Civilians in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta continued to face a horrifying ordeal during March, as Russia and the regime pounded the rebel-held enclave. By March 31st, the regime had declared victory in the Damascus suburb, at terrible cost to vulnerable residents. Airwars tracked 250 casualty events in Syria during March attributed to Moscow’s actions, with more than 1,200 civilians alleged killed – the highest reported number of strikes and casualties since the start of Russia’s Syrian campaign in September 2015.
Elsewhere in Syria, civilians trapped in Afrin faced considerable danger as Turkish forces encircled the city of Afrin itself, resulting in likely deaths more than tripling on February’s minimum estimates. By the time Turkey’s President Erdogan announced that his forces has captured Afrin City on March 18th, Airwars estimated that at least 115 more civilians had perished in the increasingly intense final three weeks of fighting.
Coalition actions continued to decline in March in both Iraq and Syria. Airwars tracked just 15 civilians likely killed by Coalition strikes during the month – all of them in Syria. This represented an 86% drop from February’s minimum estimates. Airwars has not tracked a claimed casualty event in Iraq from Coalition actions since February 7th.
Airwars tracking of international military actions continues to reflect high civilian harm whenever strikes target populated areas – regardless of which belligerent is involved.
Russia and the regime in Syria: civilian casualty events reach a new peak
Civilian casualty events attributed to Russia and the Assad government in Syria reached record levels during March. UN Security Council Resolution 2401, adopted on February 24th, demanded a 30-day nation-wide ceasefire, though bombs continued to rain down on those trapped in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta. The UN resolution was effectively ignored.
By March 9th, Syrian regime forces had reportedly seized almost half of Eastern Ghouta. Civilians once more bore the brunt, cowering in basements and even digging holes in the ground in attempts to escape the violence which engulfed them.
An Eastern Ghouta ceasefire deal came into effect on March 23rd, and Airwars tracked no further claimed casualty events in the area for the remainder of the month. The pause, however, came too late for many: as of March 27th, the United Nations reported that 1,700 people had been killed in Eastern Ghouta with thousands more injured, in the month since UNSC Resolution 2401 had passed. Additionally, as of April 9th, nearly 90,000 civilians had been displaced.
In total, Airwars tracked a record 250 casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft. However, as is often the case in urban areas, the regime was also blamed for many of these events.
Between 712 and 1,229 civilians were alleged killed by Russian actions in total during March. Those 250 casualty events marked a 46% increase from the 171 events tracked during February – and the highest number of reported casualty events tracked by our team during any one month since the start of Russia’s campaign in Syria in September 2015. These figures remain unvetted by Airwars, and are based on initial monitoring. They should not be compared directly with fully evaluated estimates tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes.
“March was the worst recorded month in the Russian campaign so far. Hundreds of civilians were killed in regime-besieged Ghouta where people were digging holes deep in the ground to take shelter,” explains Abdulwahab Tahhan, who tracks Russian strikes. “While a deal was struck with the regime and Russia to evacuate the civilians to Idlib, this did not mean that people were safe. Idlib was also repeatedly hit throughout the month.”
Russian incidents of concern in Syria
March 2018 saw a number of alarming mass casualty events. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, at least 32 civilians died in a strike by “Syrian/Russian warplanes” on a gathering in Kafar Batna, Damascus on March 16th. Doma RV put the death toll even higher, at 61, reporting that “a popular market” was bombed. The majority of sources claimed that the victims were mostly women and children.
The worst alleged event took place on March 20th, when at least 56 civilians were said to have died in Douma, Damascus. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 14 children and six women were among those killed. It blamed “Syrian/Russian regime forces.” Other sources including LCCSY said that regime helicopters had dropped explosive barrels. Some reports said that the victims were in a school, but that when they heard the noise of the aircraft they had run to a nearby location to take shelter and were all killed together. The White Helmets published the names of 56 civilians reportedly killed in this one event.
Overall, Airwars monitors had tracked a total of 3,314 claimed civilian casualty events allegedly involving Russian aircraft between September 30th 2015 and March 31st 2018. The total claimed civilian fatalities in these alleged events ranges from 12,255 to 17,403. At least 5,409 of those reportedly killed in these incidents have been named by local outlets, on social media and by casualty recorders. According to figures published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian warplanes had killed a total of 7,667 civilians through March 31st 2018.
Turkey in Syria: likely civilian deaths more than triple
Afrin’s civilians faced great peril in March, as a Turkish-backed offensive moved into the city of Afrin itself. The increased ferocity of the assault saw the Pentagon announce a temporary pause in some of its anti-ISIS operations in Syria as many SDF troops abandoned the battle against ISIS, in order to help defend Afrin and Manbij.
On March 8th, the Turkish government asked the United States to stop Kurdish commanders from diverting their forces from areas of eastern Syria to join the battle in Afrin. While the Pentagon claimed that US-led airstrikes against so-called Islamic State were not affected by Turkey’s campaign, there was a noticeable decline both in Inherent Resolve airstrikes and reported civilian harm in Syria.
By March 12th, with Turkish-led forces poised to encircle the city of Afrin, Airwars was tracking a steep rise in civilian fatalities. The humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate for those trapped in the area, and by March 14th the UN reported that Turkish troops had cut off water to civilians.
Likely civilian deaths reached peak levels in the week of March 10th-16th, just prior to Turkey’s announcement that it had recaptured Afrin City on March 18th. Numbers would doubtless have been much higher had Kurdish forces not chosen to disengage at Afrin City and conduct a tactical withdrawal.
Airwars monitored 52 locally sourced civilian casualty incidents reportedly carried out by Turkish-backed forces in March – a 42% decrease from the 89 events tracked in February. Of these 52 events, Airwars currently assess 44 as fairly reported, with Turkish actions likely resulting in the deaths of between 115 and 175 civilians in March – a 229% rise on the minimum 35 civilians who likely died in February. Of these deaths at least 12 were children and a minimum of seven were women.
Overall, between January 13th and March 25th, Airwars tracked a total of 194 casualty events reportedly carried out by Turkish forces. Of these, we currently assess 126 events as fairly reported, likely resulting in the deaths of between 225 and 350 civilians – and injuring between 497 and 699 more.
“The hike in likely deaths we saw in March is partly explained by the intensification of shelling in the lead up to the capture of Afrin city,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “Despite the fall of the city on March 18th, Turkish strikes continued throughout the month to target some villages around the province – accompanied by many threats of military operations in the near future to capture SDF-controlled Tal Rifa’at and Manbij.”
Turkish incidents of concern in Syria
March 16th proved to be the deadliest day yet in Turkey’s campaign, as strikes moved into the city itself. In the first of two major events assessed as likely carried out by Turkish forces that day, up to 21 civilians died and 45 more were wounded in shelling. According to IC Afrin, “The Turkish army [were] shelling everywhere in Afrin and its surroundings. ANF listed the named of 21 civilian fatalities including children.
On the same day, up to 16 more civilians died in alleged Turkish airstrikes on Afrin hospital, according to sources on the ground. The source Aldar Xeli said that the hospital – reportedly the only medical facility in service in the city – had been struck by three missiles, while the BBC, quoting an Afrin resident, said that “bodies are still there on the street”. Turkey denied carrying out strikes on the hospital – a claim dismissed by SDF media, which published photographs and videos which it said showed the effects of the attack.
On the following day, March 17th, local media reported that up to 13 civilians died in an alleged Turkish strike on a convoy of cars in Afrin’s Mahmoudiya neighbourhood. According to IC Afrin a tractor carrying dozens of people on the road out of Afrin to Tirinde village, was struck. The victims were reportedly “completely burned, with only one child surviving.” Afrin Now named two victims as Shahnaz Rasho and her husband Hozan Aliko. It added that their son was missing. However, one source, Efrin Dile Kurdistane, reported the death of Shahnaz Rasho on March 16th. The reports coming out of Afrin were particularly confusing in the days immediately prior to the city’s capture.
Turkish incidents of concern in Iraq
Airwars also tracked two casualty events in March reportedly caused by Turkish forces in Iraq. On the night of March 21st-22nd, four civilians died and 10 more were wounded in alleged Turkish airstrikes on villages in the Choman area, east of Irbil, Iraq. IC Afrin Resistance named two victims as Kake Mistefa Ebubekir and Shero Mehumd Ibrahim. According to TRT, “nine terrorists”, who were reportedly preparing to attack a military base in northern Iraq, were killed. It is unclear whether this was the same raid as the casualty event – though the date and location matched.
The second Iraqi event occurred on March 25th: local media reported the death of one civilian and the injuring of up to two more in alleged Turkish airstrikes on the Shiladeza area, north of Duhok province in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to testimony given to Roj News Agency, Turkish forces were continuously shelling villages in the area at the time.
Kurdish incidents of concern in Syria and Turkey
Additionally, Airwars researchers tracked five events in March (down from 10 in February) allegedly caused by Kurdish counterfire related to the Afrin offensive. All of these events were in Aleppo governorate in Syria. Airwars currently estimates that between 8 and 12 civilians died in these five events – compared to between 7 and 17 likely deaths in February. Up to six additional civilians were likely wounded.
Overall, Airwars tracked 28 claimed Kurdish counter fire events during the Afrin campaign – likely killing between 25 and 49 Turkish and Syrian civilians.
Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties
The known remaining active Coalition allies – the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands – released 294 munitions from the air across Iraq and Syria during March 2018 according to official AFCENT data – a 61% fall from February’s 747 munitions.
In Iraq – where Airwars has not tracked a civilian casualty claim against the Coalition since February 7th – Inherent Resolve actions remained at low levels, with just 30 air and artillery strikes publicly declared during March.
Coalition actions in Syria fell to their lowest reported level since the first month of anti-ISIS bombing in September 2014. Just 51 air and artillery strikes were declared in March – a 63% decrease from February’s 137 reported strikes.
Of the still-active Coalition allies in March, the UK reported just five strikes in Syria, a 74% fall on the 19 declared in the previous month; and two strikes in Iraq. France declared just three airstrikes in Syria, down from eight in February. No airstrikes were reported in Iraq, though 14 artillery support missions were carried out.
The Netherlands reported weapon deployments in just two missions for the month, both near Abu Kamal in Syria. Additionally, the Dutch supported ground troops in an attack on a logistics storage facility in Hasakah governorate, Syria.
Airwars researchers tracked six alleged Coalition civilian casualty events during March, all of them in Syria. This was down from 11 claimed incidents in February. Of these six events, three are presently assessed as fairly reported. An event is assessed as fair when it has two or more uncontested and credible sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day. Airwars’ current estimate is that 15 civilians likely died across these three events – an 86% fall from the minimum of 106 civilians judged as likely killed by the US-led alliance during February.
The worst reported event of the month occurred on March 6th in Al Sha’afa, Deir Ezzor. According to local sources four families of Tajik nationality died in airstrikes which both Baladi and Al Sharq Al Shouri agency blamed on the Coalition. All reports said that the victims were families of members of Islamic State fighters, and while sources implied that women and children were harmed in the attacks, no names, images or further details were available.
On the same day (March 6th), three local sources named Bassam Al-Maeuf Al-Hamoud and his wife as being killed in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Hajin in Deir Ezzor.
In total, from August 8th 2014 to March 31st 2018 in both Iraq and Syria, Airwars has to date monitored 2,483 incidents locally alleged against the US-led Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State. Among these incidents, it has been claimed that a total of between 17,375 and 25,831 civilians were killed. Of these allegations, Airwars presently estimates that a minimum of between 6,259 and 9,604 civilians are likely to have been died as a result of Coalition actions. The alliance itself has so far conceded 855 deaths resulting from 224 events.
In March 2018, Libya saw continued fighting in the country’s south – while the security situation in the north remained comparatively stable, if tense.
Notable were ongoing clashes triggered by the intervention of the US with a drone strike targeting Al Qaeda in the village of Ubari, southwest of Sabha on March 24th. Senior recruiter Musa Abu Dawud and another jihadist were reported killed, while no civilian harm was locally claimed. This marked the first US strike in the country on the terror organisation since 2015, though ISIS was heavily targeted in the interim. AFRICOM confirmed the strike, as well as the death of the two Al Qaeda members.
The operation can be viewed in the context of the fight against Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) – an alliance of various jihadi salafist organisations in the Sahara – in which the US is increasingly involved, along with France. JNIM and other rebel organisations operate trans-nationally between Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan and constantly cross the borders into Libya.
The lack of governance in Libya’s south remains a problem in fighting foreign militias. Currently the LNA occasionally conducts airstrikes against the Chadian opposition entering the country, namely on March 19th in the Harouj mountains, March 20th in Tarbo and March 26th in Tmassa 160km south of Sabha. Again, no civilian harm was reported in the incidents.
Meanwhile, incidents of fighting as well as terror attacks still occur in the north. On March 4th, local sources reported between four and five civilians, including three children and a woman, injured from artillery shelling in the western part of Derna.
In March, the Airwars military advocacy team traveled to Berlin to meet with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Left Party of Germany. Discussions focused on the Al Badia school strike in Al Mansouria where the UN estimates 150 civilians were killed by the US-led Coalition. The school was used as a shelter by internally displaced people when it was struck on March 20th 2017, according to local reports and field investigations by Human Rights Watch and the UN. The German Bundeswehr reportedly provided intelligence for the strike. Airwars also visited the Syrian Archive in Berlin to discuss possible future collaborations.
Airwars also proactively submitted improved geolocations for a batch of civilian casualty allegations dating from 2014. These 34 incidents had not yet been logged into the Coalition’s civilian casualties assessment system. Airwars reviewed each allegation and provided as accurate as possible coordinates to the Coalition based on the public record, as well as providing supportive information and satellite imagery.
Following the publication of an ongoing Airwars assessment of Dutch military transparency, our European advocacy officer was interviewed by Dutch RTL News. Although the first three months of the renewed mission against so-called Islamic State had seen relative improvements in transparency, very little remains known about Dutch strikes between October 2014 and July 2016. In light of this partial improvement of transparency, our advocacy officer reflected on Airwars’ essential belief that civilians deserve to know who has bombed them – especially when things go wrong.
Our European advocacy office also continues to focus on Belgian military transparency despite the recent ending of its anti-ISIS campaign.
News from Airwars
In March, Airwars published jointly with the Daily Beast an extensive investigation that showed civilian casualties during recent operations in Raqqa were far higher than the Coalition has so far admitted. The article also revealed extensive and wide-scale weapons use, potentially including the firing of tens of thousands of artillery rounds into the city, and the heavy use of A-10 aircraft.
Months after the end of fighting, many bodies remain under the rubble of a city whose buildings the UN says are two-thirds destroyed or damaged. A recent assessment team mission to the city reported human remains are still decomposing under debris. Hundreds more have been killed or wounded by ISIS IEDS and other unexploded munitions in the months after Raqqa was captured.
At the top of March, Airwars also published analysis showing a sharp increase in Russian airstrikes concentrated around Eastern Ghouta, that were allegedly killing hundreds of civilians — casualty levels never before seen by our researchers.
Airwars also reported on the latest report of UN investigators, who found that a host of violations took place in Syria. The Commission took the important step of naming Russia as the perpetrator of a series of attacks on November 13th in Idlib that claimed at least 84 civilians and injured 150. The US-led Coalition was also accused of violating IHL in some strikes.
Later in March, Airwars covered Australia’s admission that it had killed two civilians during the battle for Mosul. This was Australia’s third such acknowledgement. The incident was originally uncovered by researchers at Amnesty International; they passed the unpublished information to Airwars, which in turn alerted the Coalition. Amnesty’s research was part of a larger report on fighting in West Mosul which Coalition leadership had bluntly criticized at the time.
Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis: Kinda Haddad, Salim Habib, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Koen Kluessien, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Poppy Bowers, Eeva Sarlin, Samuel Oakford, Sophie Dyer, Laura Bruun, Anna Zahn and Chris Woods.