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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Spokesperson (@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.
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.
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.
US counter-terrorism campaigns
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.