to one source, the airstrike killed an unnamed senior figure within AQAP. However, this claim has not been corroborated by other reports on the airstrike.
CENTCOM itself said that it did not carry out any strikes in Yemen during the month. However it remains possible that the June 24th event was conducted by the CIA, which carries out a parallel, covert campaign in Yemen.
There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during May. The last such reported or claimed US action was in July 2018.
Airwars participated, along with 1,000 other organisations, in a high level virtual convening on United Nations Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, which reflected on how the UN’s present counter-terror policies impact on peace, human rights and development
Airwars also observed discussions and side events of the ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region – Brussels IV Conference,’ and sent a followup question to the panel on ‘Ensuring accountability and civilian protection in Syria’. The question focused on the need for accountability from all the actors involved in the Syrian conflict:
While casualty tracking indicates that the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Syrian civilians, including women and children, as a result of airstrikes on civilian residential areas, research from monitoring organisations shows that other international actors – such as Turkey and the US-led Coalition – are also responsible for civilian harm, often at significant levels. How can we hold the Syrian regime and its allies to account, while ensuring that other States calling for the protection of civilians are themselves fully committed to meeting accountability standards?
The US State Department – which hosted the ‘Brussels IV’ discussion on Syria – has yet to respond to those questions which resulted from the session.
In June, the Airwars European advocacy team held several roundtables with our Dutch civil society partners. As Dutch Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld wrote in her letter to Parliament on June 30th, several NGOs, including Airwars, have been meeting with the Ministry to discuss our previously submitted roadmap to improve Dutch policy regarding transparency and accountability for civilian harm. The aim is to agree on a joint plan by the end of the summer, as stated in the Minister’s letter.
On June 25th, the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges (UCGC) at the University of Utrecht launched its latest project War/Truth: Civilian harm in remote warfare. In January, Airwars’ European advocacy officer moved into the UCGC office as a societal partner of the centre in order to help facilitate better collaboration on the topic of civilian harm. The goal of our collaboration is to “connect Airwars’ work recording civilian harm with research carried out by the Intimacies of Remote Warfare programme (Utrecht University) into wider questions of transparency, accountability, responsibility and legitimacy.”
All 38 historical civilian harm allegations from US-led Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria, covering a period from January 2015 to July 2017 – and reviewed by the Coalition for its June report – were rejected as ‘non credible. Each of the 38 cases had been an Airwars referral.
As Airwars noted in a letter of concern to Coalition commanders, this meant that of the 257 incidents so far reviewed by OIR for 2020, only eight had been deemed Credible – or just 3.1%.
Airwars expressed concern “that OIR may once again be moving away from engaging with external sources on civcas claims – and instead [is] institutionally focusing on self-reported events. If that is the case it would represent a backward step – particularly with DoD itself now emphasising the value of external sources.”