Reports

Reports

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.

 

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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.

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“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)

Published

July 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

During May, civilian casualty events from alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria fell to their lowest level since the start of Moscow’s notoriously brutal bombing campaign in September 2015. Following the evacuation of civilians and fighters from Damascus to Idlib, Russia significantly scaled backs its operations. Airwars researchers tracked just 18 incidents of concern during May – with 67% of these in Idlib governorate.

However, civilians were under renewed threat elsewhere from Coalition actions. On May 1st, the US-led Coalition announced the resumption of SDF ground operations against remnant ISIS forces in northeast Syria, reporting that “over the coming weeks” it would focus on eradicating ISIS from the Iraq-Syria border, where it retained “a significant presence”. This new SDF ground offensive – dubbed ‘Operation Roundup’ – was reflected in a 164% increase in air and artillery strikes in Syria on April. The number of munitions released across both Iraq and Syria – a more reliable measure of activity than strikes – increased by 70% on April.

As a result, Airwars tracked a significant increase in incidents of concern in Syria with at least 66 civilians likely killed in May – far above the three likely deaths tracked in April. As the Coalition continued to pound remnant ISIS forces in both Deir Ezzor and Hasakah governorates, the fear was that these numbers would continue to increase.

On May 6th, Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al Abadi, declared additional Iraqi Air Force strikes in Syria against ISIS, this time near Al-Dashisha. Further Iraqi airstrikes on Hajin occurred on May 25th and 27th.

In a related development, Operation Inherent Resolve’s director of public affairs confirmed to Airwars that some Iraq air and artillery strikes against ISIS targets in Syria are now being counted as Coalition actions – though with Baghdad still also carrying out unilateral actions. Consequently, all recent civilian harm events allegedly involving Iraqi aircraft in Syria must now be viewed as potentially Coalition incidents.

Actions by the US-led alliance were again not restricted to ISIS. On May 11th, the Coalition reported that a “hostile force engaged with SDF artillery” – with the SDF responding in self-defense against the “unknown aggressor”. It remains unclear whether Coalition strikes assisted.

Meanwhile, tensions between Israel and Iran continued to mount. In what it said was retaliation for Iran’s alleged attack on the occupied Golan Heights, on May 10th Israel’s defence minister announced that Israeli forces had hit almost all key Iranian military targets in Syria in overnight air strikes – the largest such attacks in the country in decades.

A map showing distribution of power in Syria, published on May 24th 2018, following eight years of war (via Qasioun News Agency)

Russia in Syria: reported casualty events fall to all time low

Casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft in Syria during May continued to fall. In total, Airwars monitored 18 incidents of concern – a 60% decrease on the 45 events tracked during April. This was the lowest number of events tracked in any one month since the start of Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015. Of these 18 events, 67% were reportedly in Idlib governorate.

Between 42 and 81 civilians were alleged killed by Russian actions in total during May – compared with between 92 and 151 fatalities during April. 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.

“Following the evacuation of civilians and fighters from Eastern Ghouta to Idlib, Russia decreased the tempo of its campaign in Syria,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan, who monitors Russian strikes “The majority of the air strikes recorded in May were in Idlib, which was supposed to be a safe haven for those evacuated from various other cities and towns in Syria. Despite recording the lowest number of civilians killed in air strikes carried out by Russia since September 2015, non combatants still remained under threat from sudden death and injury brought on by airstrikes.”

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Russian incidents of concern in Syria

The worst civilian casualty events during May occurred in Idlib governorate. On May 4th, as many as six civilians including two children died in alleged Russian airstrikes on the village of Al Naqir in the southern countryside of Idlib. According to the Smart News Agency, Russian jets targeted “the village mosque and houses with cluster rockets”. Step News Agency added that dozens more civilians were wounded in this attack. All sources monitored by Airwars blamed Russia.

Only two days later on May 6th, another mosque was reportedly struck in the al Qal’a neighborhood in the middle of Jisr al Shoghour in the Idlib suburbs, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The Network blamed Russia for the shelling, adding that the strikes also damaged the Rab’a al Adawiyya School. It put the death toll at four civilians including a woman.

However, other sources such as Step News said that the regime had carried out the attack, with EMC reporting that helicopters had dropped explosive barrel bombs on the town. Three fatalities were named by Jisr al Shoughour Media Centre as Anmar Sharout, Yasser Sharout and 80-year-old Mohammed Zaki (Zamzam).

The aftermath of what EMC said were regime strikes on Jisr al-Shughou, May 6th (via EMC)

On May 9th, up to 10 civilians – including women and children – died in what the Syrian Network for Human Rights referred to as a Russian strike on “a shelter-cave” in Ma’ar Zita village in the Idlib suburbs. According to the Network, five of the victims were children. It named “Mohammad Abdul Karim al Hussein, his wife and a number of his children” among those who perished. Shaam News Network provided further details, adding that the target was “an underground shelter”. EMC put the death toll as high as 10 and published an image of one of the child fatalities.

May also saw more alleged Russian airstrikes on Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. On May 18th, the Smart News Agency reported that two children and four women died and more were wounded in an alleged “Russian and regime aerial bombardment”. The Syrian Network for Human Rights blamed the regime and named 85-year-old Mrs. Thahabiya Fahd Abo Rashed as one of the victims.

On May 21st, the Syrian government declared victory in Southern Damascus after retaking both Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad. However, by this point and after a month of fierce ground fighting, most of Yarmouk had been reportedly destroyed and its citizens displaced.

‘Mrs. Thahabiya Fahd Abo Rashed, from al Yarmouk Camp south of Damascus city, age 85, killed due to Syrian regime forces heavy bombing on al Yarmouk Camp, on May 18, 2018.’ (via SN4HR)

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

The known remaining active Coalition allies – the US the UK, France and the Netherlands – released  431 munitions  from the air across Iraq and Syria during April 2018, according to official AFCENT data. This represented a 70% increase from April’s 254 munitions.

In Iraq, the Coalition reported just 27 air and artillery strikes in May – up slightly from 24 actions the previous month.  On May 14th, Airwars tracked the first civilian harm incident in three months allegedly involving the Coalition. This occurred in Hawija and Selena villages south of Mosul in Nineveh province. Local sources said that up to five civilians were wounded; however, this was assessed as ‘contested’, with a report by Sputnik – which quoted an Iraqi security source – stating the deaths may have been caused by either the Coalition or by the Iraqi air force. In its own weekly report, the Coalition declared carrying out one strike near Qayyarah which it said destroyed an ISIS campsite.

In Syria, Coalition strikes increased by 164%. A total of 198 air and artillery strikes were declared – compared to 75 during April.

Of the still-active Coalition allies, the UK reported just two airstrikes in Syria during May – one of which was to the north west of Hajin and the other ‘in eastern Syria’: there had been none in April. Two British strikes were also reported in Iraq (down from five in April).

France reported just one strike in Syria, against an ISIS logistics building in Abu Kamal. There were no declared strikes in Iraq, though Task Force Wagram declared 73 artillery support missions in the Euphrates Valley – a 356% rise on April’s 16 missions.

The Netherlands publicly declared that weapons were deployed in five missions in Syria in May – up from just one during April. Four of these missions were carried out in Deir Ezzor governorate (of which three were near Abu Kamal), and one in Hajin.

Despite a steep drop in tempo for the battle against ISIS, the war machine remains in gear. Images showing bombs being built for F-15Es, May 17th (via US Air Force)

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria: casualty events more than double

A ramp up in Coalition activity in Syria, in support of a renewed SDF ground offensive, saw casualty events allegedly caused by US-led strikes more than double from a month earlier. Throughout May, Airwars researchers tracked 13 civilian casualty events, all but one of which were in Syria – an increase of 117% on April’s six events.

Of these events, eight 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 one of these six events occurred in Deir Ezzor governorate.

Airwars’ current estimate is that between 66 and 79 civilians likely died in these eight events – a steep rise from the three civilians judged killed by the alliance during April, when likely deaths reached an all-time low since Coalition actions began in August 2014.

“With the Coalition-backed SDF pushing hard into the last pockets of ISIS controlled villages and towns in Hassaka and Deir Ezzor provinces – and with the civilians in those places under siege – the death count is likely to continue to rise,” warns Kinda Haddad, head of Airwars’ Syrian team.

Airwars recently learned that some Iraqi air force strikes are now being classed as Coalition actions. The alliance’s director of public affairs informed Airwars by email that “if Iraqi jets are flying in a Coalition strike package, it goes on our strike logs and does count toward the Coalition tally”, while adding that “If they do a unilateral strike, it does not go in our strike log and does not count toward the Coalition tally.”

Consequently, this means that all civilian harm events allegedly involving Iraqi aircraft in Syria during May are now potential Coalition civilian casualty events.

The first such incident of this nature – and the worst event of the month – occurred on May 1st, when up to 30 civilians including 14 children and five women died in airstrikes on al Qasr village, also known as al Fadil, in Al Hassaka governorate. Reports identified both the Coalition and Iraqi air force as the likely culprit, adding that the bombing targeted al Sheikh petrol station, which housed a large number of displaced people.

Multiple members of the Al-Khashman and Al-Omar families – mostly children – were among those slain. Sound and Picture stated the strikes “came from the Iraqi side”, though the Syrian Network for Human Rights joined the majority of sources in blaming the Coalition. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights emphasised that it was unclear whether the strikes were carried out by the Iraq Air Force or the Coalition. Alarmingly, Euphrates Post said that the site was targeted again during a rescue operation following the initial raid.

A photo of two children who were allegedly killed in the shelling on the village of Al Qasr (via Al Hassaka Youth Union)

The ISIS-occupied eastern Deir Ezzor town of Baghouz was particularly badly hit during May, with Airwars researchers tracking four separate events in the town. The worst of these occurred on May 10th, when local media reported that 12 civilians including three women died and dozens more were wounded in an alleged Coalition airstrike. All reports named the US-led Coalition as the culprit. According to the source Nedaa-Sy News, Coalition jets struck the town “with many rockets”. Etilaf News added that this and other strikes on “several areas east of Deir Ezzor” resulted in the displacement of 130 families in the “direction of Badia Shami”.

On May 11th, Hasaka was badly hit again, when up to eight civilians including three children and five women died in reported Coalition or Iraqi air force strikes on the village of Al Hammadi. Nine members of the Al Aziz family were named as victims. According to Hasaka Marsad, the strike hit the home of the grandfather of the children killed and was admitted by the Iraqi military. The report is however alone in identifying the Iraqi air force as the culprit. Most likely, Hasaka Marsad is basing this on a video tweeted by the Iraqi Defense Ministry allegedly showing an air strike by F16 on an ISIS HQ “in the area of Dashaisha”. Although al Hammadi is located in this general area, a specific date or a more precise location of the strike is not mentioned in the video – making it difficult to asses whether or not this is related to this incident.

Libya

Airwars launched its Libya Project on June 20th in Washington DC. The project is in partnership with the New America Foundation and assesses all known public records of airstrikes and reported civilian harm  since the end of the NATO campaign in 2011.

During May, Libya experienced increased airstrike activity compared to recent months. This was mostly due to the LNA siege on Derna which was possibly supported by the UAE.

The siege led to two known civilian casualty allegations against the LNA and UAE, besides general concern for civilians trapped inside the coastal city. On May 27th, Unlimited News  reported: “Activists said airstrikes late on Sunday targeted the western entrance to the city. Hours earlier, a civilian from Derna was wounded and three others were injured when a random shell fired by the Karama forces hit the East Coast neighborhood east of the city.” Other sources also reported airstrikes in the area but no civilian harm.

On May 18th, the Egyptian Air Force reportedly hit a vehicle carrying Eritrean asylum seekers near Kufra, allegedly killing three and injuring eight more. Vincent Cochetel, Special Envoy of the UNHCR for the Central Mediterranean, picked up on the reports in a tweet. Other sources, such as Libya’s Channel, published footage of the victims reportedly harmed in the incident. The event once again showed Egypt to be policing its border with Libya from the air. Its goal is to hinder extremists and smugglers from crossing the border. Similar strikes have been reported over the last months.

Despite the increase in airstrikes in May, Libya’s rival factions agreed on elections in December 2018 at a Paris summit. Given the current security situation this represents an ambitious target, which nonetheless raises hope in the country for a more peaceful future.

#Libya, air strike in Al Kufra, initial reports suggest that 3 Eritreans killed, 8 Eritreans asylum seekers wounded & treated at local hospital. Working with partners at evacuation options.

— vincent cochetel (@cochetel) May 15, 2018

Airwars advocacy

Military advocacy

The Airwars military advocacy team completed the cross-referencing of its archive against all Coalition-assessed civilian harm claims until June 2017. So far, it has identified 502 events that have not yet been reviewed by the Coalition. These are in addition to the 321 ‘open’ events listed in the Coalition’s own latest civilian casualties report.

In that same Coalition report, 159 assessments of civilian harm claims were completed. The alliance deemed only five events as credible but 149 as non-credible — including many in Raqqah during the Coalition’s campaign to liberate the city from ISIS. Airwars remains concerned at the low admittance rate of civilian harm claims in Raqqa, compared to the similar urban battle in Mosul.

European advocacy

At the start of the month, Airwars European advocacy officer Koen Kluessien featured on RTL News, after the Dutch Court of Appeal ruled in a Freedom of Information case that the Defence Ministry did not have to make public information on locations in Iraq targeted by Dutch F-16s – or on the number of civilians harmed as a result.

Additionally, Airwars published its third briefing paper for Dutch MPs. This focused on concerns that while the Netherlands has conceded civilian harm in Iraq in up to three incidents, it refuses to say where or when this occurred.
The issue of Dutch military transparency continues to concern elected representatives. In anticipation of a parliamentary debate on the Dutch anti-ISIS mission, MPs posed 72 factual written questions. Perhaps as a result of the context provided in the Airwars information brief, many of these questions were focused on civilian harm issues, and a lack of transparency regarding Dutch airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. 

News from Airwars

After nearly four years of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the United Kingdom on May 2nd reported its first civilian casualty. That acknowledgement came just one day after an exclusive BBC report accused the UK of involvement in civilian casualties in Mosul. The admission, however, was related to a strike that took place in an isolated stretch of desert in eastern Syria – far from the urban battles in Raqqa and Mosul, where British planes hit hundreds of targets and where thousands of civilians recently died.
On May 30th, Airwars published an extended interview with a member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (RCC). The RCC has been tasked with helping to dig the city out from the rubble caused by the 2017 battle. The RCC’s most sensitive work involves the recovering of bodies, many of which remain in mass graves, or which were scattered among ruined buildings.
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 and Chris Woods.
▲ The White Helmets at the scene of an alleged Russian airstrike in Jisr Jisr al Shoughour, Idlib, May 6th (via Jisr al Shoughour Media Centre)

Published

May 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

Following two months of brutal bombardment of eastern Ghouta by Assad government and Russian forces, there was finally some respite. After rebels struck a deal on April 1st to leave the formerly-opposition held enclave outside Damascus, Airwars tracked an 82% fall in casualty events alleged against Russia in the month that followed. There were just eight claimed incidents in Damascus during April, with Russian strikes now mainly focusing on Idlib – where civilians still faced significant danger. Overall, there were 45 claimed casualty events in Syria against Russia for April. Between 92 and 151 civilians were alleged killed in these incidents.

Meanwhile, likely deaths from Coalition air and artillery strikes fell to the lowest levels tracked by Airwars since the start of Coalition actions in August 2014. According to public reporting, just three civilians were likely killed by the US-led alliance in April 2018 – all in Syria.

However, the situation in Syria as a whole remained tense. April was also marked by US-led strikes against what were reported to be regime chemical weapons facilities, in retaliation for an alleged regime toxic gas attack of April 7th which killed at least 42 civilians. During those retaliatory actions, Airwars tracked credible claims that three civilians were likely wounded in a declared British strike on a chemical weapons storage facility in Homs.

The fall in civilian harm from airstrikes in Syria came even as new fault lines appeared. Tensions grew in eastern Syria, where the US and its allies continued to target the last remnants of ISIS-held territory. Attempts by the Assad government to sieze territory from the Coalition’s Kurdish SDF proxies saw the Western alliance again reportedly bombing pro-regime forces. Meanwhile, Israel launched heavy airstrikes against Iranian forces stationed across Syria, threatening to ignite a much wider regional war.

Russia and the regime in Syria: an 82% decrease in reported casualty events

After tracking record levels of alleged civilian harm in March, Airwars monitored an 82% fall in incidents of concern reportedly involving Russian aircraft in Syria during April. This came after a deal was struck with the regime for both rebels and civilians to flee eastern Ghouta.

In total, our researchers monitored 45 casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft in April  – down from a record 250 incidents the month before. However, as is often the case in urban areas, the regime was frequently blamed alongside Russia for individual strikes.

Between 92 and 151 civilians were alleged killed by Russian actions in total during April – compared with the extremely high reported death toll of between 712 and 1,229 during March. 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.

This sharp decrease in claimed deaths was largely attributable to a massive fall in allegations made against Russia in the densely packed urban enclave of eastern Ghouta, where fatalities had been very high in recent months. In total, there were just eight claimed Russian casualty events reported in the Damascus area in April, compared with 158 incidents the previous month.

“Following the peace deal, civilians were evacuated to Idlib and northern parts of Syria. However, they were far from out of harm’s way,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan who monitors Russian actions in Syria for Airwars. “During April, the majority of Russian civilian casualty events were tracked in Idlib governorate, where civilians were still being placed in significant danger from airstrikes.”

Russian incidents of concern in Syria

Despite the fall in allegations against Russia in Damascus during April, there were still a number of disturbing mass casualty events in the governorate.

The deadliest alleged incident in April occurred on April 6th at Douma, where up to 45 civilians including up to 10 children and 10 women died in multiple airstrikes. The highest estimate – of 45 fatalities – was given by LCCSY, which blamed a “heavy air and missile bombardment by regime forces”. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, “at least 40 civilians including four children and a woman died due to heavy shelling by Syrian/Russian regime forces”.  Step said there had been “more than 50 air strikes loaded with high-explosive rockets” on the city. Douma Revolution 2011 meanwhile named 28 fatalities, adding that helicopters had also taken part in the ferocious bombardment.

Massive destruction in Douma following Russian/regime strikes on April 6th (via Douma.Revolution)

Displaced civilians came under repeated bombardment during April as Syrian government forces also attempted to seize from ISIS the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. Between April 20th and 23rd, Airwars tracked four separate civilian harm events reportedly involving Russian or regime warplanes at Yarmouk, where fighting had destroyed civilian infrastructure and, according to the UN, resulted in the near-closure of access points for over 66,000 people in need.

On April 22nd  six male civilians were reported killed in an alleged Russian or regime strike on the camp. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, “Syrian/Russian warplanes fired missiles on al Urouba Street in al Yarmouk Camp”. The source Marsad Hasaka, however, blamed solely Russia. The victims were named as  Imad al-Rayyan, Anas Bassam Amouri, Haj Saleh Mahmoud, Muhannad Saleh Mahmoud, Jamal Samih Hamid Abu Khaled and Marwan Mahmoud Uqla (pictured.)

Marwan Mahmoud Uqla, killed in an alleged strike by Syrian or Russian planes on Yarmouk camo, (via SN4HR)

However it was Idlib – where many civilian evacuees from eastern Ghouta had just evacuated to – that faced the fiercest bombing by Moscow during April. In total, Airwars tracked 28 claimed Russian events in the governorate – 62% of all incidents during the month.

The most serious event occurred on April 9th in Wadi Al Nasim, when up to 28 civilians were reported killed and up to 150 more wounded in an explosion. While some sources, such as ANHA, said the source of the explosion wasn’t known, the Euphrates Post, LCCSY and Step News Agency were among many others claiming that the massacre had been caused by a ballistic missile fired from Russian battleships in the Mediterranean. Local media published graphic images that showed extensive destruction to civilian homes and blood-stained locals, including children. The Syrian Network for Human Rights which put the death toll at 21, said 13 of these victims were children and five were women, adding that it had been “unable to identify the type of the explosion or the perpetrating party”. Four child fatalities were named by Euphrates Post as Sila Murad Zakour, Shahla Assi (pictured), Saif Zakkour and Farah Kadrash.

‘The girl Shahla Asi, age 5, killed in an explosion in Wadi al Naseem area south of Idlib city, causing a massacre, on April 9, 2018’ (via SN4HR)

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties: likely deaths fall to all time low

The known remaining active Coalition allies –  the US the UK, France and the Netherlands – released 254 munitions  from the air across Iraq and Syria during April 2018 according to official AFCENT data – a 14% drop from March’s 294 munitions.

In Iraq, the Coalition reported just 24 air and artillery strikes in April – down from 30 the previous month. For the second month in a row, there were no publicly reported Coalition incidents of concern anywhere in Iraq. The last known alleged Coalition casualty event in the country was on February 7th.

On April 30th, CJTF-OIR deactivated its Land Component Headquarters in a Baghdad ceremony, thereby “signifying the end of major combat operations against ISIS in Iraq and acknowledging the changing composition and responsibilities of the Coalition.”

In Syria, strikes also remained at low levels. Just 75 air and artillery strikes were declared – though this represented a 47% rise on March’s 51 strikes.

Of the still-active Coalition allies in April, the UK reported no airstrikes in Syria for the month – though it declared five strikes in Iraq (up from two in March). Similarly, France reported no strikes in Syria, but one strike and 16 artillery support missions in Iraq – the latter up from 14 actions in March.

The Netherlands publicly declared that weapons were deployed in only one mission (down from two in the previous month), between April 18th-24th. The Dutch Ministry of Defence said that during that week, its F-16s had attacked ISIS fighters in support of ground troops in the Abu Kamal area of Deir Ezzor, Syria.

On April 19th, the Coalition reported that the Iraqi Air Force also conducted airstrikes against ISIS targets near Hajin, Syria along the border. According to the Coalition press release, “the operation was planned and executed by the Iraqi Joint Operations Command with intelligence support from the Coalition”. Iraq had in turn co-ordinated the attack with the Assad government.

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria

Airwars researchers tracked just six alleged Coalition civilian casualty events during April, all of them in Syria. This was the same number of claimed events as in March. However, of these events only two are currently assessed as being fairly reported – with only one leading to civilian deaths, and the other resulting in injuries. 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 3 civilians likely died in the one event – with a further three likely wounded in the second incident. This represents an 81% fall from the minimum of 16 civilians assessed as likely killed by the US-led alliance during March – and the lowest number of civilians likely killed in any one month since Airwars began tracking reported civilian harm from Coalition actions in August 2014.

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The event resulting in likely civilian deaths occurred on April 14th in the village of Al-A’liat in the Soussa district of Deir Ezzor. According to Smart News and Fresh Online, an ISIS HQ in the village was targeted by the Coalition. A local source told Smart that the three civilians had been present at the facility after being detained by ISIS on charges of drug abuse, ‘statements against sharia law’ and possession of pornography. Smart and Fresh added that three ISIS members also reportedly died in the strike.

On April 24th, the New York Times reported that following an exodus of Kurdish fighters from eastern Syria to Afrin to help repel Turkish forces, the US-led Coalition had changed tactics in eastern Syria as it sought to contain the last pockets of ISIS. The new approach reportedly involved more use of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconaissance (ISR) and a tactic of “striking only when sure… the risk to civilians is low.” Airwars monitoring for the month did indeed show a significant reduction in reported civilian harm for the month.

US-led strikes on Syrian regime chemical weapons facilities

On April 14th – in response to the alleged Assad regime chemical weapons attack in Douma, Damascus on April 7th – the US, UK and France launched more than 100 missiles at what were reported to be government chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

According to the Pentagon, the strikes targeted three sites: a scientific research facility in Damascus; a chemical weapons storage facility 15 miles outside the city of Homs; and a second weapons storage facility and command post also around Homs. The strikes, heralded as a success by US President Donald Trump, were in turn condemned by Syria’s ally Russia.

Airwars tracked a single source claim by Al Sura which alleged that four civilians had died in the US bombardment of the Al Barzah scientific research facility in Damascus. However, Airwars did not identify any other public reporting of civilian casualties relating to strikes in the Al Barzah neighbourhood – and concluded that this single source claim was not credible. Moreover, a spokesperson for the Syrian defense ministry publicly stated that “only buildings were damaged” in the strike.

Airwars did however assess that three civilians were likely wounded as a result of reported British strikes on a military compound west of Homs. According to  the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a report by Dostor News – both of which quoted Syrian state-run new agency SANA – rockets which targeted Syrian army warehouses were either deflected or missed their target. The explosion of one missile reportedly wounded three people. An Assad government statement, clipped by BBC Arabic, also stated that three civilians were injured in this strike.

Sky News aerial footage of the “Shinshar chemical weapon facility” in Homs after it was targeted by the airstrike.

On April 29th – in a further deterioration of relations between the US-led alliance and the Assad govenment – between 25 and 60 regime forces and militia were reported killed in Coalition airstrikes on Jai’aa village and al Kalab hospital in Deir Ezzor governorate, local media reported. According to Deir Ezzor 24, pro-regime troops had captured a number of towns in western Deir Ezzor from Kurdish SDF forces, prompting Coalition strikes. Reuters quoted a US Army statement which confirmed the attack on SDF forces by what it called pro-regime forces near Deir Ezzor City, adding that the “Coalition used established deconfliction channels to de-escalate the situation” – though it did not elaborate on the methods were used.

Alleged Israeli strikes in Syria

Just two days after the alleged regime toxic gas attack in Douma, Israel was suspected of launching an April 10th strike on the T-4 Syrian military base near Homs (which crucially had a strong Iranian presence). Russia, Syria and Iran all blamed Israel, though Israel itself refused publicdly to comment on the event as fears of yet another proxy war in Syria grew. However Israeli media – citing government sources – later confirmed that this was indeed an IDF action.

Tensions continued to mount throughout the month, with veiled threats from both sides. This culminated in a significant incident on April 29th, when between 26 and 40 fighters were reported killed with up to 60 more wounded in alleged Israeli strikes targeting the 47th Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, south of Hama at Jabal al Bouthouth mountain. Additionally, Iranian warehouses near Salhab town were said to have been struck. According to The Guardian, 26 pro-government fighters were killed, though the Shaam News Network put the death toll as high as 40.

While no civilians were reported harmed in this event, Syrian-based opposition media activist Mohamad Rasheed said that the strike result in explosions in an arms depot at the Maarin Mountain, 10 km outside of the city of Hama. Parts of the exploding missiles reportedly struck the city itself, forcing local residents to flee their homes.

Libya: Haftar returns

In terms of airstrikes, Libya experienced a relatively quiet month in April 2017, which was likely connected to the rumours of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s poor health. The Libyan National Army leader had been hospitalised in Paris and reports on his status ranged from a mild stroke to cerebral bleeding and even death. With the security situation in Libya at risk of deteriorating due to the rumours – a car bomb targeted his potential successor Abdul Razzaq Alnadouri – Haftar returned to Libya on April 26th to resume his role as head of the LNA.

During Haftar’s absence, the only reported LNA airstrikes were said to have targeted the jihadist Benghazi Defence Brigades near Saddada, southeast of Bani Walid city. The strikes reportedly killed three militia members, according to the sources Alqualish Alhadath and Fouad Al-Zoui. Libya Alahrar reported that the casualties were members of the Oil Installation Guards, which raised questions about their combatant status.

On the same day, April 21st, four strikes were carried out by an unidentified aircraft, also near Bani Walid, near the Castle of the Shemikh. Libya 24 said 16 alleged militants were killed and 9 more injured.  The LNA denied responsibility for the strikes, with its spokesperson claiming that the US, Italy or another NATO country was to blame. However AFRICOM explicitly denied conducting the strikes in a statement to Airwars, insiosting: “There have been no US airstrikes in Libya since March 24.”

During the month of April, clashes in Sebha city between the Tebu and Awlad Suleiman tribes also re-escalated after a temporary ceasefire. Heavy shelling was carried out in populated areas, with clashes reportedly causing multiple casualties among both fighters and civilians. There were reports of three civilian deaths, including one young girl and a 60-year-old man in Sebha city.

صورة للغارة الجوية التي استهدفت مخازن الذخيرة والتموين التابعة لميليشيات الجضران التي كانت تستعد للهجوم على الحقول النفطية والمتمركزة في قلعة بني وليد قرب السدادة pic.twitter.com/uKVNK5zyLq

— أعصر عليه ليمة (@libyanlemons) April 24, 2018

A tweet showing the reported strike on the 28th May Battalion, used by Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), in which oil installation guards were also reportedly killed and injured.

Airwars advocacy

Military advocacy

The Airwars military advocacy team continued its information exchange with the Coalition’s own civilian casualties cell, helping to improve understanding of civilian harm allegations on both sides . We proactively provided improved geolocations for a batch of historical civilian casualty allegations between January and June 2015, and all claimed events that occurred in October 2017. In total, 141 events were reassessed by our geolocators and submitted to the Coalition for the review. The Coalition has in turn confirmed that these events will be processed.

We also received from the Coalition the approximate locations (to an accuracy of 100m) for many of the civilian casualty incidents published in its own March and April monthly reports. Additionally, the Airwars military advocacy team provided assistance to ARTE and BBC investigations into alleged civilian casualty strikes in Mosul. Two team members also attended a data visualisation workshop arranged by the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London.

Locations of possible air strikes in East Mosul neighbourhoods during January 2017. The strike damage assessments were conducted via satellite imagery analysis. Base map: Wikimapia

European advocacy

European advocacy officer Koen Kluessien was invited by our funder, the Netherlands-based Democracy and Media Foundation, to set out how the work of Airwars contributes to the protection and promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Koen addressed attending journalists, researchers and activists and explained how Airwars’ innovative use of local open source data provides a vital counter to the narrative of a clean and precise air war routinely employed by the Dutch government and others.

Additionally, Koen contributed to an Airwars article that provided much-needed context on a progress report on Dutch involvement in the anti-ISIS Coalition that had been presented to Parliament on April 13th. This had revealed for the first time that Dutch aircraft had caused civilian harm – something the Netherlands had always denied. Yet crucially, the report did not state when or exactly when between 2014 and 2016 the incidents took place – making public scrutiny of the incidents impossible. Further Airwars research and advocacy efforts regarding the four cases is still ongoing.

News from Airwars

On April 5th, Airwars released an extensive investigation into the civilian death toll during the battle for Mosul. Cross-published with The Atlantic, the feature noted that thousands of civilians had credibly been reported killed by all parties during the fight. A number of journalists and researchers who had visited the city during the battle were interviewed.

Despite the reported high toll, neither the Coalition nor those countries individually involved in operations to dislodge ISIS from Iraq’s second city were making any attempt to reach an official civilian death count, Airwars noted.

The report by Samuel Oakford also featured an exceptional series of images by photographer Maranie Staab, who had visited a frontline trauma clinic during the fight for West Mosul.

A mother cradles her dead child, killed in a reported airstrike on West Mosul, spring 2017 (Image coursesy of Maranie Staab. All rights reserved.)

Protecting your Data and GDPR Compliance

As a not for profit transparency organisation, Airwars regards the lawful and fair treatment of personal information as very important to its successful operations, and to maintaining confidence between our team and all those who use and access our services. To see more about how we are complying with the EU’s new General Data Protection (GDPR) Regulation 2018, please see our Data Protection Statement.

 

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 and Chris Woods.

▲ Devastation in the of Idlib city, April 9th, following an explosion which many sources blamed on Russia missiles (via EdlibEmc1)

Published

April 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

Civilians in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta continued to face a horrifying ordeal during March, as Russia and the regime pounded the rebel-held enclave. By March 31st, the regime had declared victory in the Damascus suburb, at terrible cost to vulnerable residents. Airwars tracked 250 casualty events in Syria during March attributed to Moscow’s actions, with more than 1,200 civilians alleged killed – the highest reported number  of strikes and casualties since the start of Russia’s Syrian campaign in September 2015.

Elsewhere in Syria, civilians trapped in Afrin faced considerable danger as Turkish forces encircled the city of Afrin itself, resulting in likely deaths more than tripling on February’s minimum estimates. By the time Turkey’s President Erdogan announced that his forces has captured Afrin City on March 18th, Airwars estimated that at least 115 more civilians had perished in the increasingly intense final three weeks of fighting.

Coalition actions continued to decline in March in both Iraq and Syria. Airwars tracked just 15 civilians likely killed by Coalition strikes during the month – all of them in Syria. This represented an 86% drop from February’s minimum estimates. Airwars has not tracked a claimed casualty event in Iraq from Coalition actions since February 7th.

Airwars tracking of international military actions continues to reflect high civilian harm whenever strikes target populated areas – regardless of which belligerent is involved.

Russia and the regime in Syria: civilian casualty events reach a new peak

Civilian casualty events attributed to Russia and the Assad government in Syria reached record levels during March. UN Security Council Resolution 2401, adopted on February 24th, demanded a 30-day nation-wide ceasefire, though bombs continued to rain down on those trapped in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta. The UN resolution was effectively ignored.

By March 9th, Syrian regime forces had reportedly seized almost half of Eastern Ghouta. Civilians once more bore the brunt, cowering in basements and even digging holes in the ground in attempts to escape the violence which engulfed them.

An Eastern Ghouta ceasefire deal came into effect on March 23rd, and Airwars tracked no further claimed casualty events in the area for the remainder of the month. The pause, however, came too late for many: as of March 27th, the United Nations reported that 1,700 people had been killed in Eastern Ghouta with thousands more injured, in the month since UNSC Resolution 2401 had passed. Additionally, as of April 9th, nearly 90,000 civilians had been displaced.

In total, Airwars tracked a record 250 casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft. However, as is often the case in urban areas, the regime was also blamed for many of these events.

Between 712 and 1,229 civilians were alleged killed by Russian actions in total  during March. Those 250 casualty events marked a 46% increase from the 171 events tracked during February – and the highest number of reported casualty events tracked by our team during any one month since the start of Russia’s campaign in Syria in September 2015. 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.

“March was the worst recorded month in the Russian campaign so far. Hundreds of civilians were killed in regime-besieged Ghouta where people were digging holes deep in the ground to take shelter,” explains Abdulwahab Tahhan, who tracks Russian strikes. “While a deal was struck with the regime and Russia to evacuate the civilians to Idlib, this did not mean that people were safe. Idlib was also repeatedly hit throughout the month.”

The aftermath of an alleged Russian or regime strike on Kafar Batna, March 16th, which reportedly killed a minimum of 32 civilians (via Shaam News Network)

Russian incidents of concern in Syria

March 2018 saw a number of alarming mass casualty events. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, at least 32 civilians died in a strike by “Syrian/Russian warplanes” on a gathering in Kafar Batna, Damascus on March 16th. Doma RV put the death toll even higher, at 61, reporting that “a popular market” was bombed. The majority of sources claimed that the victims were mostly women and children.

The worst alleged event took place on March 20th, when at least 56 civilians were said to have died in Douma, Damascus. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 14 children and six women were among those killed. It blamed “Syrian/Russian regime forces.” Other sources including LCCSY said that regime helicopters had dropped explosive barrels. Some reports said that the victims were in a school, but that when they heard the noise of the aircraft they had run to a nearby location to take shelter and were all killed together. The White Helmets published the names of 56 civilians reportedly killed in this one event.

Dead bodies are lined up following a mass casulaty event in Douma on March 20th (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Overall, Airwars monitors had tracked a total of 3,314 claimed civilian casualty events allegedly involving Russian aircraft between September 30th 2015 and March 31st 2018. The total claimed civilian fatalities in these alleged events ranges from 12,255 to 17,403. At least 5,409 of those reportedly killed in these incidents have been named by local outlets, on social media and by casualty recorders. According to figures published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian warplanes had killed a total of 7,667 civilians through March 31st 2018.

Turkey in Syria: likely civilian deaths more than triple

Afrin’s civilians faced great peril in March, as a Turkish-backed offensive moved into the city of Afrin itself. The increased ferocity of the assault saw the Pentagon announce a temporary pause in some of its anti-ISIS operations in Syria as many SDF troops abandoned the battle against ISIS, in order to help defend Afrin and Manbij.

On March 8th, the Turkish government asked the United States to stop Kurdish commanders from diverting their forces from areas of eastern Syria to join the battle in Afrin. While the Pentagon claimed that US-led airstrikes against so-called Islamic State were not affected by Turkey’s campaign, there was a noticeable decline both in Inherent Resolve airstrikes and reported civilian harm in Syria.

By March 12th, with Turkish-led forces poised to encircle the city of Afrin, Airwars  was tracking a steep rise in civilian fatalities. The humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate for those trapped in the area, and by March 14th the UN reported that Turkish troops had cut off water to civilians.

Likely civilian deaths reached peak levels in the week of March 10th-16th, just prior to Turkey’s announcement that it had recaptured Afrin City on March 18th. Numbers would doubtless have been much higher had Kurdish forces not chosen to disengage at Afrin City and conduct a tactical withdrawal.

Airwars monitored 52 locally sourced civilian casualty incidents reportedly carried out by Turkish-backed forces in March – a 42% decrease from the 89 events tracked in February. Of these 52 events, Airwars currently assess 44 as fairly reported, with Turkish actions likely resulting in the deaths of between 115 and 175 civilians in March – a 229% rise on the minimum 35 civilians who likely died in February. Of these deaths at least 12 were children and a minimum of seven were women.

Overall, between January 13th and March 25th, Airwars tracked a total of 194 casualty events reportedly carried out by Turkish forces. Of these, we currently assess 126 events as fairly reported, likely resulting in the deaths of between 225 and 350 civilians – and injuring between 497 and 699 more.

“The hike in likely deaths we saw in March is partly explained by the intensification of shelling in the lead up to the capture of Afrin city,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “Despite the fall of the city on March 18th, Turkish strikes continued throughout the month to target some villages around the province – accompanied by many threats of military operations in the near future to capture SDF-controlled Tal Rifa’at and Manbij.”

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Turkish incidents of concern in Syria

March 16th  proved to be the deadliest day yet in Turkey’s campaign, as strikes moved into the city itself. In the first of two major events assessed as likely carried out by Turkish forces that day, up to 21 civilians died and 45 more were wounded in shelling. According to IC Afrin, “The Turkish army [were] shelling everywhere in Afrin and its surroundings. ANF listed the named of 21 civilian fatalities including children.

On the same day, up to 16 more civilians died in alleged Turkish airstrikes on Afrin hospital, according to sources on the ground. The source Aldar Xeli said that the hospital – reportedly the only medical facility in service in the city – had been struck by three missiles, while the BBC, quoting an Afrin resident, said that “bodies are still there on the street”. Turkey denied carrying out strikes on the hospital – a claim dismissed by SDF media, which published photographs and videos which it said showed the effects of the attack.

On the following day, March 17th, local media reported that up to 13 civilians died in an alleged Turkish strike on a convoy of cars in Afrin’s Mahmoudiya neighbourhood. According to IC Afrin   a tractor carrying dozens of people on the road out of Afrin to Tirinde village, was struck. The victims were reportedly “completely burned, with only one child surviving.” Afrin Now named two victims as Shahnaz Rasho and her husband Hozan Aliko. It added that their son was missing. However, one source, Efrin Dile Kurdistane, reported the death of Shahnaz Rasho on March 16th. The reports coming out of Afrin were particularly confusing in the days immediately prior to the city’s capture.

Shahnaz Rasho, killed in an alleged Turkish shelling of Afrin, March 17th (via Afrin Now)

Turkish incidents of concern in Iraq

Airwars also tracked two casualty events in March reportedly caused by Turkish forces in Iraq. On the night of March 21st-22nd, four civilians died and 10 more were wounded in alleged Turkish airstrikes on villages in the Choman area, east of Irbil, Iraq. IC Afrin Resistance named two victims as Kake Mistefa Ebubekir and Shero Mehumd Ibrahim. According to TRT, “nine terrorists”, who were reportedly preparing to attack a military base in northern Iraq, were killed. It is unclear whether this was the same raid as the casualty event – though the date and location matched.

The second Iraqi event occurred on March 25th: local media reported the death of one civilian and the injuring of up to two more in alleged Turkish airstrikes on the Shiladeza area, north of Duhok province in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to testimony given to Roj News Agency, Turkish forces were continuously shelling villages in the area at the time.

35-year-old Nihad Mahmood who was seriously injured in an airstrike on the area of Shiladeza, March 25th (via Roj News Agency).

Kurdish incidents of concern in Syria and Turkey

Additionally, Airwars researchers tracked five events in March (down from 10 in February) allegedly caused by Kurdish counterfire related to the Afrin offensive. All of these events were in Aleppo governorate in Syria. Airwars currently estimates that between 8 and 12 civilians died in these five events – compared to between 7 and 17 likely deaths in February. Up to six additional civilians were likely wounded.

Overall, Airwars tracked 28 claimed Kurdish counter fire events during the Afrin campaign – likely killing between 25 and 49 Turkish and Syrian civilians.

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

The known remaining active Coalition allies –  the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands – released 294 munitions from the air across Iraq and Syria during March 2018 according to official AFCENT data – a 61% fall from February’s 747 munitions.

In Iraq – where Airwars has not tracked a civilian casualty claim against the Coalition since February 7th – Inherent Resolve actions remained at low levels, with just 30 air and artillery strikes publicly declared during March.

Coalition actions in Syria fell to their lowest reported level since the first month of anti-ISIS bombing in September 2014. Just 51 air and artillery strikes were declared in March – a 63% decrease from February’s 137 reported strikes.

Of the still-active Coalition allies in March, the UK reported just five strikes in Syria, a 74% fall on the 19 declared in the previous month; and two strikes in Iraq. France declared just three airstrikes in Syria, down from eight in February. No airstrikes were reported in Iraq, though 14 artillery support missions were carried out.

The Netherlands reported weapon deployments in just two missions for the month, both near Abu Kamal in Syria. Additionally, the Dutch supported ground troops in an attack on a logistics storage facility in Hasakah governorate, Syria.

Airwars researchers tracked six alleged Coalition civilian casualty events during March, all of them in Syria. This was down from 11 claimed incidents in February. Of these six events, three are presently assessed as fairly reported. An event is assessed as fair when it has two or more uncontested and credible sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day. Airwars’ current estimate is that 15 civilians likely died across these three events – an 86% fall from the minimum of 106 civilians judged as likely killed by the US-led alliance during February.

The worst reported event of the month occurred on March 6th in Al Sha’afa, Deir Ezzor. According to local sources four families of Tajik nationality died in airstrikes which both Baladi and Al Sharq Al Shouri agency blamed on the Coalition. All reports said that the victims were families of members of Islamic State fighters, and while sources implied that women and children were harmed in the attacks, no names, images or further details were available.

On the same day (March 6th), three local sources named Bassam Al-Maeuf Al-Hamoud and his wife as being killed in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Hajin in Deir Ezzor.

In total, from August 8th 2014 to March 31st 2018 in both Iraq and Syria, Airwars has to date monitored 2,483 incidents locally alleged against the US-led Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State. Among these incidents, it has been claimed that a total of between 17,375 and 25,831 civilians were killed. Of these allegations, Airwars presently estimates that a minimum of between 6,259 and 9,604 civilians are likely to have been died as a result of Coalition actions. The alliance itself has so far conceded  855 deaths resulting from 224 events.

Libya

In March 2018, Libya saw continued fighting in the country’s south – while the security situation in the north remained comparatively stable, if tense.

Notable were ongoing clashes triggered by the intervention of the US with a drone strike targeting Al Qaeda in the village of Ubari, southwest of Sabha on March 24th. Senior recruiter Musa Abu Dawud and another jihadist were reported killed, while no civilian harm was locally claimed. This marked the first US strike in the country on the terror organisation since 2015, though ISIS was heavily targeted in the interim. AFRICOM confirmed the strike, as well as the death of the two Al Qaeda members.

The operation can be viewed in the context of the fight against Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) – an alliance of various jihadi salafist organisations in the Sahara – in which the US is increasingly involved, along with France. JNIM and other rebel organisations operate trans-nationally between Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan and constantly cross the borders into Libya.

The lack of governance in Libya’s south remains a problem in fighting foreign militias. Currently the LNA occasionally conducts airstrikes against the Chadian opposition entering the country, namely on March 19th in the Harouj mountains, March 20th in Tarbo and March 26th in Tmassa 160km south of Sabha. Again, no civilian harm was reported in the incidents.

Meanwhile, incidents of fighting as well as terror attacks still occur in the north. On March 4th, local sources reported between four and five civilians, including three children and a woman, injured from artillery shelling in the western part of Derna.

Advocacy

Military advocacy

In March, the Airwars military advocacy team traveled to Berlin to meet with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Left Party of Germany. Discussions focused on the Al Badia school strike in Al Mansouria where the UN estimates 150 civilians were killed by the US-led Coalition. The school was used as a shelter by internally displaced people when it was struck on March 20th 2017, according to local reports and field investigations by Human Rights Watch and the UN. The German Bundeswehr reportedly provided intelligence for the strike.  Airwars also visited the Syrian Archive in Berlin to discuss possible future collaborations.

Airwars also proactively submitted improved geolocations for a batch of civilian casualty allegations dating from 2014. These 34 incidents had not yet been logged into the Coalition’s civilian casualties assessment system. Airwars reviewed each allegation and provided as accurate as possible coordinates to the Coalition based on the public record, as well as providing supportive information and satellite imagery.

A timeline of the Al Badia incident created by Airwars’ military advocacy team

European advocacy

Following the publication of an ongoing Airwars assessment of Dutch military transparency, our European advocacy officer was interviewed by Dutch RTL News. Although the first three months of the renewed mission against so-called Islamic State had seen relative improvements in transparency, very little remains known about Dutch strikes between October 2014 and July 2016. In light of this partial improvement of transparency, our advocacy officer reflected on Airwars’ essential belief that civilians deserve to know who has bombed them – especially when things go wrong.

Our European advocacy office also continues to focus on Belgian military transparency despite the recent ending of its anti-ISIS campaign.

News from Airwars

In March, Airwars published jointly with the Daily Beast an extensive investigation that showed civilian casualties during recent operations in Raqqa were far higher than the Coalition has so far admitted. The article also revealed extensive and wide-scale weapons use, potentially including the firing of tens of thousands of artillery rounds into the city, and the heavy use of A-10 aircraft.

Months after the end of fighting, many bodies remain under the rubble of a city whose buildings the UN says are two-thirds destroyed or damaged. A recent assessment team mission to the city reported human remains are still decomposing under debris.  Hundreds more have been killed or wounded by ISIS IEDS and other unexploded munitions in the months after Raqqa was captured.

At the top of March, Airwars also published analysis showing a sharp increase in Russian airstrikes concentrated around Eastern Ghouta, that were allegedly killing hundreds of civilians — casualty levels never before seen by our researchers.

Airwars also reported on the latest report of UN investigators, who found that a host of violations took place in Syria. The Commission took the important step of naming Russia as the perpetrator of a series of attacks on November 13th in Idlib that claimed at least 84 civilians and injured 150. The US-led Coalition was also accused of violating IHL in some strikes.

Later in March, Airwars covered Australia’s admission that it had killed two civilians during the battle for Mosul. This was Australia’s third such acknowledgement. The incident was originally uncovered by researchers at Amnesty International; they passed the unpublished information to Airwars, which in turn alerted the Coalition. Amnesty’s research was part of a larger report on fighting in West Mosul which Coalition leadership had bluntly criticized at the time.

Samuel Oakford’s article on the likely death toll in Raqqa, published in partnership with The Daily Beast.

 

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 and Chris Woods.

Published

March 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

Coalition actions

Overall, from August 8th 2014 to February 28th 2018 across both Iraq and Syria, Airwars had monitored 2,475 incidents locally alleged against the US-led Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State, which claimed a total of between 17,348 and 25,800 civilian fatalities between them. Of these claims, Airwars presently estimates that a minimum of 6,193 to 9,537 civilians are likely to have been killed in Coalition actions. The alliance itself has so far conceded at least 841 deaths from 212 events.

The known remaining active Coalition allies –  the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands – released 747 munitions from the air across Iraq and Syria during February 2018 according to official AFCENT data – a 4% reduction from January’s 780 munitions 2018. The January figure, however, was initially reported as 448 munitions and then revised upwards by AFCENT.

Iraq

During all of February, the Coalition declared just 19 airstrikes in Iraq – though this represented a 58% increase from the 11 declared in January. Neither the UK or France declared any airstrikes in Iraq during the month. However, the French did report 10 artillery missions in support of Iraqi Security Force, half the number reported in January.

With ISIS’s territory recaptured almost completely in Iraq, on February 5th the Coalition announced that it would be focusing on “policy, border control and military capacity building” –  a major shift in its local strategy after 42 months of increasingly intense engagements.

Airwars tracked just one civilian casualty allegation in Iraq during the month. On February 7th, local sources reported that two people were killed and two more wounded in strikes that reportedly hit farming areas in al Mikisha village, east of the Abu Saida district in Diyala province. Both of those wounded later died. However, none of the sources provided any information on the party responsible for the attack – and there was also confusion about whether some or all of those killed were either farmers, or a local ISIS cell.

Smoke rises above the orchards of Al Mikhisa village, Feb 7th following a reported airstrike (via Yaqein)

Syria

February was a devastating month for Syria’s civilians, as the regime and Russia embarked upon a furious assault in opposition-held eastern Ghouta. Airwars tracked a massive 171 alleged Russian civilian casualty events in February – about 54% more claims than January. This volume of claimed Russian casualty events had not seen since the fall of eastern Aleppo in November 2016.

Meanwhile, following three months of sharply reduced fatalities, Coalition bombing against remnant ISIS forces in Deir Ezzor governorate saw reported civilian deaths increase more than five times compared to January’s minimum estimates. Overall, Airwars tracked between 106 and 224 civilians likely killed in Coalition actions.

On February 24th, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2401, demanding an immediate country-wide ceasefire. This, however, was almost immediately broken by Russian and regime forces. Meanwhile, Turkey’s offensive in Afrin also continued, edging ever closer to the city of Afrin itself. Turkey’s President Erdogan denied that the ceasefire applied to his country’s campaign in Syria.

Russia and the regime in Syria: “Hell on earth”

Civilians in eastern Ghouta faced unimaginable danger during February, as both Russian and regime forces mercilessly pounded rebel-held areas. In early February, the United Nations warned of a major and worsening humanitarian crisis. Yet as the month wore on, and despite international outcry, the bombing not only continued but intensified.

In total, Airwars tracked a near record 171 casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft in February. That tally had only been exceeded during January and February 2016, and during November of the same year prior to the fall of Aleppo. The scale of the bombing meant that it was almost impossible to bring aid to those in need. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the carnage as “hell on earth“. UNICEF issued a blank statement on February 20th, stating that it had simply run out of words.

Between 565 and 817 civilians were alleged killed in total across these 171 events – a 54% increase from January’s 111 events. These figures remain unvetted by Airwars, and are based on initial monitoring. For this reason, they should not be compared directly with fully evaluated estimates tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes.

“February was one of the worst months in the history of the Russian campaign in Syria,” says Airwars researcher Abulwahab Tahhan, who tracks Russian strikes. “The campaign intensified in eastern Ghouta, where thousands of civilians were besieged by the Syria regime. The reports coming out of the area were extremely distressing and the images very graphic.”

As previously reported by Airwars, bombings reached a peak in eastern Ghouta in the final weeks of February. Even the UN’s Security Council Resolution 2401, passed on February 24th, brought civilians no respite as strikes reportedly continued just hours later. A meagre daily five hour truce (from 9am to 2pm local time) called for by Russian President Vladimir Putin did little to staunch the bloodshed.

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“The airstrikes not only targeted residential buildings, but also hospitals, ambulances and journalists,” added Tahhan. “Civilians did not even have the chance to properly bury their loved ones who were killed in the attacks. Furthermore, we’ve seen reports of mass graves in public parks and any available public place.”

On February 8th, up to 21 civilians died in airstrikes on popular markets and residential areas of Arbin, eastern Ghouta, according to local sources. The Syrian Network for Human Rights pointed towards the regime though the Al Latamna Youth Group blamed Russia.

Four civilians died and up to 21 were wounded in an alleged Russian strike on the national hospital in Maarat al-Nu’man on February 4th, according to Step News Agency. On the same day, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that Russian jets had damaged Kafr Nobbol Surgical Hospital, Idlib.

Civil defence comes to the aid of civilians following an alleged Russian strike on residential neighbourhoods in the city of Kafr Nabbol, Feb 4th (via EMC)

Residential areas were pounded constantly. In one of the worst events, on February 22nd up to 34 civilians including children were reported killed in strikes on civilian homes in Douma, eastern Ghouta. Most sources blamed the regime, though Smart News referred to both the regime and Russia. We tracked eight events in Douma throughout the month.

Airwars monitors had tracked a total of 3,064 claimed civilian casualty events allegedly involving Russian aircraft between September 30th 2015 and February 28th 2018. The total claimed civilian fatalities in these alleged events ranges from 11,543 to 16,174. At least 5,229 of those reportedly killed in these incidents have been named by local outlets, social media and by casualty recorders. According to the Syrain Network for Human Rights, at least 6,019 civilians are likely to have died in Russian actions to date, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the figure at 6,891.

The bodies of two children following an alleged Russian or regime strike on Douma, Feb 22nd (via LCCSY)

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

The Coalition reported 137 air and artillery strikes in Syria during February – 51% fewer than the 277 it listed in January. All but three of these strikes were in Deir Ezzor governorate, centered mainly around Abu Kamal, where splinters of ISIS forces remained.

Of the still active Coalition allies, The Netherlands reported deploying weapons during eight missions in February, all near Abu Kamal. Both the UK and France also remained active in Syria. The UK reported 19 strikes, 30% fewer than the 27 listed by the British the month before.before. France reported eight airstrikes, one less than in January. 

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Airwars researchers tracked 10 claimed Coalition civilian casualty events during February – the same number as in January. Seven of these were assessed as fairly reported. An event is assessed as fair when it has two or more uncontested and credible sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes on the day in the vicinity. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 106 and 224 civilians likely died during these seven events – a more than five-fold rise on the minimum of 21 civilians likely killed during January. Even after the fall of Raqqa, Syria’s most vulnerable citizens remain in significant danger: at least 21 children and 27 women were also killed.

“It’s hard to explain exactly the reason for February’s rise in likely fatalities but it could be a final aggressive push to defeat ISIS in its last pockets in eastern Syria,” says Kinda Haddad, head of Airwars’ Syria team. “The SDF, the Coalition’s ground forces, have also been distracted by the intensified Turkish shelling in Afrin. On March 6th, they announced their withdrawal from the battle against ISIS to concentrate on Afrin. There is the possibility that the ground troops may already have started pulling out before the announcement and without eyes on the ground, the Coalition’s targeting could be getting more erratic”.

The first significant casualty event of the month occurred on February 2nd when at least 11 civilians reportedly died and seven or more were wounded in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Bahra village, northwest Hajin town in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that strikes had rendered a makeshift hospital inoperable.

The aftermath of an alleged Coalition airstrike on a makeshift hospital in Al Bahra, Feb 2nd (via Ahmad Al Shbli)

In a matter of days, Al Bahra village would be attacked twice more – in increasingly severe events. On February 4th, multiple local sources reported up to 40 civilians including as many as 21 children and 20 women had died as a result of “indiscriminate US shelling”. A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights said that an airstrike had targeted a school housing displaced people from Al Safira, Aleppo. Euphrates Post and Damascus Center for Human Rights published an extensive casualty list, including  17 members of the Al Hussein family. 

Local media reported that at least 17 civilians also perished in the village of Al Sha’af on February 5th and 6th. According to @syrians, most of the casualties were women and children.  Sound and Picture, a local monitor, told Airwars that airstrikes began on the night of February 5th and continued through the morning of February 6th. All sources blamed the US-led Coalition.

There were no casualty events tracked between February 8th and 18th. However another major incident was reported on February 19th in Hajin, in which up to 15 civilians – including five children and six women – were reportedly killed and dozens more wounded in an alleged Coalition airstrike. Ten members of the Al-Khalaf Al-Saleh family were among those reportedly slain.

’65 civilian martyrs in 24 hours, most of them women and children as a result of the bombing of the international coalition forces on the towns of # Al-Shifa and # Bahra Rural Deir Ezzor East’

Turkey in Syria: civilians remain in peril

Civilians in the Kurdish-dominated district of Afrin remained in grave danger throughout February as a Turkish-backed offensive edged closer to the city of Afrin. As casualties mounted, the UN said that that by February 8th between 15,000 and 30,000 people had been already been displaced by the fighting.

On February 21st, the SDF announced that Assad government forces had been invited into the canton to counter Turkish attacks. Meanwhile, Turkey’s President Erdogan not only promised his forces would lay siege to Afrin city but threatened to expand the conflict to Manbij, a Kurdish controlled area to the west of Afrin, though one where US forces are also stationed. Erdogan also  proclaimed the 30-day UN ceasefire did not apply to Turkey

During February, Airwars monitored 89 locally reported civilian casualty events reportedly carried out by Turkish-backed forces, which were alleged to have killed up to 74 civilians. Based on currently available information, researchers currently assess 50 of these events as fairly reported, with Turkish actions likely leading to the deaths of between 35 and 64 civilians. Of these 35 likely deaths, five were children and six were women.

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On February 13th, two 45 year old women were killed, named locally as Houriya Abdul Hameed Al Hajras and Fahima Hamada, Five other civilians were also wounded in an alleged Turkish shelling of Heikja village near Jindires, Afrin. One source, Syria News, added that an unspecified number of children had also died in the attack.

Civilians are treated in hospital following an alleged Turkish shelling of Heikja village, Feb 13th (via Hawar)

On February 22nd, Syrian state media was among several sources reporting that Turkey attacked an aid convoy headed to Afrin from Cizire and Kobane in eastern Syria. Sources alleged that up to 12 civilians were wounded in the incident – and one man, named as 27-year-old Salem Khalaf al-Khalif died. However, a report by Hawar News depicted what looked like a military funeral, casting doubt on the victim’s non combatant status. Turkey denied targeting civilians, claiming that the convoy consisted of military vehicles. Confusing matters further, another source Abuturab 313, reported that both a military and civilian convoy were traveling under the supervision of the Syrian army.

There were five events in the Jindires area throughout the month. The worst of these occurred on February 26th, in Yilanguz village, killing between two and five civilians including children and wounding three more. Local sources blamed a Turkish airstrike, though some also said that Turkey had conducted artillery strikes on the village. According to IC Afrin Resistance, the airstrike occurred between 3 and 4am. Rojava tweeted a disturbing video depicting showing baby clothes and children’s boots in the ruins.

A video showing the aftermath of an alleged Turkish airstrike on Yilanguz villages which reportedly killed a family of five on Feb 26th (via Anha)

Additionally, Airwars researchers tracked 10 events in February (down from 13 in January) allegedly caused by Kurdish counterfire. Seven of these were in Aleppo and one in Idlib governorate, Syria. A further two were in al Rihaniya in Turkey’s Hattai province. Airwars currently estimates that between seven and 17 civilians died in these nine events – a 30% decrease on the minimum of 10 civilians likely killed during January. Additionally, another 35-80 civilians were likely wounded.

Libya

In February 2018, the conflict in Libya saw a slight intensification compared to previous months. Particularly affected was the country’s south, which has been plagued by fighting over recent weeks. Belligerents in the south include the Libyan National Army (LNA), Government of National Accord (GNA) and Chadian and Sudanese rebels. Another important local force is the Tebu minority that variably sides with all of the three forces. Rebels belonging to the Islamist Justice and Equality movement tend to cross the borders in the Sahara, where they reportedly engage in human trafficking and drug smuggling.

In late February, heavy clashes between LNA and the rebels broke out near Sabha. The oasis town currently marks the border between the two rival governments of Libya (the LNA and GNA), which has led to unclear responsibility for the area, and shifting allegiances among local militias such as the Sixth Division.

Recently the LNA has reinforced its troops in the South, and has conducted airstrikes. Elsewhere a few other airstrikes were reported throughout Libya. On February 6th, a local source mentioned an air raid by an unknown belligerent 60 km East of Zighan. On February 10th, an airstrike on a convoy south of Sirte was reported, once again with the belligerent unknown.

Five days later, an Egyptian aircraft reportedly struck 10 vehicles which were said to be carrying weapons and ammunition near the Libya/Egypt border. The incident most likely took place on the Libyan side of the border and was picked up by international media as well. None of the sources reported civilian harm.

Advocacy

Military advocacy

In February, the Airwars advocacy team was able to exchange a large amount of data directly with the Coalition. It proactively submitted a batch of enhanced geolocations, providing the most detailed geotemporal data available based on the public record. These should in turn assist the Coalition in its own evaluations. This included data on all publicly reported events in September 2017 in Iraq and Syria, and some historic events the Coalition had requested additional information for. In total, Airwars improved the locational understanding for 158 claimed events, and submitted 121 pages of text and image-based analysis to the Coalition on those incidents.

Following the publication of the Coalition’s monthly civilian casualty report on February 22nd, Airwars received the military grid reference locations for most non-credible and all credible assessments contained in the report. In total, the Coalition completed the review of 116 possible civilian harm events: of these 102 were assessed as non-credible; four as credible; and ten as duplicates of existing reports.

Airwars has also been cross-checking its own archive against the Coalition’s public reporting. In February, our review of the 2014-2016 archive concluded. This found that for Airwars-monitored events that occurred before October 2016, 67% had yet to be processed by the Coalition. The military advocacy team is now working to ensure that each of these missed cases is properly assessed for civilian harm by the Coalition.

The military advocacy team has also been active elsewhere. In early February, team members participated in a monthly Mapathon to discuss the possibilities of collaborating with the Missing Maps project to improve the Open Street Map in Iraq and Syria. In addition, analysts participated in a series of explosive weapons and civilian harm workshops organised by The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW).

European advocacy

Airwars has employed a European advocacy officer since autumn 2016, thanks to generous funding from the Democracy and Media Foundation. Based in Utrecht, our current officer Koen Kluessien is focused mainly on Dutch and Belgian military transparency and accountability issues. During February, he also assisted PAX, the Netherlands-based peace and security NGO, in its own assessment of alleged Coalition airstrikes on the rural town of Al Bahra (see also above) – using real-time local reports of the multi-day airstrike campaign in the context of PAX’s own work on Protection of Civilians.

Additionally, Koen contributed to an ongoing Airwars assessment of Dutch miltary transparency. Since the renewal of its mission against so-called Islamic state on January 5th, the Netherlands has included the general location of airstrikes in its weekly updates. However, precise dates for when F-16s engaged in airstrikes are still not provided. This  means that Dutch actions cannot be cross-referenced against specific civilian casualty claims – a key demand from Airwars and others advocating for better public transparency.

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

▲ The civil defence arrive at the scene of an alleged Russian/regime strike in Saqba, Damascus, eastern Ghouta, Feb 20th (via SN4HR)

Published

February 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Since the capture of Raqqa on October 20th marked the end of large-scale Coalition-backed urban fighting, the war against ISIS has entered a new stage. Both the Syrian and Iraqi governments have declared victory against ISIS as a territorial entity, though the Coalition remains active in both countries. Even as Airwars tracks a dramatic fall in civilian casualty events attributed to the alliance, its mission to monitor all casualty allegations from international actions remains unchanged.

To reflect the slowdown in Coalition strikes, we have changed the format of our monthly assessments. These will continue to focus on allegations of civilian harm from strikes in both Iraq and Syria, but will also look at the wider nature of our ongoing work. As before, this will include allegations against Russia in Syria, as well as a detailed look at our new project assessing casualties from Turkey’s offensive in Afrin. In addition, key members of the Airwars team will report on work tracking civilian casualties in Libya; our advocacy engagement with militaries on behalf of civilians; and developments from our in-house investigations unit.

Conflict monitoring

Coalition actions

From August 8th 2014 to January 31st 2018 an overall total of between 17,166 and 25,483 civilian non-combatant fatalities had been locally alleged from 2,458 separate reported Coalition incidents, in both Iraq and Syria. Of these, Airwars presently estimates that a minimum of 6,136 to 9,315 civilians are likely to have died in Coalition actions. The Coalition itself has so far conceded at least 841 deaths from 211 events.

The known remaining active Coalition allies –  the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands – released 448 munitions from the air across Iraq and Syria during January 2018 according to official AFCENT data – a 23% fall from December 2017, and the lowest number reported in any one month since the start of the war in August 2014. That in turn has led to a steep decline in reported civilian harm – particularly in Iraq. However casualties continue to be reported from eastern Deir Ezzor in Syria.

Iraq

The Coalition declared just 12 air and artillery strikes in Iraq during January, a 60% decrease from the last month of 2017 – and the lowest total for any month since August 2014 when Coalition actions began. However this may not reflect the true level of strikes, since a number of actions publicly declared by the Dutch and French militaries appear not to have been tallied by the Coalition.

Of the US’s two most active Coalition allies, the UK declared only one strike in Iraq during January, while France reported no airstrikes at all. The French did report 20 artillery strikes in support of Iraqi Security Forces – double the tally for December 2017.

The collapse in airstrikes in Iraq coincides with plummeting casualty numbers. Airwars has not tracked a likely civilian harm event in the country attributed to the Coalition since November 1st 2017, the longest such period since our tracking began.

There are still risks tied to low-intensity operations however. On January 27th, during a week in which the Coalition carried out just four strikes in Iraq, one went badly wrong. At least seven Iraqi police officers and Popular Forces personnel were reportedly killed and between 11 and 20 wounded when Coalition aircraft were reported to have hit an Iraqi forces convoy in error. The Coalition’s official spokesman later said on Twitter that the intervention had come at the “request/approval of Iraq” and that “CJOC [is] investigating, more info provided as available.”

Colonel Abdul Salam al-Obeidi, al-Baghdadi West police chief, was reported killed in the friendly fire event on January 27th (via Nineveh Tomorrow),

Syria

January saw likely deaths from Coalition actions in Syria continue to fall, as ISIS was pushed further back from what little territory it still held in Deir Ezzor governorate. Airwars tracked between 21 and 52 civilian deaths likely caused by Coalition actions during the month – a 36% decrease on December 2017.

However, developments elsewhere were ominous. On January 20th, a new front in the Syrian conflict opened when Turkey began a long-anticipated campaign in the northern Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Meanwhile, reported Russian casualty events in Syria more than doubled compared to December 2017, as regime and allied forces mounted a fierce offensive against rebels in Idlib backed by heavy airstrikes. Once again, ordinary Syrians on the ground – often already displaced by fighting elsewhere – were facing extraordinary dangers.

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

The Coalition reported 277 air and artillery strikes in Syria during January – a 51% increase from December 2017’s 184 strikes. This was an indication that the war against ISIS, at least in Syria, was not over. All but one of these strikes were conducted in Deir Ezzor governorate near Abu Kamal, against remnant ISIS forces.

On January 3rd, Dutch F16s returned to the MIddle East, replacing neighbour, Belgium. The Netherlands military reported that weapons were fired during 11 missions during the month. These missions mostly occurred near Abu Kamal and Abu Hammam in Syria. The Dutch also said they had deployed weapons in Nineveh and Anbar in Iraq. Weekly reporting by the defence ministry, including general locational information of strikes, marked a modest increase in Dutch transparency over previous periods.

On January 16th, Australia formally ended its own campaign against ISIS – to date the only Coalition member besides the US to have conceded civilian harm from its actions in Iraq and Syria. Australia had conducted approximately 620 strikes in Iraq and 19 in Syria over the course of the war.

Meanwhile, both the UK and France remained active in Syria. France reported nine strikes – up from just one in December 2017. The UK reported 27 Syrian strikes – three times the number publicly declared in December.

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Airwars researchers tracked 11 civilian casualty events tied to alleged Coalition strikes in Syria during January, all of them in Deir Ezzor governorate. Of these 11 events, Airwars currently evaluates eight as fairly reported. An event is assessed as fair when it has two or more uncontested and credible sources, in addition to confirmation that the Coalition carried out strikes on the day in the vicinity. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 21 and 52 civilians likely died in these eight events.

“Although the fight against ISIS has slowed down considerably, it is still fairly intensive in the last pockets of territory the terror group holds in Deir Ezzor governorate,” said Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “We are no longer seeing daily allegations of civilian casualties, but when they do come they are often larger scale events. In some of the villages of Abu Kamal we have seen violent clashes between ISIS and the SDF. The claims are quite confusing, with incidents reported in the same village over several days, making it difficult to distinguish whether these are one event or several incidents two or three days in a row.”

On January 10th, between two and 20 civilians reportedly were killed in alleged Coalition airstrikes on Granij, according to a number of local sources. Euphrates Post and Step News Agency were among those blaming the Coalition, while Baladi reported a death toll of 20 with 30 more wounded in Coalition strikes. However, it said that the claim had originated with ISIS.

Three days later, on January 13th, five named civilians died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Hajeen, according to local media. Step News Agency reported that the incident killed “a family of five including a woman”. The victims were named by Euphrates Post and Free Deir Ezzor as Matrouk al Saleh and his wife Bashar al Saleh, Yasser Shaker al Ismail and Abdul Qadir Shaker Al Ismail.

The ruins of a hospital in al Sha’afa, following an alleged Coalition airstrike on Jan 23rd (via Free Deir Ezzor)

There was one further significant event during the month, on January 23rd, when up to 15 civilians including as many as seven women died in an alleged Coalition airstrike at a hospital in Al Sha’afa, Deior Ezzor. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights named victims as Nadia Al Abada Al Alu Mustafa and the wife of Ahmed Al Mahmoud Al Salem Al Mousa. This was the only civilian casualty event tracked in Al Sha’afa during January, though the Coalition had been extremely active in the area. It had claimed for example to have killed up to 150 ISIS fighters on January 20th in precision strikes near Al Sha’afa.

Russian military actions and civilian casualties

Overall, a total of 2,980 claimed civilian casualty events iallegedly involved Russian aircraft in Syria, between September 30th 2015 and January 31st 2018. The total claimed range for these alleged events is 11,251 to 15,740 non-combatants reported killed. At least 5,144 of the dead from these alleged events have so far been named by local media, social media and casualty recorders. According to aggregated data from the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 6,196 civilians are likely to have died in Russian actions to date.

While the risk from Coalition actions continued to decline in January, Syria’s civilians faced a significant leap in reported Russian strikes – often in tandem with Assad government ground and air assaults. Airwars researchers tracked 111 casualty events reportedly involving Russian aircraft in Syria during January – a major 118% increase from the 51 events tracked during December 2017.

Between 248 and 324 civilians were reported killed in those alleged Russian strikes. These figures remain unvetted by Airwars researchers, and are based only on initial monitoring. For this reason, they should not be compared directly with fully evaluated estimates tied to Coalition bombings and artillery strikes.

Of the 111 claimed Russian events, 78 (70%) were located by reports within Idlib governorate – over four times the number tracked in the same province a month prior. The strikes were in support of a major regime offensive against rebels who controlled the area. According to the UN’s humanitarian office, at least 212,140 civilians have been displaced in the last month of heavy fighting in Idlib.

“In the first month of 2018, we have seen a sharp and worrying increase in the Russian airstrikes in Syria. The majority of these airstrikes were in Idlib, north of Syria, which is very densely populated area full of displaced from all over Syria,” explains Abdulwahab Tahhan, who tracks alleged Russian casualty events for Airwars. “Hospitals and infrastructure were also targeted and some members of the White Helmets were reportedly wounded.”

A picture showing a child injured by alleged Russian raids on the town of Salamin in the eastern countryside of Idlib, Jan 19th (via EdilbEMC)

Between January 29th and 30th, Russia hosted a new round of peace talks in Sochi. In the week leading up to those talks, we tracked a marked decrease in civilian casualty events reportedly involving Russia. Airwars tracked nine new civilian casualty events for the week of January 22nd-28th, down from 31 incidents the week before.

However, casualty events began to climb again as soon as the Sochi talks concluded. “We have seen this pattern before over the peace talks at Astana and Geneva,” says Tahhan. “Strikes fall prior to the talks. Yet when they conclude, the campaign intensifies once again.”

Turkey in Syria: Afrin front puts civilians at risk

Syrians faced yet another front of the war when on January 20th, Turkey began air and artillery strikes in the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin, a district of Aleppo governorate. Airwars responded with a new, rolling assessment of civilian casualties reported from the Turkish assault, as well as those allegedly caused by retaliatory attacks by Kurdish forces.

The long-expected offensive came in defiance of UN appeals, and led to fears of a wider conflict between Turkey and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. There are 125,000 internally displaced people which the UN says are currently sheltering in the Afrin district and nearby Kurdish-held areas. Thousands of additional civilians were displaced during the first week of fighting.

Through the end of January, Airwars had monitored 50 locally reported civilian casualty events reportedly carried out by Turkish-backed forces. Based on available information, researchers currently assess 31 of these events as fairly reported, likely leading to the deaths of between 74 and 111 civilians. This included a minimum of 20 children and at least nine women killed. Another 174 or more non-combatants were reportedly wounded in these 31 events.

Reporting on civilian harm at Afrin remains challenging. The canton had experienced little of the violence which rocked most of Syria after 2011. This in turn meant national and regional casualty monitors were not well established in the area, leading to sporadic casualty recording once Turkey began its attack. Local monitors such as Afrin Now and the Kurdish Red Crescent – alongside local citizen activists – have emerged as key resources for those tracking the violence.

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Local activists and humanitarian officials told Airwars that in the first week of Turkey’s attack, bombings were concentrated mostly in rural areas and near the border. As previously reported by Airwars, a deadly attack on a poultry farm on January 21st killed at least 11 civilians. There were other significant civilian casualty events on January 23rd in Jindires, and on January 26th on Ma’abatli village.

The worst event tracked so far by Airwars occurred on January 28th, when between 13 and 17 civilians from a single family were killed during alleged Turkish airstrikes on Kobla village. Multiple local reports named 11 fatalities from the Kano family, including children as young as two years old. One source, Rumaf, said that only four people remained alive from the family, while Afrin Now published a starkly graphic video depicting the aftermath of a “massacre as a result of Turkish shelling”.

By January 29th, while Turkish-backed forces had made incursions into several areas, the majority of Afrin remained under Kurdish control. This included Afrin city, where many civilians were sheltering in the basements of homes and public buildings. Should fighting and strikes move into the city with more intensity, thousands more civilian lives could be at risk.

Images of wounded civilians following an alleged Turkish bombing of Afrin on Jan 31st. (via Qamislo News)

On January 31st, Afrin city itself again came under rocket attack from Turkish forces, killing one child and injuring 12 other civilians according to local media. Two sources – Afrin Now and Rumaf – named nine-year-old Arhat Ahmad Aliko as killed. Eleven other civilians were listed as wounded, including women and children, and three other members of Arhat’s family.

Airwars also tracked 13 casualty events attributed to Kurdish forces counterfire during January. Of these, researchers currently assess 12 as fairly reported. Three events occurred in Aleppo governorate, Syria, while nine were tracked across the border in Turkey’s Hattai province. Between 10 and 20 civilians were assessed as likely killed in these 12 events, with at least another 32 people wounded.

The aftermath of an alleged YPG rocket attack on a mosque in Kilis, Hatay (via Hurriyet)

Libya: a complex low intensity conflict

As part of our new joint project with New America, Airwars researchers monitored comparably fewer airstrikes in Libya during January. Local sources only reported eight strikes in the North African country, all but one likely carried out by local forces.

Libya currently has two competing governments: the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) is based in Tripoli and is led by Fayez al-Serraj

The Libyan Interim Government is based in the city of Al Bida, and is led by Abdullah al-Thani, associated with the House of Representatives based in Tobruk. The Libyan National Army (LNA) is headquartered in Al-Marj city. Led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, it commands a strong influence over the Libyan Interim Government’s day to day decisions.

On January 7th, LNA strikes reportedly hit the western part of Derna without causing any human or material damage. The city also came under sustained artillery shelling, though there were no reports of civilian casualties, according to local sources.

Almost two weeks later, the LNA allegedly struck Chadian and Sudanese militant forces in the desert 250 km west of Kufra. The strikes hit an armed convoy in response to six LNA soldiers reportedly being killed after clashing with African mercenaries at an oasis. It was claimed that the convoy was entirely destroyed. Libya’s southeast has seen violent clashes between local forces and Chadian and Sudanese militias in the past, and remains a hotspot for smuggling, extortion and human trafficking.

On January 23rd, local sources reported a GNA/ Misrata Air Force strike southwest of Sirte. Allegedly, the strike targeted ISIS near Wadi al-Bey. One Libyan source on Twitter described the attack as a US drone strike, while a CNN reporter said a US airstrike had been conducted on that day near Fuqaha. However this claim has yet to be confirmed by any other sources.

Generally, the political situation in Libya remained unstable as other armed clashes that didn’t involve airstrikes broke out, for example between competing militias (Special Deterrence Force and Misurata and Benghazi Defence Brigades) in Tripoli at Mitiga airport that left around 20 militants killed. Additionally, there was a clash between a local militia from near Misurata and the Tawergha minority, who had been blocked from returning to their homes after being internally displaced.

Military advocacy

The Airwars advocacy team continued its work in January engaging with the Coalition’s own civilian casualty cell. Airwars proactively submitted a batch of enhanced geolocations for civilian casualty incidents in Syria and Iraq to assist the Coalition in their own assessments. This included data on all 132 publicly reported civilian harm events in August 2017, and 25 historic events the Coalition had requested additional information for.

Airwars also processed the 218 reports that the Coalition published in their own monthly Civilian Casualties report on January 25th 2018. The Coalition shared locations for all of the five confirmed and 101 of the ‘non-credible’ reports. The locational information shared with Airwars is accurate to 100m – sufficient to determine where most reported harm events occurred.

The Advocacy team also completed a preliminary analysis of Coalition-credible incidents in Iraq, which looked at trends in the reporting, reviewing, context and causes of confirmed civilian casualties in Iraq. To date the Coalition has assessed 115 civilian casualty incidents in Iraq as ‘credible’.

Prior to the Coalition’s public reporting, Airwars was aware of only 40% of these credible incidents via public reporting in Iraq. The team also noted that most of the confirmed casualty events took place in urban areas. Airwars additionally found that the Coalition is far more likely to assess a civilian casualty event as credible if the incident has been self-reported by aircrews or analysts.

Airwars has also started identifying for the Coalition more than 800 alleged casualty events since 2014 that the US-led alliance has yet to begin assessing. Out of 65 publicly reported civilian harm events during 2014 in Syria and Iraq for example, 60% have not yet been logged by the Coalition.

In an effort to improve data visualisation, Airwars has generously been given a free subscription to Datawrapper. The team is also in discussion with Missing Maps to improve mapping coverage for Syria and Iraq via OpenStreetMap.

Heatmap, created by Airwars’ advocacy team, of Coalition confirmed civilian casualties incidents in Iraq. The majority of incidents are concentrated in Nineveh province, in particular the city of Mosul.

News and investigations from Airwars

Following comments made by a former top RAF official to Drone Wars UK, Airwars looked at the ongoing and increasingly controversial claim by the British military that no civilians have died as a result of its strikes in Iraq and Syria. Air Marshall Greg Bagwell – until 2016 the Deputy Commander at Royal Air Force Command, and involved in handling the UK’s Coalition involvement – in early January said that the British claim of zero civilian casualties was likely not credible.

The UK is the second most active member of the Coalition, carrying out strikes that the MoD claims have killed more than 3,000 ISIS fighters. Airwars previously revealed that US officials judged at least 80 confirmed civilian deaths to be the fault of its Coalition allies. As recently as January 2018, the MoD repeated claims that there is no evidence of civilian deaths from its strikes. “There is a danger at the moment that we are conditioning ourselves to think in a certain way – that wars are bloodless and we can carry out war in a ‘nice way’,” complained Bagwell.

Airwars spoke with Clive Lewis MP, at the time chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drone Warfare before his return to the Opposition front bench. “The Ministry of Defence’s insistence that it has not caused civilian casualties from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is increasingly untenable, given the lack of transparency surrounding how it investigates civilian casualty reports,” he told Airwars.

Image shows a Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 armed with Paveway IV laser guided bombs, seen here at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.

 

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

▲ Members of the Kurdish Red Crescent examine the site of an alleged Turkish airstrike on Kobla, Afrin, Jan 28th, which reportedly killed up to 17 civilians, many from one family. (via Kurdish Red Crescent)

Published

January 2018

Written by

Alex Hopkins

By the end of 2017, almost all the territory so-called Islamic State (ISIS) had once controlled in Iraq and Syria had been captured, but at significant cost. The year in many respects was a watershed for popular conceptions of modern warfare. Sold as the “most precise campaign in history” by US officials, the urban battlefields laid waste by bombs, artillery and improvised explosives told another story.

ISIS took every opportunity to endanger civilians, even as the Coalition increased the intensity of its own actions. The Coalition-backed assault on Mosul also grew bloodier in 2017 as fighting moved into denser pockets of the city, leaving thousands dead. In June, after months of bombing the vicinity, Coalition-support ground forces also began battling inside Raqqa. The ferocity of these simultaneous campaigns yielded the largest civilian casualty total from likely Coalition strikes ever monitored by Airwars.

Non-combatant deaths from Coalition air and artillery strikes rose by more than 200 per cent compared to 2016, rising to between 3,923 and 6,102 civilians estimated killed during the year according to Airwars tallies. By another measure, roughly 65% of all civilian deaths from Coalition actions tracked by our team since 2014 occurred over the last 12 months. This unprecedented death toll coincided with the start of the Trump presidency, and suggested in part that policies aimed at protecting civilians had been scaled back under the new administration. 

The huge ramp up in Coalition actions came in parallel with a relative reduction in Russian operations in Syria. From January 2017, for eight straight months until September, Airwars tracked many more allegations per month against the Coalition than against Moscow’s forces.

Despite international concern over increased civilian deaths, Russia continues to deny any civilian harm from its strikes – while the Coalition has downplayed the devastating impact of its own actions in Iraq and Syria. 

The 2017 Coalition campaign in numbers

From January 1st to December 31st 2017, the Coalition reported 11,573 air and artillery strikes against ISIS – a 49% increase from the 7,779 strikes it reported in 2016. Of these strikes, 3,348 (29%) were in Iraq and 8,225 (71%) were in Syria. While strikes in Iraq fell overall by 28%, actions in Syria increased by 161% compared to 2016, indicating a new focus for the campaign.

The active Coalition allies –  the United States, the UK, France, Belgium and Australia, and possibly Jordan and Saudi Arabia – cumulatively dropped 39,577 bombs and missiles in airstrikes against ISIS in 2017. Weapon releases from the air were up 29% on the previous year. Even so, in December 2017 just 584 munitions were fired – the lowest reported number since August 2014.

Coalition map showing the extent of the ISIS rollback in both Iraq and Syria during 2017.

A 215% rise in likely civilian fatalities and a 55% increase in injuries

In 2017 the war against ISIS moved into the most densely-populated urban centres controlled by the group, with dire results for civilians. Simultaneous assaults on Raqqa and Mosul meant that 2017 was the deadliest year yet for ordinary Iraqis and Syrians.

Across Iraq and Syria, casualty incidents tied to likely Coalition strikes more than tripled compared to the year before. To date, the Coalition has conceded 93 events in which it confirms having killed or injured civilians during 2017 – up from 58 such confirmed events for 2016. An additional 673 civilian casualty incidents were classified by Airwars researchers as ‘Fair’ for 2017. 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, between 3,923 and 6,102 non-combatants were likely killed in these 766 events in 2017 – a 215% increase on the 1,243 to 1,904 civilians estimated as likely killed by Coalition strikes in 2016. At least 2,443 additional civilians were reportedly wounded in these 766 events over the course of 2017, a significant increase from the year before.

Russian airstrikes in support of the Assad government continued in 2017 as well, though at a somewhat lower rate. Following a claimed partial withdraw of Russian forces in December 2016, Airwars tracked 983 alleged Russian events in the following year, a 33% decrease from 2016. Between 2,708 and 4,028 civilians were claimed killed across these events, compared with 6,176 to 8,513 alleged killed the previous year. In light of the massive rise in Coalition actions and its own limited resources, Airwars had to suspend its complete assessments of Russia in March 2017, meaning that these yearly figures have yet to be fully vetted. They should therefore not be directly compared to Airwars estimates for civilian deaths from Coalition strikes, which have been more closely vetted.

The slowdown in Russian actions and major ramp-up in Coalition casualty events led to trend that would characterize nearly all of 2017: Coalition-linked civilian casualties far outnumbering those attributed to Russia. Airwars first recorded this in January 2017, and as the year progressed the gulf between Russian and Coalition events only widened. This trend finally ended in September 2017.

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Syria: Coalition likely civilian deaths more than quadruple 

The number of civilian casualty events tied to Coalition strikes reported in Syria outnumbered those in Iraq by nearly three times in 2017, largely due to the escalating campaign to capture Raqqa.

Civilian deaths in Syria tied to incidents rated as “Fair” or “Confirmed” (by the Coalition) rose by 335% to 633 events in 2017. Between 2,786 and 4,374 civilians were likely killed across such events compared to a minimum of 641 to 1,038 likely deaths during 2016.

“In 2016 we had seen very disturbing scenes from Aleppo, showing the destruction that indiscriminate bombing can wreak on an urban centre,” says Kinda Haddad, head of Airwars’ Syria team. “This year Raqqa showed how the International Coalition against ISIS has repeated the Russian and Regime tactics of ‘siege, bomb and evacuate’ in order to achieve the stated aims of defeating the terror group.”

By the start of 2017, Raqqa was within sight of the Coalition’s SDF allies as its ground forces battled to encircle the city. The intensity of bombing reached a new peak in March, when Airwars tracked the highest death toll yet in Syria – a minimum of 314 civilians reported killed. Almost all of these occurred in Raqqa governorate.

Potentially the worst alleged incident recorded by Airwars in Syria occurred on March 20th-21st in Al Mansoura, near Raqqa. Local sources reported that anywhere from 40 to 420 civilians died in an alleged Coalition strike on Al Badiya school, in which hundreds of displaced women and children were seeking shelter. Human Rights Watch investigators who visited the site put the death toll firmly above 40. The Coalition confirmed the strike, but denied any civilians were killed. It has yet to re-open an investigation into the event, despite HRW’s findings.

A video report by Human Rights Watch, investigating the mass casualty event at Badiya school on March 20th-21st.

This early spike in fatalities in Raqqa governorate was deeply troubling, considering that fighting had not yet entered the city and was still concentrated in its less densely populated surrounding villages and towns.

By April, Airwars was beginning to accumulate extensive evidence from the perspective of civilians themselves, that protections on the battlefield appeared to have been scaled back under the new Trump administration. Additionally, the U.S. military shifted to “annihilation tactics“, a change cited by the Trump White House.  

On June 6th the official battle for Raqqa city began; civilian deaths rose that month by 41% compared to May, with a minimum of 418 civilians credibly reported killed. That same first month of fighting saw 4,400 munitions fired on Raqqa – more than four times the number fired in May. Reports emerged of whole families being wiped out. Yet despite mounting evidence, the Coalition continued to cast doubt on the toll its tactics appeared to be having on the most vulnerable people.

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The death toll worsened in August, when at least 453 civilians were likely killed by the US-led Coalition in Raqqa. In a typically grim event, up to 50 civilians died on August 20th in an alleged Coalition strike on civilian homes in Raqqa’s Bedo neighbourhood, an area of the city which was repeatedly pounded throughout the month.

By the time Raqqa was liberated on October 20th, Airwars estimate that more than 1,450 civilians had likely killed been by the Coalition since the start of June. Other monitors said that at least 1,800 civilians died in the fighting. Defeat of so-called Islamic State had come at an extraordinary cost, with the UN reporting that 80% of the city was left uninhabitable – despite the Coalition’s continued insistence that is had been “waging the most precise war in history”.

The aftermath of an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqa’s Bedo neighbourhood, Aug 20th (via Euphrates Post)

The final quarter of 2017 saw a sharp fall in reported Coalition actions and civilian deaths in Syria. On November 9th, the Syrian government declared victory over ISIS, though strikes continued in Deir Ezzor governorate, where Airwars is still tracking allegations against the Coalition, Russia and the regime.

This fall-off in Coalition strikes meant that after nearly a year, Coalition civilian deaths no longer outnumbered those tied to Moscow. In December, Airwars tracked 52 Russian events in Syria with 16 variously attributed to the Coalition, all in Deir Ezzor governorate.

The Coalition campaign is not over. In December, reported strikes rose by a third to 184, and likely civilian casualties increased in line, to between 33 and 58 civilians killed in 10 incidents we assess as fair. The worst of these 10 events occurred on December 13th when up to 25 civilians including eight children were allegedly killed in Coalition airstrikes on homes in Jarthi al Sharqi, Deir Ezzor governorate, according to local sources.

An image showing the destruction in the Square of the Deacon and the street leading to Al-Mansour Street, Raqqah. (published by Media Without Borders on Nov 26th)

Iraq: a minimum 87% rise in likely civilian fatalities

The nine month battle for Mosul that officially began on October 17th 2016 would have a disastrous impact on civilians over the course of 2017. By January 24th East Mosul had been liberated, though more than 1,000 civilian deaths had been alleged in that campaign – of which at least 324 appeared to have resulted from Coalition actions.   

However, much worse was to come after operations to capture West Mosul officially began on February 19th. Caught between ISIS snipers, mortars and vehicle bombs; and Coalition and Iraqi air and artillery strikes, civilians were placed at extraordinary and sustained risk as the battle built fierce momentum over the next five months.

Minimum likely deaths in Iraq evaluated as Fair or Confirmed increased by 87% in 2017 compared to 2016. Across 133 incidents, Airwars estimates that between 1,128 and 1,717 civilians were likely killed by Coalition actions in Iraq during 2017. Between 4,514 and 6,989 additional deaths are included in “contested” incidents, where multiple belligerents – including the Coalition, Iraqi forces and/or ISIS – have been implicated.

Just days into March, hundreds of civilians were already reported killed in Mosul. During the entire month, Airwars tracked a near tripling of likely fatalities, amid reports of mass casualty incidents in which civilian homes and infrastructure was repeatedly hit.

In the greatest confirmed loss of life in any one civilian casualty event of the war, the Coalition itself admitted to killing between 105 and 141 civilians  on March 17th-18th in a US airstrike on Mosul’s Al Jadida/New Mosul neighbourhood. The strike hit a house holding hundreds of displaced civilians near the Al Rahma Al Ahli Hospital. While that one incident sparked international outrage, civilian deaths continued to rise as the battle ground on.

Twins Ali and Rakan Thamer Abdullah, two well known local bodybuilders who were slain in a confirmed Coalition strike on their home in West Mosul, March 17th-18th which killed at least 105 civilians. Image courtesy of Iraqoon Agency.

From May, as Iraqi Security Forces pushed into Mosul’s Old City, determining who was responsible for fatalities proved exceptionally challenging. The number of ‘contested’ events in Iraq during 2017 increased more than six-fold on the previous year, to between 4,514 and 6,989 contested deaths monitored by Airwars.

The official liberation of Mosul was finally announced on June 29th as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared a symbolic end to ISIS’s caliphate, though the fighting would continue for three more weeks. However, there was another spike in deaths prior to the city’s fall, including allegations of war crimes committed by victorious Iraqi forces. The entire Mosul campaign was the biggest urban assault since World War Two, effectively lasting 256 days – three months longer than the epic Battle of Stalingrad.

Airwars’ Iraq researcher went into the field numerous times during the West Mosul campaign. “I noted dozens of injured civilians fleeing the battle without any coordination from Iraqi forces or safe corridors,” he says. “Additionally, there was repeated use of civilians as human shields by ISIS. Towards the end of the battle, it sometimes seemed that the Coalition were attacking everything in order to eradicate ISIS from the city, regardless of the high number of civilian casualties.”

From July 18th, Coalition air and artillery strikes effectively ceased in Mosul, resulting in a 41% decrease in civilian casualty events in the city and a corresponding decline in both likely and contested deaths during July. Yet for thousands of Iraqis it was too late. Airwars’ current estimate is that a minimum of between 1,066 and 1,579 civilians were likely killed by Coalition strikes in Mosul between October 17th 2016 and mid July 2017. Of these fatalities, a minimum of 626 occurred during the West Mosul assault, from February 19th to July 15th.

Additionally, between 4,191 and 6,160 more civilians were killed in contested events at Mosul, according to Airwars tracking. Associated Press recently put the number of civilians killed in the battle at between 9,000 and 11,000 – at least a third of whom it said had died in Coalition and Iraqi air and artillery strikes.

Scenes of destruction after heavy shelling and air strikes on Old Mosul (via Iraqi Spring Media Center)

After their defeat in Mosul, ISIS’s remaining territorial control quickly crumbled. August saw a rapid victory in Tal Afar, where pre-battle warnings that 50,000 civilians remained in the city were proved incorrect. That same month, reported casualty incidents fell by a quarter.

From September to November, both likely and contested deaths in Iraq continued to plummet. In November just one likely event tied to Coalition strikes was recorded. On December 9th, the Iraqi government declared victory over ISIS. Airwars tracked no allegations of civilian deaths from Coalition actions during the month  – the first time this had occurred in Iraq since the start of the war.

Key Airwars investigations during 2017

The Airwars inhouse investigations team led by Samuel Oakford began 2017 by looking back at hundreds of civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq reported in the final days of the Obama administration. That spike would only grow during the first year of the Trump presidency.

In February, Airwars revealed that the US had used depleted uranium against targets in Syria during 2015. This marked the first use of the controversial weapon type since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – in contravention of US claims that it would not do so.  

In March, Airwars recorded the 1,000th alleged Coalition civilian casualty event and began to report a steep casualty escalation coinciding with the Trump administration. Additionally during March, Airwars was first to report US involvement in an attack that claimed dozens of lives at a mosque in Idlib.

In April, we released an in-depth investigation into the unilateral US “shadow war” being waged in Syria against alleged al Qaeda-linked targets, leading to incidents like that in al Jinah.

In May, Airwars released an important exclusive investigation that found Coalition allies had killed at least 80 civilians – as determined by US investigators – but that none would accept responsibility for. Airwars also revealed that as part of an arrangement with the Coalition, the US would no longer identify its own strikes — a development with further troubling implications for transparency. Airwars would later unearth Belgian involvement in two casualty events which the Coalition had determined had harmed civilians, despite public denials by Brussels. 

In June, Airwars reported on conflicting instructions given to civilians in Raqqa, where operations inside the city officially began that month. And in July, with Mosul’s capture complete, Airwars reviewed the massive civilian toll from that offensive.

Also in July, Airwars reported in a joint investigation with the Daily Beast that civilian casualties from the US-led anti-ISIS war had already doubled under President Trump -after just six months.

Following the capture of Mosul, Airwars monitored heavy civilian death tolls in Raqqa. Hundreds of children were reported killed in the first months of fighting there. In a feature jointly published with Foreign Policy, Airwars drew attention to troubling comments made by the Coalition’s then-commander Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, leading to a rare and lengthy public response by the General.

Airwars monitoring of the campaign in Raqqa continued to show major death tolls. In August, 10 times more munitions were fired in the city than for all of Afghanistan. In October after the city’s fall, Airwars published estimates for civilian deaths in Raqqa that far exceeded anything the Coalition has so far admitted to.

Airwars monitoring of Russian allegations also continued through the year, and in the Fall they were blamed for a sharp rise in civilian deaths during fighting in Deir Ezzor.

Ending a strong year, in December Airwars reviewed the staggering reported casualties from anti-ISIS operations in Iraq.

Military advocacy for Iraq and Syria

A dedicated Airwars military advocacy team was formed in September 2017 thanks to targeted funding, and now consists of four specialist members. The team was created to help match the increased capacity of the Coalition’s own civilian casualty monitoring team.

As a result Airwars has been able to increase both the volume and capacity of its geolocation and investigative work. For example, if an allegation mentions a specific neighbourhood, researchers can help the Coalition find the coordinates of the area and run additional satellite image analysis to try to determine the exact location of the strike, or attempt to geolocate photographs and videos that accompany such reports.

At the request of the Coalition, Airwars directly assisted with 50 individual event assessments during 2017. Enhanced geolocations are now also provided to the Coalition where possible.

In total, during 2017 the Coalition itself processed 803 alleged civilian casualty events in Syria and Iraq, assessing 673 of them to be Non-Credible and 130 as Credible. Airwars has frequently queried such assessments against our own database. As part of this information exchange, in 2017 the Coalition also provided precise locations to Airwars for 67 Credible and 258 Non Credible cases. This information proved critical in determining where allegations and confirmed events had occurred.

An image showing the aftermath of an airstrike (S1201 on August 15th, 2017) in the Muawiya school district in Raqqa. The Airwars team of geolocators used the photo to help determine the exact location of the building that civilians had allegedly been killed in.

Airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Libya

In September 2017, Airwars and New America began a joint Libya project, which is expected to publish its first findings in Spring 2018.

The political instability in Libya created by the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 led to civil war three years later. This in turn gave an opening to ISIS and other extremist belligerents; and further fragmented the political landscape of the country. This also led to the involvement of foreign actors such as the US, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

The new project aims to track and assess all airstrikes in Libya – both international and domestic – since the end of the NATO war in 2011. Three team members  are currently gathering and assessing reports – one English-language and two Arabic-language researchers from Libya. 

The Libya project is similar to Airwars work in Iraq and Syria, but is also broader in scope. As the estimated sample size of reported airstrikes in Libya is much smaller, the team will be able to conduct more detailed research and code for information such as munition types, weapons used or the structures or objects targeted. Unlike in Syria and Iraq, Airwars will also be able to track airstrikes from domestic forces such as the competing governments of the GNA and LNA, each of which control air assets.

Since September, our research team has begun building up a comprehensive timeline of locally and internationally reported allegations. When the dataset goes public later this year, we expect it to provide significant insights into the deteriorating security situation in Libya – one in which, according to the UN, airpower remains the greatest threat to civilians. 

‘On Jan. 19, the Pentagon announced that U.S. airstrikes had hit two ISIS encampments in Libya, killing dozens of ISIS militants’

 

Airwars Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis for 2017: Kinda Haddad, Salim Habib, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Koen Kluessien, Christiaan Triebert, Tareq Haddad, Eline Westra, Oliver Imhof, Samir, Osama Mansour, Poppy Bowers, Eeva Sarlin, Samuel Oakford, Sophie Dyer, Beth Heron, Laura Bruun, and Chris Woods.

▲ The ruins of Saif Al Dawla Street in Raqqah following the end of the Coalition backed-SDF assault (image published by RBSS, Nov 24th)