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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”