Reports

Reports

Published

May 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

After 56 months of war, March finally saw the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity when the town of Al Baghouz in Deir Ezzor governorate fell to Coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on March 23rd. However, this final intense month of fighting came at what appeared to be significant cost to civilians on the ground.

March was marked by reports of increasingly distressing, mass casualty incidents in the ISIS-held Al Baghouz camp, culminating in a catastrophic event between March 18th and 19th which killed at least 160 civilians according to local monitors. As a result, March saw a 253% hike in minimum likely deaths from alleged Coalition strikes in Syria on the previous month.

March also saw international strikes in Iraq more than double on February – and the first Coalition civilian casualty event tracked by Airwars in the country since May 2018. But with the alliance having slashed public transparency for its actions it remains impossible to know where Coalition strikes occurred – and, crucially, whether they resulted in civilian harm.

Meanwhile, civilians trapped in Syria’s Idlib governorate found themselves in increased danger from Russian air power. Airwars researchers tracked an 82% rise in casualty events linked to Moscow – the highest number of incidents in a month since September 2018. Up to 94 civilians were alleged killed by either Russia or the Assad regime in March – compared to a maximum of 56 such deaths in February.

Coalition actions fall in Syria – but remain intense

Multiple pauses to allow civilians to leave Al Baghouz in March delayed a final declaration of victory. Just days after resuming the assault on the town, the offensive slowed once again on March 4th as a secondary humanitarian corridor was opened. According to the SDF on March 5th, 3,000 people were evacuated in just a day – figures which, once again, showed that the Coalition’s estimates of the number of civilians trapped in this scrap of land were way off the mark.

The assault resumed on March 10th, and the SDF finally seized the heart of ISIS’s al Baghouz camp – the terror group’s last populated slice of territory – on March 18th-19th. However, skirmishes continued. By March 20th, US President Donald Trump was stating that “the Caliphate is gone as of tonight” – though the SDF and US officials initially exercised more caution. Victory was formally declared by the SDF in a ceremony on March 23rd.

#BREAKING: This is the moment #SDF raised its flag and declared victory over #ISIL in #Baghouz, #Syria minutes ago. After almost 6 years of war, finally the #ISIL/ #Daesh lost its whole territory today and the war on this terror group entered in its next stage an hour ago. pic.twitter.com/aQ4V8EKdQK

— Babak Taghvaee (@BabakTaghvaee) March 23, 2019

Between February 24th and March 23rd, the Coalition conducted 290 air and artillery strikes in Syria – a 21% fall on the 365 strikes carried out between January 27th and February 23rd. On average, this was 10 strikes per day (down from an average of 13 strikes per day in the previous 28-day period of January 27th to February 23rd). While the tempo of strikes fell, the Coalition bombardment, now focused entirely on a tiny slice of land no larger than a few football pitches in Al Baghouz, remained intense.

Continuing the trend of the entire war, the US remained responsible for the vast majority of these strikes during March – and most probably for the majority of associated civilian harm claims.

There was small increase in airstrikes by the UK. The MoD reported approximately 5 to 9 airstrikes in Syria – up from two in February. France meanwhile reported two airstrikes in Syria, down from six in February. There were also six missions by France’s artillery forces in the Euphrates Valley – the same number as for February. The number of strikes conducted by Iraq within Syria in March is not known.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation for tens of thousands of Syrians who had managed to flee Al Baghouz remained dire. By March 22nd, Al Hol refugee camp reportedly contained 74,000 refugees – up from 11,000 three months previously. According to UNICEF, some 3,000 ISIS children were housed in camps in north-east Syria by March 13th.

A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon refuels from a 28th Expeditionary Aerial Refuelling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker, March 1st 2019. (via US Air Force)

Likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Syria more than triple

In March, civilian casualty incidents linked to the Coalition in Syria rose significantly. Overall, Airwars researchers tracked 15 reported casualty events, compared to seven in the previous month. Of these 15 events – all of which were in Al Baghouz  – twelve are presently assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation where possible that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity that date.

Airwars tracking reveals a 253% leap in minimum likely deaths from the US-led alliance’s actions on February’s minimum figures.  Airwars currently estimates that between 268 and 752 civilians likely died across these 12 Syrian events – a massive increase of 253% on the minimum of 76 civilians likely killed in February. More worrying still, of these 268 civilians at least 59 were children and 14 were women, according to locals. As many as 284 additional civilians were also reported wounded.

As in February however, reporting from the ground remained poor and often confused.  Yet as images of charred bodies and mass graves emerged from the Al Baghouz camp, it became clear – as it has repeatedly throughout this fierce war – that civilians had endured great suffering as part of the final effort to secure a territorial victory over ISIS.

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Coalition incidents of concern in Al Baghouz camp

Disturbing reports began emerging from ISIS-held Al Baghouz camp within the first few days of March – and both the severity and scale of the civilian harm only increased as the month wore on.

Airwars tracked the first of 15 casualty incidents in the camp likely the work of the US-led alliance on March 3rd. Local media reported that the Coalition struck an ammunition depot that caused a large explosion in the camp. According to Hamah Now, up to 250 civilians were killed and wounded in this one event, though the Twitter account sakeraldeen put the number much lower, reporting the “burning of dozens of children and women” when the only field hospital tent in the camp was allegedly hit.

Small arms fire and Coalition air and artillery strikes on Al Baghouz on March 3rd 2019 (via SDF Press).

On March 10th-11th between 50 and 70 civilians – mostly women and children – were also reportedly killed and dozens more wounded when “devastating bombs of enormous proportions” hit the vicinity of the camp in the early hours of the morning. According to Syrian state media Sana News, the strikes “targeted dozens of families” who were attempting to escape areas besieged by ISIS fighters. Despite all sources attributing blame to the US-led Coalition, its spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan told Arabic RT News that the alliance saw “no evidence of casualties among civilians”.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition strikes which hit Al Baghouz camp in the early hours of March 10th-11th 2019. (via @as_saabireen)

Only a few days later, on March 13th, another alleged Coalition airstrike on the al Baghouz camp killed up to 100 more civilians, according to local media. The lowest death count of 20 was given by the twitter account Christian Turner, who said that “warplanes attacked displaced persons and their cars”, though several sources put the number killed as high as 100. Mu’adh Muhammad al-Ali al-Daham, reportedly a prominent ISIS journalist, was claimed killed along with two civilians – a child and his mother, reportedly of French origin.

🛑 2 ÈME AVIS DE RECHERCHE.Cet enfant Français est gravement blessé il est entre la vie et la mort en Syrie.

Il réclame une certaine « Marianne » peut être sa grand mère.

Merci de partager afin de retrouver sa famille en France ou de procéder à son identification en urgence ! pic.twitter.com/kHSCUQaJST

— Idriss Sihamedi☝🏼 (@IdrissSihamedi) March 14, 2019

Tweet from @IdrissSihamedi that reads: “This French child is seriously injured. He is between life and death in Syria”.

According to local media, some time between March 18th and 19th, between 160 and 300 more civilians died in yet another  “massacre” at the camp.

Reporting was however confused, and only two sources specified exact death counts. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 200 people including members of ISIS and their families died in Coalition shelling of the camp on Tuesday March 19th. Of these, the Observatory said that 160 were civilians including 45 children. The victims were then reportedly buried on the morning of Wednesday March 20th.

On March 20th, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently published several pictures alongside a report that alleged the SDF “dug mass graves to bury those killed and even those merely injured” after taking control of Al-Baghouz.

However, Nors For Studies (an Arabic-language source which describes itself as a Syrian research centre though which was not known for casualty claims in Deir Ezzor until very recently) put the death toll at a staggering 300 civilians, a figure then tweeted by others. There were also claims that of these 300, some had been killed by “sniping”, though Eldorar went on to give some context to the claim by Nors for Studies, reporting on March 20th that “the camps of Al Baghouz have witnessed campaigns of genocide during the past 24 because of strikes by the Air Alliance [the US-led Coalition].”

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently noted that ISIS had used “hundreds of civilians as human shields during the raids”. In a shocking assertion, the local source also claimed that “immediately after taking control of the town [Al Baghouz], SDF militias dug mass graves to bury those killed and even those merely injured.”

Al Hasaka Arabea claimed that journalists had been prevented from entering the vicinity by “the intelligence service of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party”, who had reportedly removed  “the bodies from the massacres committed by the Kurdish protection units” in a convoy of trucks.

The full story of what occurred in Al Baghouz camp on March 18th-19th, remains unclear, though grisly footage indicates a devastating civilian casualty incident which requires urgent investigation. Moreover, the intensity of bombing in Al Baghouz, coupled with the Coalition’s failure to accurately estimate the number of families still trapped in the area, suggests that little had been learned from the earlier battles for Raqqa and Mosul in 2017.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling on Al Baghouz camp, March 18th-19th, in which at least 160 civilians allegedly died (via RBSS)

Coalition incidents of concern in Iraq

While Coalition actions in Syria declined during March, for the third straight month strikes in Iraq increased. Between February 24th and March 23rd, the Coalition reported 99 strikes in Iraq – a 120% rise on the 45 strikes conducted in the previous four week period. However, with the Coalition refusing to now declare where they had carried out strikes it was impossible to assess whether any of these actions might have resulted in nearby civilian harm.

This was particularly worrying given that during March Aiwars tracked the first publicly reported civilian casualty event reportedly carried out by the US-led Coalition in Iraq since May 2018. On March 24th, a girl was reported killed and a man injured when an airstrike was carried out on a house in Al-Oudan district, north of Rutba, Anbar province, Iraq.

The actions were believed to have been carried out by American forces, according to 24news. agency. Other members of the family were reportedly arrested, though the reason remains unknown.

Russia in Syria: an 82% rise in casualty events

As the Assad government’s offensive against rebels continued in Idlib governorate, Airwars tracked 20 publicly reported civilian harm events in Syria during March allegedly linked to Russia – an 82% rise on the 11 events seen in February. This marked the highest number of claimed incidents in any one calendar month since September 2018.

In total, between 36 and 94 civilians were alleged killed in these twenty March events – compared to between 29 and 56 such fatalities during the previous month.

However, unlike in February when all events were assessed by Airwars as Contested, – with allegations against both Russia and the Assad regime, and with claims against the regime in many cases outweighing those against Moscow – March saw a sharp rise in incidents assessed as likely carried out by Russia alone. Overall, there were 10 such events, counting for between 25 and 63 civilian deaths.

All but three of March’s events were in Idlib governorate, where residential areas of Idlib city itself and villages on its outskirts came under intense fire, resulting in several disturbing mass casualty claims.

On March 13th, between eight and 17 civilians including as many as eight children and four women across multiple families died in alleged Russia airstrike on residential areas in Idlib city, reportedly striking the al Kasih area in the middle of the city and the Al Qousor area. Fatalities included three very young children from the Hawana family along with two teenagers from the Zair family.

A wounded child following an alleged Russian strike on Idlib, March 13th 2019 (via SN4HR)

In the worst alleged Russian casualty incident of the month, as many as 28 civilians died and up to 30 more were injured in what Baladi said were up to “15 successive Russian strikes” on the towns of Kafriya and Al Fou’a in Idlib on March 22nd. Multiple sources reported the use of cluster bombs, while Orient News noted that civilian infrastructure including residential neighbourhoods, markets and mosques were targeted. One victim was named as 50-year-old Ali Wahid Qalla.

The White Helmets remove a child from the rubble after an alleged Russian airstrike on Kafriya and Al Fou’a, March 22nd 2019 (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Libya

There was only one airstrike reported in Libya in March, conducted by an unknown plane near Brak and allegedly killing three ISIS militants on March 4th.

This low number of reported incidents amounted to the quiet before the storm, as LNA and GNA battled for control of Tripoli during April. According to some, Libya is currently teetering on the verge of its third civil war since 2011, with severe clashes putting civilians significantly at risk.

Advocacy

Military advocacy

The Coalition, unusually, assessed just one civilian casualty incident in March, conceding that two civilians were injured in an event in Rawa, Iraq in September 2017. The original claim of civilian harm had come from a single local source with an unknown casualty toll – an allegation Airwars had provisionally assessed as weak.

The Coalition’s recent confirmation of civilian harm in this event has highlighted both the importance of listening to affected communities, as well as the value of rigorous assessments by militaries

Elsewhere, our military advocacy team spoke at BBC Connected in London, where their presentation focused on how Airwars has frequently challenged the Coalition’s narrative of “precision warfare” through its own monitoring of the digital testimonies of local affected communities.

Next up is @sophiecdyer talking about the work of @airwars #BBCnewsHACK pic.twitter.com/BCqFGXOQRC

— BBC Connected Studio (@BBC_Connected) March 26, 2019

European advocacy

March 20th marked the second anniversary of the most deadly Coalition action in Syria in the war against ISIS – an airstrike on the Al Badiya school in Al Mansoura which was  in use as an IDP shelter. At the time of the incident, local sources reported an alarmingly high numbers of civilian fatalities, coupled with photo and video evidence. Airwars assessed this incident at the time as most likely having caused significant civilian harm. However it would take many months for the US-led Coalition to take responsibility.

In the absence of a credible Coalition assessment, two major investigations into al Mansoura were then conducted. On the ground research by Human Rights Watch identified 40 of the civilian victims, while stating that many more were likely killed. And according to estimates by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the strike most likely killed over a 150 civilians. The Coalition nevertheless denied that the airstrike had killed civilians until 18 months after the event, when it finally admitted responsibility for the 40 named civilians identified by HRW.

Germany, as part of the international alliance against ISIS, had acknowledged its own role in the strike by providing intelligence on the target site to the Coalition command, as well as battle damage assessment flights after the attack.

In commemoration of the event, German television network WDR covered the incident in a feature that aired on March 14th, which included an interview with our Netherlands-based advocacy officer on Airwars’ own assessment of the incident, and our reflection on the culpability of Coalition allies which provide intelligence which in turn result in civilian harm eventss.

Also marking the second anniversary of the event, the European Center for Constitutional Rights and Airwars hosted a panel discussion in Berlin, with experts from Human Rights Watch, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and PAX discussing the important investigations conducted into al Mansoura, and recommendations for preventing such incidents occurring in future conflict.

"When do we get governments to disclose more information on civilian casualties resulting from air strikes in Syria? How do we challenge failure of duty to investigate?" Tremendous discussion on transparency and accountability at @ECCHRBerlin pic.twitter.com/7u4C8KePXS

— Natalia Benedetti (@_NBenedetti_) March 20, 2019

Additional reporting: Maike Awater, Abbie Cheeseman and Osama Mansour.

Conflict monitoring and assessments (March): Ali Abbas Ahmadi, Maike Awater, Poppy Bowers, Laura Bruun, Abbie Cheeseman, Sophie Dyer, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Harry Holmes, Alex Hopkins, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Hanna Rullmann, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Laurie Treffers, Clive Vella, and Anna Zahn.

▲ The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th - 19th, which allegedly killed at least 160 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Published

April 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

During February, civilian harm claims against the US-led Coalition in Syria continued to be a major problem. The month saw several alarming large-scale casualty incidents in the town of Baghouz – the last territorial holdout in Syria for so-called Islamic State (ISIS) – meaning that the likely death toll from Coalition actions in February rose by 27% on the previous month.

Alarmingly, the February also saw a tripling in claimed deaths from alleged Russian and/ or Syrian government actions on January’s estimates. As Assad’s forces stepped up their campaign against rebel forces in north-west Syria, Airwars tracked six reported casualty events in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib. While the majority of sources attributed the civilian harm to regime artillery, there were also allegations against Russia. Up to 56 civilians were claimed killed in contested events implicating both the Assad government and Russia in February – compared to a maximum of 18 such deaths in January.

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

During February, ISIS’s former extensive ‘caliphate’ was reduced to just one town in eastern Syria, Al Baghouz. On February 9th, following a week-long pause to allow civilians times to flee, SDF ground forces backed by US-led Coalition air and artillery strikes, again announced a ‘final’ operation to seize the town.

By February 12th, it was estimated that 20,000 civilians had fled ISIS-held areas within recent weeks. By February 16th, ISIS was now reportedly cornered within a 600-700 square metre area of the town. Thousands of civilians still remained trapped, taken as hostage and used as human shields by ISIS or simply refusing to leave – once more postponing any declaration of victory.

Intensity of Coalition strikes in Al Baghouz pocket

A slowdown in the SDF’s advance was reflected in Coalition strike numbers in February. A total of 365 air and artillery strikes were conducted in Syria from January 27th to February 23rd according to official data,  a 70% fall on the previous four week period. Munitions dropped from the air also fell by 70% on January. According to AFCENT, 607 air released bombs and missiles were fired across Iraq and Syria during February – compared to 2,005 munitions the previous month.

This steep fall in strikes may be misleading as an indicator of the intensity of Coalition activity within the tiny Al Baghouz pocket. An Airwars analysis of both strikes and engagements in the so-called  MERV indicates a higher tempo of Coalition actions in Syria in the first two months of 2019 than were recorded at Mosul during March 2017, the most intense and deadly period of that battle. The Coalition had that month declared 152 strikes on the city, an average of five strikes per day.

Even in February 2019, – a month in which Coalition actions dropped steeply – there were still on average over two and a half times as many strikes per day reported in Al Baghouz than were seen at Mosul.

The intensity of the Coalition’s assault often placed civilians on the ground in grave danger. Indeed, Airwars tracking indicates that the number of civilians likely killed by Coalition strikes in February rose by 27% on January’s minimum figures. Our current estimate is that between 76 and 128 civilians were slain in Coalition actions in Deir Ezzor throughout February. This rise was largely the result of one catastrophic mass casualty event in Al Baghouz on February 11th, which reportedly killed up to 100 civilians – and was the worst reported Coalition civilian casualty incident tracked by Airwars in Syria since June 2017.

As strikes continued to rain down on the town, Airwars once more urged the Coalition to take better steps to protect the most vulnerable Syrians on the ground, while Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern for those attempting to escape ISIS during its  last stand. On February 19th, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that hundreds of families were still trapped in the Baghouz pocket and called for safe passage.

For those who did manage to escape, the humanitarian situation remained bleak. The UN estimated that since December 2018, approximately 45,000 people – many of them women and children – had fled the Hajin and Al Baghouz areas, arriving at the Al Hor camp in Hassakah malnourished, sick, and in dire need of medical attention.

US Army Soldiers assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, fire their M777 howitzer during counter-fire operations at Firebase Saham, Iraq, December 18th 2018. (via US Army)

While there was a sharp drop in actions in Syria in February, for the second consecutive month, air and artillery strikes in Iraq instead increased. Between January 27th and February 23rd the Coalition reported 45 strikes – more than double the 22 actions publicly declared in Iraq between January 1st-26th. However, with the Coalition having ended transparency for its actions it was no longer possible to determine where these strikes had occurred – and whether they might have caused civilian harm. This was particularly alarming given the relatively steep rise in strike numbers.

Actions by the UK and France, the remaining international partners in the US-led alliance, continued to fall during February. The UK reported just two airstrikes in Syria, down from 19 the previous month. Additionally, it conducted one airstrike in Iraq, on a cave ten miles east of Tal Afar. The month also saw the withdrawal of eight British Tornados from the fight – though RAF Reapers and Typhoons remained in theatre.

Paris reported six airstrikes near Hajin, a 75% fall on the 24 actions conducted in January. There was also a significant reduction (87%) in actions by France’s artillery forces in the Euphrates Valley: six missions were conducted in February by Task Force Wagram, compared to 114 the previous month.

YPG-released footage of airstrikes on an ISIS camp in Al Baghouz, Feb 21st (via YPG Press Office)

The Coalition in Syria: likely civilian deaths rise by 27%

Throughout February, Airwars researchers tracked a total of seven incidents of concern blamed on the Coalition – a 56% fall on the 16 events tracked during January. All seven of these incidents are presently assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation where possible that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity that day.

However, the minimum number of estimated deaths across these seven incidents increased by 27% on January’s minimum figures. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 76 and 128 civilians likely died in these seven events, compared to between 60 and 118 civilians likely killed during January.

Given a collapse in local reporting in Syria, these figures may nevertheless represent an under-estimate of civilian harm. “The information coming out of Al Baghouz was very scarce,” explains Abdulwahab Tahhan from the Airwars Syria team. “Our daily monitoring showed that air and artillery strikes were ongoing, with the possibility that details of many more civilian deaths might emerge once ISIS was defeated and aid organisations able fully to enter the area. This is what we saw in Raqqa, where many more civilian fatalities were uncovered once ISIS had been driven out of the city.”

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria

As fierce clashes occurred in ISIS’s last stronghold, civilians trapped on the ground were repeatedly placed in a perilous position throughout February. Of the seven events tracked in the month, four of them were in Al Baghouz.

In the first Al Baghouz incident, one woman died on February 1st when the Coalition allegedly struck a residential building in the town. Surrounding houses were also reportedly damaged. One source, Suriye UAD, said that Coalition warplanes had struck a mosque, though no other reports supported this claim.

On February 9th, between three and five civilians died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Tayyana town according to local media. Euphrates Post reported that ISIS had attacked the al Omar oil field by motorcycle, after which the Coalition carried out several airstrikes which also killed three civilians and wounded others. Horrya News put the civilian death toll higher, at five.

Just two days later, on February 11th, Al Baghouz again came under intense fire, with Airwars tracking three separate and increasingly severe claimed casualty events in the town. In the first, four civilians died when Coalition jets allegedly struck houses on the outskirts of the town, according to sources including Dama Spots and Saba News. @DeirEzzor24 reported that the fatalities included two children and two women (though Elrabi Elyoum instead claimed that four men had died).

In the second event, a further 16 civilians were reported killed in Coalition air or artillery strikes. Multiple sources including Al Souria and Middle East Online said the victims included seven children and eight women. One man was also reported killed.

Finally, between 50 and 100 civilians were reported slain in another alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Baghouz – making this the most catastrophic alleged event Airwars had tracked in Syria since June 2017. Most sources reported that the majority of the victims were women and children, though only Syria TV gave specific figures, claiming that among the dead were two women and two children. According to SANA News, which is affiliated with the Assad government, Coalition warplanes had reportedly struck a camp for displaced persons though there was some confusion regarding the exact date. SANA placed the incident on February 12th, while LCCSY reported the incident a day earlier.

Photo of the news published by A’maq agency, an ISIS propaganda news channel (via Alsouria).

Coalition incidents of concern in Iraq

There were no known publicly reported incidents of concern in Iraq during February which resulted from US-led Coalition actions.

Russia and the Assad government in Syria

 In February, Airwars tracked 11 publicly reported civilian harm events in Syria allegedly linked to Russia – one event less than during January. However, the minimum number of claimed deaths more than tripled on January’s estimates. In total, between 29 and 56 civilians were alleged killed across these 11 February events – compared to between 9 and 18 civilians during the previous month.

All of these events were assessed by Airwars as Contested, involving allegations against both Russia and the Assad regime. In most cases, claims against regime artillery outweighed those reports blaming Russia – though there were also allegations that Russian forces were conducting artillery strikes.

February saw Assad’s forces ramping up their assault on north-west Syria, with a sharp rise in strikes on towns in northern Hama and Idlib governorates. Of the 11 events tracked by Airwars in February, 64% were in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, which the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman, said had been turned into “a ghost town”.

On February 15th, in what local media described as “a massacre”, up to 14 civilians including up to six children and four women died in alleged Russian or Assad government artillery strikes on Khan Sheikhoun. According to Baladi, regime forces “stationed in the village of Abu Dali shelled the city of Khan Sheikhoun with artillery and missile shells” resulting in “a massacre” of eight civilians.

Most sources joined Baladi in pointing to the regime. However, Smart News and Kafr Zeita blamed Russia. The White Helmets said that “25 rocket launchers” had attacked the city, and put the death toll at nine. @abuhuzaifa tweeted that children had been burned alive in fires. Sources named multiple fatalities from the Al-Aindani and Al Ayan families among those killed.

An unnamed child killed in an alleged Syria regime or Russian artillery strike on Khan Sheikhoun, February 15th 2019 (via Khan Sheikhoun)

Four days later on February 19th, in an event again most likely caused by government shelling, another five civilians reportedly died in Khan Sheikhoun. Khaleej  Online noted that this was “the third day in a row” that regime forces had bombarded the town, adding that the death toll had now “soared to 20 civilians, mostly women and children” – with “dozens” more wounded. Ahrar tweeted that 50 shells were fired on the town. While most sources attributed the civilian harm to the regime, the Step News Agency noted that Russia was also carrying out artillery strikes.

Clouds of smoke rise from Khan Sheikhoun following an alleged Assad regime artillery strike on February 19th (via Ahrar)

Strikes continued to rain down on Khan Sheikhoun for the remainder of the month, and on February 23rd as many as seven more civilians including two children and two women were reportedly killed. Once more, there was disagreement over responsibility: the Syrian Network for Human Rights named Mrs. Adiba Baroud  as killed by a “regime missile launcher”, though Smart News reported that a child died in shelling by Russian forces. Multiple sources published graphic images of victims. Other victims were named as Huthayfa Diop (a young man), his daughter Hala Huthayfa Diop and another child, Muhammad Hassan al-Kurdi.

The White Helmets search rubble for survivors following a strike on Khaan Sheikhoun on February 13th (via @abuhuzaifa_ )

Libya

In February, the situation in Libya remained unstable. There were 13 reported airstrikes conducted in various locations across the country.

An ongoing military operation in the south by the rebel LNA intensified in the towns of Murzuq and Ghodwa. The LNA reportedly conducted 10 airstrikes in the region, including at El Fil, Murzuq and Ghodwa. Airwars recorded one instance of reported civilian harm from these LNA actions, with an elderly man claimed killed and a seven-year-old girl wounded in Murzuq town.

Despite ongoing violence at Derna city, media coverage there remained poor. According to Human Rights Watch, as a result of clashes during February in the Old City, at least four women and three children were killed.

Additionally, the US apparently conducted a covert airstrike on February 13th which targeted an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) convoy in Ubari town. Following the strike, the spokesman for the GNA publicly confirmed that the US had conducted the attack. However, when Airwars reached out to AFRICOM to seek confirmation, officials denied taking part in the raid. However, With the GNA standing by its statement that the US conducted the strike, this suggested the attack may have been a covert  and undeclared mission by the CIA.

Elsewhere, reports said an airstrike was conducted near the Libya-Egypt border; with the Egyptian air force blamed. Additionally, there was a strike carried out by an unknown party in Zliten city near Tripoli, in the west of Libya.

Advocacy

Military advocacy

February saw the Coalition concede 54 civilian additional deaths linked to the 2017 Battle of Raqqa, originating from six Airwars incident reports and one mass casualty event first published by Amnesty International.. These new admissions represented a 33% increase in the number of civilian deaths acknowledged by the international alliance for that battle. While the official death tally now stands at 159, this is far below the Airwars minimum estimate of 1,500 to 2,000 civilian deaths from Coalition actions at Raqqa.

In total, Operation Inherent Resolve had recognised the deaths of at least 1,257 civilians across the four year campaign in Iraq and Syria to the end of February, noting that it was still investigating a further 182 alleged incidents of civilian harm.

An Airwars animation of declared Operation Inherent Resolve strikes prior to December 2018 – when the Coalition stopped publishing the dates and locations of its actions – went viral in February. The original video and its call for the Coalition to reinstate transparency, saw more than 600,000 engagements across Twitter and Facebook, and was re-posted in multiple languages including Arabic, Turkish, French, Spanish and German.

The awareness-raising video, created in collaboration with the Scottish design studio Rectangle, was picked up internationally by commentators, analysts and correspondents.

Airwars tracked & mapped every single Coalition anti-ISIS air & artillery strike (all 32,000) in Iraq & Syria from 2014 to 2018. That ended December 16th when the US-led alliance stopped saying where & when it bombs. For the sake of transparency, @CJTFOIR should reverse decision. pic.twitter.com/RWWdpu7N0s

— Airwars (@airwars) February 5, 2019

European advocacy

In February, our Netherlands-based advocacy officer Maike Awater engaged with MPs from political parties in the Netherlands in preparation for a round table discussion with policy experts. This focused in particular on good practice examples of transparency and accountability policies from allies in the international Coalition against ISIS.

Additionally, Maike met with other civic society actors in Belgium, to explore possible approaches to raising awareness of Belgian military transparency issues. With operational concerns often cited by the Belgium government as a reason for poor transparency, discussions focused on whether new opportunities for engagement might emerge once ISIS was defeated as a territorial entity.

Also discussed was the importance of re-engaging in dialogue with political parties in Belgium during upcoming elections. Talks also included a discussion of  standardised policies on civilian harm monitoring, assessments and compensation mechanisms for affected civilians on the battlefield.

Additional reporting: Maike Awater, Sophie Dyer, and Osama Mansour.

Conflict monitoring and assessments (February): Ali Abbas Ahmadi, Maike Awater, Poppy Bowers, Laura Bruun, Abbie Cheeseman, Sophie Dyer, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Harry Holmes, Alex Hopkins, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Hanna Rullmann, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Laurie Treffers, Clive Vella, and Anna Zahn.

Published

March 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

In January 2019, the noose further tightened around ISIS in the last remaining scraps of territory it held in Syria’s Deir Ezzor governorate. By February 5th, there were an it was claimewd as few as 1,000 fighters in ISIS’s stronghold within a 20-sqaure-mile area near the southern Euphrates Rivers and the Iraqi border, according to US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Joseph Votel – though he added that between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters might remain in the region, mostly dispersed and underground.

Civilian harm claims also continued against the US-led assault. While January saw a 34% month on month fall in civilian casualties likely caused by Coalition actions, Airwars’ current estimate is that between 60 and 118 civilians were nevertheless killed by Coalition fire throughout the month.

Following President Donald Trump’s shock December announcement of a Syrian withdrawal, the US reportedly began to pull equipment (though not troops) out of Syria on January 11th. While it claimed this would not impact its strategic goals in the country, few indications were given of how such promises might translate in practical terms.

The withdrawal announcement did not diminish Coalition actions during the month. The US-led alliance reported 1,220 air and artillery strikes between January 1st and January 26th – a 30% rise on the 939 strikes conducted in December 2018 – and with all of this fire power concentrated on just a few towns in eastern Syria.

However in a worrying development, even as strikes accelerated the Coalition abandoned a 52-month record of stating where and when its actions occur in Iraq and Syria. Airwars protested to both the Coalition’s commanding general and to senior Pentagon officials about what it described as a short-sighted move, which would be felt most keenly by affected civilians on the ground.

For ordinary Syrians still trapped in Deir Ezzor the humanitarian situation was unremittingly dire. Reports from the ground suggested that as many as 4,000 families were on the move in ISIS-occupied areas, as heavy Coalition fire rained down. Those attempting to flee both ISIS and Coalition air and artillery strikes risked death or starvation.

After almost four months of tracking no allegations against Russia in Syria, January 2019 saw a significant rise in casualty events allegedly involving Russian warplanes. Airwars researchers tracked 13 incidents during the month, the majority of which were in Idlib and Hama governorates.

While there were a number of distressing events tied to Russia in January, it is noteworthy that the death tolls for these events were always in single figures, with a maximum of two or three civilians claimed killed per event. These Russian figures were dwarfed by the kind of large-scale casualty events often attributed to the US-led Coalition in Syria during January.

A Coalition Forces member launches an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle near Hajin, Syria, January 8th 2019 (via US Army)

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

January saw a 30% increase in declared Coalition air and artillery strikes in eastern Syria. From January 1st to January 26th, 1,220 strikes were conducted, compared to 939 in December 2018. This is the highest number of strikes in any given month since September 2017 –  all of which were centred on the few villages and towns still held by ISIS.

For the first time in six months, actions in Iraq also increased, though from a very low base. There were 22 Coalition strikes declared throughout January (up from 16 in December 2018). While these likely focused on more rural areas as ISIS attempted to reform, with public transparency slashed by the alliance it was impossible to say for certain where these occurred – and for Airwars to cross-match any potential civilian harm events.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence publicly reported details of an estimated 19 airstrikes in Syria for January and two in Iraq. The same web page listed an estimated 37 UK airstrikes conducted in Syria for December 2018 – almost all of them near Hajin. The MoD reported that Thursday  January 31st saw “the  last operational sorties by Tornado GR4s”, though they would continue to fly armed reconnaissance patrols, “on hand to support the SDF if required”. The UK continued to fly strike missions with its Typhoons and Reaper drones.

Actions by France also fell significantly. In the four week period from January 1st to 29th, Paris reported 24 airstrikes in Syria centred around Hajin – a 20% drop on the 31 airstrikes conducted in the previous four week period. Actions by France’s artillery in the Euphrates Valley fell by 11% on the previous four week period, with a total of 114 shooting missions declared during the month.

With this steep fall in strikes by the UK and France – and likiely a limited number of air actions by Iraq into Syria – it is reasonable to assume that the US was responsible for the overwhelming majority of air and artillery strikes during January, and indeed most associated civilian harm in eastern Syria during the fiercely fought last weeks of the Coalition campaign against ISIS.

The Coalition in Syria: likely deaths fall by 34%

Throughout January, Airwars researchers tracked a total of 16 incidents of concern blamed on the Coalition – the same overall number tracked in December 2018. Of these, nine incidents are presently assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation where possible that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day.

Estimated deaths across these nine January events fell by 34% on December 2018’s minimum figures. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 60 and 118 civilians likely died in these nine January events tied to the Coalition, compared to between 91 and 161 such deaths in December 2018. Of these January deaths, at least 21 were reportedly children and 15 were women.

January 2019 also saw a sharp fall in the number of civilians assessed as likely wounded from Coalition actions in Syria. Overall throughout the month between 11 and 87 non-combatants were reported wounded, according to Airwars monitoring – an 84% decrease on the minimum of 67 civilians declared injured in December 2018. However these may represent under-estimates, with reporting from within ISIS’s last stronghold on civilian harm often fragmentary.

“The Coalition was pushing hard in the last pocket of ISIS in January, with help from the SDF on the ground,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan from the Airwars Syria team. “While the number of likely deaths from Coalition air and artillery strikes had fallen from December 2018, it is very hard to imagine the real situation civilians were facing on the ground –  and our monitoring numbers do not necessarily reflect that. The situation for those trapped in the last scraps of ISIS territory remained dire.”

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria

While overall there was a sharp fall in likely deaths in January, as with December 2018 the month saw a number of alarming large-scale casualty incidents in which entire families were reported slain in devastating strikes on civilian homes and infrastructure.

In the first of several alleged Coalition strikes on residential areas, between seven and 13 civilians including up to five children and three women died on January 3rd when Coalition jets allegedly struck the home of Sulaiman Mohammed al-Ahdab in Badia 24 in Al Shaafa. Local media reported that only Mr. Mohammed al-Ahdab and his daughter survived the attack, while the rest of the family perished. Two victims were named as Hak Jumah al-Shati Abu Muhammad and his wife, who had reportedly moved outside of Al Shaafa to escape the bombing.

A second civilian home was reportedly struck days later when up to 10 civilians – multiple members of the al-Khalif al-Qatmir family including children – died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the town of  Al Khishkiya , east of Deir Ezzor between January 3rd and 4th. The Euphrates Post provided some context for the attack. It explained that SDF fighters raided the house of Salem Hamid (near the house of Ali Al-Khalif al-Qatmir) who was wanted by ISIS. Thinking the SDF were ISIS, Salem Hamid opened fire on them. The SDF then withdrew and called in Coalition airstrikes, and in the subsequent bombing of the area the al-Khalif al-Qatmir were killed.

Bodies are lined up following an alleged Coalition airstrike on a civilian residence in Al Khishkiya, January 3rd- 4th (via Euphrates Post)

The final two weeks of January were marked by a series of devastating casualty events in Al Baghouz, one of ISIS’s final enclaves in Syria. In what was to be the worst reported event of the month, as many as 39 civilians including up to 22 children and eight women from the families of Al-Ahmed Al-Mu’i, Ahmed Hussein Abu Bakr, and the family of Al – Haj Hassan Khalil Al-Azzawi died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Baghouz on January 18th.

The Al-Anis family was also reportedly killed in its entirety – except for one little boy. In a heart-rending tweet (below), Deir Ezzor 24 published an image of him. Sitting on steps, he clasps his tiny hands, eyes closed, face marked with dust and wounds as he asks for his brothers and sisters, saying that he is okay and that he wants to see them.

#د24: صورة الطفل "عمر أنيس الرميح" الناجي الوحيد بعد مقتل أفراد عائلته جراء القصف من قبل طيران مجهول المصدر الذي استهدف قرية #الباغوز تحتاني شرق #ديرالزور يوم الجمعة الفائت. pic.twitter.com/Q9KNPsowz4

— ديرالزور24 (@DeirEzzor24) January 20, 2019

In a familiar story for those monitoring civilian harm, the majority of sources reported that this event happened while civilians were fleeing areas under ISIS control. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Coalition airstrikes were visible in the area between 13.30 and 14.00 that day.

Just seven days later, there was another large scale event in Baghouz when 13 civilians along with 29 members of ISIS died in alleged Coalition shelling of farms between Al Baghouz Foqani town and Al Marashdad village during the night of January 25th-26th, according to local media. While no victims were named, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the victims included seven members of the same Syrian family, three of whom were children.

Al Baghouz’s residential buildings came under fire yet again on January 29th – and once more the victims were civilians who had been trying to escape fighting elsewhere, this time fleeing the ‘Mohsan’ area following intensified clashes between ISIS and Kurdish militias. Several alleged Coalition missiles claimed the lives of up to 14 including five children and three women, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Jisr Press. An entire family – eight members of the Mohammed al-Majd al-Kadran family – were reportedly slain in this one incident.

Aftermath of an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Baghouz, January 29th, that killed eight civilians (via Deir Ezzor 24).

Russia in Syria

In January, Airwars tracked 13 civilian harm events in Syria allegedly linked to Russia – a sharp rise from the three possible incidents in December 2018 – and the highest number of events since September last year. In total, between nine and 18 civilians were alleged killed across these 13 events.

An 11-week pause in civilian casualty allegations against Russia in Syria had come to a sudden end in the week of December 31st 2018 to January 6th 2019, with up to six civilians killed in multiple reported strikes in Idlib and Aleppo governorates.

On January 4th for example, Zaman Alwasl reported that three civilians died and several others were wounded in Darat Izza, Aleppo in an alleged Russian airstrike on residential areas. According to AMC and Hadi Abdullah, the victims included a father and his child. Smart News named three victims as Umm Muhammad, Mohammed Awasha and Mohammed Awasha, who was reportedly Director of the Civil Defense Center in the village of Orma Kobra.

In total there were six alleged Russian events tracked in Hama during January – two of which were in Al Lataminah. In the first of these Lataminah incidents, multiple sources reported that a girl was killed and several other member of her family wounded on January 11th. Shabab Latamina named her as 14-year-old Rafida Sattouf al-Hudairi, stating – along with some other sources – that she was killed in “the bombing by unmanned aerial action”. Many sources blamed Russia, though others didn’t apportion blame.  It is also worth noting that Russia is not known to have deployed armed drones in Syria. Step News published a video showing destruction in the town following the bombing – along with footage of the girl’s funeral.

Footage of the aftermath of an alleged Russian strike on Lataminah, Hama, January 11th – including the funeral of 14-year-old girl Rafida Sattouf al-Hudairi.

The second Lataminah incident occurred on January 17th. According to Kafr Zeta, a civilian male, named as 53-year-old Khaled Karmo Al-Hilal was killed by a Russian missile. However, Shaam News reported that a man died and several other people were wounded in artillery shelling by Assad’s forces. Baladi and several others sources  also blamed the regime, reporting that it had fired shells from its camp at Qubaybat into residential areas in Lataminah. Syria TV noted that “the regime continued to breach the Sochi agreement signed between Russia and Turkey”. Media activist Khalid al-Hussein told Al 7al that local civil defence had retrieved victims from the rubble, who were then treated in the nearest medical centre.

Khaled Karmo Al-Hilal, killed in an alleged Russia or regime shelling on Al Lataminah, January 17th (via @OKKO5Lc4iNiZH6S)

January also saw five casualty events reportedly involving Russian forces in Idlib governorate. On Janaury 20th, LCCSY reported that two civilians died and nine more were wounded in an alleged Russian airstrike on villages to the west of Jisr al-Shughour – and it published an image (below) showing significant destruction. According to Shaam News – which also blamed Russia – the strikes resulted in the destruction of a bakery and the deaths of a man and a woman in the village of Baksriya.

‘Destruction in villages and towns of rural Jisr al-Shughour West following alleged Russian strikes, after midnight’, January 20th (via LCCSY)

Libya

January in Libya was marked by renewed militia shelling in Tripoli as well as the beginning of a new Libyan National Army (LNA) offensive in the south of the country.

In Tripoli, clashes between GNA-affiliated militias and the 7th Brigade flared up again, violating September 2018’s ceasefire. This reportedly led to the death of Mahmud Al Temzini in the south of the city on January 16th. Three days later, the respected photojournalist Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed by indiscriminate shelling while covering the clashes.

At the same time, the LNA’s ongoing offensive started in the south of Libya. Airstrikes reportedly hit targets in Kufra, Murzuq and near the border with Tunisia though without reports of civilian harm.

In addition, either the LNA or Egypt reportedly conducted an airstrike in Derna. Local reports say the city is currently completely cut off from any communication, and keeping track of the situation there is extremely difficult. Sporadic news coming out of Derna point at heavy fighting in a city that had been declared “liberated” from terrorism in June last year.

1/2 تدين بعثة الأمم المتحدة للدعم في ليبيا بشدة مقتل عدد من المدنيين في اشتباكات جنوب #طرابلس، بمن فيهم المصور الصحفي محمد بن خليفة، والذي شكلت وفاته فاجعة أليمة لليبيين والجسم الإعلامي في #ليبيا ونموذج عن الاعتداءت المتكررة التي يتعرض لها الصحفيون … pic.twitter.com/lBtHxkfihL

— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) January 20, 2019

Translation: ‘The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) strongly condemns the killing of a number of civilians in clashes in the south of Tripoli, including journalist Mohamed Ben Khalifa, whose death was a painful tragedy for Libyans and the media community in Libya, and was part of a pattern of repeated attacks on journalists.’

Advocacy

Military advocacy

The UK Parliament’s Defence Select Committee heard oral evidence from Airwars director Chris Woods in January. The hearing came after Airwars submitted written evidence in September 2018 to the parliamentary inquiry into UK Military Operations in Mosul and Raqqa. This warned that UK claims of near-zero civilian harm from almost 2,000 anti-ISIS airstrikes lacked credibility.

While commending the UK for its transparency during the fight against ISIS, Woods said that UK accountability for civilian harm remained poor. He urged the Ministry of Defence to improve its own reporting and assessments of civilian harm; to engage better with external agencies; and to conduct followup investigations where possible on the ground into local reports of civilian death and injury from problematic strikes.

Woods also noted that the US-led alliance had often ceded the social media sphere to the terrorist group in the early stages of the war by claiming zero civilian casualties, or by refusing to engage publicly on individual civilian harm events. By contrast, ISIS had “courted local credibility” by sometimes reporting conservative estimates of civilian harm from Coalition actions in areas it was occupying.

Airwars was joined in the parliamentary hearing by Emily Knowles of the Remote Warfare Programme, and social media specialist David Patrikarakos, for the session titled Global Islamist Terrorism.

Online, Airwars completed uploading its back catalogue of geolocation notes and imagery. Previously only available on request, these materials show how researchers have arrived at a set of coordinates and “geolocation accuracy” via the analysis of open source materials.

Chris Woods of Airwars gives evidence to the UK Parliament’s Global Islamist Terrorism Inquiry

European advocacy

January marked the first month after the Netherlands pulled back their F-16 fighter jets from Jordan. By January 2nd, all of the aircraft had safely returned to their base in Vonkel.

The Netherlands’ first mission ran from October 2014 until July 2016, during which it  flew 2,100 sorties and deployed 1,800 weapons. The second mission ran from January to December 2018, during which time 900 further sorties were flown and 300 weapons deployed, according to official data.

With all pilots and aircraft safely home, Airwars will continue to press officials for more information on the Dutch campaign, which has been rated by Airwars as the least transparent among the 14 Coalition allies. The Netherlands ministry of defence still refuses to say where or when three confirmed Dutch civilian casualty events took place in Iraq – or even to say how many casualties were involved. It is unique among alliance members in witholding such information.

Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis for January: Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Sophie Dyer, Maike Awater, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Poppy Bowers, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann, Laura Bruun, Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, and Laurie Treffers.

 

▲ An F-15 from the US 391st Fighter Squadron takes off in support of Operation Inherent Resolve from an undisclosed location January 4th 2019. (US Air Force/ Staff Sergeant Stephen G. Eige)

Published

January 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Trump effect’ on civilian harm may be overstated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkish military actions in Syria and Iraq remain a concern

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

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

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

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

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

Russian campaign in Syria sees record casualty highs and lows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

European advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

January 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coalition in Syria: likely deaths rise by 126%

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

Throughout November, Airwars researchers tracked a total of 39 incidents of concern – a  70% rise on the 23 locally claimed events seen in October. Of these 39 incidents, 29 were assessed as  being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day.

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

We are alarmed by recent reports of up to 30 children killed in recent violence in Al Shafa village, in eastern #Syria.

These reported killings demonstrate that the war on children is far from over.

Full statement by @gcappelaere : https://t.co/GEsDKHPE4f#ChildrenUnderAttack

— UNICEF MENA – يونيسف الشرق الأوسط و شمال إفريقيا (@UNICEFmena) November 16, 2018

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

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

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

حي سكني طاله الدمار داخل بلدة هجين شرق دير الزور نتيجة غارات للتحالف الدولي وهو أحد مواقع مجزرة يوم أمس الجمعة والتي قضى فيها ٤٠ شهيد مدني وعشرات الجرحى غالبيتهم من النساء والأطفال. pic.twitter.com/RxVfwdy132

— Osama Mohammed Ali (@osama_sy87) November 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia in Syria

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

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

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

Libya

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

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

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

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

Military advocacy

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

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

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

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

We are looking for clues in the rubble of #Raqqa to establish the exact timeline of #USA -led bombardments which killed 100s of civilians & destroyed some 80% of the city.Join @amnesty "Strike Tracker" project, become a Decoder, make a difference https://t.co/Swhos3U2jm – #Syria pic.twitter.com/kXFeofc2gH

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) November 21, 2018

European advocacy

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

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

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

* Updated January 15th 2019.

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

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

Published

November 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

Airwars tracked no locally reported claims of civilian harm in Syria from Russian actions during October – the first such month since Moscow first intervened three years previously. US-led Coalition strikes against ISIS continued however, with a significant and troubling rise in reported civilian harm in eastern Syria.

October saw a near tripling in incidents of concern reportedly involving American, French, British and Dutch military actions. A total of 23 events were tracked, the highest number in any one month so far this year. Moreover, civilian deaths leapt up with at least 98 civilian non-combatants estimated by Airwars as likely killed in Coalition actions during the month.

This alarming hike in civilian harm coincided with a 125% rise in air and artillery strikes conducted in Syria, as the US and its European allies escalated their efforts to oust remnant ISIS forces from slithers of territory still held in Deir Ezzor governorate. The Coalition reported 481 strikes in October – a figure not seen since October 2017, the month in which ISIS’s de-facto capital, Raqqa, finally fell.

AFCENT, meanwhile, reported that 876 munitions were released from the air across Iraq and Syria during October – only a 16% increase on September. Given the gulf between this increase in actions from the air and the 125% rise in air and artillery strikes, there appears to have been a very significant increase in US and French artillery strikes during October. As mentioned below, artillery actions by France’s Task Force Wagram alone more than doubled on the previous month. A similar shift towards artillery during the 2017 battle of Raqqa had disastrous implications for civilians.

October also levels of reported mass casualties incidents not tracked since that brutal Raqqa campaign. Within a period of just 48 hours between October 18th and 19th in Al Soussa, a civilian’s home and two mosques were reportedly struck, likely killing a minimum of 27 civilians including women and children. Two further mosques and a Koranic school were reportedly hit the following week. On October 22nd the Coalition publicly stated that it had indeed targeted mosques in Deir Ezzor – which it claimed had been seized by ISIS.

There was, at least, some respite for civilians from Russian actions in Syria, as a Turkish-Russian truce in the demilitarised parts of Idlib and Hama governorates continued to hold. But given the fragile ceasefire and unpredictable nature of Russia’s air campaign, this risked changing at any time.

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

The known remaining active international Coalition allies – the US the UK, France and the Netherlands, alongside Iraq when striking in Syria – released 876 munitions from the air across both Iraq and Syria during October 2018, according to official AFCENT data. This represented a 16% rise from the 758 munitions reportedly fired in September.

Coalition actions in Iraq continued at a low level in October, actually falling by 43% on September – with just 12 air and artillery strikes publicly reported throughout the month, the lowest number since January of this year.

However, in eastern Syria the latest stage of the Coalition’s 50-month anti-ISIS campaign continued to build momentum. The US-led alliance reported 481 strikes throughout October – more than double September’s 214 strikes. This level of activity has not been seen in Syria since October 2017, the month in which Raqqa fell, which was supported by 499 air and artillery strikes.

Strikes by the US’s allies in Syria continued to play a key role. The UK declared approximately 24 airstrikes during the month – up from September’s four. One British airstrike was also carried out in Iraq on caves north-west of Kirkuk.

There was also a significant increase in actions by France during October. Paris reported carrying out 17 airstrikes in Syria, all around Abu Kamal – a steep rise on the two strikes conducted the previous month. Additionally, ‘firing’ missions on the Euphrates Valley from France’s artillery detachment, Task Force Wagram, more than doubled . French troops reportedly conducted 69 missions in October – a 109% rise on the 33 actions reported for September.

Airstrikes by the Netherlands also saw a hike. During October, the  Dutch MoD reported that its jets had deployed weapons in 20 missions – more than double the nine events munitions were fired in during September. All but one of these deployments were near Abu Kamal or Hajin. However, in the week of October 24th to 31st, the Dutch said that weapons had also been used in a mission near Mosul in Iraq. Targets during this week were reportedly ISIS warehouses and vehicles.

Members of Task Force Wagram conduct a fire mission from Firebase Saham, Iraq, Oct. 21, 2018. (via U.S. Army Photo by SPC. Gyasi Thomasson)

The Coalition in Syria: a near tripling in casualty events

October was a terrible month for civilians trapped on the ground in the so-called Hajin pocket in eastern Syria. Coalition strikes more than doubling in the area resulted in Airwars tracking the highest number of civilian casualty events in Syria this year. More alarming still, the month was marked by the kind of mass casualty incidents which we last saw during the ferocious Raqqa campaign of June to October 2017.

Throughout October, Airwars researchers tracked  a total of 23 incidents of concern – a  188% rise on the eight  events seen in September. Of these 23 events, 16 were assessed as  being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day.

Deaths across these 16 events spiraled on September’s figures. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 98 and 254 civilians likely died in these sixteen October events, compared to between 4 and 9 such deaths in September. As often before, it was the most vulnerable civilians who suffered the brunt of the violence. Of those likely killed in Coalition actions during October, at least 19 were children and 10 were women.

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“After a period of relative calm in eastern Syria, October saw a steep rise in civilian casualty claims,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Aiwars Syria team. “During the first half of the month we began seeing frequent allegations of civilian harm, though the numbers of victims were relatively low. However, this changed sharply from October 18th when allegations stepped up considerably, with several mass casualty events reported – notably in multiple locations in and around the town of Al Soussa.

“According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, for the first time since 2014 more civilians were killed during the month of October in Syria by the US-led Coalition than by any other party to the conflict including the Assad regime, Russia and ISIS. This worrying trend has continued and intensified into November as the SDF, backed by the Coalition, prepares for a ground battle to retake the last few towns and villages still held by ISIS in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor.”

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria

By the beginning of the second week of October, Airwars had tracked a marked increase in casualty events. From October 8th-14th we monitored six reported events, of which four were in Al Soussa, likely killing a minimum of 11 civilians in total. Worse was to come the following week, which was marked by three horrific mass casualty events – all in or near Al Soussa and which likely killed between 27 and 145 civilians when two mosques and a civilian’s home were struck.

In the first of two major casualty events on October 18th, up to 15 civilians – reportedly Iraqi women and children – died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the home of Mohammed al-Obeid al-Hattab in al Soussa. The Syrian Network for Human Rights said that the strike occurred at 23.00, though the event may have been confused by some media with one or two other civilian harms events which occurred over a particularly bloody 30-hour period in the town.

According to the Smart News Agency, Mohammed al-Obeid al-Hattab’s home was one of a number of houses reportedly targeted by the Coalition, particularly in Al Soussa’s al Sarat area. The source added that the homes originally belonged to expatriate civilians but had then been seized by ISIS and used both as headquarters and as houses for its members and families. However, Halab Today stated that those harmed were all displaced people from neighbouring villages.

Significantly worse was to come on the same day (October 18th), when between 10 and 60 civilians were reported killed in alleged Coalition strikes on Ammar bin Yasser mosque in Al Boudadran village near Al Soussa, according to local media. Again, some reports may have confused this event with others. Most sources, including the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said the strike occurred at noon, though Baladi claimed worshippers perished while leave the mosque following evening prayers.

The destroyed mosque at al Bubadran in which up to 60 civilians were alleged killed in a Coalition strike on October 18th (image with al Suriye UAD – most likely grabs from an ISIS propaganda video)

A Reuters report suggested the Coalition had purposefully targeted the mosque, believing it to be an ISIS command and control center. This claim prompted a statement from Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan, who said the Coalition had indeed carried out the strike. According to Ryan, the Coalition had monitored the facility to know when only fighters were present. He added that the alliance investigates “all credible allegations of civilian casualties”. Euphrates Post named one of the victims as Mohammed Dia’a Abdul Latif al-Dabbas – adding in a footnote that 38 civilians had died in the strike.

The following day, October 19th, saw a second alleged Coalition airstrike on a mosque, again in Al Soussa. Local media claimed that up to 70 civilians perished in a “massacre” at the Othman Bin Affan Mosque (also know as Hajji Mohammad mosque), again in Al Boubadran village, after Friday prayers. The lowest death count was given as 8, by the Smart News Agency. It said the bombing caused the deaths of more than 40 people, “including eight civilians”. The source went on to say that the rest of those killed were “elements of Daesh, mostly Iraqis.” It should be noted, however, that “elements of Daesh” does not specifically refer to ISIS fighters and may also include ISIS family members, which might explain why other sources put the non-combatant death toll higher. Sound and Picture posted a video reportedly showing Coalition F-16s flying over Deir Ezzor just minutes before the strike.

On October 22nd, the Coalition issued a press release admitting responsibility for  two strikes on mosques in Al Soussa, stating that it had conducted the attacks since the buildings reportedly housed “active Daesh fighting position[s]”. The alliance claimed the strikes had occurred only after intelligence had ascertained civilians were not on the premises.

Providing some context on the mosque strikes, Hajin magazine reported that “those dogs and pigs of Daesh are using mosques as headquarters” – and it urged people to “as far as possible stay away from them”. But with scores of civilians likely killed by the Coalition within days, questions must also be raised about whether the US-led alliance is taking sufficient measures to ensure no civilians are present in buildings – as it has claimed – before munitions are released from the air.

There was also intense activity at the end of October – with seven problem events reported in the final days of the month. On October 27th, al Boubadran village came under fire with five civilians – including a woman and two or three children – reported killed in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the home of  Rajab al-Hassan. The victims were named by multiple local sources as Rajan-al Hassan, his wife, two children, and another man named as Zidan Atiyya al-Salbi.

The aftermath of an alleged Coalition airstrike on a home in Al Boubadran, Oct 27th, which reportedly killed five civilians (via RT)

The penultimate day of the month saw another mass casualty event, this time in Kushma, Deir Ezzor. According to sources on the ground “two new massacres” occurred on October 30th in Al Shaafa and Kushma. Several sources including Free Deir Ezzor Radio and Baladi reported the deaths of a total of 17 civilians in alleged Coalition airstrikes on the two towns. However, the Step News Agency and @Olay said the 17 were killed in Kushma alone, with four others in Al Shaafa in a separate incident, also tracked by Aiwars, Step claimed that the victims in Kushma – including women and children – were members of ISIS families.

According to the Al Shafaa Facebook page, the image shows the location of Coalition strikes on the town of Al Shaafa on October 30th 2018

Russia in Syria: no civilian casualty events tracked during October

For the first time since the start of Moscow’s notoriously brutal air campaign in Syria in September 2015, Airwars tracked no civilian casualty events during the month reportedly involving Russian warplanes.

This was largely due to the relatively successful implementation of a Turkish- Russian brokered truce in demilitarised areas of Idlib and Hama governorates where some militant opposition groups are still in control.

There were, however, three cases of civilians being killed following the explosion of remnant cluster munitions in Aleppo and Idlib governorates.

“There have been a few civilian casualty incidents reported in the area due to shelling exchanged between the regime and the militants operating in the area,” says Kinda Haddad, “but there were no allegations against Russia. Reports of tensions are frequently reported. Nonetheless so far the uneasy truce has held.”

Libya

Libya witnessed a major decrease in reported airstrikes in October compared to previous months, as militias in Tripoli mostly stuck by the UN-brokered ceasefire they had agreed in September. Only minor incidents flared up in October. One occurred on October 1st when Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport was hit by artillery shelling – which in turn led to flights being suspended. No civilian casualties were recorded.

The rebel LNA remained active in October, conducting military operations against Chadian rebels in the south of Libya. In addition to ground warfare it carried out one airstrike near Tmassah, reportedly killing a leader of the opposition named as Mohamed Khair. Libyan Satellite Channel showed a video of the aftermath of the strike in which no civilians were reported slain.

Military advocacy

For the first time since the US-led Coalition began publishing Monthly Civilian Casualty Reports in December 2016, it judged zero of the reports it assessed as Credible. In an accompany statement from the Public Affairs Office went so far as to claim, “zero unintentional civilian deaths”- an unhelpful assertion which Airwars has challenged.

Airwars documents all allegations of harm, in part because we recognise that a Non Credible assessment by a belligerent does not mean civilian casualties did not occur. Civilians may not have been visible to military observers before or after the event, or key information on the time and location of a casualty claim may be poor due to the extreme challenges faced by those reporting out from inside Islamic State-held territory. Our colleagues at EveryCasualty put it most eloquently: “absence of proof is not proof of absence”.

The Airwars military advocacy team continue to engage constructively witgh the US-led Coalition’s own civilian harm monitoring cell. However we remain critical of an assessment mechanism that has generated the lowest estimates by far of any model of civilian harm – either field-based or remote.

In other words, absence of proof is not proof of absence. Comprehensive, standardised, verifiable #casualtyrecording must be embedded within all military operations. https://t.co/edLVIv0E0g

— Every Casualty (@everycasualty) October 26, 2018

European advocacy

In October, Maike Awater joined Aiwars as our new Netherlands-based conflict researcher and advocacy officer. Maike will be continuing the excellent work of her predecessor Koen Kluessien: by engaging with political parties, civic society and media in both the Netherlands and Belgium to help stimulate engagement on transparency and accountability issues.

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

 

▲ French gunners target remnant ISIS forces in Syria (Armee francaise)

Published

November 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

In September 2018, civilian harm remained at low levels from both international and domestic belligerents in the three conflict areas which Airwars presently monitors.

Eight civilian harm events were attributed the US-led Coalition in Syria – the same number as in the previous month. While events reportedly involving Russia in Syria rose steeply, the number of civilians claimed killed in these increased only marginally on August.

However, 2018 has still seen Airwars track high civilian casualties at key points. In total, from January to September 2018 inclusive, 721 civilian harm events were alleged against Russia in which between 2,037 to 3,112 Syrian civilians were locally claimed killed. Despite carrying out over 39,000 airstrikes over the past three years – aimed at restoring the Assad government to dominance in Syria – Russia has yet to admit to a single civilian casualty.

For the same nine month period, Airwars tracked 101 claimed Coalition harm events – almost all in Syria – in which between 521 and 766 non combatants were allegedly slain.

Civilian harm from Coalition actions remains a challenge. On September 10th, ground operations began as part of phase three of its Operation Roundup, to clear ISIS remnants from the scraps of territory it still holds in north-east Syria. This next stage of the campaign saw a 229% hike in Coalition air and artillery strikes in Syria – the greatest number of strikes in any given month this year since January 2018.

According to AFCENT, munitions dropped from the air – a far more reliable metric of activity than strikes – more than doubled in September on the previous month. Throughout September for Iraq and Syria, 758 bombs and missiles were fired – a 124% rise on August’s 338 munitions (the August figure was initially reported as 241 munitions – and then revised upwards to 338.)

According to reporting from the ground however, this sharp increase in Coalition activity did not translate into a rise in civilian harm. Indeed, minimum likely deaths fell by 86% on August according to public claims, to a near alltime low. Between 4 and 9 civilians were assessed by Airwars as likely killed by the US-led alliance throughout the month. These surprisingly low numbers came amid reports that the last towns held by ISIS had largely been emptied of civilians.

Similarly, fears of a bloodbath in Idlib governorate (as regime forces moved to oust the remaining rebels) did not come to pass. While Airwars tracked 28 casualty events tied to Russian warplanes in Syria during September – a 600% rise on August’s all-time low of just four events – only between 31 and 45 civilians were claimed killed in these incidents – not far off the minimum of 39 deaths tracked during August.

On September 17th, a deal was struck between Turkey (which supports Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad) and Russia to establish a demilitarised buffer zone in Idlib governorate. That zone is intended to separate government forces from rebel fighters based in Idlib. Troops from Russia and Turkey would patrol the zone

But it remained to be seen whether the deal would hold. It would not be implemented until October 10th – and was dependent upon rebel forces pulling all heavy weaponry, including tanks, rocket launch systems and mortar launchers, from the area by this date, according to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Crucially however, the demilitarised zone does not encompass Syria’s skies, where  fears of international and regional powers clashing remain very real. On September 17th, tensions rose between Russia and Israel when a Russian transport plane holding military personnel was downed by Syrian anti aircraft missiles allegedly fired to intercept Israeli aircraft inside Syrian airspace – and Russia laid the blame firmly with Israel. All 14 Russian military personnel were killed and in retaliation Russia pledged to supply the Syrian regime with advanced S300 anti aircraft systems to help defend its skies.

While for now at least Idlib’s civilians have been spared a predicted onslaught from the skies, the situation remains very precarious – and all eyes remain on the governorate.

Moreover, for those trapped on the ground in Idlib the humanitarian situation is dire. The governorate currently hosts around 3.5 million Syrians – the world’s biggest displaced population – with many in desperate need of food, water and health care, according to UN humanitarian agencies.

A map estimating the buffer zone, which would be 15-25 km, coming into force on Oct 25th. (Published by @suriyegundemi_)

Russia in Syria: civilian deaths remain at low levels

After casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft fell to an all-time low during August, the month of September saw a 600% rise in incidents of concern. Throughout the month, Airwars researchers tracked 28 events compared to just four in the previous month.

However, the number of civilians claimed killed in these September events remained at a relatively low level. Based on public reporting, Airwars currently estimates that between 31 and 45 civilians died September compared to a minimum of 39 such deaths in August.

As with August, the majority of September’s incidents (71%) were in Idlib governorate – the last safe haven for over three million civilians, many of whom were previously evacuated from cities such as Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Homs and Dara’a.

The remaining casualty events were in Hama governorate – where Airwars researchers tracked seven separate incidents, compared to just one in August.

“Though there was a spike in the number of Russian casualty events in September, most of these  were in a span of four days (September 4th, 7th, 8th and 9th),  when Russia reportedly carried out raids in various villages in Idlib,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan, who monitors Russian actions and civilian harm in Syria. “However, the majority of these casualty events were contested with the Syrian regime.”

Russian incidents of concern in Syria

After weeks of reporting that civilian harm claims against Russia in Syria had been at record lows, Airwars researchers began to track events in Idlib governorate from September 4th. There were eight separate allegations throughout the governorate on this day alone.

In the first – and worst – of these September 4th incidents, between five and 11 civilians died and up to 20 more were wounded in an alleged Russian or regime air or artillery strike on the Shamali neighbourhood in Jisr al Shoughour, Idlib, according to sources on the ground. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that five children from the same family died in a suspected Russian strike – noting that it was the second time that day that Russian warplanes had targeted Jisr al Shoughour.

Five child victims were named as Mohammed Ahmed Hehano, Taha Ezz El Din Hihano, Jalal Ahmed Hihano, Amar Sakhr Hihano and Mohammed Sakhr Hihano. EMC put the death toll as high as 11, and also said that many victims were from the same family. While most sources attributed the event to Russia, Jisr al shoughour Media Centre blamed the regime, reporting both air and artillery strikes.

‘The last goodbye’: a man cradles the body of a loved one following an alleged Russian or regime strike on Jisr al Shouhour, September 4th 2018 (via Jisr al shoughour Media Centre)

On the same day, up to five more civilians died in the Idlib village of Mhambel. Step News Agency and Smart were among sources reporting that alleged Russian strikes had hit a popular market. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, “Mrs. Lama al Saeed, from Mhambel village in Idlib governorate western suburbs, was killed along with her daughter Walaa Saeed al Taha“.

The aftermath of an alleged Russian airstrike on Mhambel, September 4th (via Ariha Today)

On September 8th, Airwars tracked seven separate casualty events in Idlib. In the worst of these, up to six civilians including a girl and a woman died in air or artillery strikes on the village of Abdin, according to sources on the ground. Again, most sources directly blamed Russia, though the Shaam News Network noted that “Russian warplanes and the Syrian Air Force continued to carry out bombardments in a new campaign of escalation [in Idlib]”, with SNN ,”recording dozens of air strikes accompanied by heavy artillery and rocket fire”. Two victims were named as Muhammad al-Muhammad and Mona Swedan, a female child.

A child is carried to safety by a member of the White Helmets following a suspected Russian airstrike on Abdi, Sept 8th (via SN4HR)

From the end of the first week of September, Airwars also began to monitor casualty events in Hama governorate. The worst of these occurred on September 8th when three civilians were claimed killed in an air or artillery strike on Qal’et al Madiq. There were, however, no allegations against Russia: The Syrian Network for Human Rights blamed “regime artillery”, while Shaam News Network didn’t identify the culprit of the “shelling”.

September 9th saw six further events in Hama, killing up to six civilians in total – and two more events in Idlib, in which several non-combatants were claimed killed. However the Airwars research team – tracking local media, journalists and monitors – did not locally record any claimed civilian casualty incidents attributed to Russian actions in Syria after September 10th.

‘Aref Mohammad al Hamada killed as Syrian regime helicopters dropped a barrel bomb on a main street in Kafr Zita city in Hama governorate northern suburbs, on September 9, 2018.’ (via SN4HR)

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

The known remaining active international Coalition allies – the US the UK, France and the Netherlands (and Iraq when striking in Syria) – released 758 munitions from the air across both Iraq and Syria during August 2018, according to official AFCENT data. This represented a 124% increase from the 338 munitions reportedly fired in August.

Strikes in Iraq during September remained at similar levels to the previous month: 23 actions were reported – just two less than in August. However, with ground operations for phase three of Operation Roundup beginning on September 10th, there was a 229% increase in air and artillery strikes in Syria, with 214 strikes publicly reported throughout the month – compared to 65 during August. This is the highest number of Syrian strikes in any given month since January 2018.

The Coalition’s second most active ally, the UK, played a key role in this increased activity. The Ministry of Defence reported a leap in airstrikes for September – with approximately 20 strikes in Syria – all near Abu Kamal – up from just one during August.  Targets reportedly struck included ISIS-held buildings, command posts and terrorist positions. There were also two British strikes in Iraq, on ISIS tunnels above the Tigris some fifteen miles north-west of Mosul and on the banks of the Tigris, a few miles north of Bayji.

French airstrikes remained at very low levels. There were just two airstrikes reported in Syria (down from three in August), with both near Abu Kamal. However, activity by France’s artillery detachment, Task Force Wagram, in the Euphrates Valley rose steeply. There were 33 shooting missions declared during September – more than double August’s total.

There was also a ramp up in weapon deployment by the Netherlands. Throughout September, weapons were used across nine missions – compared to three in August. Eight of these deployments occurred near Abu Kamal, targeting ISIS fighters, weapon caches and a logistical storage unit. Additionally, in the week ending September 5th, the Dutch Ministry of Defence publicly reported that its jets had attacked an ISIS vehicle near the Middle Euphrates Valley in al Anbar, Iraq.

A GBU-54 bomb is loaded onto an F-16 Fighting Falcon jet, September 26th , 2018. (via U.S. Air National Guard)

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria: publicly reported civilian deaths fall

In September, Airwars tracked eight civilian casualty events in Syria – the same number as in the previous month. Once again, all of these incidents were in Deir Ezzor governorate.

Just three of these events are presently assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as fair when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day. Airwars’ current estimate is that between four and nine civilians died in these three events, compared to a minimum of 28 non combatants killed during August.

“During September 2018 we monitored one of the lowest levels of civilian casualty claims we have seen during the four year Coalition campaign against ISIS in Syria,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team.

“This was surprising mainly as it coincided with Coalition air and artillery strikes against ISIL targets more than tripling compared to the previous month. In the past we have found a close match between the level of strikes and the levels of civilian casualties reported.

“One of the reasons for these low levels of civilian casualties could be that, as several sources note, the last few towns still under the grip of ISIS have been largely emptied of civilians who are now taking refuge in camps in the countryside, which is now mostly under the control of the US-backed SDF.”

The first September incident of concern assessed as likely caused by the US-led Coalition occurred on September 5th, when local media reported that two boys were killed in a an airstrike on the Badiya neighbourhood of Theyban city.

Euphrates Post and Deir Ezzor 24 named the victims as 16-year-old as Abdullah al Klaib and 17-year-old as Jassem Al Mohammad al-Khudair (both from Al Hawaij). The boys were reportedly on a motorcycle “on their way to work at the crude oil burners” when they were killed.

Abdullah Al Klaib, 16, and Jassim al-Mohammad al-Khudair, 17, allegedly killed in a Coalition airstrike (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

But worse was to come the next week when – in what local media described as “a massacre” – up to six civilians reportedly died along with six members of ISIS in alleged Coalition air and artillery strikes on the town of Al Baghouz, Deir Ezzor on September 13th.  A hospital was also reported damaged or destroyed in the event. Jisr TV pointed specifically at “intensive artillery fire” from France and the US, while Smart reported that Al Baghouz was hit by “dozens orf raids and artillery shells and missiles, resulting in large-scale destruction”.

There were no further events assessed as ‘fair’ by Airwars until September 30th when one civilian reportedly died after being hit by “SDF artillery” in al Soussa. It is Airwars’ understanding that only the Coalition has access to artillery in Syria. The victim was named by  Boukamlna as Nuri Rifai Al Ali Al Dagher, who was said to have died in Damascus “after being hit by a shell while he was working in his land in the village”. The source, Boukamal Mubashar, added that there was “artillery shelling by the SDF of ISIS positions in al Soussa” on the same day.

Libya

As in August, Libya continued to witness heavy militia clashes in Tripoli. Once again, armed groups affiliated with the Government of National Accord and its rivals the 7th Brigade were at the centre of events.

The militias had agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire on September 4th which only lasted for a week until gunfights and artillery shelling resumed on September 11th, leading to several events with reported civilian casualties.

Three civilians were allegedly killed on September 20th when they were struck by indiscriminate shelling at a traffic light in Tajoura outside Tripoli. On the same day, a marble factory or metal workshop in the south of the capital was hit by a shell, which reportedly resulted in one dead and two or three injured civilians.

The highest loss of civilian life happened two days before the ceasefire, on September 2nd when a refugee camp in the Al Falah area was hit. Between two and four civilians were reported killed and up to 15 more injured because of artillery shelling.

Towards the end of the month, the situation in Tripoli calmed down again with only occasional reports of clashes. Nevertheless, grievances between the militias remain unresolved, making the capital a highly unstable place.

Other parts of Libya also witnessed airstrikes throughout September. Interestingly, Chad allegedly conducted a helicopter strike in the extreme south at the border between the two countries on September 14th. While targeting rebels in an illegal gold mine, two civilians were reported killed. Sources however were conflicted as to which side of the border the event had taken place.

On September 26th, an airstrike was conducted in Ubari, with local sources accusing the US or France. AFRICOM denied any involvement in a response to Airwars.

The LNA also remained militarily active in September, shelling remnants of jihadi forces in Derna.

Military advocacy

In September, the Coalition assessed 60 additional allegations of civilian harm, 45 of which were Airwars referrals. That report detailed eight incidents newly assessed by the Coalition to be Credible, which it said had resulted in at least 53 more civilian deaths.

Airwars was the source of reporting for five of those Credible incidents. This included a mass casualty event on May 16, 2017 in the Zanjili neighborhood (الزنجيلي) of West Mosul. Local sources monitored by Airwars reported that 20 civilian had been killed, including seven members of the Ramzi family who had taken shelter inside their rented apartment at the time of the strike and which had possibly targeted a nearby car bomb. The Coalition recognised all 20 deaths and the presence of a “VBIED facility” (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device), though gave no broader explanation for the heavy civilian death toll.

The number of civilians deaths conceded by the Coalition to September 27th 2018 stood at 1,114. That official tally is six times less than Airwars’ most conservative estimate of 6,733 civilian deaths to the end of that month.

There also remains a notable absence of any further admissions by the Coalition of civilian harm during the Battle of Raqqa, which was in its final, most lethal, stages a year ago.

To the best of our knowledge, the Coalition has conceded just over 100 civilian fatalities for Raqqa – despite the intensive aerial campaign it waged during the four month fight to retake the ancient city from ISIS. Between June and October 2017 the Coalition reported firing at least 21,000 munitions into the city. Airwars itself presently estimates than between 1,500 and 2,000 civilians likely perished due to Coalition actions Meanwhile, 70% of Raqqa’s entirety has been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, according to the United Nations.

 

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

▲ Smoke rises above Mhambel, Idib on Sept 4th, following an alleged Russian airstrike (via Ariha Today)

Published

October 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

During August, civilian harm from international military actions across Iraq and Syria remained at a low level. Airwars tracked just four allegations against Russia in Syria (a record low), and eight against the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria.

It should be noted, however, that Airwars has tracked high numbers of deaths earlier in the year. In total, from January to August 2018 inclusive, 693 civilian harm events were alleged against Russia in which between 2,006 to 3,067 Syrian civilians were claimed killed. For the same period, Airwars tracked 90 claimed Coalition harm events – almost all in Syria – in which between 484 and 742 non combatants were alleged slain. Moreover, as both the US-led Coalition’s air war against ISIS and the broader Syrian civil war enter their end stages, the fear is that civilian casualties may once more spike in final, bloody battles.

With ISIS now reduced to a tiny area of territory north of Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor governorate, Syria, US-led Coalition airstrikes remained at the same low levels seen in July. Minimum civilian deaths likely caused by Coalition actions in Syria during August fell by 63% on the previous month, with just 28 civilians likely killed across six casualty events near the key towns of Al Sousse and Al Baghouz, which ISIS clung on to.

However, as Operation Roundup entered its third phase on September 11th, Airwars is concerned that civilian harm may again spiral, particularly around Hajin, as Coalition forces focus on eradicating ISIS from its last outposts in Syria.

August also saw a massive reduction of 83% in Russian incidents of concern in Syria, with just four reported casualty events monitored throughout the month – the lowest tracked number of claims since Moscow began its bloody intervention in Syria in September 2015. This sharp fall in Russian actions meant that US-led Coalition events outweighed those attributed to Moscow for the first time since October 2017.

However, this lull in Russian strikes was accompanied by widespread fear of carnage to come in Idlib, the rebels’ last stronghold in Syria. As Russia, Turkey and the Assad government negotiated on Idlib’s immediate future, the governorate stood ‘on a knife edge’ – with the imminent threat of possibly the fiercest assault yet in the civil war, and a battle which could yet displace and put at risk 700,000 people.

Russia in Syria: casualty events at record low

Casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft in Syria during August fell to the lowest in any given month since the start of Moscow’s air campaign in September 2015. Overall, there were just four events tracked throughout the month, which represented an 83% decrease on the 24 incidents tracked during July.

Across these four events, between 39 and 43 civilians were claimed killed with a further 72 wounded, compared to between 135 and 150 reported killed in July. Of August’s four events, two were in Idlib, while the remaining pair were in Aleppo and Hama governorates.

“The sharp fall in alleged Russian events during August can be linked, in part, to the latest round of the Astana peace talks, which ended on July 31st,” explains Abdulwahab Tahhan, who helps monitor Russian actions in Syria for Airwars. “Soon after the talks, a de-escalation zone was agreed with Turkey and Russia as guarantors. Russia’s pause in strikes was the longest in almost three years of war in Syria in support of the Assad government.

“However, with hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Idlib  the very real fear is that this slowdown merely foreshadows the battle to come. Idlib really is the great unknown. We have certainly seen in the past that such a pause in Russian strikes can prefigure a major onslaught.”

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Almost all of the claimed deaths in August came as part of one disastrous incident on August 10th, when between 37 and 41 civilians were claimed killed and up to 70 more wounded in multiple airstrikes on the town of Urma al Kubra, in Aleppo governorate. The majority of sources attributed the event to Russian warplanes, though one source, Hamza.alshaheed, blamed “the butcher Bashar Assad”.

Footage by Step News showing the moment an alleged Russian warplane struck Urma al Kubra.

Shabab Al Sousse put the death toll at more than 20 civilians, while LCCSY said that as many as 41 had perished. Smart added that 14 of the victims were children and six were women, who perished when as many as 25 houses were destroyed.

Raqqa RWB, citing an Orient News correspondent, referred to “the destruction of an entire neighbourhood”, though the head of the civil defense center in the town, Hussein Badawi, told SCD Aleppo that the alleged Russian raids had in fact levelled three neighbourhoods.

Destruction in a neighbourhood of Urma al Kubra

Multiple sources published images showing widespread destruction, children being removed from the rubble by The White Helmets, and graphic photographs of dead children. Seven members of the Aboud family were among those named as killed, along with several daughters of  Radwan Khalil and Ibrahim al-Naif.

During the final full week of the month, Airwars monitors did not track a single casualty event in Syria that was blamed on Russia. However, this ended on September 4th when reports reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes — all in Idlib – scene for the final and possibly most ferocious battle of the war.

Children of Ahmed Mustafa Aboud, killed in an alleged Russian airstrike on Urma Al Kubra, Aug 10th (via Latamina.alhadth)

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

For the first time since Airwars began tracking US and Coalition military actions in 2014, we are unable to include an update of official AFCENT data, since the US military command is now more than six weeks behind in its reporting for Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. *

The Coalition itself reported just 25 air and artillery strikes in Iraq during August – three more than the previous month. Strikes in Syria also remained steady, with 65 air and artillery actions, mainly in Deir Ezzor, and just two less than in July.

Strikes by the UK and France remained at low levels. Britain reported only four airstrikes in August. Three of these strikes were in Iraq near Tikrit and Bayji, where targets reported hit included ISIS vehicles and buildings. There was also one strike in Syria on an ‘ISIS-held building’ in the Euphrates Valley.

France carried out three airstrikes in August, the same number as in the previous month. Two of these strikes were against ISIS fighters in Iraq and the third – carried out in conjunction with other Coalition jets – targeted an ISIS site for the assembly of VBIEDS in the Euphrates Valley. Paris reported that its Rafales had dropped two precision  AASM bombs (armament air-modular floor bombs of 250k) on the building, destroying it. Meanwhile, Task Force Wagram, France’s artillery detachment in the Euphrates Valley, declared 14 shooting missions – the same number as in July.

The Netherlands publicly declared that weapons were deployed during three missions, two near Hajin and Abu Kamal in Syria, and a third near the Middle Euphrates Valley in al Anbar province, Iraq.

U.S. Marines clear out an 81mm mortar tube during training in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at Hajin, Syria, August 4, 2018 (via US Air Force)

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria: likely deaths fall by 63%

Throughout August, Airwars tracked eight alleged Coalition civilian casualty events, just two less than in July. All of these were in Deir Ezzor governorate, Syria.

Of the eight Syrian events in August, six were assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed as fair when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day. Airwars’ current estimate is that  28 or 29 civilians likely died in these six events, compared to a minimum of 75 civilians who likely died during July.

“August was a relatively quiet month in Syria but nonetheless we still saw a number of civilians killed as a result of the Coalition campaign against ISIS,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “Throughout the month there were several reports of military hardware being moved to reinforce SDF positions and to establish new military bases around the province of Deir Ezzor in preparation for phase three of Operation Roundup which started on September 11th. and which aims to finish off the last pockets of  ISIS remnants in the province. While casualties remain low at the present, our fear is that as the operation enters this next phase, casualties will spike around Hajin and the Deir Ezzor countryside held by ISIS east of the Euphrates River.”

Civilians in  Al Sousse – one of the three most important towns still controlled by ISIS in Deir Ezzor – remained under significant risk during August, with four incidents of concern tracked in the town throughout the month.  On August 7th, three non-combatants died in an alleged Coalition strike which, according to Zaman al Wasl, targeted “the buildings of residential associations in the town”. An ISIS leader, Abu Khadija al Jazairi, also reportedly died in the raid. Some comments on a Facebook thread by Al Sousse Youth claimed that the victims were IDPs rather than people from the town itself.

The following day (August 8th), Al Sousse came under fire again and a further three civilians were reported killed in an alleged Coalition strike which hit a medical clinic and other sites, according to The Step News Agency, the Shaam News Network and other sources. Reports said that the Coalition was targeting ISIS militants in the area. The civilian casualties more likely happened in Al Sousse but some sources mentioned that neighbourhoods in Al Shafa village near the city of Abu Kamal were also struck.

https://twitter.com/Bukamal_Live/status/1027170939887407104?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1027170939887407104&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fairwars.org%2Fnews%2Fcoalition-civcas-jan-2018%2F

‘Martyrs and wounded after the international coalition aircraft targeted the medical clinic in the village of Sousse and residential neighborhoods in the village of Shaafa.’

Airwars did not track another civilian casualty event for six days. But then on August 14th, four civilians in Al Baghouz reportedly died in an alleged Coalition airstrike, according to sources on the ground. The Smart News Agency reported that other civilians including women and children were wounded, in addition to the killing of three members of ISIS. Some activists stated that the attack was conducted by Iraqi warplanes operating as part of the US-led Coalition.

But by far the worst event of the month occurred on August 26th, when 19 women, reportedly the wives of ISIS fighters on external missions, died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on an ISIS-held house in al Sha’afa, Deir Ezzor governorate. According to the source Al Shaafa, Coalition jets attacked the edge of Al Sha’afa, “and it was confirmed that one of the targets was the house of Mohammed al Wahaysh al-Furaji, a building being used to host the women of IS”. The Euphrates Post also blamed the Coalition, as did the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, though the latter only reported that the strike led to the injury of a young man.

Only the Smart News Agency gave casualty figures, putting the number of women killed at 18. Elnashra reported that “militants’ sites had announced the killing of two civilians, including a child, and the injury of four children and a woman” in a Coalition strike.

Libya

The month of August in Libya was marked by an escalation of violence in Tripoli. Various militias vied for control in the capital, with the 7th Brigade from Tarhuna at the centre of the violence. It said it wanted to “cleanse the capital from the corruption” of the GNA-affiliated militias running the city.

During the clashes, both sides reportedly used artillery which led to several alleged civilian casualty events. The worst occurred in Wadi al Rabie in Tajoura on the outskirts of the capital where according to Human Rights Watch, a mother and her two children were killed due to shelling.

In another event on August 30th, two children were reported killed in the Al Mashtal area of Tripoli, either inside or outside their house. Civilian infrastructure was repeatedly targeted in events and led to both displacement and significant destruction.

As a result of these attacks, the 7th Brigade was reportedly hit by airstrikes on August 29th and lost three of its fighters. Local sources claimed that the strikes were either conducted by the GNA or by Italy.

On September 4th a ceasefire agreement mediated by UNSMIL was signed in Zawiya city between the rival militias to end all hostilities.

Outside Tripoli the situation was relatively quiet. The LNA and unknown actors reportedly conducted various airstrikes to attack the remnants of the Derna Shura Council/ Derna Protection Force which controlled the city until the takeover by the LNA. No civilian harm was reported in those events.

The US also continued its operations in Libya, later confirming it had targeted an ISIS member near Bani Walid with a precision strike.

#طرابلس ..صور من داخل المنزل بالقرب من سجن الجديدة لعائله بن عاشور الذي سقطت عليه قذيفة ونتج عنه وفاة طفلين " pic.twitter.com/dtqbKsrf4c

— غصة الخوارج (@LiBya_73) August 30, 2018

‘Aftermath of indiscriminate artillery shelling on the Al Mashtal neighbourd in Tripoli’

Advocacy

Military advocacy

In the US-led Coalition’s August Civilian Casualty Report it confirmed responsibility for 15 additional civilian deaths, including the fatal injuring of an elderly civilian man which public reporting named as Ismail al Jarjab. Ismail died on July 4th 2017 of injuries sustained ten days earlier from an airstrike on the al Dar’iya neighbourhood of Raqqa. Local reports of his death were brought to the attention of the Coalition by Airwars. The number of civilians deaths conceded by the Coalition to August 31st 2018 stood at 1,061.

As we signalled in last month’s update, information exchanges with the US-led Coalition’s own Civilian Casualty Cell continue to improve. In a welcome move, the Coalition supplied Airwars with coordinates (accurate to 100 m) for all Credible and Non Credible assessments published in their latest report. Since mid 2016, Airwars has consistently asked for the geolocations for all incidents but up until last month had only regularly received coordinates for the minority of incidents assessed as Credible.

Consequently, for the first time Airwars has been able to crosscheck all new assessments with its own database of allegations. Accurate geolocations are critical in identifying incidents in which Airwars is not recorded by the Coalition as the source of reporting. This includes internal or “self-reports”, which currently account for only 6% of all alleged events, but over half of Credible assessments.

In London, Airwars also attended a roundtable on the mitigation of civilian harm in Westminster chaired by Dr Larry Lewis, a former adviser to the State Department on civilian harm, which was organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones. Dr Lewis reiterated the need for “fairer treatment” of external reports from civic society groups such as Airwars, who account for the bulk of reporting.

The strike on Issa’s home was first reported at the time by local monitors, @Raqqa_SL and @saadalinizy.

European advocacy

Our outgoing advocacy officer Koen Kluessien was featured in a major three part series published by NRC on the Dutch air campaign against so-called Islamic State. The second article in the series specifically focused on the discrepancy between the number of civilian harm incidents the Coalition has conceded, and Airwars estimates.

Commenting on claims of “careful warfare” by the Dutch Defense Ministry, Koen noted that there is no way of knowing if such actions are in fact carefully executed: “The Defense Ministry remains non-transparent in its accountability. […] We would be in favor of the Coalition doing much more active research on the ground into possible civilian casualties,” he noted.

* Update on AFCENT data

On Monday October 22nd, the AFCENT data for the month of August 2018 had been published by US military command. For the month of August, 241 munitions were reportedly released from air across Iraq and Syria. This represents a 17% fall on the 292 munitions reportedly released from air during July.

Given that strike numbers reported by the Coalition (which include air and artillery strikes) across Iraq and Syria remained steady for August and the AFCENT figure indicates a 17% drop on munitions released from the air, this could suggest a rise a rise in the proportion of artillery strikes conducted in August.

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

▲ A U.S. F-16 receives in-flight fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over Iraq, Aug. 22, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keith James)