Reports

Reports

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon pulls away after being refueled by a 28th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Nov. 29, 2018. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James Cason)

Published

January 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

In November, Airwars tracked the highest reported civilian death toll from alleged Coalition actions since the fall of Raqqa in October 2017. As the terrorist group clung on to a handful of villages in Deir Ezzor and the Hajin campaign rolled into its third month, Coalition actions rose by 32% on October with 634 strikes publicly reported in Syria throughout November. The increased ferocity of the assault had a disastrous impact on ordinary Syrians on the ground according to locals. Overall, at least 221 civilians – 65% of whom were women and children – likely died at the hands of the US-led alliance during November – more than double the already troublingly high toll seen in the previous month.

This rise in fatalities coincided with a 62% increase in munitions released from the air across Iraq and Syria. According to AFCENT, 1,424 munitions were released in November, compared to 876 the previous month. *

A total of 39 casualty events reportedly involving the Coalition were tracked by Airwars researchers during November – of which 31% were in Hajin itself. But once more, the nearby towns of Al Shaafa and Al Soussa were also heavily struck. In a continuation of October’s most disturbing trend – and reminiscent of Raqqa – multiple mass casualty events – which reportedly killed scores of civilians – appeared to be the norm.

The spiralling death toll prompted local monitors to slam the Coalition for its “disregard for human life”, with the U.N. Secretary General’s Office expressing concern at the mounting casualty toll in Deir Ezzor. For those who had at least for the time being managed to find shelter from the bombardment, the situation looked unremittingly bleak. In the ISIS-held town of Al Soussa alone, some 21,000 civilians were reportedly trapped in an impossible situation between US-led, ISIS and regime fire.

Even as the death toll climbed, the Coalition played down claims of civilian deaths, aggressively pushing back against claims of civilian harm as unsubstantiated or untrue – even while as many as 161 civilians were claimed killed within the space of just one week.

The scale of casualties attributed the the US and its allies dwarfed those linked to both the Assad regime and Russia for the month. For November Airwars once again monitored no alleged claims of civilian harm in Syria from Russian actions – with no known allegations against Russian forces since September 10th.

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

Strikes in Iraq by the remaining Coalition allies (the US, the UK, France and The Netherlands) doubled in November on the previous month, though remained at a low level with 24 strikes publicly reported.

However, actions in eastern Syria continued to rise. Throughout November, the Coalition publicly reported 634 air and artillery strikes – a 32% increase on October – and the greatest number of strikes in any given month since September 2017, the penultimate month of the brutal Raqqa campaign.

Even so, air actions by the two most active allies after the US – the UK and France – actually fell. Between November 1st and November 24th, the UK reported approximately 17 airstrikes – all in Deir Ezzor – compared to approximately 24 throughout October.

French actions from the air also fell steeply. Between October 31st and November 27th, France carried out just five airstrikes, all in Syria, near Abu Kamal and Hajin – a sharp fall on the 17 reported in the previous four week period. Artillery actions by Task Force Wagram however, increased massively. In total, there were 229 ‘firing missions’ in the month – over three times the 69 reported during October. In the week of October 31st to November 6th, there were 54 ‘shooting missions’ alone – a huge jump from the six reported in the previous week.

Dutch actions also declined by 35% on October. Netherlands’ F-16s deployed weapons across 13 missions in November (compared to 20 in October), all of which were near Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor governorate, Syria.

This major decline in allied actions indicated that the United States alone was responsible for the great majority or air and artillery strikes on Hajin – along with most civilian casualties.

A M777A2 howitzer is fired at Fire Base Saham, Iraq, November 20, 2018 (via US 3rd Cavalry Regiment Public Affairs Office)

The Coalition in Syria: likely deaths rise by 126%

In November, Airwars tracked the highest reported civilian death toll from Coalition actions since the end of the Raqqa campaign in October 2017. As the net tightened around ISIS in the last remaining villages held by the terrorist group near Hajin, in eastern Deir Ezzor the most vulnerable people on the ground repeatedly paid a devastating price for Operation Roundup’s gains.

Throughout November, Airwars researchers tracked a total of 39 incidents of concern – a  70% rise on the 23 locally claimed events seen in October. Of these 39 incidents, 29 were 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 that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day.

Deaths across these 29 events more than doubled on the previous month’s minimum figures. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 221 and 631 civilians likely died in these 29 November events, compared to between 98 and 254 such deaths in October. More troublingly, 65% of these people were women and children: at least 91 children perished throughout the month, alongside a minimum of 53 women – the highest death toll among these vulnerable groups seen in 2018, precipitating a statement by UNICEF.

“Except for two incidents in Hasaka governorate, all of the locally reported Coalition civilian casualty events during November were in the Deir Ezzor countryside, the ISIS-held pocket in Syria. The strikes were very intensive in some places and reportedly killed up to 100 civilians in a single incident,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan, who monitors Coalition strikes in Syria for Airwars.

“Mosques and residential buildings were among locations that were bombed. Our numbers, though they are very high, may actually be conservative. As we have seen in previous battles against ISIS, not every civilian death is recorded and there is frequently a breakdown in reporting during the later stages of campaigns.”

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria

The worst of the reported Coalition casualty events occurred in Hajin itself. The grim tone for the month was set as early as November 3rd  when up to 21 civilians – more than half of them children and women according to some sources – died in an alleged Coalition strike on a house near Khalid bin Walid mosque in Hajin. The lowest death count was given as 14 by Bukamal Live, though most sources said that 17 people died.

Smoke billows from a building following an alleged Coalition airstrike near Khalid Bin Al Waleed Mosque, Nov 3rd (via Free Deir Ezzor Radio)

On the same day, not far away in Al Shaafa, multiple local sources named three children, Zaid, Ziyad and Aisha l’mad Mahmoud Al-Hussein as having been killed in an alleged Coalition air or artillery strike on a civilian home. ‘Many’ more civilians were also reportedly wounded in the attack.

‘The children Aisha, Zaid and Ziad Mahmoud al Haj Hussein, from al Mouhasan city in Deir Ez-Zour governorate eastern suburbs, killed as International Coalition warplanes fired missiles on al Sh’afa city in Deir Ez-Zour governorate eastern suburbs, on November 3, 2018’

Just five days later on November 8th, Hajin would suffer again when Coalition aircraft reportedly targeted a residential neighbourhood, killing at least 12 and as many as 41 civilians, according to local media. Halab Today TV noted that the Coalition conducted “more than 50 raids on the city of Hajin on Thursday evening”, while the source Hajeen Mag added that one of the targets on this day was an ISIS-held hospital. The majority of sources reported on the total number of civilian casualties as a result of shelling of Hajin city and didn’t specify the number killed as a result of any one airstrike. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 17 children perished in multiple airstrikes, while other sources also noted that many of the victims were women and children, possibly from ISIS families.

The aftermath of the alleged Coalition airstrike on a residential area of Hajin, Nov 8th.

As the month wore on, reported mass casualty events became more frequent and severe. In the week of November 10th to 16th, a minimum of 68 civilians were claimed killed in major events at Hajin, Al Soussa, Al Shaafa and Al Kashma.

On November 13th for example, Al Kashma and Al Shaafa came under fire in what sources on the ground called “a new massacre of dozens of civilians”. In total, across both locations, up to 50 civilians were claimed killed. While the Al Shaafa Facebook page said that all of them were civilians, the Euphrates Exiles page claimed that all casualties were members of ISIS and their families. Orient News noted that while the struck areas were under ISIS control, they nevertheless housed a large number of displaced families. According to Jisr TV, General Christopher Gekka, the deputy commander of CJTFOIR, said during a Pentagon press conference that allegations of civilian harm had not yet been confirmed but that they were investigating.

November 17th saw a further three  casualty events. In the worst of these, between 15 and 53 more civilians – including 17 children and 12 women – were slain in alleged Coalition airstrikes on Abo Al Hassan (al-Burqa’an Jazeera), east of Hajin, multiple local sources reported. Again, sources said that raids had targeted residential homes, in turn displacing “hundreds of families”, and noting that the death toll was likely to rise due to the difficulty in removing victims from the rubble. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the casualties were again members of ISIS families. Free Deir Ezzor Radio named three fatalities from the same family as Mohammed Mahmoud Tawfiq Taj Al Deen, Abdul Sheikh Dib and Abdul Karim Abass. Boukamal Live provided another chilling figure, claiming that over the previous 24 hours, over 100 civilians had died at the hands of the US-led alliance in Deir Ezzor governorate.

In response to these reports, the Coalition pushed backed aggressively on November 17th, insisting that recent claims of civilian harm were false. While the US-led alliance admitted carrying out “a total of 19 strikes in the Hajin area between the hours of 11:00 p.m. on Nov. 16 and 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 17 Eastern European Time”, it stressed that the targets had been assessed as being “free of civilian presence at the time of the strikes”.

The statement went on to complain that many strikes were actually by an unnamed belligerent (presumably Syrian government forces across the Euphrates), thereby appearing to shift blame for allegations of civilian harm. Pointedly, a similar reference to non-Coalition strikes appeared in the strike release of November 18th-24th, citing “106 additional strikes” by an unknown actor, and calling for “all uncoordinated fires to cease”.

These additional strikes from “other actors” did not detract from the ineluctable fact that the Coalition itself continued to carry out a large number of air and artillery strikes in Deir Ezzor compared to previous months, with as many as 65 strikes in one day reported near Hajin.

A body lies in the rubble following an alleged Coalition airstrike on a building which appeared to be in use as a “Deash prison” in Al Kashma, November 28th (via Jisr TV)

Russia in Syria

In November, Airwars tracked no civilian harm events in Syria linked to Russia. Our monitors last tracked a civilian harm allegation against Russia in Syria on September 3rd.

There was, however, on November 6th , a single source claim of four civilians injured from an explosion of cluster bomb remnants from an earlier bombing near a school in Deir Al A’adas town, northern Dara’a.

“While the Coalition carried out a very intensive air campaign in Deir Ezzor, Russia has been quiet – with local media and monitors not reporting any credible civilian harm incident since September,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan.
“The Russia-Turkish agreed demilitarized, de-confliction zone is still holding, though there have been numerous breaches from the Syrian regime and reports that the opposition factions are still stationed there with their heavy weapons.”

Libya

November in Libya was marked by what was believed to be the highest allegation of civilian casualties against the US in the North African country since 2011. On November 29th AFRICOM conducted an airstrike in Al Uwaynat in the extreme south close to Algeria. It initially claimed eleven Al Qaeda militants were killed in the attack. However, local sources immediately contested the event and said the victims were in fact local tribesman on their way “to rescue a group of Tuareg, near the Algerian border, who were encountering a smuggling gang attempting to smuggle heavy machinery to Algeria.”

A different event also appeared to confirm a continued US ground presence in Libya. A Night Eagle UAV, used for surveillance purposes was shot down near Bani Walid, an area which has witnessed US strikes in the past.

Besides that, only two minor events were known to have taken place in November. A man was reported injured by indiscriminate shelling in the south of Tripoli on November 14th. The perpetrator of the attack remains unclear, though local reports indicated that militia clashes were the likely cause.

In addition, Eye on ISIS reported that three LNA airstrikes targeted the Al Qaeda-affiliated Benghazi Defence Brigades near Saddada. Vehicles and weapons were allegedly destroyed, though no human losses were mentioned.

Military advocacy

In November, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Team launched a new Strike Tracker project for Raqqa, in partnership with Airwars. Over 2,500 people have so far contributed to this highly innovative project, which uses micro tasking to involve members of the public in the mammoth task of mapping the destruction at Raqqa during the US-backed assault against ISIS in 2017. Just over a year ago 80% of the city was left uninhabitable after the four month campaign.

Airwars is working closely with Amnesty to help incorporate the results from Strike Tracker into a time-sensitive map of Raqqa that will link our own local report of civilian harm with Amnesty’s field investigations and other casualty claims. The ambitious project aims to show together, on one platform, multiple and often competing accounts of the conflict.

In parallel, the military advocacy team continued to crossmatch an expanding archive of civilian harm allegations with belligerent reporting, namely the US-led Coalition’s own monthly casualty reports. Through direct engagement, modelling and analysis we have for example identified just under 200 of more than 2,700 known civilian harm incidents assessed by the Coalition that presently represent a challenge for our own assessors.

While many of these Coalition assessments may match incidents in our own archive for example, without further information we are not presently able to determine if they relate to a specific event or represent new, previously unmonitored events. The majority of such cases were reported by the Coalition in 2017, prior to the regular sharing of coordinates with Airwars. The Airwars team remains in dialogue with the Coalition to resolve the status of these 200 events, and continues to work to improve the accuracy of ourown geolocations.

European advocacy

November presented several opportunities for Airwars to share thoughts and brainstorm ideas with other organisations in similar fields in the Netherlands and Europe. Our Dutch advocacy officer Maike Awater attended a round-table discussion with Dutch human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld and other experts in early November. There she discussed possible legal proceedings to obtain information from Coalition member states on alleged airstrikes in Iraq in 2015 that reportedly harmed civilians.

In mid-November, Maike also attended a two-day conference on Data in Peacekeeping organized by PAX in The Hague. Together with Bellingcat, Airwars presented on the use of Open Source Data in online investigations, stressing the importance of military transparency and accountability.

Finally, Maike attended a meeting of the European Forum on Armed Drones of which Airwars is a member. Drone Wars UK provided a FOIA workshop, to stimulate the use of FOIA as a tool to enable greater transparency around the use of armed drones systems. Furthermore, Airwars shared updates on developments around the use of armed drones in several European states and discussed opportunities to advocate for clear policies, rules and regulations around the use and proliferation of armed drones in compliance with international laws in addition to greater transparency and accountability.

* Updated January 15th 2019.

Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis for November: Kinda Haddad, Salim Habib, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Sophie Dyer, Maike Awater, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Poppy Bowers, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann, Laura Bruun, Beth Heron, Anna Zahn and Chris Woods. 

▲ A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon pulls away after being refueled by a 28th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Nov. 29, 2018. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James Cason)