After 56 months of war, March finally saw the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity when the town of Al Baghouz in Deir Ezzor governorate fell to Coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on March 23rd. However, this final intense month of fighting came at what appeared to be significant cost to civilians on the ground.
March was marked by reports of increasingly distressing, mass casualty incidents in the ISIS-held Al Baghouz camp, culminating in a catastrophic event between March 18th and 19th which killed at least 160 civilians according to local monitors. As a result, March saw a 253% hike in minimum likely deaths from alleged Coalition strikes in Syria on the previous month.
March also saw international strikes in Iraq more than double on February – and the first Coalition civilian casualty event tracked by Airwars in the country since May 2018. But with the alliance having slashed public transparency for its actions it remains impossible to know where Coalition strikes occurred – and, crucially, whether they resulted in civilian harm.
Meanwhile, civilians trapped in Syria’s Idlib governorate found themselves in increased danger from Russian air power. Airwars researchers tracked an 82% rise in casualty events linked to Moscow – the highest number of incidents in a month since September 2018. Up to 94 civilians were alleged killed by either Russia or the Assad regime in March – compared to a maximum of 56 such deaths in February.
Coalition actions fall in Syria – but remain intense
Multiple pauses to allow civilians to leave Al Baghouz in March delayed a final declaration of victory. Just days after resuming the assault on the town, the offensive slowed once again on March 4th as a secondary humanitarian corridor was opened. According to the SDF on March 5th, 3,000 people were evacuated in just a day – figures which, once again, showed that the Coalition’s estimates of the number of civilians trapped in this scrap of land were way off the mark.
The assault resumed on March 10th, and the SDF finally seized the heart of ISIS’s al Baghouz camp – the terror group’s last populated slice of territory – on March 18th-19th. However, skirmishes continued. By March 20th, US President Donald Trump was stating that “the Caliphate is gone as of tonight” – though the SDF and US officials initially exercised more caution. Victory was formally declared by the SDF in a ceremony on March 23rd.
#BREAKING: This is the moment #SDF raised its flag and declared victory over #ISIL in #Baghouz, #Syria minutes ago. After almost 6 years of war, finally the #ISIL/ #Daesh lost its whole territory today and the war on this terror group entered in its next stage an hour ago. pic.twitter.com/aQ4V8EKdQK
— Babak Taghvaee (@BabakTaghvaee) March 23, 2019
Between February 24th and March 23rd, the Coalition conducted 290 air and artillery strikes in Syria – a 21% fall on the 365 strikes carried out between January 27th and February 23rd. On average, this was 10 strikes per day (down from an average of 13 strikes per day in the previous 28-day period of January 27th to February 23rd). While the tempo of strikes fell, the Coalition bombardment, now focused entirely on a tiny slice of land no larger than a few football pitches in Al Baghouz, remained intense.
According to AFCENT, 900 munitions were released from the air across Iraq and Syria during March 2019 – a 48% rise on February’s 607 munitions.
Continuing the trend of the entire war, the US remained responsible for the vast majority of these strikes during March – and most probably for the majority of associated civilian harm claims.
There was small increase in airstrikes by the UK. The MoD reported approximately 5 to 9 airstrikes in Syria – up from two in February. France meanwhile reported two airstrikes in Syria, down from six in February. There were also six missions by France’s artillery forces in the Euphrates Valley – the same number as for February. The number of strikes conducted by Iraq within Syria in March is not known.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation for tens of thousands of Syrians who had managed to flee Al Baghouz remained dire. By March 22nd, Al Hol refugee camp reportedly contained 74,000 refugees – up from 11,000 three months previously. According to UNICEF, some 3,000 ISIS children were housed in camps in north-east Syria by March 13th.
Likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Syria more than triple
In March, civilian casualty incidents linked to the Coalition in Syria rose significantly. Overall, Airwars researchers tracked 15 reported casualty events, compared to seven in the previous month. Of these 15 events – all of which were in Al Baghouz – twelve are presently assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation where possible that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity that date.
Airwars tracking reveals a 253% leap in minimum likely deaths from the US-led alliance’s actions on February’s minimum figures. Airwars currently estimates that between 268 and 752 civilians likely died across these 12 Syrian events – a massive increase of 253% on the minimum of 76 civilians likely killed in February. More worrying still, of these 268 civilians at least 59 were children and 14 were women, according to locals. As many as 284 additional civilians were also reported wounded.
As in February however, reporting from the ground remained poor and often confused. Yet as images of charred bodies and mass graves emerged from the Al Baghouz camp, it became clear – as it has repeatedly throughout this fierce war – that civilians had endured great suffering as part of the final effort to secure a territorial victory over ISIS.
Coalition incidents of concern in Al Baghouz camp
Disturbing reports began emerging from ISIS-held Al Baghouz camp within the first few days of March – and both the severity and scale of the civilian harm only increased as the month wore on.
Airwars tracked the first of 15 casualty incidents in the camp likely the work of the US-led alliance on March 3rd. Local media reported that the Coalition struck an ammunition depot that caused a large explosion in the camp. According to Hamah Now, up to 250 civilians were killed and wounded in this one event, though the Twitter account sakeraldeen put the number much lower, reporting the “burning of dozens of children and women” when the only field hospital tent in the camp was allegedly hit.
Small arms fire and Coalition air and artillery strikes on Al Baghouz on March 3rd 2019 (via SDF Press).
On March 10th-11th between 50 and 70 civilians – mostly women and children – were also reportedly killed and dozens more wounded when “devastating bombs of enormous proportions” hit the vicinity of the camp in the early hours of the morning. According to Syrian state media Sana News, the strikes “targeted dozens of families” who were attempting to escape areas besieged by ISIS fighters. Despite all sources attributing blame to the US-led Coalition, its spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan told Arabic RT News that the alliance saw “no evidence of casualties among civilians”.
Only a few days later, on March 13th, another alleged Coalition airstrike on the al Baghouz camp killed up to 100 more civilians, according to local media. The lowest death count of 20 was given by the twitter account Christian Turner, who said that “warplanes attacked displaced persons and their cars”, though several sources put the number killed as high as 100. Mu’adh Muhammad al-Ali al-Daham, reportedly a prominent ISIS journalist, was claimed killed along with two civilians – a child and his mother, reportedly of French origin.
? 2 ÈME AVIS DE RECHERCHE.
Cet enfant Français est gravement blessé il est entre la vie et la mort en Syrie.
Il réclame une certaine « Marianne » peut être sa grand mère.
Merci de partager afin de retrouver sa famille en France ou de procéder à son identification en urgence ! pic.twitter.com/kHSCUQaJST
— Idriss Sihamedi☝? (@IdrissSihamedi) March 14, 2019
Tweet from @IdrissSihamedi that reads: “This French child is seriously injured. He is between life and death in Syria”.
According to local media, some time between March 18th and 19th, between 160 and 300 more civilians died in yet another “massacre” at the camp.
Reporting was however confused, and only two sources specified exact death counts. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 200 people including members of ISIS and their families died in Coalition shelling of the camp on Tuesday March 19th. Of these, the Observatory said that 160 were civilians including 45 children. The victims were then reportedly buried on the morning of Wednesday March 20th.
However, Nors For Studies (an Arabic-language source which describes itself as a Syrian research centre though which was not known for casualty claims in Deir Ezzor until very recently) put the death toll at a staggering 300 civilians, a figure then tweeted by others. There were also claims that of these 300, some had been killed by “sniping”, though Eldorar went on to give some context to the claim by Nors for Studies, reporting on March 20th that “the camps of Al Baghouz have witnessed campaigns of genocide during the past 24 because of strikes by the Air Alliance [the US-led Coalition].”
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently noted that ISIS had used “hundreds of civilians as human shields during the raids”. In a shocking assertion, the local source also claimed that “immediately after taking control of the town [Al Baghouz], SDF militias dug mass graves to bury those killed and even those merely injured.”
Al Hasaka Arabea claimed that journalists had been prevented from entering the vicinity by “the intelligence service of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party”, who had reportedly removed “the bodies from the massacres committed by the Kurdish protection units” in a convoy of trucks.
The full story of what occurred in Al Baghouz camp on March 18th-19th, remains unclear, though grisly footage indicates a devastating civilian casualty incident which requires urgent investigation. Moreover, the intensity of bombing in Al Baghouz, coupled with the Coalition’s failure to accurately estimate the number of families still trapped in the area, suggests that little had been learned from the earlier battles for Raqqa and Mosul in 2017.
Coalition incidents of concern in Iraq
While Coalition actions in Syria declined during March, for the third straight month strikes in Iraq increased. Between February 24th and March 23rd, the Coalition reported 99 strikes in Iraq – a 120% rise on the 45 strikes conducted in the previous four week period. However, with the Coalition refusing to now declare where they had carried out strikes it was impossible to assess whether any of these actions might have resulted in nearby civilian harm.
This was particularly worrying given that during March Aiwars tracked the first publicly reported civilian casualty event reportedly carried out by the US-led Coalition in Iraq since May 2018. On March 24th, a girl was reported killed and a man injured when an airstrike was carried out on a house in Al-Oudan district, north of Rutba, Anbar province, Iraq.
The actions were believed to have been carried out by American forces, according to 24news. agency. Other members of the family were reportedly arrested, though the reason remains unknown.
Russia in Syria: an 82% rise in casualty events
As the Assad government’s offensive against rebels continued in Idlib governorate, Airwars tracked 20 publicly reported civilian harm events in Syria during March allegedly linked to Russia – an 82% rise on the 11 events seen in February. This marked the highest number of claimed incidents in any one calendar month since September 2018.
In total, between 36 and 94 civilians were alleged killed in these twenty March events – compared to between 29 and 56 such fatalities during the previous month.
However, unlike in February when all events were assessed by Airwars as Contested, – with allegations against both Russia and the Assad regime, and with claims against the regime in many cases outweighing those against Moscow – March saw a sharp rise in incidents assessed as likely carried out by Russia alone. Overall, there were 10 such events, counting for between 25 and 63 civilian deaths.
All but three of March’s events were in Idlib governorate, where residential areas of Idlib city itself and villages on its outskirts came under intense fire, resulting in several disturbing mass casualty claims.
On March 13th, between eight and 17 civilians including as many as eight children and four women across multiple families died in alleged Russia airstrike on residential areas in Idlib city, reportedly striking the al Kasih area in the middle of the city and the Al Qousor area. Fatalities included three very young children from the Hawana family along with two teenagers from the Zair family.
In the worst alleged Russian casualty incident of the month, as many as 28 civilians died and up to 30 more were injured in what Baladi said were up to “15 successive Russian strikes” on the towns of Kafriya and Al Fou’a in Idlib on March 22nd. Multiple sources reported the use of cluster bombs, while Orient News noted that civilian infrastructure including residential neighbourhoods, markets and mosques were targeted. One victim was named as 50-year-old Ali Wahid Qalla.
There was only one airstrike reported in Libya in March, conducted by an unknown plane near Brak and allegedly killing three ISIS militants on March 4th.
This low number of reported incidents amounted to the quiet before the storm, as LNA and GNA battled for control of Tripoli during April. According to some, Libya is currently teetering on the verge of its third civil war since 2011, with severe clashes putting civilians significantly at risk.
The Coalition, unusually, assessed just one civilian casualty incident in March, conceding that two civilians were injured in an event in Rawa, Iraq in September 2017. The original claim of civilian harm had come from a single local source with an unknown casualty toll – an allegation Airwars had provisionally assessed as weak.
The Coalition’s recent confirmation of civilian harm in this event has highlighted both the importance of listening to affected communities, as well as the value of rigorous assessments by militaries
Elsewhere, our military advocacy team spoke at BBC Connected in London, where their presentation focused on how Airwars has frequently challenged the Coalition’s narrative of “precision warfare” through its own monitoring of the digital testimonies of local affected communities.
Next up is @sophiecdyer talking about the work of @airwars #BBCnewsHACK pic.twitter.com/BCqFGXOQRC
— BBC Connected Studio (@BBC_Connected) March 26, 2019
March 20th marked the second anniversary of the most deadly Coalition action in Syria in the war against ISIS – an airstrike on the Al Badiya school in Al Mansoura which was in use as an IDP shelter. At the time of the incident, local sources reported an alarmingly high numbers of civilian fatalities, coupled with photo and video evidence. Airwars assessed this incident at the time as most likely having caused significant civilian harm. However it would take many months for the US-led Coalition to take responsibility.
In the absence of a credible Coalition assessment, two major investigations into al Mansoura were then conducted. On the ground research by Human Rights Watch identified 40 of the civilian victims, while stating that many more were likely killed. And according to estimates by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the strike most likely killed over a 150 civilians. The Coalition nevertheless denied that the airstrike had killed civilians until 18 months after the event, when it finally admitted responsibility for the 40 named civilians identified by HRW.
Germany, as part of the international alliance against ISIS, had acknowledged its own role in the strike by providing intelligence on the target site to the Coalition command, as well as battle damage assessment flights after the attack.
In commemoration of the event, German television network WDR covered the incident in a feature that aired on March 14th, which included an interview with our Netherlands-based advocacy officer on Airwars’ own assessment of the incident, and our reflection on the culpability of Coalition allies which provide intelligence which in turn result in civilian harm eventss.
Also marking the second anniversary of the event, the European Center for Constitutional Rights and Airwars hosted a panel discussion in Berlin, with experts from Human Rights Watch, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and PAX discussing the important investigations conducted into al Mansoura, and recommendations for preventing such incidents occurring in future conflict.
"When do we get governments to disclose more information on civilian casualties resulting from air strikes in Syria? How do we challenge failure of duty to investigate?" Tremendous discussion on transparency and accountability at @ECCHRBerlin pic.twitter.com/7u4C8KePXS
— Natalia Benedetti (@_NBenedetti_) March 20, 2019
Additional reporting: Maike Awater, Abbie Cheeseman and Osama Mansour.
Conflict monitoring and assessments (March): Ali Abbas Ahmadi, Maike Awater, Poppy Bowers, Laura Bruun, Abbie Cheeseman, Sophie Dyer, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Harry Holmes, Alex Hopkins, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Hanna Rullmann, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Laurie Treffers, Clive Vella, and Anna Zahn.