Reports

Reports

Published

December 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Chris Woods, Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Joseph Dyke, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Oliver Imhof and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

Civilian harm from foreign military action in all tracked conflicts have remained low, with little change observed in November compared to previous months. In Syria, Russian actions have decreased from October. It has also been a quieter month for US-led actions in Syria, although reports of US-led strikes on Iranian forces in Syria have continued. While most belligerents have seen their military activity in Syria scale back, Turkey began escalating its shelling of key towns held by the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with Ain Issa bearing the brunt of the military escalation.

In Iraq, Turkish strikes on fighters belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) continued during the month, with civilians caught in the crossfire once again. Meanwhile, International Coalition-led actions against ISIS remained sporadic throughout the month, especially in central and northern Iraq.

In Libya, the ceasefire that was officially signed between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) at the end of October has largely held, with only sporadic reports of strikes taking place in the country.

November also saw a major breakthrough for Airwars, with the launch of The Credibles, published in conjunction with The Washington Post. After several years of patient engagement with the US military, the US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State provided Airwars with the near locations of nearly all of the 344 publicly confirmed civilian harm events in the war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. In total this interactive dataset allows for the first time the accurate location of almost 1,400 civilian deaths the coalition has admitted to causing since 2014. These located events represent the most accurate and comprehensive data ever publicly revealed by the US military about the harm it causes in war and raises hopes for families of those killed for potential apologies and ex gratia payments.

Turkish actions in northern Syria escalate as fears loom over possible offensive 

November saw a marked increase in Turkish military activity in northeastern Syria, centred largely around the town of Ain Issa and other areas controlled by the SDF. Airwars tracked six civilian harm incidents in Syria during the month, five of which occured in the last two weeks of November in and around the town of Ain Issa. According to local reports, four civilians were killed and up to 20 others were injured. In addition to this, there have been numerous reports suggesting that the Turkish-led shelling of the town has targeted residential homes, leading to large levels of displacement in Ain Issa.

While Turkish pressure on Ain Issa had been constant in the weeks prior to the establishment of a Turkish military base just north of Ain Issa on November 19th, the situation for civilians has deteriorated significantly since then. Tensions between the SDF and Turkish-backed forces in the region reached new heights on November 24th after an attempted offensive by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) near Ain Issa failed and resulted in the deaths of 31 SNA fighters. This incident prompted a significant increase in Turkish shelling on Ain Issa.

The recent escalation has further raised fears that Turkey is preparing to gear up for another offensive in northeastern Syria. Turkey’s weariness over the continued influence exerted by the PKK-affiliated YPG so close to the Turkish-Syrian border has not gone away despite the military gains made last October, which saw Turkey take control of the border strip between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain and Kurdish forces pull back 32 kilometers from the Turkish border. While support for the SDF by the United States remains strong, the current presidential transition period may serve as an opportunity for Turkey to launch an offensive against the Kurdish-led group. Kurdish officials believe that Joe Biden’s arrival to the Oval Office could make it significantly harder for Turkey to achieve its objectives through military means, given the strong support Kurdish groups had under previous Democratic President Barack Obama.

The last week of the month saw the highest number of civilian casualties. On November 23rd, Turkish-led forces launched an attack on the Ain Issa camp and the villages of Maalak and Sidon, north of the Ain Issa district. The attack took place at night, with local sources claiming that the areas were targeted with “hundreds of mortar shells and rockets”. At least eight civilians were injured in the attack. Just five days later, two civilians were reported killed and up to four others including a woman and her two children were injured as Turkish forces targeted the city once again at night. 

In Iraq, Turkey’s campaign on the PKK has continued this month, albeit at a lower intensity compared to the summer. With PKK fighters dispersed in the mountains of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, most of Turkey’s strikes target remote areas with low population densities. Despite this, reports of civilian harm from these strikes have continued. 

On November 8th, one civilian was reportedly killed in a Turkish drone strike on an alleged PKK vehicle near the town of Khalaf in the Sinjar district, Nineveh province. Up to five militants were reportedly also killed and at least three others wounded. According to Hawar news, the strike killed a civilian who was working on a nearby water well.

Additionally, tensions between the PKK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) increased during the month. This came when the PKK and some Peshmerga affiliated with the KDP clashed directly in Chamanke District on November 4th. According to Rudaw, PKK fighters attacked Peshmerga forces in the area, killing one soldier and injuring two more. Although the two groups did not reconcile following this incident, no further clashes were reported during the month. 

People looking at the vehicle that was targeted by alleged Turkish drones near Sinjar on November 8th, 2020 (via Hawar News).

Sporadic Russian strikes on Idlib continue

The beginning of the month saw a notable escalation in Russian strikes and Syrian Regime-led shelling on rebel-controlled parts of Idlib Governorate. This came off the back of rising tensions between Turkish-backed opposition groups and Russia following Russian strikes on a Faylaq al-Sham camp on October 26th near the town of Kafr Takharim in northern Idlib, close to the border with Turkey, killing dozens of fighters. Airwars researchers tracked four civilian harm incidents during the month – a slight decrease from October’s tally of six incidents resulting in civilian harm. Up to nine civilians were killed in the attacks.  

On November 4th, at least four civilians, including a child, were killed in alleged Russian or Syrian regime artillery strikes on the city of Ariha, Idlib governorate. Among the victims were two men working for the Ihsan Relief and Development Organization. Up to six others were reportedly wounded. The bombardment also targeted the Martyr Zakariya Saedou School, partially destroying the yard and lightly damaging other parts of the school. Local sources named the victims as Raghid Zakariya Al Jasri, a driver for the Ihsan Relief and Development Organization, Samer Madi, Rimas Hindawi, a child who was killed while at school and Ibrahim Al Younis, a psychological support worker at Ihsan Relief and Development Organization

Injured civilians being brought to an ambulance after alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes on Ariha on November 4th, 2020 (via SNHR).

The week after, on November 13th, a number of Russian soldiers were wounded after entering a minefield in Jabal al-Zawiya. Following this, further strikes were reported on towns in Idlib including Arab Saeed in Idlib’s western countryside. No civilians were reportedly harmed in the airstrike. 

This month has seen local sources recording the long-term impact that Russian raids on populated areas have on civilians. On November 17th, two separate incidents of civilians being harmed as a result of previous Russian actions were reported. In the town of Qastoun in Hama, a civilian by the name of Nassar Ahmad Nassar died when his house collapsed on him. According to local sources, the man’s home had been previously severely damaged by alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes. A similar incident occurred in the Sarja village of Idlib, where a civilian died and another civilian was injured when the roof of their home also collapsed after being subjected to heavy bombing from Russian warplanes.

Meanwhile, Russian and Syrian regime forces resumed clashes with ISIS militants in northwestern Syria. The clashes have mainly been centered in the desert areas that stretch between the governorates of Hama, Aleppo, and Raqqa. Major clashes were reported on November 28th, when regime forces lost at least ten soldiers and 16 ISIS militants were killed in clashes. 

Syrian Civil Defence teams carrying a victim after a civilian home in Sarja village collapsed on November 17th, 2020, following alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes on an unknown date (via SNHR).

US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq

The International Coalition continued its operations across Syria and Iraq during the month of November. Civilian harm once again fell to low levels, with only one incident reported in November in Syria. 

In both Syria and Iraq, the US-led Coalition and its partners on the ground were relatively active in the first week of the month. According to the Coalition’s spokesperson, Colonel Wayne Marotto, local forces carried out 15 operations against ISIS militants during the first week of November.

In Syria, the only alleged civilian harm incident took place during this period. Local media sources reported that on November 7th, the US-Led Coalition conducted a joint operation with the SDF against suspected ISIS members in the village of Ghariba Al Sharqiya, north of Deir Ezzor and arrested three suspected ISIS members. Local sources reported that during this operation a man by the name of Mohammed Abdullah Al Dibs, also known as Abu Fatima, was killed in the crossfire. His body was later found near the Al Khabour river. While some local sources claimed that this man was a civilian, some outlets insisted that Abu Fatima was not a civilian, and instead had been an assistant of Saddam Al Jabal, ISIS commander of the Euphrates area during the group’s control of the territory. 

The body of Mohammed Abdullah al-Dibs, which was found near the Khabour River on November 7th (via Euphrates Post)

Furthermore, Iranian positions in Syria were reportedly targeted by US warplanes. It is not clear whether these strikes were carried out unilaterally or as part of the International Coalition. There are also doubts about whether the US was involved at all in these attacks. On November 8th local sources reported that airstrikes conducted by US warplanes targeted Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers in Albu Kamal. Further strikes were reported on both November 12th and 13th targeting Iranian-backed groups in the deserts of Mad’an and Al Sabkha, in Raqqa’s southern countryside. Another airstrike was allegedly carried out targeting Iranian-backed groups around the town of Mohsen in Deir Ezzor’s eastern countryside on November 14th.

Meanwhile in Iraq, the US-led Coalition coordinated with local Iraqi forces on a number of operations against ISIS across the country. The operations focused mainly on the Makhoul, Khanouka and Hamrin mountain ranges, where ISIS continues to maintain a presence. The Coalition confirmed that it had conducted a series of strikes on ISIS targets in the Hamrin Mountains on November 7th as well as assisting Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in their operations in the Makhoul Mountains on November 8th.

Later in the month, Iraqi forces, in conjunction with the US-led Coalition, carried out a major operation in the area between Wadi Zgaitoun and Wadi al-Khanajer in Kirkuk Governorate on November 19th and 20th. The Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services released footage of airstrikes that were carried out on alleged ISIS guesthouses in that area.

جانب من الضربات الجوية التي إستهدفت مضافات بقايا داعـش في المنطقة الرابطة بين وادي زغيتون – وادي الخناجر ..#جهاز_مكافحة_الإرهاب

Part of the air strikes that targeted ISIS remnants' guesthouses in the area linking Wadi Zgaitoun – Wadi Al-Khanajer pic.twitter.com/wt5QeJ77tU

— جهاز مكافحة الإرهاب (@iraqicts) November 20, 2020

Libya: Month of calm following official ceasefire

Fighting in Libya has remained minimal into November following the official ceasefire deal that was signed in Geneva on October 23rd.

Only two airstrikes were reported in November in Libya, the same number as in October. Both strikes were allegedly conducted by Turkish drones on fuel smugglers. 

The first event took place on November 16th near Sabratha. The second incident took place one day later in Al Ajaylat. Neither resulted in reports of civilian harm.

(Fuel truck burning after alleged Turkish drone strike near Al Ajaylat on November 17th, 2020)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Yemen

In Yemen, local reports surfaced of a possible US drone strike in Marib province on November 14th. According to local media sources, a US drone hit a farm near the Bin Maelli station and the al-Nakhil Resthouse in Wadi Obeida. According to reports, the drone strike targeted three al-Qaeda members. The strike injured one member, but the other two managed to survive the attack.

CENTCOM claimed that there were no US military strikes during November 2020 in Yemen. The last publicly declared CENTCOM action was on June 24th 2019 in Al Bayda province.

#مارب طائرة بدون طيار امريكيه تستهدف ثلاثه اشخاص من تنظيم القاعده بالقرب من استراحة النخيل ـ محطة بن معيلي صباح اليوم السبت

حيث اصيب احدهم جراء الضربه فيما نجى الاثنين الاخرين منها #علي_النسي

— علي النسي (@aalnaasi) November 14, 2020

Somalia

Only one event with potential US involvement was reported in November, one less than in the previous month.

One CIA officer officer, later named as John Goodboe by The Intercept, was allegedly killed by an IED or VBIED. The exact circumstances of the incident remain unclear. A Guardian report said he was killed on November 6th while other sources reported he died later in November.

AFRICOM stated in an email to Airwars that no other US actions have been conducted in November.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during November 2020. The last such reported US strike was in August 2018.

November also saw a major breakthrough for Airwars, with the launch of The Credibles, published in conjunction with The Washington Post. After several years of patient engagement with the US military, the US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State provided Airwars with the near locations of nearly all of the 344 publicly confirmed civilian harm events in the war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. In total this interactive dataset allows for the first time the accurate location of almost 1,400 civilian deaths the coalition has admitted to causing since 2014. These located events represent the most accurate and comprehensive data ever publicly revealed by the US military about the harm it causes in war and raise hopes for families of those killed for potential apologies and ex gratia payments.

Advocacy

November also saw a major breakthrough for transparency, with the launch of The Credibles, published by Airwars in conjunction with The Washington Post. After several years of patient engagement with the US military, the US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State provided Airwars with the near locations of nearly all of the 344 publicly confirmed civilian harm events in the war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. In total this interactive dataset allows for the first time the accurate location of almost 1,400 civilian deaths the coalition has admitted to causing since 2014. These located events represent the most accurate and comprehensive data ever publicly revealed by the US military about the harm it causes in war and raise hopes of potential apologies and ex gratia payments for the families of those killed.

UK advocacy

Airwars UK Advocacy team participated in the UK’s Protection of Civilians Working Group meeting in November to discuss updates in the UK and plan for a meeting with Lord Ahmad, the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Minister of State, following a letter sent by the group requesting that Protection of Civilians be prioritised throughout different parts of the government. The group is awaiting details about the meeting. 

Airwars participated in a closed-door round table discussion organised by Saferworld about the UK’s training of local, national and regional forces titled ‘“Are we speaking to the right people when undertaking monitoring, evaluation and learning?”  The discussion drew on experience from different fields and organisations and participants unanimously concluded that local populations are not engaged enough in the monitoring and evaluation of operations and they should be represented well.

Airwars also took part in Save the Children’s parliamentary launch of the latest report ‘Stop the War on Children’, which discussed the devastating impact of conflict on children living in or near war zones. The launch focused on the trends and themes identified in the report, the experiences of children living in conflict, and how the UK can play a pivotal role in protecting children in war, an aim shared by Airwars. 

European advocacy

Following the October release of Seeing through the Rubble, our joint report with PAX for Peace which examines the long-term effects of the use of explosive weapons in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah, we presented the report to our partners at the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) in a virtual meeting on November 2nd.

On November 12th, Airwars attended the starting session of the so-called Roadmap Process with the Dutch Ministry of Defence. The process is a chance for civil society and the Ministry to review how the Dutch transparency and accountability practices in regard to civilian harm can be improved. Airwars director Chris Woods emphasized in his opening statement that, despite the different perspectives, there is a shared goal among the civil society consortium and Defence officials: to see fewer civilians harmed in conflict. 

Airwars deputy director Dmytro Chupryna attended webinars organised by INEW on November 19th and 26th, which discussed the common misconceptions that states often have regarding the Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA) political declaration. The purpose of the webinars was to agree on a joint position in tackling common pushbacks and misconceptions.

▲ Locals in Idlib commemorating child victims of the war in Syrian on International Children's Day, November 20th (Idlib Plus)

Published

December 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Joseph Dyke, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Riley Mellen, Samuel Brownsword and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

The months of September and October 2020 saw a flurry of activity from Airwars. Starting with the launch of new interactive mapping of reported civilian harm during the recent siege of Tripoli; through to our major joint report with PAX examining the civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in cities; and the launch of our latest project , tracking the ongoing US counterterrorism campaign in Yemen.

Meanwhile, military activity continued across all tracked conflicts during September and October, with the latter month seeing a notable rise in civilian harm incidents in Syria. Meanwhile, after the single worst month for reported civilian harm incidents in Iraq from Turkish action since 2015 in August, no locally claimed Turkish civilian harm incidents were tracked by our team in the country during the months of September and October. In Syria however, civilian harm incidents involving Turkish-led forces continued to be reported throughout this period.

In Libya, military activity remained minimal, as it had done since June 2020. In a major breakthrough, the GNA and LNA jointly agreed to a UN-brokered official ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd, four months after hostilities had already effectively ceased.

Gradual increase in civilian harm from Russian actions

The month of September saw a continuation of a trend observed the previous month – low levels of civilian harm from Russian actions in Syria. Airwars researchers tracked a total of four locally claimed civilian harm incidents attributed to Russian forces – an increase of one from the previous month’s tally. According to local reports, two civilians were killed and up to six more were injured in these attacks. This was down from at least five civilian deaths and up to 11 others injured from alleged Russian incidents reported in August.

The only known incident which led to civilian deaths occurred on September 7th in the town of Ariha in Idlib Governorate. A local source reported that Russian and/ or Regime missile strikes on the town killed two civilians and injured at least two others. 

However, October saw alleged Russian aggression on both civilians and Syrian rebel groups rise significantly. It was also characterised by a notable rise in both the number of civilian harm incidents allegedly resulting from Russian actions in the country; and the total number of civilians killed and injured. Airwars tracked six claimed civilian harm incidents from Russian actions in October. According to local reports, six civilians were killed and up to 33 more were injured by these airstrikes. 

One significant incident occurred at the end of October on Turkish-backed Syrian rebels. On October 26th, Russian airstrikes reportedly targeted a training camp run by Faylaq al-Sham, near the town of Kafr Takharim in northern Idlib, which is close to the border with Turkey. The strike killed at least 78 rebel fighters and injured over 100 more. According to Airwars’ assessment of the incident, at least two civilians were also killed, including local journalist Rashid al-Bakr. 

Journalist Rashid al-Bakr was killed in alleged Russian airstrikes on a Faylaq al-Sham camp on October 26th 2020 (via Euphrates Post)

The attack was met with outrage by Ankara and prompted a fierce counterattack by Syrian rebel factions on Regime positions in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. While there had been previous periods of heightened tension between Turkey and Russia since a major Idlib ceasefire came into effect in March, this attack posed the most serious threat to the agreement to date. However, observers noted that Russia’s motivation for the initial attack was more a statement against Turkey itself rather than an indication that Russia and the Regime might restart their offensive against Syrian rebels. The attack came in the context of Russia’s wider concerns regarding Turkey’s growing military involvement in the war in Libya, and in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

October also witnessed a possible increase in Russia’s use of armed drones in Syria. On October 31st, two alleged Russian drone strikes in Idlib governorate resulted in civilian harm. The first occurred in the village of Taltuna, near Maarate Misrin. A drone strike on the village killed one civilian and injured five others. However, there were also conflicting reports as to which belligerent launched the attack, with some sources blaming the Syrian Regime and Iran. According to reports, the type of drone used by Russia is a ‘suicide drone’, which is designed to destroy remote ground target by carrying a small warhead. Meanwhile on that same day, more consistent reports emerged of an alleged Russian drone attack on Nahla village in Idlib, which injured three civilians including an elderly woman. According to Shaam News Network, the civilians injured were harvesting olives when the strike occurred.

An elderly woman injured in a reported Russian drone attack on Nahla village in Idlib on October 31st (via Idlib Plus)

Civilians continue to pay the price of Turkish drone strikes in Syria

In Iraq, following the single worst month during August for civilian harm incidents in Iraq from Turkish actions, there were no reports of civilian casualties during the past two months, although Turkey’s military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continued. 

Across September and October, Airwars researchers tracked eight alleged Turkish civilian harm incidents in Syria. The team tracked two civilian harm incidents in Syria involving Turkey during September. On September 12th, local sources reported heavy Turkish shelling on the villages of Aqiba, Soghanka and Burj al-Qass in the Shirawa area of Aleppo. According to reports, ‘several’ people from the village of Burj al-Qass were injured in the attack.

Eight days later on September 20th, Turkish-led shelling on the village of Awn al-Dadat in northern Manbij, Aleppo, was reported. According to local sources, two women were injured and a house destroyed as a result of the shelling. Local outlet, Manbij MC, named the two civilians as Maryam Al-Kadro, aged 50, and Ali Al-Daher. 

Maryam Al-Kadro was reported injured in an alleged Turkish forces artillery attack on Awn Al-Dadat in Aleppo on September 20th, 2020. (via ManbijMC).

October 2020 then saw a rise in reported civilian harm incidents in Syria involving Turkey. Airwars tracked six civilian harm claims during the month, resulting in three civilian deaths and injuring up to 27 more. Four of the six incidents occurred during the third week of the month (October 13th – 22nd), suggesting a notable escalation in Turkish-led military activity in SDF-held areas during this time.

The first incident occurred on October 9th in al-Boraz village, near Kobani in Aleppo Governorate. According to local sources, Turkish-led shelling on the village injured two children, identified as Muhammad Kamel aged 12, and his brother Mahmoud Kamel aged 14. 

The first civilian death occurred on October 16th in Ain Issa. Hatem Hazem, aged 13, died of injuries he sustained as a result of alleged Turkish-backed shelling on the Ain Issa area and its camp. The Free Burma Rangers, an on-the-ground humanitarian organisation, reported that the first mortar rounds were reported at 9:30am. One reportedly landed in the midst of a herd of sheep, killing many and lightly injuring two men and the young boy Hatem Hazem. Shrapnel reportedly tore through the boy’s left leg just above the ankle, a serious injury that claimed his life. According to local reports, as many as eight other civilians were injured in the attack. 

Four days later, on October 20th, an alleged Turkish drone strike struck a car near Mazra village, Hasakah governorate, killing two civilians. According to local reports, at least two other civilians were injured in the strike.

Meanwhile in Iraq, clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members continued. Tensions reached a critical point after two Turkish soldiers were killed and another was wounded after Kurdish militants fired rockets at a military base in northern Iraq on September 18th. Turkey later responded with heavy strikes on PKK positions. On September 20th, a Turkish drone strike then targeted a vehicle near the Yazidi Sharaf al-Din shrine in Sinjar. According to Iraqi security officials, three PKK fighters were killed in the attack.

Meanwhile, on October 7th, the Turkish Parliament ratified a motion extending authorisation to launch cross-border ‘anti-terrorist operations’ in northern Iraq and Syria. The motion, submitted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, claimed to give authorisation to the Turkish military to carry out operations for another year, from October 2020 until October 2021. This was the sixth time this motion had been extended since it was first approved in 2014.

Hatem Hazem died of injuries sustained as a result of Turkish or pro-Turkey forces shelling Ain Issa on October 16th, 2020. (via ANHA)

US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq

The International Coalition continued its operations across Syria and Iraq during the months of September and October. According to local sources, four civilian harm incidents locally attributed to the international alliance were reported, resulting in up to nine civilian deaths and the wounding of ten more. One civilian harm incident was reported in September and three in October.

The US-led Coalition reported that between September 1st and September 30th 2020, a total of 15 strikes were conducted in Iraq and Syria. Seven took place in Iraq, reportedly killing 18 ISIS members, destroying six cache sites and four tunnels. In Syria, eight strikes against ISIS were conducted – up from six conducted the previous month.

On September 29th, local sources reported that a civilian was killed and two others wounded when Coalition forces and the SDF undertook a joint landing operation in Jadid Uqaydat in Deir Ezzor. Two other people, locally described as oil merchants, were reported arrested as a result of the operation. The fatality was identified by local sources as 50 year-old Faisal Al-Khalfu, nicknamed Dakar. The two arrested people were named as Ghannam Al-Mahmoud Al-Haloush, and his nephew Kamel Hisham Al-Haloush. 

However, the status of the victims has been contested. The Coalition’s spokesperson tweeted that the victim was an ISIS member. “Early this morning we removed three terrorist fighters from Jadid Uqaydat, Syria. Together, we’ll keep fighting to keep Syria safe from Daesh,” OIR Spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto asserted.

@CMOC_SDF and @CJTFOIR are keeping up the pressure on Daesh. Early this morning we removed three terrorist fighters from Jadid Uqaydat, Syria. Together, we’ll keep fighting to keep Syria safe from Daesh. #defeatdaesh

— OIR Spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto (@OIRSpox) September 29, 2020

 

However, local Facebook sources such as Euphrates Eyes and Eye on Hasakah reported that the slain victim was instead a civilian, and even alleged that the operation was conducted by the SDF in a bid to ‘steal money from civilians’ in the area.

Faisal Al-Khalfu (with his son), was killed in a joint Coalition-SDF operation in Jadid Akidat on September 29th (Image via Euphrates Eyes)

In October, three civilian harm incidents involving the US-led Coalition were reported by local sources. All took place within a single week (October 15th – 22nd). On October 15th, local reports alleged that an International Coalition warplane targeted a vehicle belonging to Huras al-Din, an affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria, killing three people including a child. Among those slain was Abu Dhar al-Masr, a senior figure within the terror group. The incident took place in the village of Arab Saeed, west of Idlib.

White Helmets volunteers putting out a fire resulting from an airstrike in Arab Saeed on October 15th (via Edlib Media Center).

Later, local sources revealed that the incident had also led to the death of a humanitarian worker. According to Bonyan Organisation, Dima Abdan, an employee with the NGO, died of her injuries after she was critically wounded by shrapnel as a result of the strike. Bonyan is described as an “Independent Non-government, Non-profit organization established for building human capacity and rehabilitating war-torn communities”, working in northwestern Syria. Another humanitarian worker was also injured in the attack.

The next day, local sources reported that a civilian was killed and another arrested during a ground operation conducted by the SDF and the US-led Coalition in the village of Al Majbal, Deir Ezzor governorate. Al-Khabour news identified the slain civilian as Asad Suleiman Al-Sawadi. Al-Sawadi was reportedly shot in the neck and died immediately. According to a Deir Ezzor 24 correspondent, “the operation resulted in one death, two injuries, including a woman, and one arrest, in addition to the bombing of an abandoned house in the village”. 

The third civilian harm incident reportedly took place in the village of Jakara in the Salqin countryside near the Syria-Turkey border. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a strike on a gathering of Haya’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) members on a farm in the area killed up to 22 people, including five civilians. It was later revealed that the strike was in fact conducted by CENTCOM. Major Beth Riordan, the spokeswoman for United States Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that US forces carried out a drone strike on a meeting in Idlib against “a group of Al-Qaeda in Syria (AQ-S) senior leaders”.

Libya: GNA and LNA agree to official ceasefire

Libya only witnessed three reported artillery strikes during September, four less than in the previous month, as parties to the conflict mostly continued to respect the ceasefire. Two strikes were allegedly conducted by the Libyan National Army (LNA) and one by the Government of National Accord (GNA), none of which resulted in civilian harm.

In October, there were reports of two airstrikes. One of these allegedly resulted in civilian harm, on October 19th in Al Jaghboub near the border with Egypt. An Egyptian airstrike allegedly hit two people claimed to be fishermen, whose bodies were later found in the desert.

In the other event the GNA alleged LNA shelling on its forces in Buerat. However, the LNA later denied a breach of the ceasefire.

On a more positive note, the GNA and LNA agreed to an official UN-brokered ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd, after hostilities had already effectively ceased in June. The agreement was largely received positively by commentators, as it contained more solid mechanisms than the previous agreement struck in Berlin in January.

Representatives of GNA and LNA shake hands after striking a ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd, 2020 (via UNSMIL)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Yemen

On October 28th, Airwars launched its new investigation into the ongoing US counterterrorism campaign in Yemen. A new report, Eroding Transparency, examined US air and ground actions against both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Islamic State in Yemen, since 2017 under President Trump, as well as incidents leading to alleged civilian harm.

More than 230 declared and alleged US military and CIA actions were identified by the team – among them 41 events reported to have led to civilian casualties. The report indicated that US operations in Yemen too often lacked both the transparency and accountability standards of other recent US military interventions, and identified a significant recent increase in both clandestine and covert activity.

Airwars’ accompanying public database detailed every alleged US action in Yemen since 2017 under Donald Trump. The all-source monitoring approach adopted by Airwars has allowed the research to be significantly reoriented towards Yemeni voices and experiences. There were approximately 4,400 unique sources in the new public database, 60% of these in Arabic. Additionally, more than 140 alleged or confirmed US actions had also been geolocated by Airwars to village-level accuracy.

According to reports, on September 4th an alleged US drone strike targeted a car reportedly carrying al-Qaeda operatives, including Abu al-Bara al-Qifi, a senior figure within the group, in Shaqra, east of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan governorate. However, some local sources claimed that the strike was in fact carried out by the UAE.

And on October 27th, another alleged US drone strike took place in the Arak al-Shabwan area of Marib governorate. The attack reportedly targeted a car carrying three people on board. According to local sources, two militants were killed and a third seriously injured.

With CENTCOM denying any US military strikes in Yemen since June 2019, there was speculation that one or more recent events were the work of the CIA. 

Somalia

In September, Somalia saw four alleged US actions – one less than in August.

On September 7th at least one US service member was injured in an exchange of gunfire between Somali troops supported by US forces and Al Shabaab militants. Al Shabaab claimed a higher casualty toll among Somali and US forces.

The only alleged civilian harm event of the month occurred on September 20th when a local source alleged that US-trained Danab forces had killed eight civilians in a Mosque in Moyiloow. An AFRICOM investigation into the incident is reportedly ongoing.

In addition, AFRICOM confirmed two airstrikes during the month. A September 9th strike allegedly killed 17 Al Shabaab fighters near Amreereey. The second event, confirmed at Airwars’ request to AFRICOM for details of recent strikes, destroyed a vehicle in Jana Cabdalle on September 21st.

In October, only two US actions were reported. A single source claimed that an unidentified strike killed ten or eleven Al Shabaab in Weelshit on October 6th. And in the second event, again confirmed following an Airwars request, an Al Shabaab member was targeted on October 18th. The event did however not result in any casualties.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during September and October 2020. The last such reported US strike was in August 2018.

Advocacy

UK, US and international advocacy

Airwars and CIVIC submitted their joint submission to the UK Government’s call for evidence to the Integrated Review – an examination of foreign policy, defence, security and international development goals. The joint paper included recommendations by both organisations for the UK to mainstream the protection of civilians in conflict within government policies; to establish systems for casualty tracking and investigations; and to improve UK accountability for civilian harm. The Integrated Review is expected to be published in late January 2021. 

Following the UK’s publishing of the latest paper on the Approach to Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, Airwars, together with UK partners, sent a joint letter to Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State and the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict,  welcoming the newly released Paper on Protection of Civilians (PoC) and calling for Protection of Civilians to be embedded across government and for the Policy to be regularly updated in consultation with stakeholders. Lord Ahmad responded to the letter, welcoming a requested meeting with the group to discuss issues raised in the letter.

Airwars Deputy Director Dmytro Chupryna took part in NATO’s 2030 Online Stakeholder Dialogue on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), Human Security and Humanitarian Issues, contributing to the discussion on NATO’s role in minimising the impact of conflict on civilians. Participants stressed the importance of the Protection of Civilians framework, which has to be implemented in all of NATO’s operational theatres. The rise of hybrid tactics and fighting in urban areas are placing civilian populations at greater risk. There is therefore a need for NATO to address this component strategically; and to set civilian harm reduction standards which can positively influence other States. 

In response to recent sanctions imposed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on senior figures within the International Criminal Court, Airwars together with US and international partners, published an open statement in September calling upon the US Government to end its targeting of ICC officials; and regretting what was referred to as the US’s recent abandonment of key international mechanisms designed to protect civilians. “As condemnatory statements from close US allies make clear, the United States has lost significant international standing through these sanctions, which have undermined the international rule of law and provided succour to war criminals seeking to evade justice,” the joint statement noted. 

European advocacy

On September 24th, our European advocacy officer Laurie Treffers wrote an opinion piece for Belgian daily De Standaard regarding a new Belgian aircraft deployment to the US-led Coalition against so-called Islamic State. The op-ed questioned how much longer Belgium could continue to insist that previous military actions in the fight against ISIS had led to zero civilian casualties. 

A group of 11 international and Belgian NGOs also sent then-interim Minister of Defence Philipe Goffin an open letter regarding the new Belgian weapon deployment on September 30th. Organisations including Airwars, Amnesty Belgium and Humanity & Inclusion, called on the Minister to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harm and – following a recent parliamentary motion – to ensure cooperation with external monitoring groups and human rights organisations. 

On October 26th, Seeing through the Rubble: The civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in the fight against ISIS, a joint report by Airwars and Dutch NGO  Pax for Peace, was published. The report was officially launched at a virtual event for Members of Parliament from Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. 

The Irish ambassador to the United Nations, Michael Gaffey, who has been leading efforts to draft a political declaration on limiting the use of explosive areas in populated areas, opened the event. “We would not have reached the point of acceptance for the need for a political declaration [on explosive weapons] if it was not for the work of civil society organisations. Their research and advocacy are vital to the process,” Ambassador Gaffey noted.

▲ Locals in Idlib protesting against Russian military intervention in Syria on October 2nd (via Idlib Plus)

Published

September 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

While civilian harm from foreign actions in the conflicts monitored by Airwars mostly decreased during August, Ankara’s continuing air and ground campaign against Kurdish militants led to the worst reported civilian harm tally in northern Iraq from Turkish action since 2015.

Civilian harm incidents involving Russia in Syria (already at a low tempo) were less than half the previous month’s tally. Meanwhile the US-led Coalition continued its own operations against ISIS in Syria at a seemingly higher intensity, though with no local claims of civilian casualties.

Reported civilian harm incidents, as well as air and artillery strikes in Libya, saw a further significant decrease after warring parties continued their military stalemate at Sirte. Despite this – and increased international calls to end the fighting – both sides seemed unable to reach an agreement, with Khalifa Haftar’s LNA seemingly rejecting the Government of National Accord’s offer of a ceasefire.

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Turkish-led actions against Kurdish irregulars in both Iraq and Syria continued throughout the month. Airwars researchers tracked 12 alleged civilian harm incidents in both countries during August – double the previous month’s tally and reflecting an escalation in Turkish actions. Five reported incidents took place in Syria, while seven occurred in Iraq. In total, between 12 and 18 civilians were alleged killed across all the locally reported events, and up to eight more were injured.

In Syria, three civilian deaths were reported across five events, and seven others were injured. The first incident took place in Ain Issa, where alleged Turkish shelling wounded three children. ANHA named the children as Hussam Ali (aged 12), Mahdi Ali (aged 10), and Muhammad Ali (aged 11). 

Additional civilian harm event took place in the village of Efdikê in western Tal Abyad on August 4th; in Qamishlo on August 6th; in Ain Issa on August 17th; and in Sheikh Hassan village in Raqqa Governorate on August 26th. The incident near Ain Issa caused the most civilian harm, with two civilians reportedly killed and two injured following Turkish shelling in the vicinity of the M4 highway.

BreakingA civilian injured by a shell probably from a drone on Allaya neighborhood, east to #Qamishli, northeast #Syria, Sources from Internal Security Forces told pic.twitter.com/oMKhoMSAdw

— (زانا العلي) Zana Al-Ali (@ZanaAlali) August 6, 2020

In Iraq, up to 15 civilian deaths were reported from seven civilian harm allegations – a stark increase from the previous month’s tally of two fatalities. In fact, according to Airwars data, August 2020 marks the highest civilian harm allegations against Turkey in Iraq since our tracking began in 2015. 

The first week of August saw two civilian harm incidents in northern Iraq. On August 1st, two civilians were killed in an alleged Turkish strike in Amediye in Dohuk province. Two days later, another strike reportedly took place in Nohadra in Dohuk province, also killing two civilians.

The incident which reported the highest number of civilian deaths occurred in the Bradost region of Erbil province on August 11th. Five civilians were killed along with five Iraqi border guards, and five Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members, in one of the deadlist mass-casualty incidents involving Turkey this year. According to AFP, two high-ranking Iraqi military officers were additionally killed in the attack, prompting public outrage in Iraq. Following the event, Baghdad cancelled a visit by the Turkish Minister of Defence to Iraq, and summoned Turkey’s ambassador.

Other civilian harm incidents took place in the Ardana area of Dohuk on August 13th; in Kani Mazi in Dohuk on August 19th; in the village of Bhrava in Nineveh on August 25th; and in the Zab area of Dohuk on August 30th.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no locally reported civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of July. Since the end of March 2020, Airwars researchers have tracked only one civilian harm incident allegedly involving Kurdish factions in Syria.

Doctors treating one of the children injured by alleged Turkish shelling of Ain Issa on August 1st 2020 (via ANHA)

Civilian harm in Idlib down as high-profile assassination shifts Russian focus to ISIS

August 2020 once again saw relatively low levels of civilian harm from Russian actions in Syria. Airwars researchers tracked a total of three reported civilian harm incidents – less than half the previous month’s tally of eight civilian harm claims. According to local reports, between five and six civilians were killed and up to 11 more were injured in these latest attacks. Two of the incidents took place in Idlib Governorate, while one took place in Homs Governorate.

The first incident of the month took place in the town of Binnish on August 3rd, where three civilians from one family were killed and seven others were injured. According to STEP Agency, those killed were displaced civilians who were residing in camps in the area. Later, the Syrian Network for Human Rights revealed their names to be Majed Jasem al Muhammad, and two brothers, Zaid and Majed Mesleh al Muhammad from Burj village in the eastern countryside areas of Idlib. The apparent Russian strike was linked with artillery shelling carried out by Syrian regime forces in the same area.

The second incident took place on August 14th in the Syrian Badia, although reporting on this incident was scarce. According to local reports, Russian planes targeted a civilian car, wounding those in it. 

On August 18th, Russian Major General Vyacheslav Gladkikh was killed on August 18th by an improvised explosive device that detonated under a convoy of Russian soldiers and Syrian pro-regime forces in the desert near the city of Deir Ezzor. Three other Russian military personnel were wounded and a local commander of Syria’s National Defense Forces was also reportedly killed in the attack. The killings prompted several days of continuous Russian strikes against ISIS targets in the eastern Homs countryside; in southern and western Raqqa governorate; and in Deir Ezzor. 

The final civilian harm incident tracked by Airwars took place on August 30th after shrapnel from a Russian strike fell on a displacement camp near the village of al-Sheikh Bahr in the Armanaz area of Idlib, reportedly injuring an unspecified number of civilians.

The children of Majed Mesleh al Muhammad, killed by a reported Russian airstrike in Binnish on August 3rd (via @abuhuzaifa_)

US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

The month of August saw no locally reported civilian harm incidents involving the US-led Coalition in Syria. This was the second recent month in a row where no civilian harm claims were made against the International Coalition. However, US-led Coalition actions in Syria continued throughout the month, in conjunction with local partners.

According to the International Coalition’s Strike Summary Report for August 2020, the alliance conducted six strikes in Syria against ISIS targets throughout the month, a slight increase on the four strikes conducted in July. Throughout August, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also continued to carry out anti-ISIS operations. The SDF confirmed for example that on August 7th, they were able to capture eight ISIS militants in a major operation in Deir Ezzor, following air support from the US-led Coalition.

.@CJTFOIR air strike in support of our security partners, 20 Aug. in Iraq🇮🇶. The @coalition provides aviation, intelligence and logistical support to @modmiliq in the fight to #DefeatDaesh https://t.co/FDpoeWGqGr

— Inherent Resolve (@CJTFOIR) August 27, 2020

Meanwhile, reports of unilateral US airstrikes were reported throughout the month. On August 13th, a drone targeted a car in the town of Sarmada. Local sources reported that Abu Yahya Al Uzbaki, a leading figure in the al Qaeda linked group Huras al-Din, was killed in this attack. There were conflicting reports about whether the drone strike was conducted by the International Coalition, or unilaterally by the United States.

Tensions later flared up between Regime forces and the US-led Coalition in the town of Tal al Zahab in Qamishli’s countryside areas in northern Hasakah Governorate. This came as a result of clashes between both sides on August 17th. According to local sources, the Coalition launched airstrikes that targeted regime forces, killing two members. However, the Coalition, in an official statement, denied launching an airstrike in the area saying that its routine patrol came under fire at the time and that Coalition troops returned fire in self-defence.

Meanwhile in Iraq, the International Coalition was significantly more active. The alliance declared 11 strikes against Daesh targets which it said consisted of 36 engagements, killing nine suspected ISIS militants. The Coalition confirmed it had conducted strikes in Wadi al-Tharthar, in the Qara Chokh Mountains; and at Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad, in a bid to provide air cover for Iraqi Special Forces in their own operations against ISIS. 

Amidst these actions, International Coalition forces once again came under fire in Iraq from unidentified armed groups during the month. On the evening of August 15th, two rockets landed near the Taji military base, although there were no casualties reported. This came eight days before the International Coalition officially departed the Taji military base, transferring $347 million in equipment and property to Iraq. It was described as the eighth base transfer by the International Coalition to Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) so far this year.

White Helmet members near the car that was targeted by a US drone strike in Sarmada (via SCD)

Libya ceasefire brings month of calm to beleaguered country

The number of air and artillery strikes in Libya once again dropped in August as most parties to the fighting abided by a ceasefire deal. Only seven strikes were locally reported, two less than in July. No civilian harm was reported from any of these actions.

Six of the strikes were allegedly conducted by the Libyan National Army (LNA), while one Government of National Accord (GNA) attack was reported.

Reports continued that both sides were continuing to re-arm, even as international efforts to secure a lasting peace continued.

Smoke rising after an alleged GNA drone strike on fuel smugglers near Zintan on August 12th, 2020 (via 218TV)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

Airwars recorded five reported US actions in Somalia in August, one more than in the previous month.

On August 8th two US strikes were claimed by local sources – one in Haway and the other in Sablale, allegedly killing one senior Al Shabaab operative in each. However AFRICOM denied conducting the strikes, leaving open the possibility either of an AMISOM or CIA operation..

Twelve days later, the US confirmed conducting an airstrike on al Shabaab near Kurtun Warey. An “unnamed senior member of the group’s local bomb-making and IED explosives unit was killed in the strike”, according to VOA.

An August 24th US strike in combination with US and Somali ground operations killed six Al Shabaab fighters and injured three more near Darusalaam in Lower Shabelle, AFRICOM said. Al Shabaab claimed that US service members had been injured in the fighting, an allegation which Africa Command later rebutted.

One day later Sheikh Abduqadir Kumandos, an Al Shabaab senior leader was killed by a confirmed US strike near Saakow.

Yemen

According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes during August 2020 in Yemen.

The last publicly declared CENTCOM action was on June 24th 2019 in Al Bayda province. Airwars researchers also tracked no local claims of US actions in Yemen during the month. 

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during August 2020. The last such reported US strike was in August 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

The Integrated Review is a strategic look by the UK Government at its foreign policy objectives, along with its future defence, security and international development strategies. During August, Airwars and our UK partners continued discussions and the sharing of policy ideas, in preparation for our evidence submission to the Integrated Review. 

Furthermore, Airwars continued coordination with the Security Policy Alternatives Network (SPAN) Accountability group coordinated by Saferworld. The group is currently working on a research paper examining accountability for military actions in West Africa. 

European advocacy

During August, Airwars continued building a coalition of partners in Belgium. Given that Belgium has been one of the least transparent countries in the International Coalition against ISIS, and there are no accountability mechanisms in place for potential civilian casualties, Airwars aims to conduct a collective engagement approach with the Belgian government to improve its poor track record in this regard. The initial steps of the joint advocacy approach will be discussed at the roundtable scheduled for early September.   

Military advocacy

For the sixth successive month, the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria conceded no additional civilian harm during August from its long running war against ISIS.

During the same six month period, the alliance rejected 190 further locally reported civilian harm claims from Iraqis and Syrians as ‘non credible.’

▲ The family of civilian Khalid Ebdulrehman who was killed in a reported Turkish drone strike in Kani Masi, Dohuk on August 19th (Image via Rudaw)

Published

August 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Riley Mellen, Samuel Brownsword, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

July 2020 saw a continuation of a trend observed the month before, with foreign action in Syria slowly increasing, particularly by Russia. Meanwhile, the US-led Coalition continued its operations against both ISIS and Iranian-backed groups in Syria, though at a seemingly lower intensity.

In Iraq, ISIS’s insurgency had slightly increased in tempo, owing to a renewed campaign by the group at the end of the month known as the ‘Raids of Attrition’, which saw 60 synchronised attacks in both Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, Turkey’s air and ground campaign against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq continued, though also at a lower intensity

Meanwhile, reported civilian harm incidents in Libya decreased significantly, as warring parties reached a military stalemate. Fears remained that Egypt’s potential intervention in the conflict could escalate tensions further – as well as signs that both the GNA and LNA were using the pause in fighting to secure fresh arms shipments.

Air and artillery strikes see a sharp decrease in Libya

Both reported strikes and civilian harm majorly decreased in July as the military stalemate between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA) continued. The number of tracked air and artillery actions by all parties to the fighting fell from 94 to nine, while alleged civilian deaths dropped from between 44 and 54 casualties to zero.

Most reported strikes during July were LNA actions, with four attributed to Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Two further strikes were allegedly conducted by the GNA and/or Turkey. Three more strikes were either contested between parties, or conducted by an unknown belligerent.

Even though none of these events led to reported civilian harm, explosive remnants from the recent battle for Tripoli posed a significant problem for the local population. Many deaths and severe injuries were reported from landmines, allegedly planted by LNA and Wagner forces after abandoning the capital.

In a major political development, Egypt threatened to intervene in Libya should GNA and Turkish forces go east of what was described as a ‘red line’ at Sirte and Jufra airbase. However, parliamentary approval in Cairo of sending troops has so far only contributed to the standoff in central Libya.

Civilian allegedly injured by a landmine explosion near Ain Zara, Libya on July 6th 2020 (via Field Medicine and Support Center)

Russian strikes resume as fears of an imminent Idlib campaign increase

Following on from June, which saw Russian airstrikes resume after three months of calm in northwestern Syria, Russian actions saw a notable increase in July, particularly in the middle of the month. Airwars researchers tracked a total of eight civilian harm incidents – doubling the previous month’s figure. According to local reports, five civilians were killed and up to 27 others injured in these incidents. Two occurred in Hama Governorate, while the other six events took place in various towns in Idlib Governorate.

Four incidents occurred on a single day: July 14th. This sequence of strikes came after a roadside landmine hit a joint Russian-Turkish patrol in the M4 area, wounding three Russian soldiers. Immediately following that attack, Russian warplanes carried out more than a dozen airstrikes on rebel-held parts of Idlib and Latakia, with the Syrian Observatory for Human rights claiming that 23 separate Russian airstrikes occurred on that day.

This sudden escalation raised fears that Russia’s aerial campaign on Idlib might resume. Tensions between Turkey and Russia seemed to escalate even further after Russian airstrikes were conducted on July 15th on the city of al-Bab, where Turkey and its proxies enjoyed a significant military presence. These strikes – the first to occur in the city since 2017 – resulted in the reported death of one civilian and left as many as eleven more injured, eight of whom were children. However, just one week later, Russia and Turkey resumed their joint patrolling of the M4 highway and completed the first end-to-end patrol, which many observers saw as a sign of de-escalation.

Apart from the airstrike on al-Bab, the town of Ariha witnessed a brutal action on July 14th which killed two civilians, named by Ariha Today as Muhammad Deeb Halbiya (40 years old) and his son, Karam Halbiya (12 years old), and injuring up to five others, including four children [Mohammed Al-Mady (13 years old), Mohammed Al-Hassan (12 years old), Noor Aberas (30 years old) and Youssef Al-Hassan]. According to MMC, this came after Russian warplanes allegedly launched 40 missiles on the town of Ariha on that day.

The destructive aftermath of the alleged Russian airstrike in al-Bab on July 15th (via Syrian Civil Defence)

US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

July 2020 saw no locally reported civilian harm incidents involving the US-led Coalition in Syria. This follows on from just one such claim in June.

However, US-led Coalition actions in Syria continued throughout the month, in conjunction with local partners. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) conducted a number of raids on suspected ISIS hideouts in eastern Syria with the support of the Coalition. The first took place on July 3rd in Deir Ezzor province, where SDF special forces dismantled an ISIS terror cell and arrested three suspected ISIS members, confiscating a number of weapons and equipment. The second phase took place on July 17th-18th in the areas of al-Busayrah and al-Shuhail in Deir Ezzor, with the International Coalition providing advice and intelligence. According to the Coalition, ‘several’ ISIS militants were arrested and dozens of weapons were seized during the operation.

Meanwhile, local sources reported that an International Coalition drone targeted a vehicle, north of the town of Ahtamilat in Aleppo’s northern countryside on July 20th. According to Step News, the vehicle belonged to a man named Shujaa al-Muhammad from the town of al-Safira in Aleppo. Local sources said that the driver and two others in the car who were reportedly killed had been ISIS operatives.

Local sources also reported one strike against Iran-backed groups by planes locally identified as belonging to the International Coalition on the town of Duwair in Deir Ezzor’s countryside areas. 

The Iraqi Falcons Intelligence Cell and Baghdad Intelligence Directorate🇮🇶, alongside the 54th Brigade, eliminated 4 suicide bombers💀💣with a fifth self destructing🔥, in the village of Ma'amra al-Zaidan. CJTF-OIR drones supported the operation.💪 #defeatdaesh https://t.co/vlZdAkoXXr pic.twitter.com/QFJnh95RyG

— Inherent Resolve (@CJTFOIR) July 13, 2020

In Iraq, the International Coalition supported Iraqi Security Forces in their own operations against ISIS throughout the month. On July 1st, two French Rafale jets launched a series of strikes in northern Iraq, destroying three ISIS caves and killing an unspecified number of reported ISIS militants. A day later, Coalition F-15E jets targeted an ISIS cave complex in Wadi al-Shai, in the Tuz Khurmato district of Kirkuk. Additionally, during the last week of July, the Coalition provided close air support for Iraqi Special Forces in operations on the outskirts of Baghdad, and south of Kirkuk.

The aftermath of a reported Coalition drone strike Ahtimalat on July 20th (via Step News)

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Turkish-led actions in both Iraq and Syria continued. Airwars researchers tracked six civilian harm incidents in both countries during the month of July. Four took place in Syria, while two occurred in Iraq. Tracking for Iraq indicated a notable decrease in Turkish operations after it had launched an aggressive campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in June, which had seen up to 150 PKK positions targeted by Turkish jets, helicopters, drones and artillery.

The four incidents in Syria caused up to eight civilian deaths and as many as 15 injuries. Meanwhile, the two civilian harm incidents in Iraq resulted in two civilian deaths and five more injuries.

The first incident in Syria took place at 10am on July 16th in the district of Derbasiyah. Local reports suggest that the incident was either caused by Turkish shelling or by a drone strike which injured a civilian. Later that day, another more significant strike, allegedly launched by a Turkish drone, took place in the same district targeting a Russian communication centre. According to local sources, this attack injured two Russian soldiers, a Regime soldier and two Asayish members. The event came amidst heightened tensions following recent Russian airstrikes on al-Bab [see above].

The incident which reported the highest number of civilian deaths occurred in the villages of Qurt Wiran and Willanli, just northwest of Manbij on July 27th. According to local reports, six civilians were killed and up to ten more were injured after Turkish-led forces shelled the two villages. Three of those killed were reportedly children Hawar news agency obtained the names of five of the victims: Alia Diab (60 years old), Fatima Makhlouf (35 years old), Fares Diab (13 years old), Ghofran Diab (7 years old) and Jamila Diab (11 years).

The incident in Qurt Wiran and Willanli on July 27th prompted a large number of locals to come out to protest Turkish action in Syria on July 30th. (Image via ANF)

Meanwhile in Iraq, the two Turkish strikes resulting in civilian harm occurred within the space of three days. The first took place in Hasinpirka village in the Amedi district of Dohuk. According to reports, a Turkish strike hit two vehicles in the area, reportedly killing two civilians. However, Hamid Zubair, the mayor of the sub-district of Bamarne told Rudaw that the vehicles in fact belonged to PKK fighters, and not civilians. According to reports, the victims’ names were Abdulla Ahmad and Dilovan Shahin. On July 29th, another incident involving Turkish forces occurred in Mount Shekif in Erbil province. According to ANF, Turkish forces shelled the area and injured civilians collecting herbs in the mountains. One woman was reportedly severely injured in the attack.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of July. Since the end of March 2020, Airwars researchers have tracked only one civilian harm incident involving Kurdish factions in Syria.

Russian soldier limping out of hospital following a Turkish drone strike in Derbasiyah on July 16th (via FM Dirbesiye)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

After a lull in airstrikes from mid-May – likely at least partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic – the US resumed activities in Somalia in early July. Three strikes were confirmed by AFRICOM, with one allegedly leading to civilian harm. 

On July 9th, one Al Shabaab fighter was allegedly killed by a US strike on a checkpoint near Hantiwadaag.

On July 21st the US conducted its first strike against ISIS Somalia since October 2019 near Timirshe, killing seven members of the terror organisation. The operation was accompanied by Puntland Security Forces on the ground who allegedly killed around 12 ISIS fighters in an exchange of gunfire. US partner forces assisted.

And on July 29th a US strike in Jilib killed one Al Shabaab member and injured another one, according to AFRICOM. However, local media sources close to the terror organisation said  that in fact three named children had been killed when their home was hit by a US missile.

AFRICOM also published its second quarterly civilian casualty assessment report, acknowledging responsibility for one civilian death and three more injured during an event on February 2nd 2020. For six further incidents, AFRICOM denied causing civilian harm, while four recent cases were described as still pending.

Home allegedly destroyed by US strike on Jilib on July 29th, 2020 (via Somali Memo)

Yemen

Airwars tracked one US drone strike allegation in Yemen during July.

According to some local reports, a strike took place in the town of Ateq in Shabwa province on July 3rd. This reportedly hit the house of Bin Adio, the Governor of Shabwa. However, this claim has not been corroborated by other reports from prominent Yemeni outlets such as the Yemeni Press Agency, which says that the fire was instead caused by an electrical fault. CENTCOM itself told Airwars that its forces did not carry out any strikes in Yemen during the month.

Image showing a house on fire after an explosion in Ateq on July 3rd (Image via @Mohamme19780462)

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during July. The last such reported or claimed US action was in July 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

In July, our UK Advocacy Officer attended a virtual Panel Discussion on preventing internal displacement due to armed conflict/violence and disasters. Among the suggestions made was that belligerents avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, as a way to prevent reasons of internal displacement.

Also, Airwars and others in the UK’s Protection of Civilians (PoC) working group – which consists of partners including Crisis Action, STC, AOAV, and the APPG on Drones -resumed regular meetings, and agreed to request an update from the UK Government on its ongoing PoC strategy review. Members also discussed upcoming opportunities for engagement and future actions. 

Airwars additionally attended a webinar organised by EveryCasualty on ‘COVID-19 and Casualty Recording’. Insights into statistics gathering and data analysis will help inform our own work at Airwars. 

European advocacy

On July 3rd, our European advocacy officer virtually attended a meeting with the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges (Utrecht University). One of the topics discussed was how Community Service Learning (CSL) programmes can connect academia and practice. Airwars is currently exploring with the Centre how we can help create spaces for students, for example those studying Conflict Studies, International Affairs or International Humanitarian Law, to better learn from and engage with the work we do at Airwars.

On July 7th, we published a story with updates on progress at the Dutch Ministry of Defence on revising its transparency and accountability practices, in the aftermath of the Hawijah scandal. In a letter to Parliament on June 29th, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld laid out a number of changes which she claimed would improve both transparency and accountability regarding civilian harm.

“While Airwars welcomes this next step towards a more transparent Defensie, the content of the data [of airstrikes] is still below standard,” Airwars deputy Dmytro Chupryna noted at the time. ”Other Coalition allies such as the UK already report the specific date, targets and near locations of their airstrikes. For Defensie to become more transparent, improving their reporting on airstrikes really is one of the first steps to take.”

▲ Local Syrians volunteer to help rebuild a hospital damaged in the fighting to oust ISIS from Al Shaddadi, Syria, July 16th 2020. (Image via @SOJTFOIR)

Published

August 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

June 2020 saw a slight resurgence in foreign action in Syria, with sporadic Russian strikes being reported in Idlib; and with the US-led Coalition continuing its operations against Iranian-backed groups in Syria. In Iraq, ISIS’s insurgency has decreased significantly as Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have increased the tempo of their own Counter-Terrorism campaigns. Meanwhile, Turkey launched a major joint air and ground operation against Kurdish militants over the border into northern Iraq, in a bold attempt to dislodge the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the region. This led to several disturbing civilian casualty events. 

While the conflict in Libya continued to rage on, the number of strikes decreased significantly as the Government of National Accord (GNA), with Turkish support, continued to consolidate its gains from the previous month against the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its foreign allies. A stalemate at the frontline in Sirte led to almost complete inaction between the two sides. However, foreign actors reportedly used the impasse to funnel more weapons into Libya.

As the chart below shows, the number of civilian harm incidents decreased during June across all major conflicts tracked by Airwars apart from Iraq (due to Turkey’s Operation Tiger Claw against the PKK.) The number of reported civilian harm incidents in Libya decreased by almost 75%.

Air and artillery strikes decrease in Libya as GNA advances continue

June marked the first month in Libya where the GNA and Turkey allegedly caused more civilian harm than the LNA and its allies. While the number of tracked air and artillery strikes dropped significantly from 274 to 94, locally reported civilian deaths only decreased from 64-81 to 44-54.

The GNA and Turkey allegedly conducted 25 air and artillery strikes leading to between 24 and 32 civilian deaths in a successful effort to regain territory from the LNA. In the worst event of the month, between 12 and 20 civilians were killed by a GNA or Turkish drone strike on Qasr Bin Gashir on June 3rd.

Civilian harm reported from LNA and Emirati strikes significantly decreased compared to previous months, as the GNA finally managed to oust Khalifa Haftar’s forces from Tripoli. The siege of Libya’s capital officially ended on 4th June after more than 400 days. Between 16 and 17 civilian deaths were alleged from 59 LNA and Emirati actions in June. The most severe incident took place in Gheryan on June 2nd, when five civilian males were reportedly killed by a drone strike.

Another six strikes by unknown belligerents allegedly led to a further four to five civilian deaths.

The vast majority of these strikes were conducted at the beginning of June, with only seven reported towards the end of the month. Military activity had effectively stalled due to a stalemate at the Sirte frontline, where both sides were sending in reinforcements. AFRICOM also once again overtly called out Russia for supplying the LNA with fighter jets. Strikes by Russian-supplied MiGs reportedly led to civilian harm on two occasions.

Lujain Muhammad Buresh, allegedly killed by GNA shelling on Qasr Bin Gashir on June 1st, 2020 (image via Tarhuna 24)

Russian strikes resume in Syria as ceasefire slowly unravels

After three months of relative calm in northwestern Syria, Russian airstrikes were reported for the first time on June 3rd and then again on June 8th-9th, with some reportedly leading to civilian harm. These actions brought into sharp focus the fragility of a major ceasefire initially agreed in March – raising fears that Russia’s aerial campaign on Idlib could resume. In total, four civilian harm incidents allegedly involving Russia were reported during the month, resulting in eight civilian deaths and the injury of 16 others.

The June 3rd airstrikes took place in an area where the boundaries of Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces meet, close to the highly strategic M4 highway, where Turkish and Russian forces conduct their joint patrols as part of the truce agreement. These strikes were aimed at pushing Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants – who enjoy a significant presence in this area -further away from the M4 highway, to create a buffer from the Sahl al-Ghab area in northern Hama province. 

Five days later, Russian warplanes began reportedly striking a number of areas in Idlib. On June 8th, local sources reported that Russian warplanes hit the al-Muzarra village in Jabal al-Zawiya in southern Idlib, According to SMART News Agency, two civilians were killed and three others were wounded in the attack. According to Baladi News, four civilians from the same family were injured. 

The next day saw alleged Russian strikes in Balyoun, Kansafra, and Idlib city resulting in civilian harm. In Balyoun, one civilian was killed and eight others were injured in an aerial bombardment on residential areas in the western part of the village. According to Baladi News, the civilian killed was Abdullah Ahmad al-Dani from the neighbouring town of Kansafra. In Kansafra, Russian raids killed one civilian and injured four others. Meanwhile, on the same day, three children (Salah Ghajar, Rand Saed al Din and Rand’s brother Huthaifah) were killed when a cluster munition left behind from the previous bombing by Russian warplanes exploded near a farm in the al-Jedar area.

Following this June 8th spike in alleged Russian action, there were no further reports of civilian harm from Russian strikes for the rest of the month.

Civilian body being carried following an alleged Russian airstrike in Balyoun on June 9th (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

The month of June saw only one civilian harm incident locally reported to have involved the US-led Coalition in Syria. This was a welcome decrease from the four incidents reported for the previous month, which remains the highest monthly tally of the year to date.

On June 24th, on the road between Idlib city and the town of Binnish, a Coalition drone reportedly targeted a ‘Santa Fe’ car, allegedly killing Abu Adnan Al-Homsi, a senior figure in Huras al-Din, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. According to SMART, the drone strike also killed a civilian riding a motorbike near the targeted car. This came ten days after a similar incident, when a drone targeted a car carrying two members of Huras al-Din, known as Qasim al-Urduni and Bilal al-Sana’i. However, no civilians were reportedly harmed in that event. 

Another strike on Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham was reported by locals on June 16th, south of Sarmada in northern Idlib. According to local sources, the strike hit an Islamic tribunal in the area. However, both the number and combatant status of people killed in that event is still not known.

Meanwhile, military operations against ISIS targets were also reported throughout the month. On June 20th, the US-led Coalition allegedly launched a strike on the road between al-Dana and al-Bad in eastern Aleppo, killing ISIS commander Fayez al-Akkal, who also served as the former ‘governor’ of Raqqa. On June 21st, another International Coalition strike took place on a motorcycle belonging to an unidentified ISIS militant near the Kubaiba oil field in southern Hasaka Governorate.

Local sources also reported four strikes against Iran-backed groups by planes locally identified as belonging to the International Coalition. The first took place in the town of Maizilliah in Deir Ezzor province on June 6th, killing approximately eight people. The second was in the Thalathat area, west of al-Boukamal on June 8th. Another airstrike was reported in the al-Akershi desert, southeast of Raqqa city, and finally, the last locally reported strike took place in al-Abbas village near al-Boukamal, where according to reports, six headquarters were targeted in a major raid on June 28th.

In Iraq, there was one civilian harm incident reported in the Abu Zuwair area near Baiji. This came after a US MQ-IC Gray Eagle armed drone crashed in the area, which led to shepherds approaching the fallen drone. However, another drone arrived and struck the same area killing the four shepherds near the crashed drone. According to other sources, the shepherds had carried parts of the drone in a pickup truck and were then pursued by a second drone and killed as they tried to leave the area.

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Turkish-led actions varied considerably in Syria and Iraq during June. The number of civilian harm incidents involving Turkish action decreased considerably in Syria, while Iraq saw Turkey escalating its ongoing anti-PKK campaign, after launching Operation Claw-Tiger.

Airwars tracked one civilian harm incident in Syria involving alleged Turkish action. On June 23rd, a Turkish drone strike reportedly killed three women in the village of Helince, east of Kobani. According to local reports, the house of Amina Waysi, was hit, killing her and two other women – Zehra Berkel, a coordinating member of the Kongra Star women’s movement; and Mizgin Xelil.

#UrgentThree civilians lost their lives due to the targeting of a drone believed to be a #Turkish drone in the village of Helinc east of #Kobanê. pic.twitter.com/0sRPoexp99

— Hoshang Hasan (@HoshangHasan1) June 23, 2020

In Iraq, Turkey launched a major joint air and ground operation against the PKK in northern Iraq on June 17th. According to reports, Special Forces were airlifted to the border region of Haftanin in the early hours of Operation Claw-Tiger. According to the Turkish Ministry of Defence, the campaign targeted 150 suspected PKK positions with jets, helicopters, drones and artillery. 

The unprecedented scale and scope of these latest operations posed a significant risk to civilians living near the Turkish border of northern Iraq. The week following the beginning of operations was particularly harmful to civilians in Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. 

As a result, five civilian harm incidents were reported during Juneh, four of which took place following the beginning of Operation Claw-Tiger. In these events, seven people were reported killed and at least nine others injured. 

The first alleged civilian harm case from Turkish actions took place in Sinjar on June 14th, where local sources reported that “several civilians” were injured in Turkish airstrikes on civilian areas – though the exact number of injured civilians was not specified in local sources. In the first two days of the campaign, three more? civilian harm incidents were reported. The first took place on June 17th, within hours of the launch of the operations in Bradost, northern Erbil province, where a shepherd by the name of Ebas Mexdid Nimet was killed and up to three others were injured. 

Two days later on June 19th, two civilian harm incidents took place. One took place in the Kokar area near the Avamark Resort in Dohuk province, where a Turkish airstrike killed three people and injured two others. Another airstrike on the same day in Barwari reportedly killed a civilian.

#BREAKING #Turkish war planes bombs #Shiladze town in #Dohuk province Iraqi #Kurdistan , killed 3 civilians injured 2 2 hours ago#TwitterKurds @AzadiRojava pic.twitter.com/vIEsaoEYCY

— Hana Çômanî (@HanaComani) June 19, 2020

The final incident took place in Kunamasi, near a resort in the Sulaimaniyah province on June 25th. That airstrikes hit a vehicle carrying PKK fighters, but also struck a mini market belonging to a local family. According to some reports, two civilians were killed and up to five others were injured. A widely shared video showed children playing nearby showered with debris. 

Turkish attacks in northern Iraq in the first week of the campaign drew widespread condemnation from neighbouring countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Iraqi Government also condemned the latest incursion by Turkey into Iraq’s territory as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

Is this okay with you? @masrour_barzani @qubadjt @jensstoltenberg this is my brother playing with my nephew when a Turkish bomb drops 20 meters away from them in Kuna Masi. #TwitterKurds pic.twitter.com/tNUK8HeWt0

— Jîl Şwanî (@thejilswani) June 25, 2020

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

After more than three months without any civilian harm incidents allegedly resulting from Kurdish counterfire, local Syrian news outlets said that a child was killed after a mortar shell, reportedly from the YPG, exploded near the city of Mare’a in Aleppo province on June 28th. According to Bawabat Aleppo, the child killed was 14 year-old Hamza Ibrahim. The explosion reportedly took place on the road to the nearby village of Esnabel. 

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

There were no publicly alleged or announced US strikes in Somalia during June, with the last declared AFRICOM action taking place on May 17th.  

Yemen

Airwars tracked one alleged US drone strike in Yemen during the month of June. According to local reports, the strike took place on Wadi Obeida, just northwest of Marib city on June 24th. The strike reportedly hit al-Qaeda militants, who had just escaped a battle with Saudi-backed Yemeni forces in the Qaniyah front of Baydha province. According to one source, the airstrike killed an unnamed senior figure within AQAP. However, this claim has not been corroborated by other reports on the airstrike.

CENTCOM itself said that it did not carry out any strikes in Yemen during the month. However it remains possible that the June 24th event was conducted by the CIA, which carries out a parallel, covert campaign in Yemen. 

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during May. The last such reported or claimed US action was in July 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

Airwars participated, along with 1,000 other organisations, in a high level virtual convening on United Nations Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, which reflected on how the UN’s present counter-terror policies impact on peace, human rights and development

Airwars also observed discussions and side events of the ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region – Brussels IV Conference,’ and sent a followup question to the panel on ‘Ensuring accountability and civilian protection in Syria’. The question focused on the need for accountability from all the actors involved in the Syrian conflict: 

While casualty tracking indicates that the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Syrian civilians, including women and children, as a result of airstrikes on civilian residential areas, research from monitoring organisations shows that other international actors – such as Turkey and the US-led Coalition – are also responsible for civilian harm, often at significant levels. How can we hold the Syrian regime and its allies to account, while ensuring that other States calling for the protection of civilians are themselves fully committed to meeting accountability standards?

The US State Department – which hosted the ‘Brussels IV’ discussion on Syria – has yet to respond to those questions which resulted from the session.

European advocacy

In June, the Airwars European advocacy team held several roundtables with our Dutch civil society partners. As Dutch Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld wrote in her letter to Parliament on June 30th, several NGOs, including Airwars, have been meeting with the Ministry to discuss our previously submitted roadmap to improve Dutch policy regarding transparency and accountability for civilian harm. The aim is to agree on a joint plan by the end of the summer, as stated in the Minister’s letter. 

On June 25th, the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges (UCGC) at the University of Utrecht launched its latest project War/Truth: Civilian harm in remote warfare. In January, Airwars’ European advocacy officer moved into the UCGC office as a societal partner of the centre in order to help facilitate better collaboration on the topic of civilian harm. The goal of our collaboration is to “connect Airwars’ work recording civilian harm with research carried out by the Intimacies of Remote Warfare programme (Utrecht University) into wider questions of transparency, accountability, responsibility and legitimacy.”

Military advocacy

All 38 historical civilian harm allegations from US-led Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria, covering a period from January 2015 to July 2017 – and reviewed by the Coalition for its June report – were rejected as ‘non credible. Each of the 38 cases had been an Airwars referral. 

As Airwars noted in a letter of concern to Coalition commanders, this meant that of the 257 incidents so far reviewed by OIR for 2020, only eight had been deemed Credible – or just 3.1%. 

Airwars expressed concern “that OIR may once again be moving away from engaging with external sources on civcas claims – and instead [is] institutionally focusing on self-reported events. If that is the case it would represent a backward step – particularly with DoD itself now emphasising the value of external sources.”

▲ 'From Idlib to Suwayda. Together we will save the boat from sinking. Revolution from the North to the South' Mural in Idlib, June 8th 2020 (via Enab Beladi)

Published

June 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

Following on from April, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to deliver a limited ‘peace dividend’, at least in some conflict nations. Civilian harm allegations against international actors in Syria continue to be minimal – though with a spike in claims against the US-led Coalition. In Iraq – despite reports of an ISIS resurgence – no civilian harm incidents from International Coalition actions were reported. And in Somalia too, the most intensive US campaign ever seen against al Shabaab, which began earlier this year, now appears to be on hold. 

Meanwhile, the violence in Libya continued unabated, with the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey, making significant headway in its bid to retake areas in western Libya recently lost to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

The above graph shows the number of alleged civilian harm incidents from tracked belligerents in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Somalia. In Syria, all the incidents reported were conducted either by the US-led Coalition, or by Turkish-led forces. In Iraq, the solitary incident was allegedly the result of a Turkish airstrike. More than six times the number of civilian fatalities resulting from actions by tracked belligerents were reported during the month in Libya than in Syria.

Civilian harm in Libya increases as Turkey and GNA turn the tide against the LNA

Libya saw another increase in both airstrikes and reported civilian harm during May, with the GNA and Turkey for the first time since the beginning of the Tripoli offensive out-bombing the LNA and its allies. However, the LNA was still reportedly responsible for the majority of civilian harm.

The number of overall reported air and artillery strikes by all belligerents slightly rose month on month, from 245 in April to 274 in May. The number of locally reported civilian deaths also increased, from 44-52 to 64-81.

Between 33 and 44 civilian deaths were reported from 52 LNA or Emirati airstrikes. The high ratio of civilian harm stemmed from the often indiscriminate nature of shelling on Tripoli neighbourhoods. In one of the worst LNA incidents, six civilians were killed and up to 24 injured on May 9th on the capital’s Al Sour road.

Some 120 reported GNA and Turkish air and artillery strikes allegedly resulted in 18 to 21 civilian deaths. Between nine and ten civilians were allegedly killed by a Turkish airstrike in the worst event of the month in Qasr Al Hajj on May 8th, 2020.

While 95 further strikes could not be attributed to any one belligerent, 6 were contested between GNA and LNA. These allegedly led to 10 to 13 additional civilian deaths.

After the LNA’s withdrawal from Tripoli in late May, landmines and IEDs left behind by Haftar’s forces posed an additional risk for civilians. AFRICOM also called out Russia for allegedly supplying combat aircraft to the LNA. According to the US military command “there is concern these Russian aircraft are being flown by inexperienced, non-state PMC mercenaries who will not adhere to international law.”

Tariq Mustafa Homs, who reportedly lost a leg after shelling by LNA on Tripoli on May 31st, 2020 (via Burkan Al Ghadab)

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

The month of May saw an unexpected increase in US-led Coalition military activity in Syria. Airwars researchers tracked four separate claimed civilian harm incidents throughout the month, the highest monthly tally this year so far, leading to eight locally reported civilian deaths. All four incidents took place in Deir Ezzor governorate, which has seen most of the Coalition’s military actions in Syria during 2020.

The first incident took place on May 1st in the Koniko oil fields of Deir Ezzor. According to local reports, a civilian was killed by a US sniper. The victim, who worked as a teacher in Raqqa city, was identified as Yasser Al-Asman. According to Step News, he “was heading on the main road from the countryside of Deir Ezzor Al-Sharqi to Raqqa, but his car veered off the road towards the [oil] field by mistake, which drove the American forces to kill him instantly.”

On May 16th, a major air raid was conducted in the vicinity of the Abu Bakr Mosque in al-Basira, Deir Ezzor. As part of a joint operation between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the International Coalition, a number of houses were reportedly bombed. According to Euphrates Eye, Coalition forces struck three buildings housing Internally Displaced People (IDP) in the town, killing five civilians in Ibrahim al-Baraka’s house. The day after saw another civilian harm allegation in al-Zir town. According to local reports, a civilian named Muhammad Khleif Al Hamra was killed on the roof of his own house, while watching Coalition forces conduct a raid on neighbouring properties in al-Shouhaibi town.

The final incident took place on May 22nd in al-Shabaka, once again in Deir Ezzor. According to Euphrates Post, Muhammad Al-Ouda Al-Khaled Al-Addad from the city of Al-Shuhail was killed during a joint operation led by the International Coalition. Further details of the raid are not presently known.

Reports also emerged that a senior ISIS figure, Mu’taz Numan Abd Nayif Najm al-Jabouri, was killed in a Coalition airstrike. Al-Jabouri, who went by the nom de guerre, Hajji Taysir, was known as the group’s ‘Governor’ of Iraq and head of foreign operations. He was also claimed to have overseen the group’s chemical and biological weapons research, as the deputy head of ISIS manufacturing in Syria.

Additionally, there were six other unilateral actions that were allegedly conducted by the US during the month. These took place in a number of different Governorates in Syria such as Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Hasaka. Most of these incidents targeted Iranian-backed groups in Syria – suggesting that these attacks may instead have been the work of Israel.

Meanwhile, International Coalition airstrikes in Iraq also continued. On May 13th, the US-led alliance conducted a major strike on a cave system used as a hideout by ISIS cells in the southwestern desert of Hadar, in Nineveh province. The attack reportedly killed four militants. Five days later, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (ICTS) confirmed that 11 airstrikes were conducted against ISIS remnants in Mount Ghurra, south of Dibis in Kirkuk. Additionally, the US-led Coalition conducted another strike on ISIS targets in Wadi Ashi in Kirkuk on May 31st, as part of the Iraqi-led “Heroes of Iraq” operation.

May 13, @modmiliq requested Coalition bombs an ISIS cave. We did. ISF found 4xEKIA. #ReadyAF #DefeatDaesh 💥🇮🇶 في 13 آيار ، قصف التحالف كهف لداعش في نينوى، ممّا أدى الى مقتل 4 إرهابيين وقد تبين ذلك من خلال عمليات التفتيش التي قامت بها الفرقة 20 في الجيش العراقي بعد الغارة pic.twitter.com/MPTzYaGSqA

— OIR Spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III (@OIRSpox) May 15, 2020

The Royal Air Force (RAF) has also remained active in Iraq, conducting four airstrikes against ISIS targets in May. On May 8th, an RAF Reaper targeted an ISIS bunker west of Tuz Khurmato in northern Iraq. On May 10th, a pair of Typhoons struck a cave system reportedly used by ISIS militants southeast of Hatra, on the banks of the Tharthar Lake in Anbar province. The third strike took place three days later in Tuz Khurmato against an ISIS bunker, and finally, on May 23rd a RAF Reaper targeted a group of ISIS militants in an unidentified location in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service forces advance across a field near Dibis, southern Kirkuk on May 18th 2020 (via ICTS social media)

In total, the US-led Coalition confirmed that in the month of May, Partner Forces in Iraq and Syria conducted 52 anti-ISIS operations.

Syria: Another quiet month for Russian airstrikes  

For the second month in a row, Airwars did not monitor a single locally reported civilian harm incident from Russian actions in Syria. April and May of this year mark the only complete months without civilian casualties claimed from Russian military actions – and the longest continuous period without reports of civilian harm since the beginning of Moscow’s campaign began in Syria in September 2015.

Despite the absence of Russian actions, there were concerns that hostilities could resume at any moment. Sporadic reports emerged throughout the month of attacks by both Syrian Government forces and rebels.

On May 10th for example, al-Qaeda-linked Huras al-Din reportedly attacked regime forces in the Ghab plain area of Idlib. It was said the fighting had left 21 troops and 13 Huras al-Din members dead. Additionally, on May 15th, there were reports that regime shelling on the town of al-Bara in Idlib killed at least two civilians and injured up to five others.

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Airwars tracked five separate civilian harm allegations against Turkish-led forces over the course of May – three less than last month’s tally. According to local sources, these incidents led to three civilian deaths, compared to two such deaths in April. At least one child was harmed from alleged Turkish actions.

All the civilian harm incidents which took place in May occurred in the week starting May 13th. That day in the town of Maranaz in Aleppo governorate, a young boy was reportedly severely injured after being peppered by shrapnel from alleged Turkish shelling on the town. Three days later, up to two civilians were killed when according to pro-regime outlets, Turkish-backed forces opened fire on a van coming from Raqqa city near a checkpoint in Ras al-Ain. Kurdish expert Wladimir van Wilgenburg reported that the two civilians killed were Mihemed Xidir Husên and Ziyab El-Elî.

The third incident occurred in Deir Ghosn in Hasaka Governorate on May 17th, when Turkish forces allegedly opened fire on farmers in the area. Just two days later, 30-year-old Mohammed Hajj Hussein Al Khalaf was wounded by an artillery strike on the village of Arab Hassan Kabir, Aleppo governorate. Hawar News spoke to the uncle of the victim, Ali Al Khalaf, who stated that the shelling occurred at 5am while his family was sleeping. The final incident took place in the town of Şiyûx, west of Kobani city after Turkish forces shelled the town, reportedly injuring two civilians.

In Iraq, Turkish fighter jets continued to target Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions throughout the month. On May 30th, a Turkish airstrike reportedly hit the Deralok sub-district of Amedi, close to the border with Turkey in the province of Dohuk. The strike killed a father and a son in the area and injured another person. The Turkish Ministry of Defence, however, claimed that the attack had killed two PKK fighters, and not civilians.

Mohammed Hajj Hussein Al Khalaf was injured in alleged Turkish-backed artillery strikes on the village of Arab Hassan Kabir on May 19th, 2020 (via Hawar News).

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of May. This is the second month in a row that no civilian harm allegations against Kurdish armed groups have been locally reported – and marked the longest period without reports of civilian harm from Kurdish actions since July 2019.

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

Airwars recorded four locally alleged US strikes in Somalia during May, of which only one was officially declared. In two events, civilian harm was claimed against AFRICOM.

Up to two civilians were allegedly killed by a US or Kenyan strikes on Araboow on May 13th. The strikes reportedly hit minibuses departing from Mogadishu. AFRICOM denied any involvement in the event.

On May 17th, a US strike allegedly injured four civilians in Kunya Barrow. Sources close to Al Shabaab reported that the strike hit a civilian home, injuring a mother and three of her children.

Picture of an alleged victim of US strike on Kunya Barrow on May 17th, 2020 (via Halgan Media)

Yemen

On May 13th, Yemen Press Agency alleged that US drones had targeted positions in both Marib and Abyan. The first attack occurred in the Wadi Obeida area of Marib city. According to reports, a drone strike hit a house, killing an al-Qaeda operative named Shurfan and injuring the group’s alleged communications officer, Abdullah al-Maliki. Photographs published locally showed an injured Maliki receiving medical treatment.

Yet according to an email from CENTCOM to Airwars, there were no US military strikes during May 2020 in Yemen. This was despite the US Justice Department confirming that a senior Qaeda operative was targeted in a drone strike during the month, with an official press release on May 18th noting that “a counterterrorism operation targeting AQAP operative Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Alshamrani’s overseas associates, was recently conducted in Yemen.”

Meanwhile, a reported US strike in Abyan targeted an al-Qaeda site near the Shakra area, and resulted in the death of Abu al-Bara al-Qifi, a senior figure within the terror group. A third claimed US action took place in al-Arqoub in Abyan on May 16th, killing senior al-Qaeda figure Saad al-Atiqi al-Awlaki. According to Yemen Press Agency, the attack took place between the Laudar district in Abyan province and the Mokiras district of Bayda province. The action came as Saudi-backed forces also launched an attack in the area, which is held by fighters allied to the al-Islah party.

With multiple reports from local sources of US drone strikes in both Marib and Abyan provinces during May – and confirmation of a US attack on al-Maliki, despite CENTCOM denials – this strongly indicates that the US’s covert CIA campaign in Yemen is continuing.

Abdullah al-Maliki who was injured in a US drone strike on Wadi Obeida in Marib on May 13th 2020. Image via @YemeniFatima

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during May. The last such reported or claimed US action was in August 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

Airwars marked the UN’s Protection of Civilians week in May 2020 with the Conflicting Truth project, in partnership with the Scottish-American design team Rectangle, who also produce the complex mapping and data representations on the Airwars website.

The project live-streamed the names of 8,337 civilian casualties which Airwars has documented in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia in recent years. The Airwars/Rectangle project aims to show that those killed and injured in conflict are not mere statistics – they are people with names, friends and families. Their loss inflicts severe pain on relatives, and the communities they belong to.

Airwars also joined other international partners and organisations in a Civil Society Call for Action to Protect Civilians during PoC week. The joint statement, signed by 22 organisations, called on the UN Security Council, on Member States, and on the UN System to take urgent, bold and practical steps to respond to the challenges that remain in the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

Airwars’ Deputy Director additionally joined with US partners in a three-day virtual workshop hosted by InterAction, ‘Building the Evidence Base:  Addressing the Reverberating Effects of  Military Operations on Civilian Life’. This gathered together experts undertaking systematic research on the effects of explosive weapons in populated areas. Participants came up with a number of practical and methodological challenges associated with analysing the reverberating effects of conflict, and outlined a way forward to overcome them.

European advocacy

May was a busy month for European advocacy. In the run up to the fourth Dutch parliamentary debate on the Hawijah case, we published a blog with our partner the Open State Foundation (available in Dutch) about the poor quality of the Dutch Ministry of Defence’s recently released weekly reports on Dutch airstrikes as part of the US-led Coalition between 2014 and 2016. 

The parliamentary debate was itself held on May 14th. Our livetweeting of the nine-hour-long event was widely followed by international media. One topic discussed during the debate was our news story from March, in which Airwars revealed that at least one other Coalition ally had refused the airstrike on Hawijah, based on the available intelligence. During all four debates, Airwars was mentioned no less than 54 times.

Military advocacy

On May 1st, the US-led Coalition published its fifth civilian harm report of 2020, declaring that from August 2014 to March 31st 2020 it had conducted 34,819 strikes against so called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Of the 41 historic assessments reviewed by Combined Joint Task Force – Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), 40 locally reported civilian harm events were rejected as ‘non credible’ – with a single additional event flagged as a duplicate assessment. All but one of the events – covering civilian harm claims in both Iraq and Syria between September 2015 and November 2019 – were Airwars referrals.

This blanket rejection of all locally reported civilian harm events reviewed during May reflected a recent and concerning trend. Of 217 locally alleged civilian harm events in Iraq and Syria assessed by CJTF-OIR to May 2020, only eight events (3.6%) had been accepted as Credible.

On May 6th, the Pentagon also published its third annual report on civilian harm to Congress. This declared that US forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia had between them killed at least 132 civilians and injured 91 more during 2019. The Pentagon also reported a further 79 historical deaths from its actions in Syria and Iraq during 2017-18.

Of the 21 historical cases officially conceded from US actions in Iraq and Syria for 2017 over the past year, 18 had been Airwars referrals. Yet every single allegation referred by Airwars to the Coalition for both 2018 and 2019 was rejected – amounting to many hundreds of dismissed local claims.

As Airwars director Chris Woods noted at the time, “Many hundreds of civilian deaths which were credibly reported by local communities appear to have been ignored. This goes against the Pentagon’s repeated promise to engage better with external NGOs including monitors, and we will be asking for an urgent explanation from officials of this apparent backward step.”

▲ An Iraqi Counter Terrorism officer overlooks fields reportedly burnt by ISIS in Dibis, Kirkuk (via @iraqicts)

Published

June 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Chris Woods, Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

The COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as the most serious public health crisis this century and continues to dominate most governments’ domestic and foreign policy. Airwars research shows that the crisis has brought about a significant though perhaps short-lived peace dividend in a number of conflict nations. April 2020 saw an almost unprecedented reduction in civilian harm incidents in Syria for example, whilst Iraq continues to see minimal reported civilian harm allegations against  foreign actors.

However, this peace dividend has failed to extend to Libya. That conflict has escalated significantly, as Turkey has stepped up its armed intervention on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA), against the opposition Libyan National Army. As both sides sought military dominance in Tripoli and other towns and cities across Libya, civilian suffering also multiplied from previous months. 

As shown by the below graph, since the outbreak of COVID-19, civilian harm in Syria, usually the most active conflict which Airwars monitors, has decreased significantly. However, this welcome trend has not applied to Libya, where the fighting became more intense in April, following the escalation of Turkey’s air campaign against the LNA. For the first time since we began tracking civilian harm in both nations, reported deaths in Libya outstripped those in Syria.

Civilian harm in Libya grows as Turkey escalates air campaign

Libya witnessed a significant increase in both reported civilian casualties and airstrikes in April, partly due to the Turkish air campaign in favour of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The number of reported civilian deaths rose from 17-19 in March to 44-52. The number of alleged air and artillery strikes increased by 50% from 163 to 245.

The majority of civilian harm was still allegedly caused by the Libyan National Army (LNA), which reportedly shelled civilian neighbourhoods of Tripoli on many occasions. This led to between 20 and 23 locally reported civilian deaths. In the worst incident, up to four civilians were allegedly killed and up to eight more injured by LNA shelling on Tajoura on April 9th.

Civilian harm from GNA or Turkish actions spiked in April as a result of combined efforts to recover territory previously lost to the LNA in Western Libya. Between eight and ten civilians were reportedly killed by 55 GNA or Turkish air and artillery strikes. On April 28th for example, a GNA/Turkish drone strike allegedly killed up to five civilians in a civilian truck near Ra’s at Tabal.

Once again during the month, many civilian harm events could not be clearly attributed because of indiscriminate shelling in urban areas. These led to 16 to 19 reported civilian deaths either contested between the GNA and LNA, or where the responsibility of no one belligerent could be determined.

Image via Tk Yahroug Kl shy of a truck carrying beehives that was allegedly hit by a Turkish/GNA drone on April 28th 2020

 

Syria: Ceasefire brings month of calm from Russian airstrikes  

As countries across the world battled to contain the spread of COVID-19, the campaign in Idlib was brought to an almost complete halt. Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents involving Russia during all of April – the first such month of no reported civilian casualties since Moscow first intervened in Syria in September 2015.

The pause in fighting came after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire at the end of March so that governments could focus on fighting the virus, and allow for humanitarian workers to reach populations in conflict zones that were most vulnerable to the spread of the virus. The absence of civilian harm attributed to Russia suggested that the ’ceasefire dividend’ brought about by COVID-19 may have been quite effective in bringing about much-needed respite from conflict, at least in Syria.

However, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian airstrikes were carried out during April in desert regions of Syria against ISIS positions, killing 28 alleged militants. Additionally, there were sporadic reports of Regime shelling in Idlib Governorate in areas near the southeastern Jabal al-Zawiya region on April 2nd.

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

April was once again a relatively calm month for the US-led Coalition in Syria, with no civilian harm allegations reported. 

However, there were reports of Coalition strikes against ISIS positions in Syria, as well as claimed unilateral US strikes on Iran-backed forces in the country. On April 18th, a Coalition aircraft targeted two people riding a motorbike, near a school in Al-Hawaij town in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. According to Deir Ezzor 24, the strike came moments after ISIS militants had destroyed a school with explosives. Most sources reporting on the airstrike say that the two people killed were ISIS militants that were likely involved in the destruction of the school.

On April 21st, local sources reported that a convoy carrying up to 15 members of Iranian-backed groups in Syria was allegedly targeted by a US strike. The convoy reportedly came from Iraq to the al-Thalatat area in the Al-Bukamal desert area, east of Deir Ezzor.

Meanwhile, International Coalition airstrikes in Iraq also continued. On April 10th, the UK declared its first actions against ISIS targets since September 2019. According to a statement by the Ministry of Defence, a pair of Royal Air Force Typhoon jets, assisted by an RAF Reaper drone, struck ISIS militants in Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk, “removing several Daesh fighters from the battlefield and further degrading the terrorist movement.”

Three days later, US F-15s conducted airstrikes on ISIS locations near Kirkuk in Iraq. The strikes reportedly took place in a river valley, 15 kilometres south of Daquq. According to the Iraqi Security Media Cell, the joint operation with Iraqi Security Forces led to 23 ISIS militants being killed. These attacks came after a recent uptick in ISIS activity in northern Iraq.

Image via CENTCOM of the USAF airstrike in Kirkuk on April 13th 2020.

Turkey in Syria

While fighting in Syria had largely subsided following the ceasefire deal signed between Presidents Putin and Erdogan in Moscow on March 5th, civilian harm incidents resulting from Turkish-led actions continued to be sporadically reported, albeit at a slightly lower rate than previous months. 

Airwars tracked seven separate civilian harm allegations against Turkish-led forces over the course of April. These incidents led to two civilian deaths and the injury of up to 14 more, according to local sources. This represents a significant decrease from the previous month, which saw four civilian fatalities and 27 injuries from ten Turkish-led civilian harm incidents. Additionally, according to Airwars data, children were less harmed from alleged Turkish incidents compared to the previous month when three of the four civilians reported killed were children. In April only one child was reportedly injured.

All the incidents took place in the first ten days of the month (again suggesting a possible ‘Covid effect’.) The deadliest took place on April 2nd in the villages of Qabr al-Saqir and al-Abosh in the Tal Tamr district of Hasakah Governorate. According to local sources, two people lost their lives and four others were injured after Turkish forces fired a barrage of shells on residential neighbourhoods in the villages.

In Iraq, there were local reports of two civilian harm incidents resulting from Turkish airstrikes on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq during the month. On April 15th, an alleged Turkish airstrike on the Makhmour IDP camp killed three women and injured up to four others. In a separate incident on April 28th, Turkish warplanes struck the Xakurke area, on the Iran-Iraq border. The airstrike reportedly killed two civilians, whose identities were later given as Fakher Tazewared (35 years old) and Rashid Miroir (36 years old). The victims were reportedly from the town of Shino in Iran.

Image via Politika of a funeral held for the three women killed in the airstrike on the Makhmour IDP camp on April 15th.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of April. This is the first month that no civilian harm allegations against Kurdish armed groups have been reported since September 2019 – before Turkey’s offensive in Northeastern Syria.

However, on April 28th a large VBIED was detonated in the city of Afrin, killing as many as 42 people and injuring more than 50 others. The explosion took place near the densely populated main market in the city. Some sources claimed that the YPG was responsible for the attack, though these reports were not confirmed.

Image via SCD of a fireman putting out the flames from the car bomb in Afrin city on April 28th.

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

The number of reported US strikes in Somalia decreased sharply in April, presumably because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. AFRICOM declared conducting eight strikes at the beginning of the month, seven less than in March. It claimed these had killed 32 Al Shabaab fighters in total.

Local sources at times conflicted with AFRICOM’s own press releases, alleging civilian harm on two occasions. On April 6th, between two and three civilians were reportedly killed by a US strike near Jilib. In addition, one child was allegedly injured, while AFRICOM said no civilians were harmed in the attack.

Additionally, on April 10th one elderly clan leader was allegedly killed according to some local sources. However, AFRICOM later vehemently refuted the claims in a statement: “Immediately prior to the airstrike, this al-Shabaab terrorist displayed the murdered bodies of Somali National Army (SNA) soldiers in a village. Following this act of coercion and intimidation, the al-Shabaab terrorist departed the village. Once isolated in a remote and secluded area, the terrorist was killed by an airstrike executed by the command in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia.”

On April 27th, AFRICOM for the first time released a quarterly civilian harm report, conceding two civilian deaths – believed to be a father and child – from an incident in Kunyo Barrow on February 23rd, 2019. AFRICOM had originally dismissed the claim. But it reopened an assessment after Airwars submitted a detailed dossier on the incident in January 2020, including what were believed to be precise coordinates for where casualties took place.

Image via Morad News of Ahmed Hussein, allegedly injured in a US strike on Jilib on April 6th, 2020.

Yemen

According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes during April 2020 in Yemen. However, there were multiple reports from local sources of two US drone strikes in Marib and Shabwa provinces. It remains possible that one or both of these incidents was conducted by the CIA, which has intermittently been conducting strikes in Yemen since 2002 – but which neither confirms nor denies such actions. 

On April 11th, the Yemen Press Agency reported an alleged US drone strike on the home of a leading figure of the Islah party in Marib, Ali bin Ghareeb, under the pretext of combating al-Qaeda’s presence in the area. Although Ali bin Ghareeb was unharmed, there were reports of civilian casualties from the attack, although no details have emerged on the number harmed or their identities. There were conflicting reports which suggested that the attack was instead carried out by a Houthi ballistic missile, though most sources seemed to allege that US drones were responsible.

A second claimed drone strike took place in Wadi Amaqin in the district of Bayhan in Shabwa Governorate on April 26th. According to Associated Press, two strikes were conducted in the area killing six al-Qaeda militants. Bayhan has long been a stronghold for al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and has therefore been the subject of numerous drone strikes over the last few years. 

Map via Intelligence Fusion-Asia showing the claimed location of a recently alleged US drone strike in Shabwa on April 26th.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during January. The last such reported US strike was in August 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

Airwars gave a presentation, ‘Using casualty monitoring to hold militaries to account’ in a webinar hosted by EveryCasualty’s Casualty Recorders Network. This was a great opportunity to present Airwars’ work and experience and our recent investigation into European civilian harm, as well as a chance to meet and talk with other organisations who work in this domain.

Airwars also signed a joint letter coordinated by Crisis Action to the UN Security Council, to support calls for a global ceasefire in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

We additionally submitted a short paper to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, concerning the impact of the diversion of arms and unregulated or illicit arms transfers on the human rights of women and girls in Libya.

In April Airwars also signed the NGO Global Compact coordinated by InterAction, which includes commitments towards environmental action and sustainability as a result of the climate crisis.

And finally, Airwars has updated its Arabic-language Methodology, which can be accessed on our website. 

European advocacy

With the past few months heavily focused on Dutch advocacy after the Hawijah scandal broke in October 2019, our deputy director and European advocacy officer have taken the opportunity to reconnect with our partners and allies in France and Belgium. Several digital meetings were held to discuss how civil society in both countries might better encourage progress in terms of transparency and accountability, following our Europe’s Shame investigation in March.  

We also held several online roundtable meetings with our Dutch partners to discuss a conceptual roadmap towards greater transparency and accountability from the Dutch Ministry of Defence, which we plan to present to the Ministry in early June.

As a member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), Airwars’ advocacy team also sought with opur partners to improve the forthcoming Political Declaration by nations, which is expected to address the humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Military advocacy

The US-led Coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria published no monthly civilian harm reports during April. However the Coalition’s civilian casualty assessment team reached out to Airwars on several occasions during the month to request clarification from our specialists on a number of publicly claimed civilian harm events.

 

▲ Image via Enab Baladi of a fighter in Syria resting amidst the rubble, April 2020.

Published

May 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Alex Hopkins, Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, Eleftheria Kousta, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

Putin-Erdogan ceasefire brings Russia’s air campaign on Idlib to a temporary halt

As the COVID-19 pandemic morphed into the most widespread global public health crisis in a century, there were growing calls for an end to conflicts around the world in order to give public authorities the respite needed to manage the crisis. This, along with Turkey’s unprecedented intervention in Idlib at the end of February, prompted Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan to hold high-level talks in Moscow on March 5th. Six hours of negotiation concluded with a ceasefire agreement, which would take hold the next day.

As part of the deal, a security corridor 6km north and 6km south of Idlib’s key M4 motorway, which connects the government-held cities of Aleppo and Latakia, would be created and joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the M4 would take place. According to local sources, there were reports of Syrian Regime bombardment on the first day of the ceasefire on the towns of al-Ziyarah, Bara and Sarmin. However, from March 7th onwards, the ceasefire was largely maintained by both sides. As a result, Airwars researchers reported no civilian harm allegations attributed to Russian airstrikes after March 5th.

However before the ceasefire came into effect, Airwars tracked 10 locally reported civilian harm events  that were both solely and partially attributed to Russia. Of these strikes, seven targeted areas in Idlib governorate, while two took place in Aleppo and one strike hit an area in Hama.

Unsurprisingly, this represented a dramatic decline in alleged civilian harm incidents attributed to Russia duringFebruary. In total, across these 10 new incidents in March, between 32 and 48 civilians were allegedly killed by Russian strikes – in comparison to between 182 and 226 civilians who were reportedly killed the previous month. Among the latest victims were up to 12 children and 7 women. Up to 86 further non-combatants were reportedly wounded during the month by Russian military actions.

While the number of casualties was significantly lower, it is important to note that the number of civilian fatalities per incident was actually higher this month than in February. In March, on average up to 4.8 civilians were killed per incident – more than double the fatality rate per incident for February, which stood at 2.1. This suggests that a greater proportion of strikes took place in densely populated areas where the risk of civilian harm was high.

On March 1st four civilian harm incidents took place. Two occurred in Aleppo governorate (the towns of Kafar Natin and al-Sahara), one took place in the town of Qatoun in Hama, and one in Batneta in Idlib. All the other incidents during March took place in Idlib.

Two of the most devastating airstrikes occurred in al-Fou’a on March 2nd and in Idlib city. In al-Fou’a, local reports estimate that up to 11 civilians were killed and 15 more injured in an attack. The day after in al-Thalatheen Street in Idlib city, up to nine civilians were killed and 21 more were injured after Russian warplanes and Regime forces based in Saraqib allegedly targeted a building sheltering internally displaced persons (IDPs). According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, three members of the Hamdou family were killed including two children named Rimas and Shahem.

However, the most deadly attack this month came on March 5th, on the day Presidents Putin and Erdogan held their talks in Moscow. This alleged Russian airstrike, which many local sources described as a “massacre” hit a shelter for displaced families in Ma’arat Masrin in the northern countryside of Idlib, killing up to 16 civilians and injuring another 32. As many as five children were among the dead, as well as seven women.

طائرات الاحتلال الروسي تقتل 16 مدنياً في "معرة مصرين" بريف #إدلبhttps://t.co/XihIwSITOg#سوريا #روسيا pic.twitter.com/qSwChrSJL3

— الائتلاف الوطني السوري (@SyrianCoalition) March 5, 2020

Turkey in Syria

The deal signed between Presidents Putin and Erdogan in Moscow on March 5th effectively saw the end of Turkish military actions in Idlib and northwest Syria. However, there were several reports of civilian harm incidents that were attributed to Turkish actions in other parts of Syria after March 5th. In fact, despite the ceasefire in Idlib and Turkey supposedly de-escalating its intervention in Syria, Aiwars reported a slight rise in alleged Turkish civilian harm incidents in the month of March – though with a lower death toll from these actions compared to February.

According to local reports, as many as 10 civilian harm incidents allegedly resulted from Turkish-led actions, resulting in 4 civilian deaths and injuring up to 27 others. In comparison, February saw nine civilian harm incidents, resulting in six civilian deaths and the injuring of up to 22 others. Furthermore, children appeared to bear the brunt of these recent attacks, as three of the four civilian deaths reported were below the age of 17.

Three days before the ceasefire deal was signed, on March 2nd pro-Regime sources claimed that Turkish-led shelling on the town of Jourin in Hama had resulted in the deaths of a woman and a child, and the injuring of seven other civilians. This incident resulted in the most civilian casualties out of all Turkish incidents alleged this month.

7 civilians were injured in a terrorist attack with a rocket shell on Jourin town in the far northwest cs of #Hama. The terrorist organizations, backed by the Turkish, fired a rocket shell on #Jourin town that fell on a consolation house & injured seven civilians. pic.twitter.com/sLtuapeNOB

— ?? NadieHarbieh ?? (@HarbiehNadie) March 2, 2020

According to Airwars data, alleged Turkish-led attacks on civilians spiked in the last week of March. Half of the incidents recorded took place during that week. On March 23rd, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that an elderly man was injured in an artillery attack allegedly carried out by Turkish backed forces on the village of Um al-Hawaash in northern Aleppo. Two days later, Turkish-backed Faylaq al-Majd forces allegedly stormed the village of Sukariya in Tal Abyad district, injuring four people, including a child. On that same day, a child was killed and two others were injured in an alleged Turkish landmine explosion in the village of Zaytouna in Tal Abyad countryside. The following day, March 26th, Turkish forces stationed near Azaz reportedly fired rockets towards Tal Rifaat, injuring two civilians displaced from Afrin.

Image via ANF of a child who was injured following alleged Turkish shelling on the village of Sheikh Issa in Shehba, Aleppo.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars researchers tracked four alleged civilian harm incidents linked to Kurdish counterfire actions in Syria in March – the name number of incidents reported in February. However, significantly more civilian deaths were reported. As many as seven civilians were allegedly killed from Kurdish actions compared to only one death tracked the previous month. Additionally, between 12 and 25 civilians were reportedly injured in these attacks.

The most deadly incident took place on March 18th in the city of Afrin. According to Al Modon news, YPG forces allegedly launched five mortars on various areas in the centre of Afrin. Two shells fell near the Dersem Hospital in Al-Failat Street, and two more near the Al Shifa’ Hospital near Mazout Street, witha shell also landing on Mazout Street. These attacks resulted in five civilian deaths, including two children, and injured up to 17 others. The Syrian Human Rights Committee published the names of the two children killed – Abdullah Al-Sayyid (10 years old) and Khaled Al-Daba’an (12 years old).

Image via Jesser Press showing the aftermath of the attack on Afrin city on March 18th.

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

March was yet another relatively quiet month for the US-led coalition in Syria, with no allegations of civilian harm attributed to the International Coalition. The Coalition declared a total of 28 strikes in Syria and Iraq in the month of March. In Iraq, 20 strikes were conducted against ISIS targets, killing 10 militants, CJTFOIR asserted. Meanwhile in Syria, the Coalition launched eight strikes against ISIS targets.

However, March did see a renewal of claims of unilateral actions by the United States. There were reports of at least four airstrikes in eastern Syria, all of which hit areas in Al Bukamal in the Deir Ezzor Governorate. The first set of strikes of the month took place on March 11th on the villages of Al-Suwayyah, Al-Heri, and the Green Belt near the city of Al Bukamal. These airstrikes reportedly targeted sites belonging to Iran-backed Iraqi armed groups such as Harakat al-Nujaba, the Sayed Al-Shuhada Brigades, and the Haydarioun Brigade. The next day saw another set of airstrikes against the same targets in Al Bukamal. One week later, on March 19th, there were reports that the US hit targets belonging to Iranian-backed groups in Albu-Kamal. Finally, on March 24th, US airstrikes once again allegedly targeted Hezbollah positions in the Albu-Kamal area. It should be cautioned that Israel has continued to conduct its own strikes in Syria against Iranian- and regime-linked targets, and the US has not confirmed any unilateral actions, despite local claims.

In Iraq, the US launched airstrikes in the early hours of March 13th on five sites, where rockets and other weapons were stored by Kata’ib Hezbollah. These strikes came in retaliation against a rocket attack that killed two Americans and a British soldier and wounded 14 others at Camp Taji, an Iraqi military base north of Baghdad. That attack was allegedly carried out by a group known as Isabat al-Tha’ireen, believed allied to other Iran-backed groups in Iraq. According to Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of the US military’s Central Command, one of the five sites attacked by the US in response was a weapons storage site at an airfield in Karbala. However, local reports asserted that the airstrikes hit an unfinished civilian airport, killing three Iraqi soldiers, two police officers and a civilian worker named Kerrar Sabbar.

Image via @AIaaAIaabadi of Karrar, a guard at the Karbala International Airport, who was reportedly sleeping in one of the airport’s halls at the time of the attack, and was killed.

Libya

Allegations of civilian harm in Libya remained stable compared to February. Between 17 and 19 civilians were reported killed, a slight decrease on the previous month’s 18 to 23 deaths The number of locally reported strikes increased however by 33% – up from 128 to 163.

The great majority of civilian harm incidents were attributed to the Libyan National Army (LNA). As Khalifa Haftar’s forces lost the ability to conduct drone strikes on Tripoli due to improved Turkish air defence it resorted mostly to artillery shelling, allegedly resulting in 16 to 18 civilian deaths. Altogether 58 LNA actions were recorded, nearly all of them artillery strikes.

In the worst locally reported incident of the month, four civilians, three of them children, were allegedly killed by an LNA artillery strike on Ain Zara on March 19th.

March saw the return of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones over Libya, helping the GNA (Government of National Accord) to regain some ground. Airwars recorded 20 GNA or Turkish strikes, allegedly leading to one civilian death and two injuries on March 28th.

A large number of strikes could not be attributed once again, most of them indiscriminate artillery shelling often hitting residential areas. Some 81 strikes were conducted by unknown belligerents and two more were contested between the GNA and LNA, reportedly resulting in two civilian injuries.

Image via Tk Yahroug Kl shy of Smoke rising over the Hadaba project area of Tripoli after shelling on March 25th 2020.

 

US counter terrorism campaigns

Somalia

In March Airwars monitored 15 claimed US actions in Somalia, one more than in February and all of which were airstrikes. AFRICOM officially declared 11 strikes in public press releases.

Between four and eight civilians were allegedly killed in three civilian harm events and two more civilians allegedly injured.

In the worst locally reported incident between four and six civilians were said to have been killed by an airstrike near Janaale on a minibus on March 10th.

The Intercept investigated the event and reported that 13-year-old Abdi Farhan Mahmoud and  70-year-old Abdirahman Ali Waadhoor were among the victims. The magazine spoke to Wadhoor’s son who said that his “father is a disabled man. He never had a problem with anyone.”

AFRICOM initially said it killed five Al Shabaab terrorists. It added however that it was currently reviewing information about alleged civilian harm.

In early March, Airwars also held constructive talks at the Pentagon in Washington DC with senior US defence officials, on its new Somalia monitoring project and civilian harm concerns.

Image via Somali Memo of a minibus allegedly destroyed by a US strike near Janaale on March 10th, 2020, which reportedly killed several civilians.

Yemen

According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes during March 2020 in Yemen. The last publicly declared CENTCOM action was on June 24th 2019 in Al Bayda province. Airwars researchers also tracked no local claims of US actions in Yemen during the month.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during January. The last such reported US strike was in August 2018.

 

Advocacy

Military advocacy

During March, the US-led Coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria released two monthly civilian casualty reports – covering respectively up until January and February 2020. Of the 79 historical local Iraqi and Syrian allegations reviewed by the Coalition, only one was determined to be credible – a disappointing tally.

In total to March 31st 2020, the US and its allies had conceded at least 1,377 civilian deaths from their actions across Iraq and Syria since 2014.

The one case conceded by the Coalition in March was an Iraqi event which had previously been flagged by Airwars to CJTFOIR. On September 27th 2015, an unknown aircraft had struck the town of Duquq, killing at least seven civilians according to local reports. Almost five years on, the alliance finally accepted responsibility, noting that “Coalition aircraft conducted an airstrike against Daesh fighters. Regrettably, seven civilians were unintentionally killed as a result of the strike.”

Just prior to the global travel lockdown, Airwars also joined several other international NGOs and agencies in Washington DC, for roundtable talks with Acting US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Dr James Anderson, and other senior officials. The meeting was part of an ongoing Department of Defense policy review into civilian harm reduction, which is expected later in 2020.

Airwars was also a signatory to new civil society guidance for a model DoD policy on civilian harm, which included six policy papers directed at different aspects of casualty mitigation.

Airwars attended both multilateral and unilateral talks at the Pentagon in March (Creative Commons image via Wiyre Media)

European advocacy

On March 10th, our European advocacy officer attended the European Forum on Armed Drones meeting in Brussels, where we presented on our new Somalia database to some of our European partners.

Airwars’ deputy director also engaged in talks with EU officials on their Concept of Protection of Civilians in EU-led Military Operations and provided our expert knowledge on matters such as civilian harm, the protection of civilians, and civilian harm mitigation.

On March 15th, Airwars published a major investigation with international media partners on how key European allies are denying dozens of civilian deaths from their own actions in Syria and Iraq, despite the US-led Coalition finding these civilian harm claims to be credible. The nine-month-investigation with Belgian newspaper De Morgen, French newspaper Liberation, the BBC and RTL Netherlands revealed some shocking facts about how Belgium, France and the UK routinely deny civilian harm from their own military actions.

This past month we also published our analysis of newly declassified documents released by the Dutch Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs, and the Netherlands Public Prosecutor’s Office, which revealed a number of concerning facts about Dutch airstrikes on Hawijah and Mosul in 2015, in which dozens of civilians were killed.

The article further revealed that Airwars recently learned that at least one other ally within the US-led Coalition had refused to conduct the Hawijah strike based on the available intelligence. Our publication caused Dutch Members of Parliament to raise questions with the Minister of Defence. Throughout March, Airwars also continued to work alongside our Dutch partners to pursue accountability for Hawijah and Mosul victims, and to improve the Netherland government’s transparency and accountability policies.

UK advocacy

Airwars continued its advocacy work with the UK government in a bid to push for greater military accountability regarding civilian harm and working with partners towards that aim.

Airwars engaged with DFID on our extensive research database as well as our methodology for assessing civilian harm, whilst also discussing possible ways to expand engagement with the UK government on the protection of civilians in conflict.

Airwars also participated in a meeting with organisations such Save the Children, ICRC, UNA-UK Association, War Child, Protection Approaches and others in the Protection of Civilians Working group, to develop lines of engagement with the UK government on its own Protection of Civilian strategy. And the Security Alternative Policy Network’s accountability working group, of which Airwars is a part, held its first call in March, where members agreed on a series of action points and future steps.

At the end of March, Airwars additionally attended a virtual global conference organised by Crisis Action regarding the call for a global ceasefire by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. This morphed into a global campaign to push for a global ceasefire to allow countries better to confront COVID-19 global pandemic.

▲ Image via Syrian Civil Defence of volunteers working to disinfect displacement camps in northern Idlib, March 30th, 2020.