May 2023

Written by

Clarie Alspektor

Assisted by

Alice Lindsay, Anika Venkatesh, Anna Zahn, Aya Wazaz, Brian Osgood, Clive Vella, Duncan Salkovskis, Eleonora Sobrero, Emily Tripp, Georgia Edwards, Igor Corcevoi, Iryna Chupryna, Joe Dyke, Joe Murphy, Jordan Smolinsky, Martha Greenhough, Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen, Richard Quinlan, Samuel Doak, Shihab Halep and Yulia Oborskaya

From February 24th to May 13th 2022, between 275 and 438 civilians were alleged to have been killed by explosive weapons when Russian forces invaded the Ukrainian region of Kharkiv.

Airwars researchers documented all open source accounts of civilian harm, identifying 200 harm incidents during the short period known as the ‘Battle of Kharkiv’. Alongside the almost daily reported civilian deaths, up to 829 civilians were reported injured. In cases where the identity of the victims were reported by local sources, Airwars identified at least 30 children, 52 women and 61 men likely killed by Russian forces.

This research represents perhaps the most granular openly available database on civilian harm in the densely populated oblast that borders Russia.

In bringing together the stories shared by local residents, journalists and civil society organisations, the following research brief offers an insight into life under bombardment. We present our findings below on where and how local sources reported harm to the residents of Kharkiv, how critical infrastructure has been damaged and how essential services have been disrupted. We also present our analysis of the information environment, and the unique challenges of accurate casualty recording in this complex battleground.

Battle of Kharkiv

Our casualty recording efforts cover all local allegations of civilian harm from explosive weapons throughout Kharkiv oblast, for the period when the Kharkiv city and its surroundings were subject to an intense period of fighting – otherwise known as the ‘Battle of Kharkiv’.

The second largest city in Ukraine, Kharkiv has been among the hardest hit urban areas in the war. Located some 40km from the Russian border, with a large Russian speaking population and close ties to Moscow’s economy, it was a key target when the invasion began on February 24, 2022.

As Russian forces invaded Ukraine from multiple directions, thousands of troops entered the Kharkiv region. Cities and villages were heavily shelled. In a few weeks key towns and cities in Kharkiv oblast were occupied by Russian forces, including Izyum, Kupiansk and Balaklia.

Kharkiv city itself was never occupied but instead became the scene of intense fighting and a mass exodus. Pre-war analysis estimated its population at 1.4 million, but by March 2022 that number had allegedly fallen as low as 300,000. Yet the success of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in defending Kharkiv is believed to have played a significant role in bolstering morale in the early days of the Russian invasion.

At the end of April 2022, Ukrainian forces began a counter offensive in Kharkiv. By May 13th, Russian forces were pushed from the surroundings of the city. The eventual Russian retreat was described as one of the Ukrainian military’s fastest advances since Russian troops abandoned their assault on Kyiv. In June 2022, Mayor Ihor Terekhov estimated Kharkiv city’s population had returned to around one million.

However, in the wider Kharkiv region, most occupied areas were only reclaimed following the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in September 2022.

Today Kharkiv city is largely calm, though occasional Russian shelling continues in the oblast. The city’s infrastructure remains devastated while the human impact can be counted both in the lives lost and the large number of residents who have still not yet returned.

The archiving process

Our new archive contains crucial details about where and how civilians were harmed, as reported by local sources during the war in Kharkiv.

Our open source research is intended to be the starting point for investigators, journalists, human rights groups and families and individuals affected by this conflict, as we aggregate and preserve all local allegations to build a permanent database of harm. It is also aimed at humanising those harmed in war, and to make it clear to powerful militaries around the world that civilian harm, even in the most intense modern urban battlefields, can and must be recorded.

Our estimates of civilian harm are not definitive, as, given the widespread scale of casualties, it is likely that other incidents were not covered by sources we have tracked.

Our methodology note outlines in more detail how we applied our casualty recording methodology to this dense and complex battleground.

Frequency and intensity of harm incidents

Civilian harm incidents were recorded almost daily for the first two months of the invasion. This intense period of battle was the most deadly for civilians: in the first five days of fighting alone, between 18 and 38 civilians were reported killed, and up to another 119 wounded.

In one incident tracked by Airwars on April 10th, a community official in the city of Zolochiv told Suspilne TV that “since the morning, Zolochiv has been under fire almost all day, and for the last two and a half hours it has been non-stop.” In April 2022, the Mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov, described the city as being bombed “day and night.”

Even as the Ukrainian Armed Forces were pushing back Russian troops from Kharkiv city and its surroundings towards the end of April, civilian harm incidents continued throughout the rest of the oblast: the day before analysts considered Ukraine had likely won the Battle for the city of Kharkiv, at least two civilians were reported killed in incidents beyond AFU front lines in Shebelynka, Derhachi and Balaklia.

Civilians were usually the only reported casualties

A key debate throughout the war has been the extent to which Russian forces have been striking legitimate military targets. Russian officials accuse Ukraine of placing military targets near civilian population centres, while Ukraine has claimed that the strikes are deliberately indiscriminate.

Our data shows that in 95% of cases where civilians were allegedly killed or injured (189 incidents), local sources reported that civilians were the only victims of Russian actions, and did not mention any other military object or Ukrainian military personnel harmed.

While public reporting on Ukrainian military casualties is forbidden under Ukrainian law, which may be a factor in the relatively low numbers, this is a finding that echoes other on the ground reporting from human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch.

In three incidents, the sources were conflicted or unclear as to whether among those reportedly harmed were also members of the Ukrainian military or only civilians.

In one incident, on March 26th, Russian forces reportedly shelled the town of Barvinkove in Izyum district, resulting in the deaths of at least four Ukrainian soldiers and one civilian. Multiple Ukrainian sources, including on social media, covered the event, noting that the shelling caused a fire in a secondary school. One source known to come from a pro-Russian account claimed that the school was being used by Ukrainian forces to create a “human shield” for Ukrainian soldiers. It reiterated that a Russian missile caused the casualties but referred to those killed and injured as soldiers. See our methodology note for how we assess and account for conflicting information.

Life under bombardment

In documenting civilian harm, local sources revealed key insights into civilians’ daily lives, and the far-reaching human toll of war.

Harmed at home

In at least 60 incidents (nearly a third of all allegations), civilians were reported to have been killed or injured at home when Russian artillery shelling or strikes hit residential buildings or houses. In one incident, on March 17th 2022, a mother and her four-year-old daughter were reportedly sleeping in their house when the shelling started. Sources claimed that the woman covered her daughter with her body to protect her. She was killed in the incident while her daughter was injured.

Sources reported civilians killed in their kitchens and bedroom. Details provided by local media give an insight into lives lost: of a Russian woman who had been living in Kharkiv for ten years; of a ninety-six year old man who survived the Holocaust, of two neighbours about to have lunch together  – all killed in their homes by alleged Russian bombardment.

Local sources also recorded stories of civilians killed while running for safety. On April 6th, 2022, a 33-year-old civilian was reported killed after an alleged Russian shelling of Zolochiv, Kharkiv. A local official, Viktor Kovalenko, stated that the young man was running “from his house to the basement of his neighbours” for shelter “because he didn’t have his own. And he didn’t run a metre and a half – his legs were blown off by an explosion.”

Routines disrupted

Civilians were also killed or injured while buying groceries and getting other essential supplies, according to local sources.

On February 28th, four civilians, including a child, were reportedly killed collecting drinking water after leaving their bomb shelter. On March 6th, a woman was severely injured while queuing in front of a shop. And on March 24th, in one deadly incident, six civilians were likely killed and up to 17 others injured in an alleged Russian shelling on a supermarket.

Many examples of daily routines disrupted by tragedy were recorded by local sources. In one incident, a mother was reportedly walking with her daughter in the street when an alleged Russian shell landed close by, killing her and seriously injuring her daughter. In another incident, an elderly woman feeding cats in a park was killed by alleged Russian artillery shelling. Sources also reported a mother was killed while she was on the phone coming back from a store, in front of her house. Her neighbour told Suspilne News that “If, perhaps, she had come a minute earlier, she would have had time… Two children were left without their mother.”

Civilians were also reported harmed while waiting for public transport, while driving in their cars, or while at work.

In March and May, in two separate incidents, several volunteers and workers at Feldman Ecopark, a zoo located north of Kharkiv city, were killed and seriously injured by reported Russian shelling. Among the victims was a fifteen-year old boy who died while attempting to evacuate the park’s animals.

Destruction of a city

In Kharkiv city, the highest number of incidents of civilian harm were recorded in Saltivskyi, in Kyivsky and Shevchenkivskiy city districts, the northern and eastern parts of the city. In September 2022, Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said in an interview that ‘there are some residential areas where there is nothing left’.

In Izyum, a city located some 100km south of Kharkiv, which was occupied by Russian forces for over six months, Ukrainian officials estimated that between 70 and 80% of residential buildings have been destroyed.

Airwars identified 56 incidents where civilian infrastructure was damaged alongside reports of the deaths and injuries of Kharkiv residents. For the purposes of this report, ‘infrastructure’ has been defined as any mention of the following key terms by sources: hospital, school, agriculture, humanitarian delivery services, humanitarian evacuation routes, religious institutions, marketplaces, energy supplies (gas, power, and water infrastructure).

We also monitored damage to administration buildings, shops, hostels, parks – including a zoo -, railway stations, a prison facility, and a cemetery.

The incidents related to infrastructure damage tracked by Airwars only reflects those cases where civilian deaths and injuries were also recorded, providing just a small snapshot into the wider picture of damaged infrastructure in Kharkiv.

On March 16, two to three civilians were reportedly killed and at least five others, including three rescuers, were injured by alleged Russian shelling of Novosaltivs’kyy Budivel’nyy market, in Kharkiv city. Sources tracked did not mention combatants harmed or military objects hit alongside these civilian casualties

Damage and destruction to infrastructure have reverberating effects on civilian lives. In one civilian harm incident tracked by Airwars, a gas pipeline was damaged following an alleged Russian strike, leading to more than 500 families being left temporarily without gas supply. In another incident, in May 2022, a 46-year-old woman was reportedly killed in her backyard while she was cooking over a fire due to a lack of electricity.

Access to healthcare

Destruction of the Central City Hospital (Центральна міська лікарня) of Izium (Ізюм) following reported Russian shelling on March 8th 2022, posted on Facebook by a user whose name has been redacted for security reason

Among the incidents with reference to infrastructure damage tracked by Airwars, the highest number of mentions were related to healthcare institutions, directly impacting access to medical treatment for civilians.

Airwars documented damage to 16 healthcare facilities in incidents where civilians were also killed or injured. Among these were hospitals, a blood donation centre, a pharmacy, and an ambulance. On March 3rd, a Syrian doctor, described as a gynaecologist originally from Deir Ezzor, was killed when an alleged Russian mortar hit the Kharkiv Regional hospital.

In a pattern similar to what is often reported in Syria, Airwars also tracked three allegations of so-called double-tap strikes, where a strike is followed by a second round of strikes just as emergency services or nearby civilians respond to the incident. These incidents were also captured by the Attacks on Healthcare Project, which documented cases of multiple strikes targeting the same hospitals in Kharkiv: “One was hit five times, and another was hit four times”. They added that between February 2022 and December 2022, the Kharkiv region recorded the highest number of damaged or destroyed hospitals in Ukraine.

In documenting civilian harm, local sources also often reported on the challenge that Russian bombardment was having on the ability of rescuers to respond to the incidents.

In a civilian harm incident reported in March, Kharkiv Today reported that rescuers “could not even drive up” to Kharkiv “due to constant volleys of enemy artillery.” One month later, in another incident in Izyum, Russian forces reportedly hit evacuation buses, causing civilian casualties. One local source claimed that due to destroyed roads and bridges in the area, it was impossible to bring medicine and other vital aid, “as well as the fact that the Russian occupiers prohibit movement between villages in the community.”

Munitions documented

The fighting in Kharkiv oblast mainly took place with the use of explosive weapons.

Civilians were predominantly reported killed or injured by artillery fire (accounting for 77% of incidents recorded), while the remaining incidents of harm resulted from airstrikes (eight incidents) or unexploded ordnance (six incidents).

Between 12 and 14 civilians were recorded killed, and between four and 11 injured, by planted explosives and unexploded ordnance. In one such case, sources reported that two men in their 30s were killed when their car drove over an anti-tank mine while driving to Chornohlazivka village. They were reportedly on their way to visit one of their mothers. According to a local official, the two “died on the spot, the car was blown to pieces. The occupiers had recently withdrawn from this village, they could have left it behind.”

The limited number of incidents related to mines or other explosive hazards tracked by Airwars does not reflect the scale of land contamination in the Kharkiv region, given the fact that harm related to contamination is likely to occur and be reported well beyond the initial campaign period.

Kharkiv Chief Prosecutor, Oleksandr Filchakov, explained to AP News that “no one can say now the total percentage of territory in Kharkiv that is mined, we are finding them everywhere.”

In 14 incidents, local sources accused Russian forces of having used cluster munitions. The use by Moscow of such weapons in Ukraine has been widely documented. In April 2022, Airwars showed the impact of a single Russian cluster munition that struck a hospital and blood donation centre in Kharkiv on the second day of the invasion. Damage was reported in a 350m radius. The same month, three deminers were killed and four others injured while trying to remove alleged Russian mines. Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy stated that cluster munitions were among the munitions that exploded during the operation.

In one incident, local sources mentioned the use of a projectile by Russian forces that fell on a factory with a parachute, also referred to as “parachute bomb”. The alleged Russian incident led to one civilian killed and up to six others injured. By April, the use of such weapons was already being reported in Kharkiv city by the Mayor of Kharkiv.

The information environment

As per Airwars’ standard methodology, all incidents are categorised according to the nature of information identified in relation to the incident: incidents where all sources are in agreement about the cause and case of harm are marked ‘fair’, incidents where sources disagree as to who was responsible or if civilian casualties occurred are marked ‘contested’, and incidents where there are very few sources or only generic information reported are marked ‘weak’. See our methodology note for details.

In Kharkiv, ‘fair’ events – where sources accused Russian forces for civilian harm accounted for 138 incidents, and between 275 and 387 civilian casualties.

Our team also recorded two additional ‘fair’ incidents where all sources attributed civilian harm to Ukrainian Armed Forces. These incidents account for between two and five civilian deaths. As this Brief focuses on alleged Russian actions, these two incidents were not included in our casualty totals, though they continue to be investigated by our research team.

‘Weak’ incidents accounted for 60 incidents, and between 41 and 42 casualties. All of these ‘weak’ cases accused Russian forces of being responsible for the civilian harm. In two incidents, Airwars found civilian casualties where some local sources alleged that harm resulted from the Ukrainian Armed Forces as they were pushing back Russian forces.

Although concerns around disinformation are widespread, Airwars found that individual civilian harm allegations were rarely contested in any level of detail. Where civilian harm claims were dismissed or accused of being fraudulent, accounts mainly focused on general trends.

Two types of information were found to typically be put forward by sources discrediting local civilian harm claims: either the source claimed that harm was caused by Ukrainian Armed Forces, or that Ukrainian troops were deliberately installing military equipment in residential areas or inside civilian infrastructure.

This includes claims by the Russian state at the highest levels, that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have used human shields. In March 2022, President Vladimir Putin alleged that Ukrainian security forces used Indian students in Kharkiv as “human shields” after an Indian student was reported killed in Kharkiv city by Russian shelling.

Other claims communicated by the Russian Ministry of Defense include allegations that Ukrainian forces deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructure to protect sensitive information; such as the Institute of Physics and Technology in Kharkiv, in which nuclear technology was apparently being developed. On March 1st, the building of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration and Svobody Square in Kharkiv city were hit by a rocket, leading to six to 11 casualties, among them a child, and up to 35 civilians were allegedly injured. Russian officials alleged that the strike was voluntarily conducted by Ukrainian forces against Ukrainian civilians ‘dissatisfied with the city administration’; while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed Russia conducted the bombing and that ‘there were no military targets in the square’.

Russia has not admitted to any civilian casualties yet and official statements published by the Ministry of Defense repeatedly affirmed that only military targets and combatants were hit by Russian shelling or strikes.

Critical gaps in casualty records

Key details of victims missing

In a number of incidents our researchers encountered a major gap in the information publicly available – the identities of the victims. In Ukrainian language reporting there has been few mention of names of victims, and limited information related to their gender, age or occupation.

This differs dramatically from other conflicts Airwars has monitored, including US airstrikes in Yemen and Iraq, Russian bombing in Syria, and Israeli bombardment in Gaza and Syria.

As an example, in one intense month of Russian and Syrian government bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo in July 2016, our team tracked 76 different civilian harm incidents – in which we recorded 187 named victims. In March 2022, in the Kharkiv region, we tracked 70 separate civilian harm incidents from Russian strikes, but only a total of 37 named victims.

There are a number of potential reasons for this gap. A key factor is Ukraine’s privacy policy that is being applied by authorities to protect civilians’ identities. This allows the release of names only when approval has been given by the victim or his/her family.

Ukraine also has a functioning state, with security, investigative, forensic and medico-legal structures that worked to record civilian harm since earlier Russian advances on the country. In Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Syria such official structures are either lacking or distrusted by civilians. As such civilians have been forced to fill the gaps – posting details of the dead on social media, particularly Facebook.

Other reasons might involve security risks related to documentation of civilian harm within areas of active combat such as Kharkiv, including difficult or forbidden access for civilians to destroyed or collapsed buildings in urban areas looking for their loved ones due to safety issues relating to unexploded ordnance, as well as internet and/or electricity blackouts that prevented local people from communicating information to the outside world.

Missing persons

Local sources documenting civilian harm in Ukraine reveal key challenges in capturing accurate civilian casualty records due to the difficulties in recovering and identifying victims. In one incident tracked by Airwars, local sources reported that it took 20 days before a woman and her 11-year old son were found buried under the rubble of their house.

Some experts have said that it could take years to find and identify civilian victims, with Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group estimating that nearly 2,000 individuals remain missing in Kharkiv oblast alone.

Information in occupied areas

The identification of civilians killed in the conflict has been particularly challenging in Kharkiv Oblast given that many areas were occupied by Russian forces for several months. Several incidents identified by Airwars were only widely reported after Ukrainian forces had retaken control of certain areas. In Izyum, for example, Airwars identified open sources that described the death of an entire family in May 2022, when their car drove over an alleged Russian mine as they attempted to evacuate Kharkiv. It was not until October 2022 that police forces were able to report the incident for the first time through on the ground interviews and a site visit.

In areas under occupation, Kharkiv governor Oleg Synegubov stated that “the first thing they [Russian forces] did was to cut people off from any information”.

In another incident, also in Izyum city, on March 9, 2022, the Russian military was reported to have launched airstrikes on and then shelled a five story residential building – causing it to collapse. The incident killed between 47 to 54 people, including many families who were trapped in the debris. The incident was only widely reported in September, when Ukrainian forces retook control of the area.

In October 2022, Ukrainian authorities reported that they found more than 500 bodies in newly retaken areas. The causes of death are still unknown, while many families are still waiting for the results of DNA tests and additional investigations to know the fate of their loved ones.

In many incidents recorded by Airwars, sources recorded mentions of investigations launched by the Kharkiv Prosecutor Office while the conflict is still ongoing. The outcomes of these investigations are likely to reveal new details about the nature and scale of civilian harm.

Airwars will continue to update our archive as new information comes to light.


While the full human toll of the war is not yet fully known, the harm documented in Kharkiv reveals once again the devastating impact of conflict on civilian populations.

The severity and nature of this human cost of war underlines the need for greater measures to protect civilians in conflict across the world, particularly in densely populated areas. As documented widely by local sources, the level and severity of harm is likely to have long lasting and reverberating effects for many years to come.

▲ Collected fragments of the Russian rockets that hit Kharkiv, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Dec. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Libkos, File)


May 2023

Written by

Airwars Staff

This overview is intended to accompany our Research Brief ‘Patterns of civilian harm from alleged Russian actions in Kharkiv oblast’, our conflict overview page, and our archive.

This approach was originally developed as we documented conflicts across Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and the Gaza Strip, and closely aligns with global standards on Casualty Recording.

What is an ‘incident’? 

Airwars uses an incident-based approach to document civilian harm: each incident is defined as a moment in time and space where sources reported death or injury to civilian non-combatant populations. See more on sourcing below.

Where the exact time or location of an incident is unknown, civilian deaths and injuries may be aggregated under one event until more information comes to light. Each incident is geolocated to the highest possible degree of accuracy by trained geolocation teams. Where locations cannot be precisely identified, civilian harm incidents will be aggregated until more information is known.

Tagged image to show geolocation proof, incident RUK192

Our threshold of geolocation accuracy for including an incident in our archive is at sub-district level.

All incidents are considered ‘live’ in our archive, and can be updated and changed to account for evolving information.

Who are our sources?

For our work casualty recording, we assessed all known open source claims of civilian non-combatants killed or injured by all parties using explosive weapons in Kharkiv oblast.

Our sources were identified by our trained team of Ukrainian researchers, using an incident-based method to develop a continuously evolving list of sources for monitoring and investigating allegations of civilian deaths or injuries. These sources include Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, and local and international media or organisations, in Ukrainian, Russian and English language.

We routinely conduct data mapping exercises to ensure that we are coordinating with other civil society and documentation groups working in a similar field.

To date, similar aggregate databases covering casualty records in Kharkiv include: Bellingcat, Eyes on Russia-Center for Information Resilience, Attacks on Health Care in Ukraine Project, Hala systems, Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), Victims Memorial, Ukraine War Archive, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group and Helsinki Human Rights Union/Tribunal For Putin (T4P) initiative.

These databases are referenced throughout our assessments, to facilitate information sharing and data reconciliation across the diverse range of documentation efforts.

Note that Airwars’ mention of an incident recorded by another open source dataset does not mean that Airwars findings precisely match what has been recorded by that organisation. In certain cases, findings may differ due to the sources used or due to differences in methodology.

Managing dis/misinformation

As in all conflicts we monitor, we include any and all information relevant to a single incident of civilian harm, regardless of the affiliation of the source. In other words, if a source includes reference to the civilians killed or injured in a single incident it will be included in our assessment. If a source includes only generic information without being linked to a single incident, it will not be included.

All information is assessed, written up and archived within each assessment in order to allow the user of the dataset to conduct further investigation if needed.

Civilian casualty categories

Airwars has developed a unique methodology to categorise civilian harm incidents according to the nature of information identified in relation to the incident. This approach allows users of the archive to quickly understand the information environment relating to each allegation.

    Fair: all sources agree civilian harm occurred as a result of the actions of one belligerent (i.e. all sources agreed that Russian forces killed civilians in a single strike) Contested: not all sources agree on who was responsible for the civilian harm (i.e. some sources alleged harm resulted from Russian actions, some sources alleged harm resulted from Ukrainian forces actions). Weak: the allegation of harm came from only a single source, with little unique information circulated amongst open sources. This category may change to ‘fair’ or ‘contested’ if more information comes to light. For example, incidents qualified as ‘weak’ in occupied areas, where access to information has been restricted by Russian forces, may later be reassessed after new details are revealed. Discounted: Incidents where the original assessment of civilian casualties is later proven inaccurate, due to new information that comes to light.

Additional categories and notes

Personal information on civilians harmed

Names and personal information related to civilians harmed whose identities are known have not been included in our public archive, due to on-going security fears and with respect to the Ukrainian Law on Protection of Personal Data, along with other regulations. Airwars maintains a secure private archive of individuals named, should the situation evolve.

Damage to infrastructure

We have coded for damage to civilian infrastructure in cases where civilian death or injury was also reported. Our definition of ‘infrastructure’ is evolving, but to date accounts for any mention of the following terms by sources: healthcare infrastructure, school, agriculture, humanitarian aid distribution, humanitarian evacuation, religious institution, marketplace, gas facility, power station, and water station.

Challenges and limitations

On casualty recording in Ukraine and in Kharkiv region

The Ukrainian government stopped publishing national casualty estimates four days into the war. The United Nations, currently the sole official source for those figures, does not provide details of casualties per region. In the beginning of May 2023, the UN’s estimate found confirmed evidence of only 8,800 Ukrainian civilians killed in 15 months in all of Ukraine, mostly resulting from the use of explosive weapons. The UN has repeatedly admitted this is an underestimate, while Ukrainian war prosecutors estimate the real toll may be 10 times higher.

Airwars’ Ukraine team has found that a number of local sources often referred to authorities regarding casualty reporting and casualty numbers, and were less likely than in other conflicts monitored by Airwars to provide separate grassroots estimates of civilian deaths. This might be explained by the fact that even prior to the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has had functioning official security, forensic and medico-legal structures trusted by civilians to internally record civilian harm. Fears of occupation and retaliation in Kharkiv oblast during the time of reference could also explain less willingness from sources to publish open source details about incidents.

Our team has noted limited accounts of civilian injuries reported in local media, with sources instead often referring to civilians ‘pulled from the rubble’. Without clear mention of injuries, we have not included those rescued from the rubble in our range of civilians injured. However, we have captured this information in our summary of the incident. This is a datapoint we are exploring as an information proxy for physical harm.

On the identification of victims and missing individuals 

In a number of incidents, our researchers encountered one major gap in the information publicly released – the identities of the victims. In Ukrainian language reporting there has been few mention of names of victims, and limited information related to their gender, age or occupation. There are a number of potential reasons for this gap but a key factor is the Ukrainian Law on Protection of Personal Data, along with other regulations, applied by authorities to protect civilians’ identities. This allows the release of personal information only when approval has been given by the victim or their family. Other reasons might involve security risks related to documentation of civilian harm within areas of active combat such as Kharkiv, as well as the difficult or forbidden access for civilians to destroyed or collapsed buildings in urban areas when looking for their loved ones.

The identification of civilians killed in the conflict has also been particularly challenging in Kharkiv oblast given that many areas in the region were occupied by Russian forces for several months. In October 2022, Ukrainian authorities reported that they found hundreds of bodies in newly retaken areas. When causes of death were not known, as many families are still waiting for the results of DNA tests and additional investigations to know the fate of their loved ones, these victims were not included in our casualty totals. Some experts have said that it could take years to find and identify civilian victims, with Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group estimating that nearly 2,000 individuals remain missing in Kharkiv oblast alone.


February 2023

Written by

Anna Zahn, Clarie Alspektor and Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Clive Vella and Shihab Halep

In the second year of President Joe Biden’s administration, the number of US airstrikes fell to an historic low as some military engagements appeared to take a different form — with the redeployment of US forces to Somalia and a shift towards targeted raids on Islamic State figures in Syria.

The overall number of declared US airstrikes across all monitored military theatres fell from 441 in 2021 to a minimum of 36 in 2022 – mostly due to the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is the lowest number of strikes the US has declared annually since the 9/11 terrorist atrocities in 2001 and subsequent launch of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

This drastic drop was also indicative of another shift – while airstrikes seemed to occur with less frequency in all military theatres except Somalia, the number of more loosely defined military operations increased in some, particularly in Iraq and Syria.

2022 saw intense focus on US civilian harm policy – with the launch of the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHM-RAP). The proposals are supposed to reduce the number of civilians killed in future conflicts and improve the civilian harm review process. It came after years of work organisations like Airwars and journalists documenting how the US military’s process for assessing, reviewing and investigating civilian harm was unfit for purpose.

During the year the Biden Administration also altered US policy on engaging militants outside of recognised conflicts by issuing a Presidential Policy Memorandum to Congress – but not to the public. Airwars joined over 50 civil society organisations in calling on the White House to release the new lethal force policy.

Total Number of US Declared airstrikes per year

Iraq and Syria

There was a noticeable shift in the kind of operations the US carried out in Iraq and Syria in 2022, and this was reflected in changing language from CENTCOM – the military command responsible for the Middle East and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the US officially ended its combat role at the end of 2021 – formally transitioning to advising, assisting and enabling the Iraqi Security Forces. However, there are still around 2,500 US troops in the country and it remains unclear what the exact definition and limits of ‘assistance’ entails.

In Syria, the US has yet to make an equivalent official declaration – partly as its estimated 900 troops in the country are there without the support of the Damascus regime. However the pattern of behaviour is similar to Iraq – with most activities in partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), primarily in the north and east of the country.

Based on official reporting, Airwars estimates that the US conducted a minimum of 20 airstrikes in Syria in 2022. This is by far the lowest figure since 2014, when the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State was formed.

CENTCOM’s end of year review stated that US forces carried out a total of 313 operations in Iraq and Syria during 2022, with 686 militants allegedly killed. In Iraq, US forces conducted 191 partnered operations, with at least 220 operatives killed and 159 ISIS operatives detained. In Syria, they conducted 108 partnered operations and 14 unilateral operations – with 466 ISIS operatives killed and 215 detained. CENTCOM does not define what an ‘operation’ is – making it difficult to understand the discrepancy between these figures and those in press releases throughout the year.

The 2022 report by CENTCOM also doesn’t mention civilian casualties. However, Airwars recorded 13 incidents where harm to civilians allegedly occurred from the actions of the US-led Coalition.

In 10 of these incidents, the Coalition was reported as the only belligerent responsible. In those incidents between seven and 13 civilians were reported killed. In the other three incidents, it was unclear from local sources whether the civilian harm was caused by the US-led Coalition, their SDF allies or ISIS militants. In total these incidents could account for up to 15 additional deaths, excluding the casualty toll of a complex ISIS prison breakout that began on January 20th.

That incident was the largest reported US action during the year and came as ISIS militants led a daring raid at al-Sinaa prison, a detention facility where thousands of alleged former fighters were detained. CENTCOM provided aerial and ground-based support and carried out airstrikes throughout the ten days of battle. A year on, limited definitive information exists as to how many civilians and militants were killed by the different military forces and militants involved. The exact number of US strikes conducted also remains unclear – with the US-led Coalition referring only to a “series of strikes.” Airwars monitored a minimum of 13 strikes during ten days of fighting though this is likely an underestimate, with other monitoring organisations estimating the figure to be several dozen. A joint Airwars and VICE News investigation examined the failures that led up to the prison break.

In early February 2022, US Special Operations Forces conducted a raid that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, as well as his wife and children – with up to thirteen civilians killed, including six children and four women. Local reporting was conflicted as to whether the civilian casualties were caused by US forces or by Qurayshi detonating a suicide device.

Airwars also tracked an incident where a civilian was reportedly killed when he was run over by a vehicle allegedly belonging to the Coalition on November 14, 2022 in Deir Ezzor, Syria.

It is unclear whether the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria, known as Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), is still actively assessing civilian harm allegations. OIR last released a civilian casualty report in March 2022, which indicated that it still had 37 reports of civilian casualties still under review.


US direct involvement in Somalia increased in 2022.

US troops were officially withdrawn from the country in January 2021; shortly before President Biden assumed power. Between then and May 2022, rotating groups of American special operations units provided training and assistance to Somali and African Union forces. The then head of AFRICOM – the US military command for Africa – General Stephen Townsend, complained this structure was “not effective.”

In May 2022, Biden approved a plan to deploy several hundred ground forces to the country.

On August 9th 2022, a new head of AFRICOM – General Michael Langley – was instated, while the new Somali administration has requested the US loosen its restrictions on drone strikes.

US strikes have since increased – in total AFRICOM declared 15 strikes in Somalia in 2022, up from 11 in 2021. Airwars tracked a further five strikes that local sources attributed to US forces but were not declared by AFRICOM.

Airwars Graph of US declared strikes in Somalia in 2022 by month

In the 15 declared strikes, AFRICOM claimed 107 alleged al-Shabaab militants were killed, while local reporting or statements by the Somali government put casualties significantly higher. To date it has released only two quarterly civilian casualty assessments which referenced strikes in 2022 (covering the period from January 1-June 30), but did not acknowledge any civilian harm was caused by its actions.

Airwars tracked two allegations of civilian harm in 2022 where local sources pointed to US forces’ involvement. One of these occurred on September 9, when up to ten civilians were reportedly killed in an airstrike south of the capital Mogadishu. The Somali government initially released a statement acknowledging the strike but other sources pointed out that the attack allegedly involved a drone – a capability Somali forces were not believed to have until their recent reported acquisition of Turkish Bayraktar drones. To date no belligerent has accepted responsibility.

Less than a month later, the US declared an airstrike on an al-Shabaab leader, Abudullahi Yare. Local sources alleged that Ibrahim Hassan Dahir was also killed – some referred to him as a civilian and a farmer, while others said that he was the son of a former extremist leader who is under house arrest.

Information gathered from areas under the control of the militant group al-Shabaab is notoriously limited, making determinations of civilian status in Somalia a significant challenge. Multiple sources have called into question the status of those that the US alleges are militants. In a recent report examining the impact of US airstrikes on Jubbaland, a part of Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab, Dutch organisation Pax and journalist Amanda Sperber explained:

“The interviews for this report do raise serious questions about the ability of the US to consistently distinguish between armed men who are not involved with Al-Shabaab, armed pastoralist community members who are forced to work for Al-Shabaab and actual Al-Shabaab fighters. Al Shabaab is thoroughly ingrained in Jubbaland society, which complicates external observations about who is and is not Al Shabaab and can thus hamper proper application of the principle of distinction.”


The US officially withdrew its support from the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen in 2021, in one of Biden’s major first foreign policy announcements. A ceasefire came into effect in the country in April 2022, which was later extended until October.

In 2022, CENTCOM did not declare any airstrikes or operations in Yemen. Airwars tracked two incidents allegedly conducted by US forces, in which civilians were killed and injured. The first was a February 6 drone strike that killed three al-Qaeda militants but also reportedly injured and killed civilians who were nearby – though the exact number was not reported by local sources.

The second alleged strike, on November 30, reportedly targeted the home of a member of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, causing secondary explosions which killed up to three civilians and injured up to five others.

Since 2017, Airwars has tracked a minimum of 78 deaths and 28 injuries to civilians resulting from US actions in Yemen. However, CENTCOM has only admitted to causing the deaths of 13 civilians, and injuring a further three. The CIA has carried out sporadic strikes throughout the period, but none of them have been officially recognised.

Yemeni organisations such as Mwatana for Human Rights continue to seek accountability from the Department of Defense, with questions around specific civilian casualty incidents unanswered or inadequately resolved. One victim of a 2018 drone strike, Adel al Manthari, resorted to a GoFundMe campaign in 2022 to pay for his insurance and medical bills.

Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan

When the US officially withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, Biden said he retained the right to conduct ‘over the horizon’ strikes from nearby countries. The only acknowledged US airstrike in 2022 was the July drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in central Kabul. This was allegedly conducted by the CIA and did not result in any allegations of civilian casualties.

Airwars does not monitor US involvement in Afghanistan, but UNAMA – the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan– tracked civilian casualties in the country for years. Since the US withdrawal, UNAMA has stopped publishing regular updates.

There were no reports of US airstrikes in Libya or Pakistan during 2022.

Methodology note – counting US airstrikes

Iraq and Syria:

Until 2022, Airwars would review AFCENT reporting, press releases published by CJTF-OIR, and other official CENTCOM reports. No AFCENT reports were released in 2022, with only sporadic reporting from CENTCOM and CJTF-OIR throughout the year on strike reporting. To reach estimates of airstrikes in 2022, the following information methodology was applied – see table below for details:

    Where plurals of ‘strikes’ were referenced, Airwars chose a minimum estimate of two airstrikes. However, regarding the Al-Sinaa prison break in Syria, during which CJTF-OIR declared “a series of strikes,” Airwars monitoring of local sources recorded at least 13 incidents where alleged US-led Coalition strikes were reportedly conducted. These incidents allegedly occurred between January 21st and January 28th 2022. Other Syrian-focussed monitoring organisations had estimates of several dozen strikes. When references were only made in official reporting to ‘operations’, without explicit mention to strikes conducted, no strikes were counted. Airwars local monitoring indicates that operations mainly refer to ground actions.
Source Date Language used in official reporting Country Airwars’s estimated number of declared strikes*
CJTF-OIR Jan 4 2022 “four suspects captured” Syria 0
CJTF-OIR Jan 30 2022 “Coalition forces conducted (…) a series of strikes throughout the days-long operation” Syria 13
CJTF-OIR Jun 16 2022 “counterterrorism operation” Syria 0
CENTCOM Jun 27 2022 “CENTCOM Forces conducted a kinetic strike” Syria 1
CENTCOM Jul 12 2022 “U.S. Central Command Forces conducted a UAS strike” Syria 1
CENTCOM Aug 23 2022 “U.S. military forces conducted precision airstrikes” Syria 2
CENTCOM Aug 25 2022 “CENTCOM forces struck at Iran-affiliated militants in the area with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships, and M777 artillery” Syria 3
CENTCOM Dec 11 2022 “Helicopter raid” Syria 0
CENTCOM Dec 16 2022 “6 partnered operations” Syria 0
CENTCOM Dec 20 2022 “three helicopter raids” “partnered operations” Syria 0
CENTCOM Dec 29 2022 “CENTCOM conducted 313 total operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria” Syria/Iraq 0
Estimated Total Strikes 20

* according to US sources and Airwars Local Monitoring

Reporting from AFRICOM for Somalia was consistent with previous years; in 2022, exact numbers of airstrikes were released routinely throughout the year. In Yemen, CENTCOM press releases were used to monitor declared airstrikes – of which there were none in 2022. In Afghanistan, Airwars formerly monitored AFCENT reporting – the only reported strike in 2022 was released by the State Department.

It should be noted that the term ‘airstrike’ is also not used consistently across different military forces, and between military commands – see our overview on this here.

For any questions or clarifications on our methodology, please contact


▲ President Joe Biden in the White House Situation Room (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)


September 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress, released yesterday, on civilian deaths and injuries resulting from US military actions in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Syria has declared responsibility for 12 deaths and five injuries in 2021. All 12 deaths conceded were in Afghanistan; injuries were reported resulting from actions in both Somalia and Afghanistan.

While these mostly align with public reports on Afghanistan and Somalia – the lack of any incidents for Syria are of serious concern. Airwars has documented at least 17 incidents in which harm to civilians occurred as a result of US actions; this includes 15 civilian deaths, and 17 injuries.

Alongside reports of casualties in 2021, included in the annual report are additional cases from past actions under Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) – the operation to defeat ISIS. In these cases too, conceded casualty reports are significantly lower than local reporting suggests.

These casualty releases have been much anticipated this year, as the Department of Defense worked on its new Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action plan, published earlier this month. Towards the end of last year, reporting from Azmat Khan at the New York Times drew renewed attention in international media to the range of issues around how civilian casualties were assessed by the US in Iraq and Syria, prompting the review by US officials.

However the US’ military actions and its track record on civilian casualties have long been the subject of criticism, with calls for accountability and greater transparency on civilian harm mitigation and tracking throughout the so-called ‘forever wars’. In last year’s annual report, Airwars and others raised serious concerns with the 2020 annual casualty admissions – noting that reporting from other sources placed the civilian death toll at five times higher than the numbers admitted by the DoD.


In its 2021 report, the Department of Defense conceded no deaths or injuries in either Iraq or Syria for 2021. The report states that there were six cases of civilian harm received by OIR in 2021; 3 of which have been assessed as non-credible, while the other three are still open.

These rejected civilian harm claims likely correspond to incidents mentioned in previous press releases by OIR, which account for at least one civilian fatality and two injuries. The civilian fatality assessed as ‘non-credible’ was claimed by local sources to be a 7-year old boy, killed while US forces were reportedly conducting a training exercise. 

It is unclear if the remaining open cases mentioned in the annual report include the two cases previously noted as open by CENTCOM earlier this year.

Airwars own research indicates that there were at least 15 additional cases alleging harm resulting from US actions carried out in Syria throughout 2021.  US military actions in Syria in 2021 primarily included support to local ally the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in north eastern Syria – where civilian harm was often reported during targeted operations on suspected ISIS militants.

In one such incident, typical of the types of allegations recorded last year – a man and his son were allegedly killed in a raid carried out by the SDF with air support from the US military while they were said to be grazing their sheep. Local sources reported that the incident sparked “a wave of panic” among the civilians in the neighbourhood.

Our full incident archive can be found here.

Baghouz, Syria – the last ISIS stronghold

This year’s report contained three cases of previous harm allegations in Baghouz in 2019 – including the controversial March 18th 2019 strike which was the subject of an extensive investigation by the New York Times released at the end of last year, and prompted an internal investigation at the directive of the Secretary of Defense.

In the final major battle in the war against ISIS, the US-led Coalition carried out an intensive campaign to recapture the last ISIS territorial stronghold. Mass civilian casualty incidents were reported at the time – by the end of the campaign in March, reports of hundreds of casualties were being circulated online, including disturbing footage of mass graves and charred bodies. The New York Times revealed that one of the final strikes by the US-led Coalition included a 2000-pound bomb, dropped on a crowded area.

The 2021 annual report continues a pattern observed consistently by casualty recorders of significant discrepancies between conceded casualties and local allegations throughout this campaign; more so even than in other – more contested – battlegrounds, such as the Battle of Mosul.

In total – the US has conceded just 3% of even the most conservative estimates of civilian harm reported during the Battle of Deir Ezzor; compared with over a third of casualties alleged in the Battle of Mosul, for example.

Airwars puts the minimum likely estimate of deaths during this campaign at 695, while the US admits to less than 30 – including those now conceded in the annual report.

The incidents

Notably, this is the first time that the March 18th incident has been officially confirmed in public reporting by DoD – the incident was rejected previously as ‘non-credible’ twice by OIR; with an assessment reopened only after widespread media attention on the case at the end of last year.

Local sources have alleged at least 160 civilian fatalities resulted from the strike, including up to 45 children. In May this year, General Garrett – the four-star general put in charge of leading an investigation into the case – rejected almost all allegations of wrong-doing by US military forces during the operation. His investigation, which was kept classified apart from the Executive Summary, concluded that nearly all those killed were combatants.

In another of the incidents included in the report, from February 2019, we were able to identify at least three possible matches to incidents in our archive (here, here and here). While no civilian deaths were conceded by the US, local reports indicate that in one incident alone at least 50 civilians were said to have been killed.

One of the conceded events also matches a confirmed incident published in a press release earlier this year – an airstrike on March 13th 2019; nearly all sources reported that those killed in this strike had been women and children living in a camp in Baghouz. Fatality estimates ranged from 20 to 100 civilians, while the US admitted to four civilian deaths.


The US withdrew officially from Afghanistan in September 2021. There were 10 reports of civilian casualties from combat operations in Afghanistan, 4 of which were deemed credible – the DoD conceded the deaths of 12 civilians, and the injuries of 2 civilians. 10 of the civilians who died all died in the same incident on August 29, 2021 in Kabul – this likely refers to the botched drone strike on an aid worker in Kabul, which the DoD later admitted was a ‘tragic mistake’.

UNAMA, which monitors civilian casualties in Afghanistan, raised the alarm over increasing civilian casualties in Afghanistan as the situation deteriorated. However, it appears that these incidents had not been attributed by UNAMA to the US at the time of their latest report published in June last year, which contained no casualty incidents resulting from international military actions in 2021 – though notably some incidents were still under review at the time of publication.


The US also maintains an active military presence in Somalia, recently bolstered by Biden’s decision to redeploy US troops in Somalia in May of this year. The report did not state a total number of cases in 2021 that it had investigated, but reported on one incident that had previously been conceded by AFRICOM.

Despite an initial assessment by AFRICOM that no civilians had been harmed in the strike, which took place in January 2021, in its first quarterly report last year AFRICOM admitted that three civilians had been ‘inadvertently injured’ when US forces conducted an air strike on what was reported to be an al-Shabaab radio station.

The US has carried out at least 254 raids or airstrikes in Somalia since 2007, and has acknowledged five civilian deaths throughout this period. Airwars own research puts this total number at minimum 78 fatalities.

While the 2021 figure aligns with public reporting, it should be noted that there are significant challenges with harm documentation in Somalia given the security environment.

DoD acknowledges “inconsistent” civilian harm investigation process

This year’s annual report references the recently released Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP) in part to explain any potential discrepancies between DoD admissions and public reporting. The annual report acknowledges that “specific processes for reviewing or investigating incidents have varied over the years”, while the CHMR-AP explicitly noted that practices for conducting assessments and investigations had been “applied inconsistently across DoD”.

The comprehensive action plan is intended to address such inconsistencies; though for those civilians who have had their cases rejected as non-credible, or for those who have never had their cases investigated at all – the promise of review and reform is likely too late.

According to Airwars’ archive, the possible death toll from the US-led Coalition’s actions in the war against ISIS alone could be at least 8,192 and as many as 13,247 civilians killed. OIR in total has acknowledged killing approximately 1500 civilians – though notably, many individual member states have yet to accept responsibility for their own efforts. The UK MoD, for example, has yet to admit more than one civilian was killed by its actions in the entire campaign.

▲ Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefs the media on Afghanistan, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2021. (DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Julian Kemper)


March 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

The US-led International Coalition has quietly admitted to killing 18 more civilians in Iraq and Syria and injuring a further 11, its first such public concession in eight months.

On March 10th, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) – the US-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State – quietly released on its website its first public civilian harm assessment since July 2021. It assessed a total of 63 incidents dating back to 2015, of which 10 were assessed to be ‘credible’ – meaning the Coalition accepted causing civilian harm.

The statement conceded that 18 civilians were killed and 11 were injured cumulatively in these ten events. Matching the incidents to its own archive, Airwars put the likely casualty numbers far higher for these events, with between 45 and 166 civilians reportedly killed. The remaining 53 incidents were deemed ‘non-credible.’

Unlike previous Coalition announcements on civilian harm, there was no accompanying public press statement or social media commentary. In a phone call to Airwars, CENTCOM confirmed it had published the information without any public announcement.

The release came after US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had ordered a comprehensive review into US military civilian harm processes following intense media scrutiny. As the Coalition itself noted in its opening paragraph, “this report is released as part of the commitment by the U.S. government to increased transparency and accountability.”

In total since the beginning of the war against ISIS in 2014, OIR has assessed 3,034 incidents of reported civilian harm from its air and artillery strikes. The alliance has only conceded 360 of these events to be credible allegations of civilian harm, according to Airwars analysis.

While the Coalition now concedes killing, overall, at least 1,437 civilians in its long war against the Islamic State, Airwars believes the likely tally is in fact at least 8,192 to 13,243 civilians killed.

Decline in releases

Civilian harm assessments released by the US-led Coalition were published monthly for a number of years, although they have significantly dropped in frequency since 2020. Last year, only seven such reports were released – four of them in the month of July. This was the first report since then.

Of the 10 incidents designated credible by the Coalition in its new report, seven were referrals from Airwars’ own archive. We were able to match an eighth event which was referred via both Amnesty and Airwars, to an incident within Airwars’ own database.

In only two of the eight events in the Airwars database admitted by CENTCOM did its own civilian casualty estimates match the public record. In the other six, US military concessions were far lower than the figures local communities had reported.

One of the ten ‘credible’ civilian harm incidents occurred on June 9th 2017 in Raqqa, during the most intense period of fighting for that city. Eight members of the al-Nasser family, including four children, were killed by a Coalition airstrike when their family home was hit. Najma Fadawi al-Nasser, whose 60 year old brother Faddawi was killed in the attack, had briefly left her cousin’s home when the strike happened. As she later told Amnesty “we were together and then I went to my cousins’ house across the road and my brother’s house was bombed and they were all killed. Why did they kill innocent people?” The incident was initially assessed by the Coalition as non credible. Now, four years later, the Coalition has conceded that eight civilians “were unintentionally killed due to their proximity to the strike.”

A further 53 incidents in the new report were assessed or reassessed by the Coalition to be  ‘non-credible.’ A range of reasons are usually given for such categorisation, including  ‘no strikes were conducted in the geographical area’; or that the ‘original allegations did not have sufficient information on the time and location of the incident’. However, these 53 incidents were all – highly unusually – designated as ‘non-credible’ for the same reason: that “after review of all available evidence it was determined that more likely than not civilian casualties did not occur as a result of a Coalition strike”.

Along with basic information about each incident, the Coalition’s own assessments also included an MGRS code, a military variation of latitude and longitude coordinates, which makes it possible to geolocate where each incident is alleged to have happened. Airwars found that at least one of the ‘non credible’ incidents had a location code in Turkey, indicating an error.

New York Times investigation

One of the ‘credible’ incidents in the new report, in Baghouz, Syria in March 2019, had previously been rejected twice by the Coalition as ‘non-credible’. A blockbuster New York Times investigation into the event recently led the Department of Defense to open an investigation into the incident – despite CENTCOM still classifying it as ‘non-credible’. While Airwars estimates that between 20 and 100 civilians were likely killed as a result of this strike, CENTCOM itself now says, “Regrettably, four civilians were unintentionally killed due to their proximity to the strike.” The release does not detail how this number was reached, or why it has only conceded four.

In January 2022, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a 90-day review into the Baghouz event and associated processes, which is due to publish by the end of April. Given that ongoing investigation by a four star US general – which Airwars has assisted – it remains possible that CENTCOM may yet release a fourth assessment of the event.

Speaking about the latest Coalition civilian harm release, incoming Airwars Director Emily Tripp noted: “While we welcome the release of these civilian harm assessments, it is clear that there still needs to be radical improvement in DoD processes.”

“We are seeking clarity in particular on when the remaining 37 open cases will be reviewed, as well as further information from DoD on their civilian harm assessment standards.”

▲ The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th - 19th 2019, which allegedly killed dozens of civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)


March 2022

Written by

Airwars Syria team

Since the beginning of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015, Airwars has tracked, documented and preserved every local allegation of civilian harm resulting from Russian actions – over 4,000 individual incidents from 61,915 unique sources.

We have collected 11,181 names of civilians reported killed, and identified 1,383 family members killed in the same incidents. In total, our archive indicates that by March 2022, as many as 24,743 civilians had been locally-alleged killed by Russian actions in Syria, and another 43,124 injured. To date Russia has yet to publicly accept responsibility for the death of a single civilian during the campaign.

Russian and Syrian regime pilots often fly the same Russian airframes, use the same munitions and tactics, and also fly joint patrols. For this reason, local communities can find it extremely challenging to attribute civilian harm directly to one party or another.

In those events where only Russia is implicated Airwars believes the likely civilian fatality toll to be between 4,300 and 6,400. Between 10,000 and 17,100 further deaths are alleged from contested events – where Russia is only one of the belligerents blamed for an attack, primarily alongside the regime.

This briefing focuses on Russia’s engagement in Syria in order to help civil society, journalists, researchers and humanitarian practitioners understand patterns of civilian harm resulting from Russian actions, which can also help inform understanding of Moscow’s ongoing attacks in Ukraine. Airwars continues to document recorded civilian harm resulting from the actions of all other foreign belligerents in Syria – such as Turkish military engagement and US led coalition activities.

Our findings on Russia in Syria present aggregated results from our newly updated civilian harm archive. Each incident of civilian harm presents a unique data point but we encourage all those engaging with these findings to also review our open access archive, where each incident can be reviewed in its entirety: click here.

While we consider all events in our archive as active – meaning they will be updated as new information comes to light – the data presented here reflects can be considered up to date as of March 24th 2022.

More details on our methodology and casualty counting standards can be found here.

Scale of civilian harm

Russia first intervened directly in Syria in September 2015, five years into the country’s civil war, in support of the Syrian regime. In the first three years of the conflict, more than 45,000 airstrikes were declared by Russian forces. While the initial alliance between Russian and the Syrian regime declared they were targeting the Islamic State, the two actors have increasingly focused on clearing rebel-held areas – with the final rebel stronghold in Idlib appearing to be Russian’s primary target today.

Over the course of Russian involvement in the conflict, overall up to 24,743 civilians have been locally alleged killed by Russian actions; including those incidents with contested attribution to the Syrian regime. This includes up to 5,318 children, 2,953 women and 4,208 men where the gender and ages of victims are known.

Our data includes all allegations where one or more local sources pointed to Russian forces as being responsible for civilian casualties – including those events where additional sources blamed the Syrian regime (or in a small number of events, other actors such as the US-led Coalition or Turkey). In total these contested incidents account for 60% of the civilian fatalities linked to Moscow’s actions in Syria in our archive. Until Russia and the Syrian regime are transparent about their actions in Syria, it is highly likely that we will not be able to identify the specific perpetrator of each contested event. That said, the likelihood that civilians were harmed in such attacks is often high.

Each data point represents the number of alleged civilian fatalities in a single civilian harm incident.

Civilians have been reported killed by Russian forces in both large-scale civilian harm incidents and more consistently in smaller-scale harm events that are rarely covered by international media. Most civilian harm incidents involve allegations where between one and 10 civilians are reported killed, although several mass casualty incidents have also been attributed to Russian actions.

As widely documented by conflict monitors, civilian casualties are more likely to occur when actors target populated areas, especially when using explosive weapons with wide area effects. Airwars data shows that there are at least 299 civilian harm incidents in Syria where local sources have alleged that ‘vacuum’ missiles have been used by Russian forces: a particularly deadly explosive that can suck the oxygen from the air and cause a blast wave so massive it can destroy even reinforced infrastructure. These incidents account for up to 1,480 alleged civilian fatalities.

Location of incidents referencing use of vacuum missiles during the Battle of Aleppo – 2016.

In the campaign to capture Aleppo in 2016, Russian forces were alleged to have used these weapons 23 times on the densely populated city, according to Airwars monitoring of hyperlocal sources.

While vacuum missiles are not banned under international law, their deliberate use on civilian neighbourhoods is prohibited. Russian forces have also been accused of using prohibited ‘cluster’ bombs – munitions that have a large and inaccurate blast radius, and are likely to cause significant harm beyond the intended target.

In 567 civilian harm incidents recorded in the Airwars archive, local sources reported that cluster munitions have been used – accounting for up to 3,640 civilian deaths, and 7,040 civilian injuries.

Civilian targets – attacks on residential neighbourhoods and civilian infrastructure

Within the first three months of Russian attacks in Syria in late 2015, Airwars found that local reports of civilian harm were already indicating a clear trend of systematic attacks on civilian neighbourhoods and vital infrastructure.

Local communities and civil society organisations, such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights, have continued to report on and document this major trend. On February 27th 2022, less than a week after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, local activists described “massive destruction” on a marketplace in the town of Afes in Idlib province; up to two people were killed and another four injured in the action attributed both to Russian forces and the Syrian regime.

This is one of 204 unique incidents in the Airwars archive where Russian forces were locally blamed for civilian harm in an attack on a marketplace; in total these incidents account for up to 3,051 civilian fatalities.

While it is not unusual for belligerents monitored by Airwars to harm civilians in attacks which strike marketplaces, our data indicates that Russian forces are likely to do so at a far higher rate than most. Our monitoring of alleged civilian harm resulting from US-led Coalition actions in Syria, for example, finds that despite similarly intensive campaigns conducted predominantly by airstrikes, US-led Coalition actions led to claimed civilian harm events in marketplaces on forty occasions. Of those events, Airwars presently assesses that 23 incidents did likely result from Coalition bombings. The alliance itself has also publicly conceded civilian deaths and injuries in six of those marketplace attacks – a clear contrast with Moscow’s ongoing refusal to concede any harm from its seven-year campaign.

Russian forces in Syria, along with the Syrian regime, have also been accused of repeatedly attacking medical facilities, hospitals, and clinics throughout Syria with explosive munitions. Overall, our research identified 229 incidents where civilian harm reportedly occurred in medical facilities following alleged Russian and/or Syrian regime actions. In many incidents, local sources reported “total destruction” of facilities – without any possibility of reconstruction.

#حلبطيران النظام و روسيا يدمر مشفى بغداد في قرية عويجل بشكل كامل بعد قصفه بصاروخين ارتجاجيين وهو المشفى الثالث الذي يتم تدميره خلال يومين

— شدا الحرية (@tv_shada) November 15, 2016

Other civilian spaces have also been hit during Russia’s campaign; in at least 180 civilian harm incidents recorded by Airwars, fatalities and injuries occured in schools. Educational facilities have frequently been the site of reported Russian incidents, including universities, where at least two attacks struck campuses, including the University of Ebla. On January 21st 2018, one civilian was reported to have been killed when Russian “heavy aerial bombardment” struck the university. On the same day there were 15 additional raids on the area which further damaged the University buildings.

Local reporting also reveals at least 53 cases where civilians were reported killed by Russian strikes on factories and water sanitation stations. In 2016 alone, eight attacks on factories and twelve attacks on water stations were reported; most of these were part of a major regime-led campaign to gain control of Aleppo city. In one incident on September 23rd 2016, up to 250,000 people in eastern Aleppo were reported to have temporarily lost access to water completely, when an air raid on the neighbourhood of Bab al Nayrab hit a water pumping station.

As Russian forces and their Syrian regime allies have closed in on the final rebel-held enclave in Idlib, critical civilian infrastructure continues to come under attack. From September 2021 until January of this year, civilian harm incidents have been reported resulting from attacks on poultry farms at least twice a month. Overall, despite the lower tempo of the conflict in 2021, it was also the year that saw the most attacks on farming facilities.

“Oh God, by the size of the beauty of your paradise, show me the beauty of the next in my life and fulfil for me what I wish, and comfort my heart.” – Jude Yasser Shara’s, aged 21, last Facebook post minutes before artillery shelling killed her in Idlib City on September 7th 2021. Jude was reported to have recently gradauated from an undergraduate degree in Psychology and was he head of Al Seraj al Munir Kindergarten (Image shared via Idlib Media Centre).

Targeting humanitarian response

In 12 cases identified in our datasets, civilians were harmed in incidents where Russia was accused of targeting humanitarian response efforts – often in conjunction with the Syrian regime.

In four incidents, local sources reported civilian harm after attacks on food convoys. In the first of these cases, on November 25th 2015, eight civilians were reported killed, including a child, when Russian planes hit a series of trucks close to the Turkish border. Russia accepted responsibility for the attack, but did not accept responsibility for the civilian casualties – and denied that the trucks were part of a humanitarian convoy.

Potential implications of Russia’s actions in Syria for Ukraine

Airwars has actively monitored, assessed and preserved all community-reported civilian harm claims from Russian actions in Syria since September 2015 – resulting in a major public database that presently runs to 650,000 words.

Our detailed findings are clear. Civilian harm from Russia’s actions in Syria has been both extensive and continuous. Civilian neighbourhoods are routinely targeted by both air and artillery strikes, often with no suggestion of the presence of armed rebels. Marketplaces, hospitals, schools, critical infrastructure, and first responders, are also routinely struck. Indeed the frequency of such attacks compared to those of other actors in Syria, leads Airwars to conclude that Russia deliberately and routinely targets both civilians and civilian infrastructure, as part of a broader strategy to drive civilians from rebel-held areas.

Many of the profoundly concerning and potentially unlawful Russian actions in Syria – which Airwars and others have extensively documented – are now reportedly being witnessed at scale across Ukraine, with multiple towns and cities under direct attack. Indeed, with the addition of tens of thousands of Russian ground forces and weapon systems never deployed in Syria – such as guided missile strikes and MRLS salvoes – the potential exists for far greater civilian harm in Ukraine than that extensively documented for Syria.

Moscow’s extensive ongoing attacks on urban centres – where millions of Ukrainians remain trapped – is particularly concerning. According to United Nations monitors, the great majority of civilian deaths and injuries result from the use of wide area effect explosive weapons on urban areas. Upcoming UN-brokered talks in Geneva to restrict the urban use of such weapons offer a clear opportunity for other nations to distance themselves from Russia’s outrageous actions.

▲ Locals trying to rescue injured civilians from the rubble not long after aerial and missile bombardments in Douma and nearby locations around Damascus, reportedly killing between 42 and 70 civilians on Sepember 13th 2015. (Image via SNN)


December 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

There has been much speculation in recent weeks about what President Biden’s first year in office shows us about his foreign policy – and in particular whether he is ending 20 years of America’s so-called ‘forever wars’.

As 2021 nears its end, Airwars reached out to US combatant commands to request strike data for conflicts. Coupled with the long-delayed release of crucial strike data from Afghanistan, Airwars can assess for the first time what the ‘war on terror’ looks like under Joe Biden.

The biggest take-home is that Biden has significantly decreased US military action across the globe.

Overall, declared US strikes have fallen by 54% globally during 2021

In total, declared US strikes across all five active US conflict zones – Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – fell from 951 actions in 2020, to 439 by mid December 2021, a decrease of 54 percent. This is by far the lowest declared annual US strike number since at least 2004, and reflects a broader trend of declining US actions in recent years.

During 2021, the overwhelming majority of US strikes (372) took place in Afghanistan prior to withdrawal on August 31st. In fact, the United States carried out more than five times as many strikes in Afghanistan this year than in all other active US conflict zones combined.

If you were to remove Afghanistan from the data, the United States has declared just 67 strikes across the globe so far in 2021.

Afghanistan dominated US military actions during 2021

Civilian casualties also down

This trend is also reflected in far lower numbers of civilians allegedly killed by US strikes. During 2021, there were no credible local allegations of civilians likely killed by US strikes in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan or Yemen.

However,  at least 11 civilians were likely killed by US actions in Syria. In Afghanistan at least 10 civilians were confirmed killed by US actions. That latter figure is almost certainly higher, since we now know the US dropped more than 800 munitions on Taliban and Islamic State fighters during the year. At least some of those strikes were in urban areas where civilians are particularly at risk. However exact estimates remain elusive, due to ongoing confusion between US strikes and those carried out by Afghan security forces up to August.

In Somalia one civilian was locally reported killed by US strikes, though this occurred before Biden assumed office on January 20th.

Biden is partly continuing a trend seen in recent years – the number of strikes has largely fallen since 2016 when the war with the so-called Islamic State reached its apex. Below, we provide breakdowns of both US and allied airstrikes and locally reported civilian casualties – as well as emerging trends – for each individual conflict.

Over the length of the ‘War on Terror’, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 still marks the highest number of declared US strikes.


On December 17th 2021, Biden’s administration finally released strike data for the final two years of the Afghanistan war. Such monthly releases were standard practice for nearly two decades but were stopped in March 2020, with the Trump administration arguing that their ongoing release could jeopardise peace talks with the Taliban. The Biden administration then chose to continue with that secrecy.

Now we can see why. The new releases show that despite a ‘peace’ agreement with the Taliban signed on February 29th 2020, under which the US was expected to withdraw in 14 months, the Pentagon continued its aggressive aerial campaigns in Afghanistan. Between March and December 2020, more than 400 previously undeclared strikes took place under Trump, while there were at least 300 US strikes in Afghanistan under Biden until August.

In total, almost 800 previously secret recent US airstrikes in Afghanistan during the Trump and Biden administrations have now been declared.

While Airwars does not track allegations of civilian harm in Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has done so for more than a decade. Yet the decision by the Pentagon to stop publishing strike data in early 2020 may have led the UN to significantly underestimate casualties from US actions.

In its report detailing civilian casualties in Afghanistan from January to June 2021, UNAMA found that 146 civilians had been killed and 243 injured in airstrikes. Yet it seemed to assume these were all carried out by US-backed Afghan military forces, instead of the US.

“UNAMA…did not verify any airstrike by international military forces that resulted in civilian casualties during the first six months of 2021,” the report asserted. Such assessments will likely now require a fresh review, in the wake of recent US strike data releases.

We do know for certain that ten civilians were killed by US actions after that six-month period, on August 29th this year in Kabul – in the final US drone strike of a 20-year war. The US initially claimed this was a “righteous strike” on an Islamic State terrorist. However investigative journalists quickly showed the victims were in fact an aid worker and nine members of his young family, forcing the military to admit an error. Despite this, it recently concluded no disciplinary measures against personnel were necessary.

After the ignominious US withdrawal on August 31, US strikes have stopped. While at the time Biden discussed the possibility of continuing “over the horizon” airstrikes from a nearby country, this has not yet happened.

“The skies over Afghanistan are free of US war planes for the first time in two decades. A whole generation grew up under their contrails, nobody looks at the sky without checking for them,” Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group told Airwars. “Their absence heralds the start of a new era, even if it’s not yet clear what that new chapter will bring.”

Iraq and Syria

During 2020, the number of air and artillery strikes conducted by the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State – Operation Inherent Resolve – has continued to fall, alongside an ongoing reduction in civilian harm allegations.

OIR declared 201 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2020, and only 58 strikes by early December 2021. This represents a reduction of around 70  percent in one year, and a 99 percent reduction in declared strikes between 2017 and 2021.

In Iraq, Airwars has tracked no local allegations of civilian harm from US led actions during 2021, down from an estimated five civilian fatalities in 2020. At the height of the Coalition’s war against ISIS in 2017, Airwars had tracked a minimum of 1,423 civilian fatalities.

In Syria, however, civilian harm allegations from Coalition actions actually increased this year, up from a minimum of one death in 2020 to at least eleven likely civilian fatalities in 2021. This does still represent a low figure compared to recent history: in 2019, Airwars had identified a minimum of 490 civilians likely killed by the Coalition, a reduction of 98 percent to this year.

Since 2019, Afghanistan has replaced Iraq and Syria as the primary focus of US military actions.

One key concern in Syria is that most recently reported civilian deaths have resulted not from declared US airstrikes, but from joint ground operations with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), often supported by US attack helicopters.

These include a raid on the town of Thiban in Deir Ezzor, carried out by the SDF with the support of the US-led Coalition at dawn on July 16th 2021. Eyewitnesses reported that a “force consisting of several cars raided civilian homes, without warning, accompanied by indiscriminate shooting between the houses with the aim of terrorising the ‘wanted’”. Two civilians, a father and son, were killed in the raid, reportedly shot outside their home.

Separately, on the morning of December 3rd 2021, a declared US drone strike killed at least one man and injured at least six civilians, including up to four children from the same family. Multiple sources reported that the drone targeted a motorcycle but also hit a passing car that the Qasoum family were traveling in. Ahmed Qasoum, who was driving, described the incident; “the motorcycle was going in front of me and I decided to pass it, when I got parallel to it, I felt a lot of pressure pushing the car to the left of the road….It was horrible.” His ten-year-old son had a fractured skull, while his 15-year-old daughter sustained a serious shrapnel injury to her head.

On December 6th, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the strike had targeted an Al-Qaeda linked militant but “the initial review of the strike did indicate the potential for possible civilian casualties.”

+18 | "دوبلت الموتور إجت طيارة استطلاع ضربتني"يستمعون إلى الموسيقا وفجأة..مشهد مرعب للحظة استهداف عائلة في ريف #إدلبخاص #تلفزيون_سوريا@syriastream

— تلفزيون سوريا (@syr_television) December 5, 2021

A dashboard camera captures the moment a US strike also hits a passing civilian vehicle. 

Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen

Under Donald Trump, there had been a record rise both in declared US airstrikes in Somalia, and in locally reported civilian deaths and injuries – with the last likely death from a US action tracked by Airwars on the final day of Trump’s presidency.

Since then, Airwars has tracked no locally reported civilian deaths in Somalia under Biden. For the entire year, AFRICOM has declared nine strikes so far, four of which occurred under Biden. When he came to power, his administration implemented a six-month moratorium on strikes, multiple sources said. This meant that both AFRICOM and even the CIA had to have White House permission before carrying out strikes in either Somalia or Yemen.

On July 20th 2021, the day the moratorium ended, AFRICOM declared the first Somali strike of the Biden era – targeting the Al-Shabaab Islamist group. Multiple militants were reported killed, though no civilians were among them. A small number of additional strikes against Al-Shabaab occurred in the weeks afterwards, the most recent of which was on August 24th. Since then, there have been no declared strikes.

In Yemen, where the US has carried out periodic strikes against alleged Al-Qaeda affiliates since 2009, there have so far been no reliable reports of US strikes under Biden. In August, Al-Qaeda itself claimed two of its fighters had been killed in a US action, though there were no details on the date or location of this event.

Responding to an email query from Airwars on November 18th, the US military denied carrying out any recent attacks, noting that “CENTCOM conducted its last counterterror strike in Yemen on June 24, 2019. CENTCOM has not conducted any new counterterror strikes in Yemen since.”

However, in a more ambivalent statement to Airwars on December 16th, CENTCOM spokesperson Bill Urban noted only that “I am not aware of any strikes in Yemen in 2021.” Airwars is seeking further clarity, particularly since it is known that the CIA carried out several airstrikes on Al Qaeda in Yemen during 2020.

In both Libya and Pakistan, long running US counter terrorism campaigns now appear to be over. The last locally claimed CIA strike in Pakistan was in July 2018 under President Trump, while in Libya, the last likely US strike was in October 2019.

A crucial year ahead

Based on official US military data, it is clear that Joe Biden is building on a trend seen in the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency, further decreasing the scope and scale of the ‘forever wars.’

In Iraq and Syria, US forces appear to be transitioning away from carrying out active strikes in favour of supporting allied groups – although Special Forces ground actions continue in Syria, sometimes with associated civilian harm. The war in Afghanistan is now over, and it seems the long-running US campaigns in Pakistan and Libya have drawn to permanent halts. US airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen have all but stopped for now.

Still unknown is the likely framework for US military actions moving forward. In early 2021, Biden commissioned a major review of US counter terrorism policy. Led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the results are expected to be announced in the coming months. This will likely give us a far clearer idea how Biden believes the US should fight both ongoing wars and future ones.

Is 2022 the year Biden rescinds the AUMF? (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

And then there is amending – or even repealing – the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). That law, passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11, essentially granted the US President the right to conduct strikes anywhere in the world in the context of the ‘war on terror.’ Initially designed for use against Al-Qaeda, it has been employed against an ever widening pool of US enemies.

The future of the 2001 AUMF is once again likely to be debated by Congress in 2022. While unlikely to be repealed, it could possibly be significantly amended, Brian Finucane, senior advisor for the US programme at International Crisis Group, told Airwars.

“That would entail at a minimum specifying who the United States can hit – explicitly identifying the enemy. Secondly identifying where it should be used – geographical limits. And thirdly giving a sunset clause,” he said. “As it is now that AUMF is basically a blank cheque to be used by different administrations.”

▲ President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with national security advisers to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, Thursday, August 19, 2021, in the White House Situation Room. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)


September 2021

Written by

Airwars Syria team

To mark the sixth anniversary of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Airwars is highlighting just five of the countless civilian harm events that characterise Russian involvement in the conflict.

Overall since 2015, we have identified 4,615 incidents where Russia is alleged to have caused civilian deaths or injuries. This September alone, we estimate that ten civilians have been killed by alleged Russian strikes – including five children. This brings the total estimate since 2015 to a minimum of 14,216 civilians killed only in incidents Airwars has deemed fair, confirmed or contested.

This figure is a conservative estimate. As many as 23,936 civilians overall are locally alleged to have been killed by Russian actions – among the worst tolls of any belligerent or conflict monitored by Airwars. However, many of these reported deaths are contested between Russia and the Syrian regime it supports, making clear attribution frequently challenging. Airwars is continuing to carry out deep research into events that took place between late 2019 and 2020, with the updated civilian harm data expected to be released early next year.

Our Syrian team members have selected five major incidents from our archives that show how Russia has waged war in Syria – and the ongoing cost of its operations on civilian life.

We focus on civilian harm caused by high-intensity vacuum missiles; the staggering numbers of children credibly reported harmed; the challenges of naming all victims during such a high intensity conflict; and finally, the use of targeted attacks on healthcare workers and first responders.

Focusing on the civilian harm caused by Russia alone does not reflect the full picture of large-scale death and destruction over the past ten years of conflict in Syria. Airwars continues to monitor all foreign interventions in the Syrian conflict; for example, our monitoring of US led coalition activities can be found here, while our monitoring of Turkish military engagement can be found here.

Syrian monitoring groups – such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; and the Violations Documentation Center – also continue to track the devastating civilian harm caused by the ongoing civil war, most of it resulting from the actions of the Assad regime.

Case 1 – Vacuum missiles

Vacuum or ‘thermobaric’ missiles are a particularly deadly weapon, allegedly used by both Russian and Syrian Regime forces throughout the conflict. Russian forces were first accused of using vacuum missiles in Syria on the first day of airstrikes, on September 30th 2015, in an attack that reportedly killed 18 civilians in Talbiseh. A doctor working at the hospital receiving casualties described the impact of the missile as causing “cases of suffocation as a result of dust and smoke”, killing civilians with “enormous pressure or shrapnel that pierced their bodies and tore some of them into pieces”.

Absolute confirmation of the use of a particular weapon in Syria remains a major challenge. Of the 4,615 civilian harm events categorised by Airwars as likely being Russian (including contested events such as Russian and/or regime attacks), we identified 244 incidents where local sources mentioned that ‘vacuum missiles’ had been used in the attack. These strikes were found to have caused at least 875 deaths.

While we may not know for sure if vacuum missiles were used in each of these events, we have chosen to highlight one case that offers some insight into the level of destruction caused by high explosive weapons, and the complexity of such events.

April 17th-18th 2017: Ma’arat Hurma

This incident took place in April 2017, where nine children and their grandmother were likely killed in repeated airstrikes on Ma’arat Hurma, Idlib. The site was reportedly hit multiple times, with buildings almost completely raised to the ground and victims buried under many layers of rubble. In the final high-intensity strike, an ambulance being used to tend to the initial victims, was left burning.

Media outlet RFS observed that “the raids were highly explosive and caused extensive destruction to civilian homes. Six houses and more than 25 shops were destroyed and other material damage occurred in the places where rockets fell”.

Our assessment identifies the victims likely killed in the attack – all members of the Al Nabo family, with the youngest child just two years old. Images posted to social media show the buildings razed to the ground, while a video posted by first responders, the White Helmets, show the bodies of small children being carried through the rubble.

Read the full assessment on our website here.

The moment missiles hit Ma’arat Hurma. 

Case 2 – Children killed and injured

At least 4,831 children have been reported killed by alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria since 2015. In 2016, one of the deadliest years for civilian casualties in Syria, an average of 169 children were killed each month by alleged Russian actions.

While ceasefire agreements in 2020 saw a downturn in Russian strikes, this temporary relief for Syrians has likely now come to an end, as we’ve seen the resumption of weekly, and sometimes daily, Russian airstrikes in different parts of Syria. In September 2021 alone, children account for half of all deaths caused by alleged Russian strikes and almost half of all injuries. This includes one child reported injured earlier this week, in alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes on the town of Majdlaya.

Taking the most conservative estimates – the minimum number of reported civilians killed – children could account for 34% of all casualties in Syria resulting from alleged Russian strikes. The indiscriminate nature of Russian airstrikes has resulted in the deaths of entire families of children, including babies just a few months old.

August 19th & 20th 2021: Balshoun and Kansafra

Two civilian casualty events took place over 48 hours in August 2021, where alleged Russian airstrikes in Idlib hit two families. At least eight children were killed and another injured.

On August 19th, four children were killed and another injured by alleged Russian or regime strikes on Balshoun. Three of the children were killed alongside their mother and their young cousin – all members of the Ajaj family.

One of the children killed was 8-year old Hamza Khaled Habib, cousin of the Ajaj family. In an event that reflects the scale of civilian harm in Syria, Hamza was being raised by his uncle, as his own father had already been killed in a previous airstrike. The Syrian Civil Defense (also known as the White Helmets) posted a video capturing Mr Mohamed Ajaj mourning for his wife, children and young nephew, all killed in this attack.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

Only a day later at Kansafra, another Idlib town, another family was almost entirely killed, including at least four children – aged three, six, nine and twelve years old, members of the Al Omar family. A reporter with AFP saw the father crying over the bodies of three of his children in a cemetery. The reporter observed that the fourth child had to be buried in a hurry, because bombing had begun again in the area.

Only one of the Al Omar children survived the attack, the youngest, who the mother managed to rescue just moments before the strike.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

The bottle belonging to one of the children killed in alleged Russian strikes on Kansafra town, Idlib – August 2021 (Image posted on Twitter by @thawrat111)

Case 3 – The unnamed

Of all civilians alleged harmed by Russian airstrikes – estimated by Airwars at as many as 23,936 killed and 41,452 injured – we have found full or partial names for just 8,472 individuals.

This means that 87% of all civilians reported harmed in Russian strikes cannot be identified using current available datasets. While on-going deeper research being conducted by Airwars might be able to address at least some of these events, it is highly likely that we may not know the identity of many thousands of victims until Syria’s conflict ends, and a substantial truth and reconciliation process can begin.

This is due to a number of reasons, not least that the use of high-intensity weapons by Russian and other forces in Syria cause significant destruction, and often make immediate identification of casualties impossible. Syria also houses the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, estimated by UNHCR at 6.2 million, including 2.3 million children. Local sources in many cases may not recognise victims, especially those recently arrived with little documentation.

March 22nd 2019: Kafriya and Al Fou’a

On March 22nd 2019 in Kafriya and Al Fou’a in Idlib, an incident that was referred to by several sources as a “massacre”, killed up to 28 civilians and injured as many as 30 others. A doctor named Abu Mohammed was quoted by Smart News as identifying more than 15 raids on the towns of Kufriya and al-Fuha and he noted that many civilians had moderate injuries, “mostly children and women”. The use of cluster bombs and high explosive missiles was pointed out in various sources and could be one of the reasons for the difficulty identifying victims.

Despite Airwars’ researchers finding 28 unique sources reporting on the incident, we were only able to identify one individual who was killed – Ali Wahid Qalla, a 50 year old man displaced from Eastern Ghouta. The identity of dozens of others, including children, remains unknown.

Read our assessment in full on our website.

ارتفاع حصيلة شهداء المجزرة التي ارتكبتها الطائرات الروسية في بلدة #كفريا شمال إدلب إلى 20 مدنياً بينهم 4 أطفال وأكثر من 30 جريحاً من بينهم حالات حرجة و 13 طفل.هؤلاء اصبحوا مجرد ارقام عند الاعلام المنافق

— عبد الغفور الدياب (@abuhuzaifa_) March 23, 2019

‘The death toll from the massacre committed by Russian planes in the town of #كفريا North Idlib killed 20 civilians, including 4 children, and more than 30 wounded, including critical cases, and 13 children. These have become just numbers for the hypocritical media’

Case 4 – Attacks on healthcare workers and rescuers

In March 2020, WHO’s Regional Emergency Director in the Eastern Mediterranean, Richard Brennan, called out the international community for ignoring attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria: “What is troubling, is that we’ve come to a point where attacks on health — something the international community shouldn’t tolerate – are now taken for granted; something we have become accustomed to”.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provide on-going monitoring of attacks on healthcare centres, noting that such operations are against International Humanitarian Law and constitute war crimes. According to PHR, 244 attacks on medical facilities have been carried out by either the Syria Regime or Russian forces. One such attack was investigated by the New York Times, which showed how Russian airstrikes hit four hospitals in just 12 hours in May 2019.

As PHR notes: “When these attacks on health care become as prolonged and widespread as they have in Syria, the consequences reach far beyond the individuals and facilities lost – the attacks reverberate across the civilian community, inciting fear that seeking medical treatment or going to a hospital will result in death, injury, kidnapping, torture, or imprisonment, both for the patient and the medical provider.”

One type of event Airwars researchers often report on during monitoring of Russian strikes in Syria, are so-called double-tap strikes – where first responders are hit in a second airstrike after an initial attack has caused casualties.

These first responders are most often the White Helmets, officially known as the Syrian Civil Defense, who report that 252 of their volunteers have been killed since the start of the conflict and over 500 volunteers injured. White Helmets continue to risk their lives and are often the only response teams available in remote or poorly resourced areas.

June 26th 2019, Khan Sheikoun

An event that took place in June 2019 is one such example, where an alleged Russian strike killed two White Helmets volunteers in Khan Sheikoun, Idlib, who were tending to the victims of an earlier strike. The two volunteers, Ali Al Qadour and Omar Kayyal, had been in an ambulance treating victims of an initial strike in the east of Khan Sheikhoun; another five of their colleagues were also wounded.

The Syrian Civil Defense published a statement that said “a thorough examination of the evidence, such as eyewitness accounts and the identification of munitions used in the attack on white helmets, has proved conclusively that the aircraft that committed the crime of targeting and killing our volunteers belong to the Russian Air Force, which used surveillance aircraft”.

The assessment is available in full on our website.

The burial of a White Helmets volunteer, following a reported Russian airstrike in June 2019 (Image via Idlib Media Centre)


▲ A street in Ariha city raised to the ground by alleged Russian aistrikes in February 2020, including the almost complete destruction of Shami Hospital. Image via Halab Today.