Reports

Reports

Published

May 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

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

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

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

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

Coalition actions fall in Syria – but remain intense

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

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

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

— Babak Taghvaee (@BabakTaghvaee) March 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Syria more than triple

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

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

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

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Coalition incidents of concern in Al Baghouz camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coalition incidents of concern in Iraq

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

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

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

Russia in Syria: an 82% rise in casualty events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libya

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

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

Advocacy

Military advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

European advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Natalia Benedetti (@_NBenedetti_) March 20, 2019

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

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

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

Published

April 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

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

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

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

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

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

Intensity of Coalition strikes in Al Baghouz pocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coalition incidents of concern in Iraq

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

Russia and the Assad government in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libya

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

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

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

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

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

Advocacy

Military advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

— Airwars (@airwars) February 5, 2019

European advocacy

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

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

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

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

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