Major conflict monitoring
Turkey in Syria: new front sees civilians in peril
Civilians trapped in northeastern Syria faced renewed danger in October, with the start of ‘Operation Peace Spring’, conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and its proxy the Syrian National Army (SNA), against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the YPG in northeastern Syria.
The operation, launched on October 9th, came following the chaotic United States decision to withdraw its own forces from northeastern Syria, where the US military had been supporting the SDF. The conflict began with Turkish forces launching air and artillery strikes on border towns such as Tal Abyad in Raqqa province and Ras al-Ain in Hasaka province.
The unilateral Turkish incursion was condemned by US Defence Secretary Dr Mark T Esper and led to dozens of civilian deaths within the first days of the campaign. By October 18th, an estimated 160,000 civilians had also been displaced by the fighting.
In total, Airwars researchers tracked 124 claimed civilian harm events linked to Turkey in northern Syria during October. The majority of events – 65% – were in Hassakah governorate, with 22% in Raqqa, followed by some 14% in Aleppo and a small number of cases in Idlib. The volume of allegations meant that at time of publication, Airwars had not managed to fully research all incidents. However, our current assessment is that between 125 and 165 civilians likely died in 72 events classed as fairly reported.
The violence was frequently bloody. In one of the most publicised events of the month, on October 12th, three civilians including a female politician, the Secretary General of the Future Syria Party, Hevrin Khalaf, were “executed” when the convoy they were travelling in was reportedly ambushed by “Turkish backed mercenary factions” on the road between Jazeera canton and Ain Issa, multiple sources said.
The following day, October 13th, between six and 19 civilians – including at least four journalists from multiple countries – died and as many as 74 others were wounded in an alleged Turkish airstrike on a convoy, made up of around 400 civilian vehicles, heading from Jazeera to Ras Al Ain, local media said. Journalists from countries including Brazil, France, and the Ukraine were among the victims. Fatalities included Hawar agency journalist Saad Ahmad, Muhammad Hussein Resho, Fayz Mahmoud Baqi, and Eqîde Eli Osman.
Turkish bombardment on civilians on the road to serikaniye. pic.twitter.com/XnAa4oT3bR
— pyd rojava (@PYD_Rojava) October 13, 2019
GRAPHIC: Footage of the aftermath of an alleged Turkish airstrike on a civilian convoy on October 13th.
On October 18th, yet another “massacre” was reported as Turkish forces reportedly carried out strikes on Zirgan near Ras al Ain, in Hassakah governorate. Both @Raman_Hassi and @TurkeyUntold tweeted footage of the aftermath, in which at least 12 bodies were visible. According to the Kurdish Red Crescent which shared its data with Airwars, 17 civilians died, though their names are currently unknown.
Airwars also tracked 42 alleged civilian casualty events attributed to Kurdish forces counterfire during October. Of these, researchers currently assess 35 incidents as fairly reported. Twenty four events occurred in Syria, the majority in Aleppo governorate, while 11 were tracked across the border in Turkey.
Between 52 and 62 civilians were assessed as likely killed in these 35 events by Kurdish forces during October, with at least another 168 people wounded.
On October 11th for example, local media reported that up to eight civilians were killed and 35 were wounded in alleged SDF/YPG or PKK artillery strikes on the Turkish city of Nusaybin, Mardin province, as reported by several local sources. One civilian fatality was named as Mehmet Sirin Demir, the father of a prominent journalist.
@TRTKurdiTV journalist Gülay Demir‘s father Mehmet Sirin Demir was killed as the result of an attack of the terrorist organisation PKK/YPG on turkish town Nusaybin
8 civilians died and 35 were injured only today in the attack on Nusaybin pic.twitter.com/VSK5VvRJ0X
— EHA News (@eha_news) October 11, 2019
In the worst event attributed to Kurdish forces during the month, sources claimed that ‘the SDF’ executed seven civilians in Ras al Ain, in the northern countryside of al-Hasakah on October 20th, on charges of collaborating with ‘Operation Spring forces’.” The victims included three men from the same family. They were named as Mohamad Ali Al Khalaf, Ismail Ali Al Khalaf, and Abdallah Al Khalaf. According to Mohamad.alothman.1291, the victims were “shot several times in the head”.
Russia and the Assad regime in Syria
During October, there was a sharp increase in civilian harm events in Syria reportedly carried out by Russia and the Assad regime. Overall, Airwars researchers tracked 18 locally reported casualty events – a 28% rise on the five incidents recorded during September. All but one of these incidents was in Idlib governorate.
Across these 18 incidents between 23 and 31 civilians were locally reported killed – compared to just five civilians in the previous month. As many as 63 more civilians were claimed wounded.
Entire families trapped on the ground remained in peril throughout the month as Russia and the regime stepped up their assault. On October 19th, a man and woman from the town of Binnish were killed and three of their children injured in an alleged Russian airstrike on a house in Taftanaz, Idlib, local media reported. Alarmingly, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the strikes “targeted a camp on agricultural land inhabited by displaced families”. The victims were named as Ahmad Kamrou Haj Qaddour, his wife Huda Al Shaar (both killed), and their three children, all of whom were wounded.
In the worst incident of the month, seven or eight civilians died and at least 15 more were wounded in alleged Russian or regime artillery or rocket fire on Al Janoudia in Idlib on October 24th. According to @SyrianCoalition, regime rocket fire bombarded a vegetable market “packed with civilians and farmers”. However, @abuhuzaifa_ blamed “Russian militia shelling”. One of the victims, an adult male, named as Ammar Alikou, died of his injuries on October 27th, 2019, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
On October 31st, three or four civilians including a member of the civil defence and a child died, and up to 12 more were wounded, in an alleged Russian or regime airstrike on an ammunition depot on the outskirts of Darkoush, Idlib, according to local sources.
The White Helmets named one of the victims, a volunteer, as Ahmad Abdul Hamid Qubba, reporting that he died “while inspecting successive explosions” caused by Russian and regime forces. The White Helmets added that Ahmad had lost his mother, niece and cousin in a previous regime airstrike on Darkoush in 2015. Most poignantly, it said that he was “martyred just days before his wedding”. @IdlibPlus said that a child also died in a “huge explosion” at the depot, though it said that it was unclear what had caused the blast.
استشهاد الشاب أحمد قبة من أبطال الدفاع المدني السوري في إدلب أثناء تفقده الانفجارات المتتالية في بلدة دركوش صباح اليوم التي أحدثها قصف إرهابي من روسيا وقوات الأسد.
رحمه الله تعالى وتقبله وعوضه الفردوس الأعلى وألهم أهله ومحبيه الصبر والسلوان. pic.twitter.com/HU2AiR5Jxw
— الائتلاف الوطني السوري (@SyrianCoalition) October 31, 2019
Translation: “A young hero of the Syrian Civil Defence (Ahmad Qibba) was killed in Idlib while inspecting successive explosions in the town of Darkoush this morning [Oct 31st] caused by terrorist shelling from Russia and Assad forces.”
The US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq
Between five and nine civilians were likely killed and up to 11 more wounded in one casualty incident assessed as fair by Airwars during October.
On October 26th, US forces conducted a ground raid that lethally targeted ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in Barisha village in Idlib countryside. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, US helicopters came from Turkish territory, carried out a landing in the area and clashed with militants near the targeted house of al-Baghdadi west of Barisha where many casualties were reported. Among the nine alleged civilian deaths were two or three women and up to three children. However al Baghdadi himself was said to have killed three of his own children when he detonated a suicide vest.
Local medical sources said that as a result of the operation, a house was completely destroyed and a number of tents were burned. Seven bodies were found in the area, among them a child and three women, in addition to five injuries.
Overall, between October 1st and 31st the Coalition reported 19 strikes in Iraq – a 32% fall on September’s 28 strikes.
The alliance once again reported no air or artillery strikes in Syria. However additional ground operations and unilateral US actions also continued. In total, throughout October, Airwars researchers tracked 12 locally reported strikes in Syria that were blamed on the Coalition, though there were no reports of civilian harm attributed to these actions.
All but 11 of these October strikes were in Deir Ezzor governorate. Nine actions reportedly targeted Assad regime forces and the remainder Iranian-backed armed groups and IRGC forces. Airwars has reached out to CENTCOM and asked if the US is conducting unilateral air actions in Syria, as the Coalition has not publicly reported a strike in the country since August. It is also possible that some of these reported ‘Coalition’ actions were instead carried out by Israel, which conducts its own unilateral actions against Iranian and associated forces in Syria.
According to AFCENT, 166 munitions were dropped on Iraq and Syria from the air in October by the US-led Coalition. Despite the large fall in strikes, this actually represented a 21% rise on the 137 munitions released in the previous month.
Libya saw an increase in reported civilian harm despite a similar number of air and artillery strikes compared to previous months. Between 25 and 33 civilians were locally reported killed by 226 strikes. In September, between 14 and 15 civilian deaths had been alleged from 230 strikes.
Another 56 to 75 civilians were reportedly injured in October by air and artillery actions.
The majority of civilian deaths were allegedly caused by the Libyan National Army (LNA), reportedly killing between 17 and 23 people. In the worst event, up to five civilians were allegedly killed by LNA shelling on Qasr bin Gashir, a town in the Triploi district, on October 31st.
A worrying development was the increased targeting of civilian infrastructure by the LNA. On October 7th a doctor was allegedly killed by either an LNA or allied UAE airstrike on Qasr Bin Gashir. And on October 23rd and 24th Haftar’s forces allegedly struck three field hospitals, killing two and injuring five more health workers. In another incident on October 6th, an LNA airstrike hit the Equestrian Club in Janzur, allegedly injuring six people, most of them children.
Government of National Accord (GNA) strikes only led to one reportedly wounded civilian during the month – an indication of the LNA’s near-total air dominance. However, various civilian harm events were contested between the GNA and LNA due to indiscriminate shelling by artillery and rockets, which in turn led to between 3 and 4 civilian deaths.
US counter-terrorism campaigns
US Africa Command declared that it had conducted just one airstrike in Somalia, on al-Shabaab, during October – a sharp fall on the six declared actions during the previous month. AFRICOM told Airwars that it currently assessed that no civilians had been killed or injured in this strike.
The attack occurred on October 25th against “ISIS terrorists in the Golis Mountain region”. AFRICOM said it assessed that three terrorists had been killed.
U.S. airstrike targets ISIS-Somalia in support of the Federal Government of Somalia – https://t.co/mSj8dNYxWY pic.twitter.com/nYdzB4DdYP
— US AFRICOM (@USAfricaCommand) October 25, 2019
CENTCOM told Airwars that there were no US military strikes during the month of October in Yemen. The last declared CENTCOM action was on June 24th 2019 in Al Bayda province.
It is not known how many actions the CIA conducted in Yemen during the month, if any.
There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during October. The last such alleged strike was in August 2018.
After a strong advocacy year by previous incumbent Maike Awater, Laurie Treffers has now taken over as our Netherlands based acting conflict researcher and advocacy officer as of October 1st.
Laurie has been working as a geolocation volunteer with Airwars for over a year now, researching both Coalition and Russian airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. With her experience in journalism and communications, and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, Laurie says she is excited to be continuing our work at Airwars to push European states for more transparency and accountability for civilians harmed in conflict.
On October 18th, our European advocacy team sent a joint statement in partnership with Amnesty International, PAX for Peace, the Open State Foundation and academics from the Conflict Studies Department at Utrecht University, to the Dutch Minister of Defence. This called on the Ministry to release data on historical Dutch airstrikes in Syria and Iraq; to publish the Ministry’s own research into civilian casualties in that conflict; and to put improved processes of accountability and justice in place. On the same day that the joint statement was sent to the Minister, a major news story broke on Dutch involvement in a mass casualty civilian harm event at Hawijah, Iraq in 2015. See our associated article here.
On October 21st, our UK Advocacy Officer, Maysa Ismael, took part in a parliamentary discussion on ‘Exploring Avenues for Accountability for Victims in Yemen’ organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group.