Reports

Reports

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.

if("undefined"==typeof window.datawrapper)window.datawrapper={};window.datawrapper["6e4yc"]={},window.datawrapper["6e4yc"].iframe=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-6e4yc"),window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if("undefined"!=typeof a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var b in a.data["datawrapper-height"])if("6e4yc"==b)window.datawrapper["6e4yc"].iframe.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][b]+"px"});

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.

if("undefined"==typeof window.datawrapper)window.datawrapper={};window.datawrapper["C0pF3"]={},window.datawrapper["C0pF3"].iframe=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-C0pF3"),window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if("undefined"!=typeof a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var b in a.data["datawrapper-height"])if("C0pF3"==b)window.datawrapper["C0pF3"].iframe.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][b]+"px"});

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.

if("undefined"==typeof window.datawrapper)window.datawrapper={};window.datawrapper["7eP0T"]={},window.datawrapper["7eP0T"].iframe=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-7eP0T"),window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if("undefined"!=typeof a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var b in a.data["datawrapper-height"])if("7eP0T"==b)window.datawrapper["7eP0T"].iframe.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][b]+"px"});

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.

if("undefined"==typeof window.datawrapper)window.datawrapper={};window.datawrapper["G5VMs"]={},window.datawrapper["G5VMs"].embedDeltas={"100":1183,"200":800,"300":678,"400":644,"500":600,"700":583,"800":556,"900":556,"1000":539},window.datawrapper["G5VMs"].iframe=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-G5VMs"),window.datawrapper["G5VMs"].iframe.style.height=window.datawrapper["G5VMs"].embedDeltas[Math.min(1e3,Math.max(100*Math.floor(window.datawrapper["G5VMs"].iframe.offsetWidth/100),100))]+"px",window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if("undefined"!=typeof a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var b in a.data["datawrapper-height"])if("G5VMs"==b)window.datawrapper["G5VMs"].iframe.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][b]+"px"});

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.

if("undefined"==typeof window.datawrapper)window.datawrapper={};window.datawrapper["6Icff"]={},window.datawrapper["6Icff"].embedDeltas={"100":1160,"200":824,"300":677,"400":660,"500":617,"700":600,"800":600,"900":556,"1000":556},window.datawrapper["6Icff"].iframe=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-6Icff"),window.datawrapper["6Icff"].iframe.style.height=window.datawrapper["6Icff"].embedDeltas[Math.min(1e3,Math.max(100*Math.floor(window.datawrapper["6Icff"].iframe.offsetWidth/100),100))]+"px",window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if("undefined"!=typeof a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var b in a.data["datawrapper-height"])if("6Icff"==b)window.datawrapper["6Icff"].iframe.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][b]+"px"});

“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.”

if("undefined"==typeof window.datawrapper)window.datawrapper={};window.datawrapper["q1HZB"]={},window.datawrapper["q1HZB"].embedDeltas={"100":1296,"200":858,"300":729,"400":678,"500":644,"700":583,"800":583,"900":566,"1000":566},window.datawrapper["q1HZB"].iframe=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-q1HZB"),window.datawrapper["q1HZB"].iframe.style.height=window.datawrapper["q1HZB"].embedDeltas[Math.min(1e3,Math.max(100*Math.floor(window.datawrapper["q1HZB"].iframe.offsetWidth/100),100))]+"px",window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if("undefined"!=typeof a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var b in a.data["datawrapper-height"])if("q1HZB"==b)window.datawrapper["q1HZB"].iframe.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][b]+"px"});

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)

Published

August 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

While civilian harm for international military actions in Iraq and Syria is presently at relatively low levels, casualties have nevertheless continued this year – often at alarming rates. From January to July 2018 inclusive, 689 civilian harm events were alleged against Russia in which between 2,000 to 3,000 Syrian civilians were claimed killed. For the same period, Airwars tracked 82 claimed Coalition harm events – almost all in Syria – in which between 450 and 700 non combatants were alleged slain. 

During July 2018 only, civilian casualty events reportedly carried out by Russia in Syria fell by 64% on the previous month – though as the Assad government’s Moscow-backed assault on south west Syria continued, civilian deaths still remained at concerning levels, with at least 135 people claimed killed during the month.

On July 8th, Syrian government forces prepared for a major operation to retake Dara’a city from rebels, and despite a Russian-brokered ceasefire, regime jets continued to carry out strikes on Dara’a. On July 15th, Assad’s troops widened the offensive and pushed into nearby Quneitra governorate, bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Thousands of ordinary Syrians remained in peril – trapped between Assad missiles and minefields in the Golan Heights. By July 19th, the UN estimated that up to 203,500 people remained displaced in south west Syria – including 140,000 IDPs in Quneitra.

By July 22nd, rebels had surrendered the last slithers of territory they held in Quneitra. As Syrian regime forces continued to close in, the White Helmets evacuated the area, fleeing to safety in Jordan. The group said it had been repeatedly attacked by regime forces as surrender deals negotiated with local rebels did not apply to humanitarian workers. The UK along with Canada and Germany agreed to offer refuge to those members of the White Helmets who had been evacuated from Syria via Israel.

By July 31st, regime forces had fully retaken control of Dara’a governorate, having seized the last towns and villages controlled by the ISIS-affiliate Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Waleed. On the same day, the Syrian army also recaptured the remaining ISIS-held pocket in the Yarmouk Basin.

For the US led Coalition, munitions released from the air fell by 18% on June to just 292 bombs and missiles across Iraq and Syria – the lowest number released in any one month since August 2014 when the air war began. Strikes in Syria also fell by 67% on June.

Despite this however, deaths assessed as likely caused by the Coalition rose by 39% in July – with at least 75 civilians reported killed in Syria in July. This spike in casualties came as the SDF embarked on a supported ground offensive to seize the town of Soussa, the last major ISIS enclave on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River.

Russia in Syria: casualty events fall by 64%

Following the dramatic rise in reported Russian casualty events during June, the month of July saw a 64% fall in incidents of concern. In total, Airwars monitored 24 Russian casualty events in Syria, compared to 67 in the previous month.

But despite this fall in incidents, civilians deaths remained at a troubling level as fighting continued to rage in Dara’a governorate; all but four of the 24 events tracked during July were in Dara’a

Between 135 and 150 civilians were alleged killed by Russian actions in total during July – compared with between 188 and 277 claimed fatalities during June. These figures remain unvetted by Airwars, and are based on initial monitoring. They should not be compared directly with fully evaluated estimates tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes.

“Though the number of Russian civilian harm events fell in July, the death toll remained worryingly high,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan, who monitors Russian strikes for Airwars. “In some of the worst incidents, we saw reports of many members of the same family killed, and the photographs coming out of such events were too graphic for Airwars to publish on social media. “

Russian and regime incidents of concern in Syria

Local reporting suggested that Moscow paused its own bombing campaign between July 9th-15th, with no local claims of Russian civilian harm events for that week. However the Assad government continued its own attacks, with multiple casualty reports from southern Syria. The worst events in July occurred within the final two weeks of the month, when allegations against the regime outweighed those against Russia.

On July 17th, up to 14 civilians died in Ein al Teenah, in the Al Quneitra suburbs. According to For Southern Syria on Facebook, ten people were killed – “mostly women and children” –  in a strike on a school sheltering displaced people. The source published graphic images of child victims, one of whom was named as Hamza Ali al Khateeb.  Free Deir Ezzor said that 11 people died including children from the same family – and blamed regime warplanes. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that the casualties were a result of the regime dropping barrel bombs, though Marsad al Hassaka  pointed to both “Russian and Syrian helicopters”. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which didn’t apportion blame, reported that the death toll had risen to 14 including four women and five children.

Bodies of civilians killed in a strike on Ein al Tena, Juy 17th (via SN4HR)

On the same day, July 17th, in Nawa, Daraa, up to 20 more civilians perished in strikes by warplanes and helicopters. Again, most sources pointed towards the regime, though the Syrian Network for Human Rights accused both Russian and Assad forces. According to the Shaam News network, “activists confirmed that Assad forces stationed in Tal al-Mahs and at the artillery battalion in the town of Al-Shulaileh targeted the town of Nawa with more than 300 shells in just ten minutes”. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights didn’t name the culprit but said that of 15 people killed “by warplanes and helicopters”; seven of these were women.

Just three days later, on July 20th, there were several more major events in Dara’aa. In the first of these, up to 15 civilians died in strikes on Al Sahajara according to a single source, the Step News Agency . Step blamed Russian and Syrian warplanes and helicopters working in parallel with artillery shelling, which reportedly targeted the areas of the Yarmouk Basin controlled by ISIS.

In the second and worst event that day, up to 26 people died including 11 children in alleged Russian and regime strikes on Hit and Tasil, according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which referred to “a crazy bombardment by Russian warplanes and helicopters”. Hamza.alshaheed added that an entire family was trapped under the rubble in Tasil, and blamed Russian bombing.

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

The known remaining active international Coalition allies – the US the UK, France and the Netherlands (and Iraq in Syria) released 292 munitions  from the air across both Iraq and Syria during July 2018, according to official AFCENT data. This represented an 18% fall from the 356 munitions reported for June – and the lowest number of munitions released by air in any one month since anti-ISIS actions began in August 2014.

Coalition air and artillery strikes in Iraq remained at a low level: just 22 strikes were declared, two more than in June. And reported strikes in Syria fell significantly in July. Throughout the month, the Coalition publicly reported 67 air and artillery actions as Operation Roundup continued – a 67% fall on June’s 203 strikes.

Strikes by the US’s two most active allies, the UK and France, also fell. Britain reported just two strikes in Syria in July, down from 10 in the previous month. It also publicly declared one strike in northern Iraq, on July 7th, against an ISIS hideout on the banks of the Tigris to the north-east of Mosul.

For the first time in seven weeks, France reported carrying out anti-ISIS airstrikes under the auspices of the Coalition in Syria. The French military said it targeted an ISIS building in the Abu Kamal area with three airstrikes on the night of July 7th-8th. Strikes by France’s artillery detachment, Task Force Wagram, in the Euphrates Valley, fell significantly: 14 shooting missions were declared – 81% down on June.

The Netherlands publicly declared that weapons were deployed in only one mission, in the week of July 4th-11th, when its jets attacked an ISIS logistical storage unit near Mosul. Other missions were flown above Deir Ezzor and Hassakah, Syria, in support of ground troops.

‘Iraqi and US guns bring steel rain to ISIS’: U.S. Army Soldiers with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment fire artillery alongside Iraqi Security Force artillery at known ISIS locations near the Iraqi-Syrian border, June 5th 2018 (via U.S. Army)

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria: likely deaths rise by 39%

Throughout July, Airwars researchers tracked 10 reported Coalition civilian casualty events, all of which were in Syria. This was a 44% fall on June’s 18 events. However, the minimum number of civilians likely killed in these July events actually rose by 39% on the previous month as the SDF, backed by Coalition air and artillery strikes, embarked on a military operation to oust ISIS from its last enclave on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River.

Of the ten Syrian events in July, 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. All but two of these six events occurred in Deir Ezzor governorate. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 75 and 119 civilians likely died in these six events, compared to a minimum of 54 civilians who likely died during June.

“Despite repeated statements by the Coalition that great care is taken before any strike in Syria, we repeatedly see a spike in civilian casualties when there is a push to retake an ISIS-controlled area,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “One of the last pockets held by the terrorist group is in eastern Deir Ezzor around the town of Al Soussa, where we saw the worst of the civilian casualty allegations in July.

“The rise in the death toll during the month was mainly due to a few major casualty events, in which tens of civilians were credibly reported killed. As we saw previously in Raqqa, civilians who can leave the area do so. But many are not able to escape, either because they have nowhere to go or because they have left it too late to flee – meaning that they are now under siege from both the SDF supported by Coalition strikes – and ISIS. Real practical steps and genuine care need to be taken to avoid the killing of the most vulnerable people on the ground”.

The worst reported event of the month occurred on July 12th when up to 58 civilians died and 25 more were wounded in alleged Coalition (or possibly unilateral Iraqi) strikes on an “ice factory” at the junction of Al Sousse and Al Baghouz in the Deir Ezzor countryside, according to sources on the ground. The Step News Agency reported that Coalition jets had launched “five successive strikes” hitting an ice processing plant where civilians had gathered to get ice. “Massive destruction to residential buildings and shops” was also reported. Sound and Picture and Hajeen Magazine reported two of the highest tallies, 55 and 58, stating that most of the victims were displaced Iraqis. Sources named two members of the Shahadat family and the son of Mahdi Al-Salamah and the son of Mahjoub Salama among the fatalities.

A brief report by Reuters said that the Coalition or “partner forces” may have hit the area. In a statement emailed in response to a question asked by Reuters, Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan sated that “the Coalition or our partners forces may have conducted strikes in the vicinity of Al Soussa and Baghour Fukhani yesterday [July 12th]”. Ryan added that a report of civilian harm had been sent to the “Civilian Casualty Cell for further assessment”.

Just four days later on July 16th, Al Soussa would come under fire again, with up to 13 more civilians killed in alleged Coalition airstrikes on homes in the town, local media reported. The source Boukamalna said that the house of Halj Ali Al Mohsen Al Faress was targeted – a claim reiterated by other sources which said that he and his wife, Mrs Nabieh and his daughter Mona died along with five Iraqis. Other reports added that the building next door, the home of Hamid al-Ali, was also hit, killing the inhabitants. While most sources put the death toll at eight, Step News Agency said that as many as 13 people were killed, reporting that three houses were hit at 7am.

Ali Muhsen al Fares, allegedly killed in Coalition airstrikes on al Soussa (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

And on July 21st as many as 30 more civilians were killed in alleged Coalition airstrikes on several locations between Al Soussa and Al Dahra in Deir Ezzor. Alarmingly, most sources reported that the casualties occurred as entire families were attempting to flee Al Soussa and move towards the rural area of Al Dahra in Al Badia, while the Coalition reportedly struck ISIS-held locations in Al Soussa. According to Baladi, “dozens” were killed and injured including women and children. One victim was identified by Al Soussa Youth as Hamid Al Zaidan – though the source added that other bodies “couldn’t be reached”. Two days after the event, Menor Monitor said that the SDF had found eight bodies under the rubble. All reports attributed the event to the Coalition.

Libya

Libya witnessed a major decrease in airstrike activity in July 2018. While May and June still showed a lot of activity in the skies due to the LNA/UAE Derna offensive, only one strike was publicly recorded in July. The UNSMIL July casualties report also showed the civilian death toll to be the lowest since the beginning of the year.

On July 25th an airstrike hit a vehicle in the Al Sharib district of Ubari, reportedly killing Al Qaeda commander Ramzi Mansour. Initially the US was blamed, due to previous similar and confirmed actions against Al Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) in Ubari on March 24th. However, AFRICOM explicitly denied any involvement in a statement to Airwars. Menastream claimed that the American denial could mean that the French were behind the strike, as they had been active in the south of Libya as well. Local Libyan forces were ruled out, as they lack the capability to strike with precision at night.

Libya: @USAfricaCommand tells Airwars it was not responsible for last night's reported airstrike on suspected AQIM terrorists: "U.S. Africa Command did not execute any strikes in Libya recently. The last strike the command executed in Libya was on 13 June." @MENASTREAM @trbrtc pic.twitter.com/5jzmoYvwP9

— Airwars (@airwars) July 26, 2018

Despite the absence of other airstrikes, the security situation in Libya remained unstable in July with increased ISIS activity – in particular kidnappings. This included the seizing of engineers from the El Sharara oilfield, including three Libya nationals and one international, a Romanian.

Additionally, an armed group attacked the Great Man-Made River water project in Tazerbu, north of Kufra, leaving an engineer and a guard dead. Other clashes occurred in Tripoli between rival militias which resulted in civilian casualties.

Advocacy

Military advocacy

After previously challenging the credibility of recent NGO field investigations into the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, the Coalition appeared to change tack, recently admitting to multiple civilian deaths, many of them first reported by Amnesty International, Airwars and the New York Times. The Coalition’s admissions were made in their July Civilian Casualty Report, which detailed 16 newly confirmed incidents in total, resulting in 105 civilian deaths. This was accompanied by a change in language, declaring a willingness to work with independent sources and to reopen investigations in the face of new evidence.

While Airwars welcomed a reset of relations between the Coalition and NGOs and journalists on the ground, it will continue to challenge the Coalition and its partners over the acute absence of any field investigations of their own. Airwars reporting currently accounts for over two thirds of all Coalition investigations into alleged civilian harm. Yet to date, only 15% of the 6,500 to 9,000 deaths estimated by Airwars to have been caused by the Coalition have been publicly conceded.

The Coalition’s latest report also reaffirmed the importance of Airwars’ work geolocating locally reported allegations of civilian harm. July’s official report included the Credible assessment of an incident in Anah ( عنه ), Iraq on September 7th 2017, which injured seven civilians, including children. Despite few sources and little information Airwars was able to provide the Coalition with a precise geolocation for the event.

The recent Credible assessment demonstrated the value of the team’s geolocation work. It is a process that combines digital forensics, open source investigation and when possible, consultation with local sources. Lack of information on the location and time of an incident remains the reason given by the Coalition in a third of all assessments it deems Non Credible.

European advocacy

Airwars and PAX, together with Utrecht University’s Centre for Conflict Studies, hosted a geolocation workshop with Bellingcat’s world-renowned open source expert Christiaan Triebert  in July. During the workshop, students and human rights practitioners were introduced to the innovative field of geolocating – providing vital tools for future research. The event was a great opportunity to share knowledge, inspire researchers in the field, and help build a strong basis for future cooperation between all organizations.

Additionally, the Democracy and Media Foundation very generously decided to fund our Utrecht-based advocacy officer for a third year. Without their support we would not be able to continue our Europe-based advocacy engagement on conflict civilian harm issues.

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

▲ U.S. Marines fire a mortar during training in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria, July 23, 2018. The firing-support system allows the maneuver commander more flexibility for fire support against an array of targets. Combined Joint Task Force-OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

Published

July 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Six monthly update

Russia in Syria

In the first half of 2018, Airwars monitored up to 2,882 claimed fatalities from 662 alleged Russian casualty events in Syria. This was 34% more incidents than tracked during the first six months of 2017 – making clear the deadly costs of the recent Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a assaults on ordinary Syrians on the ground.

Overall, Airwars researchers have tracked a total of 3,445 claimed civilian casualty events allegedly involving Russian aircraft between September 30th 2015 and June 30th 2018.

The total claimed civilian fatalities in these alleged events since 2015 ranges from 12,584 to 17,932. At least 5,562 of those reportedly killed in these incidents have been individually named by local outlets, on social media and by casualty recorders. According to figures recently published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian warplanes had killed a total of 7,835 civilians through June 30th 2018.

The Coalition in Iraq and Syria

Following the capture of both Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS in 2017, likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions dropped sharply in the first six months of 2018 – though in Syria in particular, have not yet ceased. .

The current Airwars estimate is that between 272 and 460 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition actions between January 1st and June 30th of this year. All of these deaths reportedly took place in Syria across a total of 71 alleged events. This is nevertheless an 88% drop on the minimum number of civilians likely killed by the Coalition in the first half of 2017, a period marked by the ferocious West Mosul campaign and the start of the battle for Raqqa on June 6th.

In total, from August 8th 2014 to June 30th 2018 in both Iraq and Syria, Airwars has to date monitored 2,640 incidents locally alleged against the US-led Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State. Among these incidents, it has been claimed locally that a total of between 17,542 and 26,112 civilians were killed. Of these allegations, Airwars presently estimates that a minimum of between 6,375 and 9,790 civilians are likely to have died as a result of Coalition actions. The alliance itself has so far conceded  939 deaths resulting from 237 events.

 

if("undefined"==typeof window.datawrapper)window.datawrapper={};window.datawrapper["0wYA2"]={},window.datawrapper["0wYA2"].embedDeltas={"100":1374,"200":881,"300":753,"400":660,"500":617,"700":583,"800":566,"900":539,"1000":522},window.datawrapper["0wYA2"].iframe=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-0wYA2"),window.datawrapper["0wYA2"].iframe.style.height=window.datawrapper["0wYA2"].embedDeltas[Math.min(1e3,Math.max(100*Math.floor(window.datawrapper["0wYA2"].iframe.offsetWidth/100),100))]+"px",window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if("undefined"!=typeof a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var b in a.data["datawrapper-height"])if("0wYA2"==b)window.datawrapper["0wYA2"].iframe.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][b]+"px"});

Conflict monitoring for June 2018

June witnessed a near three-fold increase in civilian casualty allegations lodged against Russia in Syria, as Moscow backed the Assad government’s assault on rebel-held areas of Dara’a governorate – the birthplace of the Syrian revolution. The violence in Dara’a came despite the governorate’s supposed status as one of Syria’s ‘de-escalation zones’ negotiated by the U.S., Jordan and Russia in 2017.

The first airstrikes in nearly a year in Dara’a hit rebel-held areas on June 23rd as Russia rapidly shifted its own air power from Idlib governorate in suport of Assad. The regime continued to ramp up pressure as its ground and air offensive gathered momentum.

The impact on civilians was immediate and deadly. From June 24th until June 30th, Airwars tracked an average of eight casualty events in Dara’a per day. On June 27th, the U.N. warned that the Dara’a assault could be as deadly as the sieges of Aleppo and eastern Ghouta combined. The onslaught was all the more jarring after May had seen all-time low allegations against Russia – with just 18 reported incidents of concern.

Meanwhile on June 2nd, the US-led Coalition announced the start of phase two of Operation Roundup, its own campaign aimed at eradicating those ISIS forces remaining in northeastern Syria. The SDF ground offensive, officials said, was supported by Coalition “cross-border air and artillery strikes” and “strikes by the Iraqi Air Force and Iraqi Army artillery positioned near the border”.

Overall, 203 air and artillery strikes were conducted, just a handful more than in May. While June saw an increase in civilian harm allegations against the Coalition, the minimum likely death toll nevertheless fell on May. At least 54 civilians were assessed by Airwars as likely killed by the alliance in June. Even so, there were several disturbing mass casualty events in Hassakah governorate, where children and women paid a particularly lethal price for SDF gains.

International powers also continued their unilateral actions in Syria – with multiple reported strikes by Israel against Hezbollah and Iranian forces during the month. On June 18th, the Coalition denied involvement in a reported strike that allegedly killed and wounded pro-regime forces near Abu Kamal.  A US official later said that Israel carried out the strike – though the Israeli Defence Forces made no comment. Israel has repeatedly warned that it will continue to target Iranian-linked forces in Syria. Unusually, however, this strike occurred in eastern Syria, whereas previous strikes targeting Iranian forces and arms shipments which have been attributed to Israel were in the western region of Syria,  to Israel’s north.

Russia in Syria during June 2018: a near quadrupling of reported casualty events

June saw a 272% rise in alleged Russian civilian harm incidents in Syria, as Moscow backed pro-government forces in a major offensive to oust rebels from Dara’a governorate. Of the 67 alleged Russian events tracked during June, 82% were in Dara’a.

Between 188 and 277 civilians were alleged killed overall by Russian actions during the month – compared with between 42 and 81 fatalities alleged during May. These figures remain unvetted by Airwars, and are based on initial monitoring. They should not be compared directly with fully evaluated estimates tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes.

“In June Russian warplanes were part of the intensive campaign launched to re-capture Dara’a and southern Syria, after earlier taking back control of Douma and evacuating its civilian population to Idlib in northern Syria, ” explains Abdulwahab Tahhan, who monitors Russian strikes for Airwars. “The Dara’a offensive led to more than 45,000 people being displaced, to June 27th, according to the United Nations – with as many as 750,000 lives in danger. Among the civilians killed were medics and whole families. In a pattern similar to what we saw in Douma, air strikes destroyed residential buildings, make-shift clinics and shelters.”

Russian incidents of concern in Syria: June 2018

During the first three weeks of June, Airwars tracked just 12 Russia-linked casualty events in Syria, nine of which were in Idlib governorate. The worst of these occurred overnight on June 7th-8th. Ariha Today reported the deaths of 15 civilians and the injuring of 80 more in four alleged Russian airstrikes on the town of Zardana in Idlib. Shaam News Network put the death toll as high as 45, including 16 women and children, reporting that there were two strikes – the second of which “targeted ambulance teams and residents” desperately searching for their children. While in this case there were no allegations against the regime, many Syrian events monitored by Airwars have conflicting reports blaming both Moscow and the Assad government.

The White Helmets attend the scene of an alleged Russian “double-tap” air strike on Zardana village in Idlib, June 7th (via Aljazeera)

The first event tracked in Dara’a governorate during June occurred on the 24th – a day which saw five separate incidents of concern. Thereafter, all alleged Russian events tracked in June were in Dara’a.

In the final week of the month Airwars researchers tracked 50 Russia-linked casualty events – an average of eight incidents per day – making this one of the worst ever periods since the start of Moscow’s Syrian campaign in September 2015.

The worst event of the month occurred on June 28th, when as many as 66 civilians – many reportedly women and children – died in al Massifra in eastern Dara’a, according to the Smart News Agency. It reported that Russian aircraft “struck three shelters containing civilians fleeing the bombing”. Activist and former head of the local council Zaher Zuabi told Smart that the victims were being buried in mass graves. All allegations tracked by Airwars were against Russia.  

Just three days later on June 30th, between 6 and 22 civilians reportedly were killed in an airstrike on Ghasem in eastern Dara’a. According to the Smart News Agency, “two large bombs” were dropped on the perimeter of the town, one hitting a group of displaced people. Smart said that the regime “likely” carried out the attack, while the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs, killing a member of the civil defence (Adnan Mohammad Mohammad) as he was helping victims from a previous bombing. Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office also pointed to Assad. However, as is so often the case with casualty events in Syria, it was difficult to ascertain which party was responsible. LCCSY instead blamed solely Russia, while the Step News Agency said that both Russia and the regime were operating in the area.

On the same day (June 30th),  Mohammad Nour reported that 17 civilians from a single family died in “Russian shelling of civilian homes” in Ma’arba. Dar’aawi named 11 victims including four members of the al-Fa’our family. Syrian Al Hayat blamed the regime for the attack, reporting that it had “targeted the hideouts of terrorists and their gatherings”. Whoever the perpetrator, the impact was devastating for civilians: the White Helmets said that it was still collecting body parts from the rubble on July 3rd.

The aftermath of an airstrike on the town of Ma’arba, June 30th (via White Helmets Dara’a)

Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria and reported civilian casualties: June 2018

The known remaining active international Coalition allies – the US the UK, France and the Netherlands, and Iraq in Syria – released  356 munitions  from the air across both Iraq and Syria during June 2018, according to official AFCENT data. This represented a 17% decrease from the 431 munitions reported for May. However there were indications of significant additional artillery support for proxy ground forces in Syria .

Just 20 air and artillery strikes were conducted in Iraq during June, some 26% fewer than in May. No publicly reported civilian casualty events were tracked by Airwars during the month. International strikes in Iraq have continued to fall since November 2017 – which was the last month in which Airwars tracked any ‘fair’ civilian harm events blamed on the Coalition in that country.

In Syria, as Operation Roundup continued, Coalition actions remained steady. Throughout the month, 203 strikes were conducted – a small increase on the 198 reported in May.

Of the still-active non-American Coalition allies, the UK reported ten airstrikes in Syria – compared to two conducted in May. There was also one British strike in Iraq. Notably, a June 21st strike by an RAF Tornado in southern Syria reportedly targeted not ISIS but on an unknown group that was said to have fired on coalition partners.

France carried out no airstrikes in either Iraq or Syria during June – a first since it entered the war almost four years ago. France’s artillery deployment, Task Force Wagram, nevertheless carried out 73 ‘shooting missions’ during June – the same number as in May. On June 7th, the French reported the the US was supporting the campaign with its own Task Force Thunder.

The Netherlands publicly declared that weapons were deployed during four missions in Syria during June (down from five in May). As with the previous month, these were all near Abu Kamal and Hajin.

US Army Soldiers with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment fire artillery alongside Iraqi Security Force artillery at alleged ISIS locations near the Iraqi-Syrian border, June 5th 2018 (via U.S. Army photo by Spc. Anthony Zendejas IV)

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria: likely deaths fall by 18%

In June, as phase two of Operation Roundup began, Airwars researchers tracked 18 civilian casualty events in Syria – a 38% rise from the 13 events recorded during May. However likely deaths were down.

Of these events, 11 were assessed by Airwars as being fairly reported. This involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation from the Coalition that it carried out strikes in the near vicinity on the day. Of these 11 events, six were in Deir Ezzor governorate and the remaining five in Hassakah.

Airwars’ current estimate is that between 54 and 81 civilians likely died in these 11 events – an 18% decrease from the minimum of 66 civilians likely killed in Coalition actions during May. Troublingly, at a minimum some 16 of these deaths were reportedly children, and at least 17 were women.

if("undefined"==typeof window.datawrapper)window.datawrapper={};window.datawrapper["784kO"]={},window.datawrapper["784kO"].embedDeltas={"100":1050,"200":759,"300":688,"400":644,"500":627,"700":600,"800":600,"900":600,"1000":556},window.datawrapper["784kO"].iframe=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-784kO"),window.datawrapper["784kO"].iframe.style.height=window.datawrapper["784kO"].embedDeltas[Math.min(1e3,Math.max(100*Math.floor(window.datawrapper["784kO"].iframe.offsetWidth/100),100))]+"px",window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if("undefined"!=typeof a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var b in a.data["datawrapper-height"])if("784kO"==b)window.datawrapper["784kO"].iframe.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][b]+"px"});

“During June the coalition continued to pursue ISIS in its last enclaves in eastern Deir Ezzor and Al Hassaka provinces,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “While likely deaths fell, we still saw a number of troubling mass casualty incidents with entire families reported killed.

“We also saw a larger than usual reporting of civilians being killed alongside ISIS fighters which may indicate a lack of consideration of who else is in the vicinity when the militant group is being targeted. The worst example of this took place on June 21st when 17 people were reported killed including 8 ISIS fighters in al Shaafa, Deir Ezzor.”

The worst events of the month occurred in Hassaka governorate. On June 4th, up to 14 civilians including five children died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Jazza village. Eight members of the al Mudhi family were listed as killed. Two sources – Zaman al Wasl and Marsad al Hassaka – claimed that “internationally banned cluster munitions” were used in the strikes. Cluster munitions are not known to be used by Coalition or Iraqi forces – though have been documented as being fired by both Assad government and Russian aircraft.  There was however confirmation through tweets from the ‘SDF  Front’ and the Iraqi mobilization that they had launched a campaign in the vicinity of the Iraqi-Syrian border near al Dashisha.

Three days later, on June 7th, between ten and 18 civilians, including women and children, reportedly died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Khuweibra village school in Tal al Jair, which was  housing displaced Iraqis. SANA news agency referred to the event as “a massacre” killing “mostly women and children”.

The Shaam News Network  quoted Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan, who stated that the Coalition “did not detect the injury or death of any civilians as a result of the Coalition strikes in Al Hasakah today”. However, this statement was made on June 11th, while the alleged casualty event reportedly occurred during the night of June 7th or early hours of June 8th. Additionally, the Coalition confirmed that Iraqi and Coalition artillery had been targeting the area.

An entire family consisting of as many as 12 civilians (including up to four children and six women) was reportedly wiped out in an alleged Coalition airstrike on June 12th in the village of Hassoun al Basha near Tal al Shayer village in the south east Hassaka countryside, according to local media. Syrian state-run SANA reported that 12 people from Hassoun al-Basha’s family perished when civilian homes were struck – a claim backed up by other sources. However, the Step News Agency was among several additional outlets reporting that the deaths occurred after a civilian car was hit. While the majority of reports identified the location of this event as Hassoun al Basha – a small settlement named after the family who inhabit it – others said that the family were harmed in an airstrike on Abu Hamdah.

Four of the children allegedly killed in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the village of Hassoun al Basha, June 12th (via Hassaka Youth Union)

Libya

The situation in Libya in June was comparable to the month prior, with moderate airstrike activity by both the LNA and the United States.

The US conducted two strikes near Bani Walid which were officially acknowledged by AFRICOM. While the second event on June 13th reportedly killed one member of Al Qaeda, the first event on June 6th reportedly led to the death of three civilians. AFRICOM itself first reported that the strike had killed four ISIS members in a vehicle. Local sources, on the other hand, claimed that three people in the car that was struck were in fact civilians and that only Abdul-Ati Eshtewi, a senior ISIS member, was a combatant.

UNSMIL, the UN mission to Libya, also cast doubt on AFRCOM’s claim when it appeared to agree with local sources that three of the victims were civilians.

The LNA continued its operation with likely Emirati support at Derna, which it declared successfully captured on June 28th.

With LNA forces distracted elsewhere, the Petroleum Facility Guards (PFG) a militia consisting of former oil guards, were able to make significant territorial gains in the Oil Crescent area. The LNA responded with air strikes. According to local sources, one of them resulted in up to three civilian casualties in Ras Lanuf on June 16th.

The LNA additionally conducted an airstrike in Saddada near Beni Walid targeting the PFG and Benghazi Defence Brigades on June 23rd. Another airstrike hit Umm Al Aranib near Sebha on June 3rd. Tebu Channel accused the LNA of indiscriminately targeting civilians infrastructure but said no civilians were harmed.

Airwars advocacy

Military advocacy

In late June, the Coalition published an unprecedented number of 276 civilian casualties claims which it said it had assessed. It found only five of these (2%) to be Credible.

One of these Credible events was the March 2017 Al Mansoura school incident in which the Coalition had previously claimed not to have harmed any civilians. Now it admitted having unintentionally killed at least 40 civilians – the second highest acknowledged toll of the entire air war.

Less positively, despite having assessed a high number of events relating to the battle of Raqqa in June, the Coalition deemed all 122 of those cases to be Non Credible. This was concerning, as most reports of civilian harm for the battle of Raqqa appear to have good levels of local reporting. Overall, the Coalition has been more than ten times more likely to concede civilian harm for the battle of Mosul than for Raqqa.

June also saw the launch of the new Libya conflict casualty microsite – a project led by military advocacy team member Sophie Dyer.

European advocacy

The issue of Dutch military transparency continues to concern elected representatives. In anticipation of a June 27th parliamentary debate on the Dutch anti-ISIS mission, MPs posed 72 factual written questions. Perhaps as a result of the context provided in the third briefing paper provided by Airwars to MPs earlier in May, many of these questions were focused on civilian harm issues, and a lack of transparency regarding Dutch airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

Koen Kluessien, Airwars’s European Advocacy officer and researcher, covered the debate and posed questions, providing valuable context to an event that no other outlet was writing about.

News from Airwars

In early June, Amnesty International released an extensive investigation into the Coalition’s conduct in Raqqa. Researchers found that on several occasions, Coalition attacks appeared to violate international humanitarian law.

During the month, Airwars covered this report as well as the Coalition’s belated admission to have killed 40 or more civilians in al Mansoura. Though the acknowledgement was welcome, significant questions remained about the overall death toll – and what protocols the Coalition was following in deciding whether to re-open such cases.

 

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

▲ Widespread destruction in Zardana, Idlib, following an alleged Russian airstrike on June 7th (via Euphrates Post)