According to Airwars estimates, May was the second deadliest month for civilians in Iraq and Syria since Coalition airstrikes began in August 2014. The month saw record numbers of strikes and of munitions released, leaving those civilians caught between ISIL and the Coalition in even worse straits.
Casualty incidents due to Coalition strikes remained high in May, with 160 tracked events across both countries. As the campaign to seize Mosul entered a climactic phase, fatalities again reached alarming levels. And in the final weeks leading up to the official June 6th start of the offensive to take Raqqa, likely fatalities in and around that city rose by 19% from April – and by 30% for Syria as a whole.
Overall, a minimum of between 348 and 521 civilians likely died across Iraq and Syria in Coalition actions according to our provisional assessment – a 23% increase on April’s minimum estimates. A study of strike data shows that in Raqqa, more civilians are dying even when fewer targets are hit. This once again suggests a possible change to Coalition procedures which is placing civilians at greater risk of harm.
Meanwhile after two months of ramped-up strikes, Russia scaled back its own actions in Syria. Reported civilian casualties were down by 61%. This meant that over two and a half times more casualty events were attributed the Coalition in Iraq and Syria than to Moscow’s actions in Syria. While a reduction in Russian strikes offered some much-needed respite to non-combatants on the ground, it also placed in stark relief the unprecedented scale of the Coalition death toll measured against earlier stages of the campaign.
Coalition military developments
As of May 31st 2017, 12,820 airstrikes had reportedly been carried out in Iraq and 9,093 in Syria since the start of the Coalition campaign against so-called Islamic State. During May, 267 strikes were declared in Iraq – about 9% less than for April. The story increasingly centred on Syria, where there was an 11% increase in reported Coalition actions to 611 strikes in May – the highest number in any given month since Coalition actions began in August 2014.
May saw a record number of munitions fired in Iraq and Syria by the Coalition. According to official data published by US Air Force Central Command, its declared active members (the US, UK, France, Belgium, Australia – along with possibly Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) released a total of 4,374 munitions on ISIL targets in May. This was a 34% increase over the previous month.
Munitions figures provided to Airwars by CENTCOM are higher than those provided above by AFCENT, because they also include HIMARS rockets, helicopter attacks and artillery rounds. According to CENTCOM, the Coalition fired approximately 5,500 munitions between Iraq and Syria during May, with a split of 3,700 in Iraq and 1,800 in Syria. Of these, approximately 3,400 were in support of operations to liberate Mosul – exactly the same figure as in April – and approximately 1,000 were in support of operations to isolate Raqqa – a sharp drop of 47% on April. Yet as we report below, this decrease did nothing to reduce the number of likely civilian deaths tracked in the city.
April saw the UK – the most active ally in the Coalition after the US – playing an even greater role in Mosul and in the escalating Raqqa campaign. The British Ministry of Defense reported carrying out 37 strikes in Iraq – a 37% increase on April. Meanwhile, actions in Syria almost tripled to 14 strikes. Despite more than 1,300 airstrikes in total – now focused heavily on urban areas with trapped civilian populations – the UK improbably still claims to have harmed no civilians in any attack.
There was also a sharp rise in French actions. In Iraq, with 29 strikes declared during May, and almost double the 15 reported in April. In Syria, French raids increased by 50% to 9 declared strikes. The greatest leap occurred in French artillery strikes by its Task Force Wagram at Mosul, which rose to 262 total strikes – 38% more than April.
On May 8th, Australia made a welcome move towards greater transparency when it published its first fortnightly report, detailing both strikes and their locations. From May 1st to May 31st, Australia said it had dropped a record 119 munitions on Iraq over the course of the month – approximately 24 strikes, of which 21 were in the vicinity of Mosul.
Push to Mosul’s Old City and Raqqa’s gates
At the start of May, a new front was opened up in the Mosul offensive as Iraqi forces advanced from the north west of the city. On May 7th, the Mushairfah district was captured, though ISIL continued to put up fierce resistance.
By May 14th, Iraqi forces had won significant ground, and military officials estimated that ISIL controlled no more than 9% of West Mosul. Subsequent gains included the Rifai district on May 17th and the July 17 neighbourhood on May 20th. The Al-Najjar district was captured on May 22nd.
The humanitarian situation however remained dire, with 400,000 residents still believed to be trapped in the Old City centre. On May 26th, the Iraqi Air Force dropped leaflets urging civilians to evacuate the Old City – a difficult proposition at best amid heavy airstrikes and ISIL’s deliberate targeting of fleeing civilians. By May 29th, the capture operation was said to be in its last stages, with 95% of Mosul seized according to Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Meanwhile in Syria, by May 3rd the Syrian Democratic Forces had recaptured almost all of Tabaqa, a strategic city west of Raqqa. On May 11th, the Coalition announced the liberation of the Tabaqa Dam, all of the city and the airfield following a negotiated surrender with an ISIL faction.
The fourth phase of the Raqqa campaign was announced on May 10th. Steady advances were then made throughout the month, with the capture of villages and hamlets, culminating in the seizing of six villages on May 30th. However, by the time the Kurdish-dominated force reached the gates of Raqqa city, the Coalition estimated that at least 2,500 ISIL fighters remained inside – along with as many as 100,000 trapped civilians.
Coalition civilian casualties
May was the second worst month for likely Coalition civilian deaths since the beginning of the campaign in August 2014. From already high levels, 23% more non-combatants were likely killed in Iraq and Syria compared to April. As the US-backed campaigns to liberate West Mosul and Raqqa escalated, civilians were repeatedly put at extraordinary risk, whether in their homes, or as they attempted to flee those wartorn cities and towns now under constant aerial and ground bombardment.
Across both Iraq and Syria, Airwars researchers tracked 160 casualty events – a marginal increase of 1% compared to April. Of these, 76 incidents are presently assessed as fairly reported, meaning our researchers monitored two or more credible uncontested sources, and with the casualties occurring in an area where the Coalition has confirmed airstrikes that day. Airwars currently assesses that between 348 and 521 civilians died in these events, compared to a minimum of 283 deaths in April.
The overall number of civilian deaths alleged from Coalition actions for May in Iraq and Syria – across all ‘fair’, ‘poor’ and ‘contested’ events – currently stands at between 1,337 and 2,152.
For the fifth consecutive month, civilian casualty incidents tied to the Coalition in Iraq and Syria outnumbered those allegedly perpetrated by Russia in Syria. Following an escalation in April, May saw Moscow dramatically scale back its strikes. This further emphasized the scale of May’s Coalition death toll, which was more than two and a half times higher than those casualties allegedly linked to Russian actions.
Raqqa: civilians at greatest risk yet
Likely civilian fatalities from Coalition airstrikes in Syria rose by 30% in May, amid rising concern from international agencies and human rights groups at the rising toll. Throughout the month, Airwars researchers tracked 118 claimed Coalition casualty events in Syria alone – 74% of all reported casualty events in both Iraq and Syria. Of these events, 70 were in our view fairly reported, leaving an estimated death toll of between 283 and 378 civilians. This was a significant rise from an estimated minimum of 218 people killed in May.
The overall death toll for May in Syria – across ‘fair’, ‘poor’ and ‘contested’ events – currently stands at between 500 and 728 non-combatants allegedly killed by the US-led Coalition.
Of the 70 likely events in Syria, 86% occurred in and around Raqqa – where probable civilian deaths increased by 19% from April (256 to 341 killed). However unlike in Mosul, the plight of Raqqa’s civilians caught between ISIL and deadly Coalition and SDF actions continued to receive little attention from the international press.
An analysis of the number of targets bombed in and around Raqqa in recent months raises particular concerns. In March, the number of targets bombed in Raqqa province actually decreased by 39% from February. Given this, it might have been expected that civilian deaths would fall. Yet instead they rose more than fivefold to their highest levels yet – with between 275 and 743 civilians likely killed just around Raqqa.
In April, Airwars monitored a 47% drop in targets bombed. But while the number of likely civilian deaths also fell, this was only by 24%.
Official data for May for Raqqa is more complex. On the one hand, 289 airstrikes were reported – more than double the number carried out in April. The number of targets bombed – a far more accurate metric than strikes – tripled to 591. As already noted, likely civilian deaths around Raqqa were up by around one fifth.
It therefore appears that since February there has often been little correlation between the number of strikes or targets bombed, and civilian deaths in Raqqa. This may indicate that the unprecedented increase in fatalities from Coalition actions is related to an undisclosed change in the rules of engagement or offensive procedures on the battlefield.
Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team, has watched the situation unfold with increasing concern.
“Civilian deaths have risen consistently and dramatically since the end of December 2016,” says Haddad. “The coalition was the single largest contributor to non-combatant fatalities in Syria during May, killing more civilians than either ISIL, the regime or the Russians according to local and regional monitors.”
“In May the coalition continued its push into Raqqa province with often little apparent regard for civilians – whose situation is getting ever more dangerous,” she added. “Non-combatants are now firmly stuck between Daesh mines or snipers which are killing civilians attempting to leave – and the Coalition, which is hitting them both in their homes and when they try to leave.”
Civilian casualties were not confined to Raqqa and its environs. Following the surrender of ISIL in Tabaqa on May 11th, Airwars recorded a 48% drop in casualty events in the town during May. Nevertheless a minimum of 64 civilians were still reported killed in the vicinity – just three deaths less than in April – across 11 events.
In the two days of May 6th-8th alone, four incidents were tracked in Tabaqa. The worst of these occurred on May 7th when at least 20 civilians including eight children and four women were killed in an alleged Coalition raid on the Al Awwal and Al Thaleth neighbourhoods, according to local sources. The journalist Mohab Naser told Airwars that a Coalition jet struck a four-storey building, resulting in the death of many residents. He named six members of the Jubran family (ranging in ages from one to 78 years) and three children from the Al-Issa family.
Four days later, on May 11th, another eight children and four women reportedly from the same family died, and dozens more were wounded, in an alleged Coalition raid on the Al Hashem area, north of Raqqa city, according to local media. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll as high as 15, while Al Raqqa Truth – also pointing to the US-led Coalition – named Othman al Ahmad al Hamoud, Zakiya al Othman, Mozer Othman al Hamoud, Amira Othman al Hamoud and Marya Hadi and her sons as victims.
As May wore on, there was no respite for Raqqa’s civilians. On May 14th, up to 22 female non-combatants died when an alleged Coalition airstrike at Al A’Keirshi village hit three cars traveling to their place of work. Some reports indicated the women were employed in agriculture. The Smart News Network – citing Reuters – put the death toll even higher, at 30, of which it said 22 were female. Among the victims were three members of the al Mustapha family along with Nawwaf Mohammed Al Turki al Sawa’an, reportedly killed when his motorbike was hit. While reports of the number of victims varied, sources were agreed they were cut down in the midst of ordinary activities.
By May 24th, Airwars was tracking seven claimed events per day in Syria. In one of the worst incidents monitored by our researchers, six children and seven women were reportedly killed in an alleged Coalition raid between May 23rd and 24th in Al Barouda village in western Raqqa, according to local media. Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently put the death toll as high as 16 – including nine members from the al-Nayef al-Haj family – most of them displaced from Al Sukhna.
Displaced civilians, desperately seeking refuge from fighting elsewhere, often bore the brunt of the violence. On May 27th – in yet another incident in which vehicles were allegedly struck by Coalition warplanes – at least 17 displaced non-combatants reportedly died when buses they were riding in on the road between al Kasrat and Ratla village were hit. Baladi News put the death toll as high as 20, while Masaida added that women and children were among the dead. Many more people were said to have been wounded. It was yet another grim story from a month which saw ordinary Syrians suffering in extraordinary numbers – whether they were sheltering in their own homes, or attempting to live their lives amid the ongoing chaos of the battlefield.
ShbibG was one of a number of sources blaming the Coalition for the death of 20 civilians in a strike on a convoy of vehicles on the road between al Kasrat and Ratla village on May 27th.
Mosul: civilians remain in grave danger
Iraqi civilians remained at extreme risk as the campaign to seize West Mosul from ISIL moved into its final phase. Of the 40 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events tracked in Iraq during May, 93% of them were reported in Mosul.
Deaths remained high. Overall across all categories – ‘fair’, ‘weak’ and ‘contested’ – between 740 and 1,241 civilians were claimed killed by the Coalition in the city throughout May – compared to between 743 and 917 in April. Determining who was responsible for these fatalities continued to prove extremely challenging. Only 37 civilians are currently assessed as being likely killed by the Coalition in May, across five casualty events deemed fairly reported.
In most other cases, reports might either reference only general bombardments, or instead variously blame Iraqi and Coalition air and ground forces, or ISIL. Across 27 contested events in Iraq for May, between 565 and 1,054 non-combatants died – an average of at least 21 civilians killed per incident.
“Iraqi forces have changed their plans several times,” explains Airwars’ Iraq researcher. “After they failed to control Old Mosul they moved to the north west of the city in the first week of May, and liberated all the neighborhoods around the the city like Rifai and 17 July and Shifa. ISIL then forced civilians to move to the Old City to use them as human shields, thereby forcing Iraqi forces to slow down their operation.
“Many civilians were killed by Daesh when they were trying to flee to Iraqi forces – we’re talking about hundreds in Zanjili and Old Mosul. Iraqi forces and the Coalition have failed to secure safety corridors for them.”
“Iraqi forces became very cautious when dealing with civilians after widespread criticism of the high number of casualties across recent month,” explained our Baghdad-based researcher, who has visited Mosul more than a dozen times during the recent fighting. “Additionally, forces moved to the Iraqi/Syrian border and liberated many districts and villages there, which held few civilians compared to the numbers we saw inside Mosul itself.”
The deadliest events in Iraq’s second city during May occurred in the first four days of the month as Iraqi Forces renewed their attempts to seize West Mosul’s key neighbourhoods. Between May 1st and 3rd alone, up to 79 civilians died and 159 were wounded, mostly women and children, following what local media alleged were Coalition and Iraqi airstrikes on many neighbourhoods in West Mosul. Mosul News Network named Mohammed Abdullah Ramadan as a victim, blaming both the Coalition and the Iraqi air force, while Al Araby referred to “indiscriminate shelling” of the Rifair, Zanjili and July 17 neighbourhoods by Iraqi forces.
Airwars tracked six casualty events in the Zanjili neighbourhood alone during May. The most alarming occurred on May 30th, when local media reporting that as many as 200 non-combatants died with dozens more wounded in airstrikes referred to by a member of Mosul Direct, Mohammed Hassan, as “hysterical bombing”. Once more, most victims were reportedly women and children. Typically, sources were divided on whether the Coalition or the Iraqi air force were the perpetrators of the carnage. According to Alaraby, “dozens of houses in the neighbourhood were destroyed to the ground.” Once more, however, Mosul’s non-combatants were deprived of knowing who it was that was killing them.
Between May 12th and 15th, 108 civilians were killed and 265 wounded in alleged Coalition airstrikes and artillery shelling across several neighbourhoods of West Mosul, according to local sources. These deaths were assessed as contested, it once more being unclear who was responsible. Yaqein reported that there had been “continuous shelling” across four days on the right side of Mosul, while local resident Um Imam Ahmed published an image on Facebook, commenting that the “bodies of 30 civilians, including nine members of a family” were still under the rubble following a Coalition raid.
Perhaps most worrying was the warning by members of the Provincial Council that there were still more than 200,000 civilians trapped in neighbourhoods still controlled by ISIL – many of whom had fled to these areas to escape battles elsewhere. UNICEF warned that as many as 100,000 children were still at extreme risk in Mosul.
Russian military actions and civilian casualties
In April we saw a 36% leap in casualty incidents allegedly involving Russia in Syria, with 155 events tracked throughout the month. In May, however, this number fell by 61% to 61 casualty events. This brought the number of allegations down to levels last seen between December 2016 and February 2017.
As previously reported, due to an unprecedented increase in allegations against the Coalition in Iraq and Syria, Airwars has had to pause full vetting of Russian strikes in Syria. It will therefore be some time before researchers can undertake a deep assessment of the May 2017 data. However, the raw figures show that across these 61 incidents between 205 and 317 non-combatants were reported killed in alleged Russian actions. Given that these numbers are unvetted and unfiltered, these should not be directly compared to the Coalition estimates contained in this report.
“The number of Russian airstrikes in May may have been reduced due to the application of deescalation zones, though these airstrikes did not stop completely and still killed a significant number of civilians,” says Airwars researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan, who has been tracking reported Russian actions in Syria on a daily basis. “While Russia used to focus its airstrikes against places packed with civilians, in Idlib and Aleppo for example, it now seems to have changed focus to less populated ISIL-controlled areas in Homs or Hama. Even so, many civilians in these areas still reportedly died.”
It remains unclear whether Russia’s reduced actions in Syria will continue, with May again highlighting how unpredictable Moscow’s own campaign can be. For now however, ordinary Syrians in certain areas have at least some respite.