Reports

Reports

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.

مجزرة مروعة ترتكبها طائرات النظام في بلدة #بينين بريف ادلب، راح ضحيتها 7 شهداء وعشرات الجرحى pic.twitter.com/J7kHVpgK56

— عبد الغفور الدياب (@abuhuzaifa_) June 19, 2019

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.

AFCENT reported that 135 munitions were dropped from the air over Iraq and Syria during June – a 150% rise on 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.”

آثار قصف طيران التحالف لمقر كان يتواجد فيه قادة وشرعيين من تنظيم حراس الدين في ريف المهندسيننسأل الله أن يتقبلهم في الشهداء pic.twitter.com/BinhzoH0JF

— جليس الشهداء (@jalaysalshuhada) June 30, 2019

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)

Published

January 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Despite significant falls in both strike numbers and reported casualties, civilians still remained at risk in the three conflict-affected nations presently monitored by Airwars. In total, as many as 5,947 non combatants were locally alleged killed by international military actions across Syria, Iraq and Libya during 2018.

In Libya reported airstrikes were down by a third during the year, while in Iraq both strikes and reported civilian harm fell precipitously. However Syria remained a lethal environment for non combatants. Alongside major territorial advances by the Assad government and its Russian and Iranian allies, there were significant military offences by the US-led alliance and its Kurdish proxies; and by Turkey. IDF officials also declared that more than 2,000 munitions had been fired by Israeli aircraft within Syria during the year, primarily against Iranian and Hezbollah military targets.

Local monitor the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that overall, almost 7,000 civilians were killed by all parties to the fighting during the year.

With the US-led Coalition’s conventional war against ISIS likely ending in early 2019, Airwars will continue to monitor actions by all international forces in both Iraq and Syria – while also seeking to ensure accountability for affected civilians.

US-led Coalition actions against ISIS remnants: the year in review

By the end of 2018, so-called Islamic State (ISIS) had reportedly lost 99% of the territory it had held back in 2014 – and the US-led war against the terror group as a territorial entity was expected shortly to reach a conclusion.

By late 2017, the government of Iraq had already announced victory over ISIS. Declared Coalition strikes in Iraq continued to decline heavily throughout 2018, falling by 92% on the previous year. Airwars monitored only three reported casualty events from Coalition actions in the country during 2018. Two of these were self-reported by the Coalition itself, suggesting that local public reporting remains a challenge in Iraq.

The US-led war shifted almost entirely to scraps of ISIS-held territory in eastern Syria, where civilians remained at significant risk. The fight to completely eradicate ISIS became increasingly ferocious as the year wore on, with 50% of all likely civilian deaths for the year tracked during the last quarter, as strike numbers in Syria also rose steeply.

By November 2018, Airwars was tracking the highest reported civilian harm from Coalition actions since the capture of Raqqa in October 2017. Strikes increased by 48% in December, though likely deaths fell by 59% on the previous month. This fall could indicate civilians had managed to escape from areas under assault, though might also suggest – as we have seen in previous battles – that local reporting had broken down during end-stage fighting. This may mean that the death toll might be higher than the figures tracked by Airwars.

Even so, overall 2018 saw a sharp year on year fall in reported civilian harm. According to Airwars tallies, non-combatant deaths from Coalition air and artillery strikes decreased by 80 per cent across Iraq and Syria compared to 2017, falling to between 821 and 1,712 civilians estimated killed during the year.

‘Trump effect’ on civilian harm may be overstated

The significant Coalition civilian death toll of 2017 has been attributed by some to a possible loosening of the rules of military engagement (ROEs) by US President Donald Trump, who took office in January of that year. Trump himself has asserted that he lowered the threshold for anti-ISIS strikes and also changed the ROEs (though some US military commanders have privately contested the latter claim in relation to Iraq and Syria.)

However, a multi-year assessment by Airwars suggests that a far greater likelihood for the steep rise in civilian harm seen in 2017 was due to the phase of the war itself. The Mosul and Raqqa assaults were always predicted to be the most intense, and the most dangerous for civilians, because of the numbers of non combatants still trapped under ISIS occupation at the time and the ferocity of those battles.

A comparison of Airwars civilian harm tallies across the years bears this out. The minimum figure of 821 civilians likely killed in 2018 is similar to tallies seen during both 2015 and 2016, under President Barack Obama. Airwars estimates that at least 712 civilians likely died in Iraq and Syria during 2015 for example. The following year, we tracked a minimum of 989 likely civilian deaths across both countries from January to  October 17th 2016, when the East Mosul assault began.

With Mosul and Raqqa liberated from ISIS’s grip, 2018 saw the war move back towards the kind of lower intensity conflict seen in 2015 and 2016. There were, however, alarming peaks in civilian harm linked to particular assaults, such as the battles for Hajin and al Soussa. What we may be seeing, therefore, is less the differences between two presidential approaches, and more the variations between different cycles of a war.

Even so, the ferocity of the Coalition-led assaults in the last quarter of 2018 on Al-Soussa and Hajin (see below) during which 50% of 2018’s likely deaths occurred, suggest that the US-led alliance applied few of the lessons learned during the brutal urban battles of Mosul and Raqqa, when it came to the protection of civilians. As in 2017, the alliance repeatedly and often aggressively downplayed the impact of its actions on the most vulnerable people on the ground in Syria – despite mounting, credible evidence to the contrary.

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Syria: Coalition likely civilian deaths fall by 73% yet toll still high

Despite the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad announcing in November 2017, that it had defeated ISIS, the terror group clung on to ever-decreasing scraps of territory in eastern Syria throughout 2018. Advances by the Kurdish dominated SDF into these areas were met by fierce resistance, and as the year wore on and the US-led alliance ramped up its efforts to liberate key ISIS-held towns in Deir Ezzor governorate – where 86% of the year’s Coalition casualty events were tracked – civilians on the ground paid an increasingly high cost.

To date, the Coalition has conceded 11 events across Iraq and Syria in which it confirms having killed or injured civilians during 2018 – down from 157 such confirmed events for 2017. An additional 117 civilian casualty incidents were classed by Airwars researchers as ‘Fair’ for 2018 – an 82% fall on the 674 fair events during the previous year. An event is assessed as fair when it has two or more uncontested credible sources, and where the Coalition has confirmed it carried out strikes in the area.

Overall, Airwars itself estimates that between 821 and 1,712 non-combatants were likely killed in these 128 events in both Syria and Iraq in 2018 – an 80% decrease on the 4,205 to 6,472 civilians estimated as likely killed by Coalition strikes in 2017. At least 421 additional civilians were reportedly wounded in these 128 events, an 84% fall from the year before which saw at least 2,686 civilians wounded.

This sharp fall in likely deaths and injuries coincided with a large decrease in Coalition actions. From January 1st to December 29th 2018, the Coalition reported 3,593 air and artillery strikes against ISIS across Iraq and Syria – a 69% fall on the 11,573 actions it reported in 2017. Of these strikes, 252 (7%) were in Iraq and 3,341 (93%) were in Syria.

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Civilian deaths in Syria tied to incidents rated as “Fair”, or Confirmed by the Coalition, fell by 81% to 126 events in 2018. Between 807 and 1,698 civilians were likely killed across such events compared to between 2,989 and 4,613 likely deaths during 2017. This represents a 73% drop in the minimum number of civilians likely killed by the US-led alliance in Syria. Of these 807 civilians, at least 214 were reportedly children and 185 were women.

Following three months of relative calm, February saw likely deaths from Coalition actions more than quadruple on the previous month, with at least 112 civilians likely killed in Syria. With members of the SDF quitting the battle against ISIS to focus on Afrin, this sudden leap in civilian harm could have been a case of there being less eyes on the ground – and a greater focus on air-only attacks. In what was to be one of the highest reported tolls of the year, 38 civilians died on February 3rd-4th in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Deir Ezzor’s Al Bahra village. The alliance itself later classed the event as ‘Non Credible.’

A stills grab from an al Amaq [ISIS media agency] propaganda video detailing reported destruction at al Bahra following an alleged Coalition strike on February 4th 2018.

Likely deaths fell sharply in March and reached a near all-time low in April. However, in May they spiked once more as the US-led Coalition announced the resumption of  SDF ground operations against remnant ISIS forces in northeast Syria, now dubbed Operation Roundup.

July saw another jump in civilian harm claims as the Coalition embarked on an operation to oust ISIS from its last enclave on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River. In the worst of several mass casualty events, up to 59 civilians reportedly died in alleged Coalition (or possibly unilateral Iraqi) strikes on an ice factory on July 12th at the junction of Al Sousse and Al Baghouz in the Deir Ezzor countryside. In an ambivalent later assessment, the Coalition reported that “After reviewing all the available evidence, the preponderance of the evidence did not indicate that the alleged civilian casualties were caused by Coalition operations.”

Due to limited information available to Airwars, we were unable to locate the junction or ice factory, however there is an industrial scale building at a junction leading to Al Bagouz from Al Soussa, for which the coordinates are: 34.5163168, 40.9498215

Ground operations as part of phase three of Operation Roundup commenced on September 11th, leading to a tripling in Coalition strike numbers in Syria. Surprisingly, this did not result in an associated rise in likely fatalities. Indeed, in September Airwars monitored the lowest number of likely civilian deaths in the four year war – possibly because many of the towns in Deir Ezzor had been largely emptied of civilians who were now taking refuge in camps in the countryside, according to some sources.

However, the last quarter of 2018 saw a significant climb in civilian harm allegations, with 50% of all likely deaths in the year occurring within the final three months. Casualty events tripled in October, a month marked by four devastating strikes on mosques which the Coalition itself admitted to targeting, claiming the buildings had been seized by ISIS.

As strike numbers again rose in November, Airwars tracked the highest reported civilian harm since the fall of Raqqa in October 2017 with at least 221 civilians likely killed by the US-led alliance during the month.

In December, marked by the battle for Hajin town itself, the Coalition carried out a massive 939 air and artillery strikes in Syria – a rise of 48% on November – and the highest number of declared strikes since September 2017. Likely civilian deaths fell by 59% on November, but remained at the third highest level seen for the year. Across 15 events our current estimate is that between 91 and 161 civilians died in a number of large scale events centred around Al Soussa, Al Shaafa and Hajin itself.

At least 32 children died in December alone during Coalition actions, according to credible local reports. In one of the worst events of the month, on December 5th, up to 25 civilians died in an alleged Coalition airstrike in Hajin. Victims reportedly included two members of ISIS and multiple children from their families.

Children of Abdul Razzaq al-Jazzar, reportedly an ISIS member, who was killed with his wife and children by an alleged Coalition airstrike on the city of Hajin (via Palmyra).

By December 14th, the SDF had captured Hajin from ISIS, depriving the terror group of its last major chunk of urban territory. Just as with previous assaults on Raqqa and Mosul in 2017, an urban assault of this ferocity frequently comes at lethal cost to those on the ground, placing civilians in an impossible position between ISIS fire and the Coalition’s formidable arsenal.

The shock announcement by President Trump, on December 19th, that the US would withdraw its forces from Syria “as quickly as possible” led to confusion in the region. Up to an estimated 2,500 fighters remained in the Hajin area, it was claimed by Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean J. Ryan  – and the terror group has repeatedly shown its potential for regrouping. There were some signs that Trump himself was acknowledging this, when at the end of the month he was said to be re-evaluating a rapid pullout, according to a Republican senator.

Indeed, there was no slowdown in the tempo of strikes in the last weeks of 2018, clearly indicating that despite announcements to the contrary the war was far from over – and the risk to several thousand civilians still trapped in the so-called ‘Hajin Pocket’ remained.

Turkish military actions in Syria and Iraq remain a concern

The year 2018 also saw Syrians under renewed threat elsewhere. On January 20th, Turkey began air and artillery strikes in the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin, a district of Aleppo governorate which was also home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians.

By March 18th, Turkish-backed forces had captured Afrin city and its environs, though at significant cost to those on the ground with, according to Airwars estimates, between 220 and 347 civilians likely killed from Turkish strikes in Syria and a further 17 to 33 civilians killed in YPG counter strikes during the relatively short but fierce campaign.

Turkish actions continued intermittently throughout the year – with both US and Russian forces acting as buffers against Turkish actions against the Kurdish held town of Manbij, for example.

There were also a small number of Turkish strikes in Iraq during 2018, a reminder of Ankara’s continued military occupation of parts of northern Iraq. Between March 21st and December 13th, we tracked nine casualty events reportedly caused by Turkish forces in Iraqi territory, likely killing between 20 and 25 civilians.

The aftermath of an alleged Turkish airstrike on Yilanguz village, Jindires, Afrin, 26th February 2018. (via Evlin.Hassan)

Russian campaign in Syria sees record casualty highs and lows

The first three months of the year proved to be exceptionally lethal for civilians trapped in Idlib and eastern Ghouta, as Russian and allied airstrikes rained down.

Between January 1st and March 31st, Airwars tracked between 1,525 and 2,370 claimed deaths allegedly involving Russian warplanes in Syria, most of which were in Damascus and Idlib governorates.

As the Eastern Ghouta offensive built momentum, civilians were left increasingly with nowhere to run or hide. By March, Airwars was tracking the worst recorded month in the Russian campaign so far. Across 250 alleged casualty events – a volume which exceeded even the 2016 siege of Aleppo – over 700 non-combatants were claimed killed in Eastern Ghouta. Entire families were reportedly wiped out, while others were said to have dug into the earth seeking shelter from the merciless assault.

Following Assad’s complete capture of Damascus at the end of March, there was an 82% drop in Russian casualty events.. That volume remained low, with an average of 21 events per month from April to December.

In a deal brokered in part by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the establishment of a demilitarised buffer zone in Idlib on September 17th was intended to separate government forces from rebel fighters. Surprisingly – and to the huge relief of civilians – this led to a fragile ceasefire, which continued to hold.  

Consequently, from mid-September 2018 and for the first time in three years, Airwars tracked no casualty events which were tied to Moscow. This shift in Russian actions continued until almost the end of 2018 – contrasting with the significant civilian harm still being caused by US-led Coalition actions in the final stages of its own anti-ISIS campaign in eastern Syria.

Overall then in 2018, Airwars tracked a 27% fall in claimed Russian casualty events on the previous year, reflecting the variable tempo of Moscow’s campaign. There were 728 alleged events – the lowest number in any one year since the start of Putin’s campaign in autumn 2015.

Even so, between 2,039 and 3,114 civilians were claimed killed across these 728 events – a 27% decrease from 2017 when between 2,727 to 4,065 civilians had allegedly been killed. This compares to between 1,015 and 2,015 civilians claimed killed in 182 alleged Coalition events during 2018. It should be noted that Moscow has yet to admit to a single death as a result of its own lengthy military intervention in Syria.

Dead bodies are lined up following a mass casulaty event in Douma on March 20th (via SN4HR)

Airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Libya

In 2018, Libya witnessed a sharp decline in reported airstrikes compared to the previous year, down from 685 to 283 strikes according to Airwars/ New America Foundation monitoring. The minimum number of reported civilian fatalities also fell, from 52 to 35, marking the lowest levels seen since the beginning of the second Libyan civil war in 2014.

This reflected a slight improvement in the overall political situation in the Maghrebian country. Even though Libya remained unstable in terms of security there were signs of detente, with two conferences held between the two major actors, the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA).

With the latter taking over Derna from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Derna Shura Mujahideen Council/Derna Protection Force in late June, jihadist forces no longer controlled any significant swathes of land in Libya. However, attacks by both ISIS and Al-Qaeda continue to shake the country as both remained active as insurgent groups.

The LNA remained the most military active force in Libya, with 146 airstrikes recorded, reportedly leading to between four and twelve civilian fatalities. Besides Derna, hotspots of activity were in Libya’s south, and in the Oil Crescent which the LNA briefly lost to an alliance of the Petroleum Facility Guards and Benghazi Defence Brigades. Subsequently the LNA gained back control using air power.

Interestingly, in terms of maximum recorded civilian deaths the US proved deadlier than the LNA in 2018 – a first. Given that the US only officially conducted seven airstrikes in Libya during the year this development was worrying, as AFRICOM strikes had reportedly been relatively precise in previous years.

Despite a decrease in tracked airstrikes, Libyan skies remained lawless, to a significant degree. France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates all reportedly conducted airstrikes in 2018. Additionally, there were also weaker reports of both Italian and Chadian airstrikes.

The UAE in particular was very active, with 57 strikes reported, allegedly supporting the LNA’s effort to take over Derna. No civilian deaths were recorded from Emirati strikes but four people were reportedly injured.

Egypt on the other hand reportedly killed three civilians on May 15th. Overall, Libya’s eastern neighbour reportedly conducted 17 strikes. In its attempts to control the shared border, 27 militants were reportedly killed and 61 vehicles destroyed in aerial actions, according to the Egyptian military.

In addition, artillery was an important factor for civilian harm during 2018. Clashes between GNA-affiliated militias and the 7th Brigade (a non state actor) in Tripoli allegedly led to between 20 and 25 civilian fatalities.

Destroyed vehicle after a US airstrike airstrike which allegedly killed three civilians in Bani Walid (via Almarsad)

Military advocacy

Since Airwars pioneered its military advocacy work following the start of the international campaign against ISIS in 2014, its engagement with Operation Inherent Resolve has grown year on year. The establishment of a permanent Coalition civilian casualty cell in December 2016 has been crucial to that engagement, with Airwars flagging more than 2,000 alleged civilian harm events to the US-led alliance to date. Over time, Airwars has become the dominant source for such claims. In 2018 Airwars referred just under 90% of all reported civilian harm events assessed overall by the Coalition. Of the 64 incidents adjudged Credible by the alliance during the year, 23 were Airwars referrals.

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Insufficient information on the location and time of an allegation continues to be the overriding reason for Non Credible assessments made by the Coalition. In the last year, a third of cases were dismissed on these grounds. For this reason, geolocation remains one of the team’s core activities. Airwars not only provided hundreds of enhanced geolocations to the Coalition relating to civilian harm during 2018, but has also published online a major archive of 600 geolocation notes detailing how coordinates were arrived at by the Airwars team via open source analysis.

The year did see a significant improvement in the transparency of Coalition civilian casualty reporting, with the sharing by the alliance with Airwars of multiple Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) coordinates accurate to within 100m, for both Credible and Non Credible assessments. However, the Coalition continues to withhold the reasons for many of its determinations of civilian harm. For three quarters of all civilian deaths conceded by the alliance during 2018, it gave no further details on the cause.

Airwars believes that one of the best tools available for mitigating harm to civilians is by improving knowledge of the circumstances in which it occurs. In this vein, the organisation contributed written evidence to the UK Parliament’s Defence Select Committee Inquiry into UK Military Operations in Mosul and Raqqa.

Our strategic engagement with other external monitors and investigators also continued to bear fruit. In March, a Mosul casualty case passed to Airwars by Amnesty International field researchers and subsequently flagged by our team to the Coalition, resulted in the third admission of civilian harm by Australia. That same month saw the UK’s Ministry of Defence concede its first civilian casualty in the war against ISIS, a single death in Syria’s Euphrates Valley – though the UK continues to deny any civilian harm from 1,000 targets struck by the RAF during the battles for Mosul and Raqqa.

The year ended with a new advocacy challenge, following the Coalition’s sudden end to the reporting of locations and dates for each air and artillery strike after 52 months of relative transparency. Efforts to reverse this decision – and to translate into systemic change recent gains in the transparency of civilian harm reporting – will be a defining goal of our broader advocacy engagement in the year to come

European advocacy

In the Netherlands, 2018 saw a slight improvement in military transparency. Following the renewal of its mission on January 5th 2018, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) released the locations of the nearest large settlement to Dutch strikes in its weekly updates. Previously no locational data was provided. However, for the first leg of the mission (2014-2016) little remains known about the locations and dates of Dutch military actions, with the MoD still refusing to publish these details. Therefore the Netherlands remains one the least transparent countries of the Coalition.

While the MoD did admit responsibility for killing or injuring civilians in up to three Iraqi airstrikes, it continues to refuse to identify the dates and locations of these events. On April 13th 2018, findings of a Public Prosecution Service assessment of four potential civilian harm incidents were presented to Parliament by the Minister of Defense. As noted in an Airwars article, when our advocacy officer asked the MoD why such basic but vital information as the dates and locations of these events was not shared publicly, a spokesperson responded that on national and operational security grounds nothing further would be divulged.

The political landscape changed slightly throughout the year, following national elections in October 2017. While opposition parties the SP, PvdA and Groenlinks have continued to raise concerns about the lack of transparency on civilian casualties of Dutch airstrikes, the D66 party changed its stance significantly after joining the ruling coalition. In a plenary debate held in December 2018 on Dutch participation in the fight against ISIS, D66 MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma even asserted that the Netherlands was the most transparent member of the Coalition, despite having previously raised concerns about its lack of transparency.

During this debate, two motions were filed by opposition parties. The first called for an independent investigation into civilian casualties resulting from Coalition airstrikes. The second motion called for the publishing of information on incidents involving civilian casualties from Dutch airstrikes. While the first motion was denied, the second was tabled, and will be brought to a vote in 2019.

Airwars advocacy officer Maike Awater discusses the challenges of Dutch military transparency and accountability.

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Russian or Syrian regime airstrike on Tal Al-Touqan, Idlib, January 3rd 2018 (via Nessma)