Airwars tracked no locally reported claims of civilian harm in Syria from Russian actions during October – the first such month since Moscow first intervened three years previously. US-led Coalition strikes against ISIS continued however, with a significant and troubling rise in reported civilian harm in eastern Syria.
October saw a near tripling in incidents of concern reportedly involving American, French, British and Dutch military actions. A total of 23 events were tracked, the highest number in any one month so far this year. Moreover, civilian deaths leapt up with at least 98 civilian non-combatants estimated by Airwars as likely killed in Coalition actions during the month.
This alarming hike in civilian harm coincided with a 125% rise in air and artillery strikes conducted in Syria, as the US and its European allies escalated their efforts to oust remnant ISIS forces from slithers of territory still held in Deir Ezzor governorate. The Coalition reported 481 strikes in October – a figure not seen since October 2017, the month in which ISIS’s de-facto capital, Raqqa, finally fell.
AFCENT, meanwhile, reported that 876 munitions were released from the air across Iraq and Syria during October – only a 16% increase on September. Given the gulf between this increase in actions from the air and the 125% rise in air and artillery strikes, there appears to have been a very significant increase in US and French artillery strikes during October. As mentioned below, artillery actions by France’s Task Force Wagram alone more than doubled on the previous month. A similar shift towards artillery during the 2017 battle of Raqqa had disastrous implications for civilians.
October also levels of reported mass casualties incidents not tracked since that brutal Raqqa campaign. Within a period of just 48 hours between October 18th and 19th in Al Soussa, a civilian’s home and two mosques were reportedly struck, likely killing a minimum of 27 civilians including women and children. Two further mosques and a Koranic school were reportedly hit the following week. On October 22nd the Coalition publicly stated that it had indeed targeted mosques in Deir Ezzor – which it claimed had been seized by ISIS.
There was, at least, some respite for civilians from Russian actions in Syria, as a Turkish-Russian truce in the demilitarised parts of Idlib and Hama governorates continued to hold. But given the fragile ceasefire and unpredictable nature of Russia’s air campaign, this risked changing at any time.
Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties
The known remaining active international Coalition allies – the US the UK, France and the Netherlands, alongside Iraq when striking in Syria – released 876 munitions from the air across both Iraq and Syria during October 2018, according to official AFCENT data. This represented a 16% rise from the 758 munitions reportedly fired in September.
Coalition actions in Iraq continued at a low level in October, actually falling by 43% on September – with just 12 air and artillery strikes publicly reported throughout the month, the lowest number since January of this year.
However, in eastern Syria the latest stage of the Coalition’s 50-month anti-ISIS campaign continued to build momentum. The US-led alliance reported 481 strikes throughout October – more than double September’s 214 strikes. This level of activity has not been seen in Syria since October 2017, the month in which Raqqa fell, which was supported by 499 air and artillery strikes.
Strikes by the US’s allies in Syria continued to play a key role. The UK declared approximately 24 airstrikes during the month – up from September’s four. One British airstrike was also carried out in Iraq on caves north-west of Kirkuk.
There was also a significant increase in actions by France during October. Paris reported carrying out 17 airstrikes in Syria, all around Abu Kamal – a steep rise on the two strikes conducted the previous month. Additionally, ‘firing’ missions on the Euphrates Valley from France’s artillery detachment, Task Force Wagram, more than doubled . French troops reportedly conducted 69 missions in October – a 109% rise on the 33 actions reported for September.
Airstrikes by the Netherlands also saw a hike. During October, the Dutch MoD reported that its jets had deployed weapons in 20 missions – more than double the nine events munitions were fired in during September. All but one of these deployments were near Abu Kamal or Hajin. However, in the week of October 24th to 31st, the Dutch said that weapons had also been used in a mission near Mosul in Iraq. Targets during this week were reportedly ISIS warehouses and vehicles.
The Coalition in Syria: a near tripling in casualty events
October was a terrible month for civilians trapped on the ground in the so-called Hajin pocket in eastern Syria. Coalition strikes more than doubling in the area resulted in Airwars tracking the highest number of civilian casualty events in Syria this year. More alarming still, the month was marked by the kind of mass casualty incidents which we last saw during the ferocious Raqqa campaign of June to October 2017.
Throughout October, Airwars researchers tracked a total of 23 incidents of concern – a 188% rise on the eight events seen in September. Of these 23 events, 16 were 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 that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day.
Deaths across these 16 events spiraled on September’s figures. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 98 and 254 civilians likely died in these sixteen October events, compared to between 4 and 9 such deaths in September. As often before, it was the most vulnerable civilians who suffered the brunt of the violence. Of those likely killed in Coalition actions during October, at least 19 were children and 10 were women.
“After a period of relative calm in eastern Syria, October saw a steep rise in civilian casualty claims,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Aiwars Syria team. “During the first half of the month we began seeing frequent allegations of civilian harm, though the numbers of victims were relatively low. However, this changed sharply from October 18th when allegations stepped up considerably, with several mass casualty events reported – notably in multiple locations in and around the town of Al Soussa.
“According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, for the first time since 2014 more civilians were killed during the month of October in Syria by the US-led Coalition than by any other party to the conflict including the Assad regime, Russia and ISIS. This worrying trend has continued and intensified into November as the SDF, backed by the Coalition, prepares for a ground battle to retake the last few towns and villages still held by ISIS in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor.”
Coalition incidents of concern in Syria
By the beginning of the second week of October, Airwars had tracked a marked increase in casualty events. From October 8th-14th we monitored six reported events, of which four were in Al Soussa, likely killing a minimum of 11 civilians in total. Worse was to come the following week, which was marked by three horrific mass casualty events – all in or near Al Soussa and which likely killed between 27 and 145 civilians when two mosques and a civilian’s home were struck.
In the first of two major casualty events on October 18th, up to 15 civilians – reportedly Iraqi women and children – died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the home of Mohammed al-Obeid al-Hattab in al Soussa. The Syrian Network for Human Rights said that the strike occurred at 23.00, though the event may have been confused by some media with one or two other civilian harms events which occurred over a particularly bloody 30-hour period in the town.
According to the Smart News Agency, Mohammed al-Obeid al-Hattab’s home was one of a number of houses reportedly targeted by the Coalition, particularly in Al Soussa’s al Sarat area. The source added that the homes originally belonged to expatriate civilians but had then been seized by ISIS and used both as headquarters and as houses for its members and families. However, Halab Today stated that those harmed were all displaced people from neighbouring villages.
Significantly worse was to come on the same day (October 18th), when between 10 and 60 civilians were reported killed in alleged Coalition strikes on Ammar bin Yasser mosque in Al Boudadran village near Al Soussa, according to local media. Again, some reports may have confused this event with others. Most sources, including the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said the strike occurred at noon, though Baladi claimed worshippers perished while leave the mosque following evening prayers.
A Reuters report suggested the Coalition had purposefully targeted the mosque, believing it to be an ISIS command and control center. This claim prompted a statement from Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan, who said the Coalition had indeed carried out the strike. According to Ryan, the Coalition had monitored the facility to know when only fighters were present. He added that the alliance investigates “all credible allegations of civilian casualties”. Euphrates Post named one of the victims as Mohammed Dia’a Abdul Latif al-Dabbas – adding in a footnote that 38 civilians had died in the strike.
The following day, October 19th, saw a second alleged Coalition airstrike on a mosque, again in Al Soussa. Local media claimed that up to 70 civilians perished in a “massacre” at the Othman Bin Affan Mosque (also know as Hajji Mohammad mosque), again in Al Boubadran village, after Friday prayers. The lowest death count was given as 8, by the Smart News Agency. It said the bombing caused the deaths of more than 40 people, “including eight civilians”. The source went on to say that the rest of those killed were “elements of Daesh, mostly Iraqis.” It should be noted, however, that “elements of Daesh” does not specifically refer to ISIS fighters and may also include ISIS family members, which might explain why other sources put the non-combatant death toll higher. Sound and Picture posted a video reportedly showing Coalition F-16s flying over Deir Ezzor just minutes before the strike.
On October 22nd, the Coalition issued a press release admitting responsibility for two strikes on mosques in Al Soussa, stating that it had conducted the attacks since the buildings reportedly housed “active Daesh fighting position[s]”. The alliance claimed the strikes had occurred only after intelligence had ascertained civilians were not on the premises.
Providing some context on the mosque strikes, Hajin magazine reported that “those dogs and pigs of Daesh are using mosques as headquarters” – and it urged people to “as far as possible stay away from them”. But with scores of civilians likely killed by the Coalition within days, questions must also be raised about whether the US-led alliance is taking sufficient measures to ensure no civilians are present in buildings – as it has claimed – before munitions are released from the air.
There was also intense activity at the end of October – with seven problem events reported in the final days of the month. On October 27th, al Boubadran village came under fire with five civilians – including a woman and two or three children – reported killed in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the home of Rajab al-Hassan. The victims were named by multiple local sources as Rajan-al Hassan, his wife, two children, and another man named as Zidan Atiyya al-Salbi.
The penultimate day of the month saw another mass casualty event, this time in Kushma, Deir Ezzor. According to sources on the ground “two new massacres” occurred on October 30th in Al Shaafa and Kushma. Several sources including Free Deir Ezzor Radio and Baladi reported the deaths of a total of 17 civilians in alleged Coalition airstrikes on the two towns. However, the Step News Agency and @Olay said the 17 were killed in Kushma alone, with four others in Al Shaafa in a separate incident, also tracked by Aiwars, Step claimed that the victims in Kushma – including women and children – were members of ISIS families.
Russia in Syria: no civilian casualty events tracked during October
For the first time since the start of Moscow’s notoriously brutal air campaign in Syria in September 2015, Airwars tracked no civilian casualty events during the month reportedly involving Russian warplanes.
This was largely due to the relatively successful implementation of a Turkish- Russian brokered truce in demilitarised areas of Idlib and Hama governorates where some militant opposition groups are still in control.
There were, however, three cases of civilians being killed following the explosion of remnant cluster munitions in Aleppo and Idlib governorates.
“There have been a few civilian casualty incidents reported in the area due to shelling exchanged between the regime and the militants operating in the area,” says Kinda Haddad, “but there were no allegations against Russia. Reports of tensions are frequently reported. Nonetheless so far the uneasy truce has held.”
Libya witnessed a major decrease in reported airstrikes in October compared to previous months, as militias in Tripoli mostly stuck by the UN-brokered ceasefire they had agreed in September. Only minor incidents flared up in October. One occurred on October 1st when Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport was hit by artillery shelling – which in turn led to flights being suspended. No civilian casualties were recorded.
The rebel LNA remained active in October, conducting military operations against Chadian rebels in the south of Libya. In addition to ground warfare it carried out one airstrike near Tmassah, reportedly killing a leader of the opposition named as Mohamed Khair. Libyan Satellite Channel showed a video of the aftermath of the strike in which no civilians were reported slain.
For the first time since the US-led Coalition began publishing Monthly Civilian Casualty Reports in December 2016, it judged zero of the reports it assessed as Credible. In an accompany statement from the Public Affairs Office went so far as to claim, “zero unintentional civilian deaths”- an unhelpful assertion which Airwars has challenged.
Airwars documents all allegations of harm, in part because we recognise that a Non Credible assessment by a belligerent does not mean civilian casualties did not occur. Civilians may not have been visible to military observers before or after the event, or key information on the time and location of a casualty claim may be poor due to the extreme challenges faced by those reporting out from inside Islamic State-held territory. Our colleagues at EveryCasualty put it most eloquently: “absence of proof is not proof of absence”.
The Airwars military advocacy team continue to engage constructively witgh the US-led Coalition’s own civilian harm monitoring cell. However we remain critical of an assessment mechanism that has generated the lowest estimates by far of any model of civilian harm – either field-based or remote.
In other words, absence of proof is not proof of absence. Comprehensive, standardised, verifiable #casualtyrecording must be embedded within all military operations. https://t.co/edLVIv0E0g
— Every Casualty (@everycasualty) October 26, 2018
In October, Maike Awater joined Aiwars as our new Netherlands-based conflict researcher and advocacy officer. Maike will be continuing the excellent work of her predecessor Koen Kluessien: by engaging with political parties, civic society and media in both the Netherlands and Belgium to help stimulate engagement on transparency and accountability issues.
Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis for October: Kinda Haddad, Salim Habib, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Sophie Dyer, Maike Awater, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Poppy Bowers, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann, Laura Bruun, Beth Heron, Anna Zahn and Chris Woods.