US Airstrikes Kill Hundreds of Innocent Civilians in Syria
November 7, 2016 Alice Ross / The Guardian & Max Bearak / The Washington Post
A US-led air strike in October in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamic State. More than 5,700 air strikes have been launched in the year-long US campaign. Chris Woods, of Airwars, said: 'You can't have an air war of this intensity without civilians getting killed or injured.' According to an Airways report, the US bombing campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has killed more than 450 civilians.
Hundreds of Civilians Killed in US-led Air Strikes on ISIS Targets -- Report Airwars project details 'credible reports' of at least 459 non-combatant deaths, including 100 children, in 52 air strikes Alice Ross / The Guardian
A leading human rights group alleges US airstrikes in northern Syria have killed 56 civilians, among them 11 children. The aerial bombing, termed a “massacre” by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), occurred near Manbij.
(August 3, 2015) -- The air campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has killed more than 450 civilians, according to a new report, even though the US-led coalition has so far acknowledged just two non-combatant deaths.
More than 5,700 air strikes have been launched in the campaign, which nears its first anniversary this Saturday, with its impact on civilians largely unknown.
Now Airwars, a project by a team of independent journalists, is publishing details of 52 strikes with what it believes are credible reports of at least 459 non-combatant deaths, including those of more than 100 children.
It says there is a "worrying gulf between public and coalition positions" on the campaign's toll on civilians.
To date the US Central Command (Centcom), the lead force in the campaign, has published one official investigation – a report in May that found two children were killed in a November 2014 strike in Syria.
The coalition's lead commander, Lt Gen John Hesterman, has called the campaign "the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare".
But Airwars project leader Chris Woods told the Guardian: "The emphasis on precision in our view hasn't been borne out by facts on the ground."
Since May, Centcom has conducted investigations into three further strikes, which found claims of civilian deaths were "unfounded".
One of the attacks investigated was on Fadhiliya, Iraq, on 4 April. When the Guardian investigated this strike in May, witnesses and local politicians said a family of five had died, including a pregnant woman and an eight-year-old girl.
Centcom told Airwars it would only publish investigations with a "preponderance of evidence" of civilian deaths. It is understood to be examining six further incidents.
Sahr Muhamadally, from the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said: "All allegations of civilian harm, including from open sources, should be investigated by the coalition and processes should be in place to acknowledge and assist those harmed."
International NGOs point out that coalition air strikes are significantly safer for civilians than those carried out by either the Assad regime or the Iraqi military.
However, over six months, Airwars examined 118 air strikes and identified 52 that Woods said "warrant urgent investigation". Airwars believes there are strong indications of civilian deaths, according to multiple, reliable sources, from these attacks.
Airwars used international and local news reports in Arabic and English, social media postings including photos and videos, and the findings of monitoring groups on the ground. They cross-referenced these with coalition military reports.
The ongoing violence means that on-the-ground verification is all but impossible. But the conflict does not take place in an information vacuum: local people are often quick to post videos and photos on Twitter and YouTube, and to create martyrdom pages on Facebook.
In Syria, the long civil war has seen groups spring up to record atrocities of all kinds, who often funnel news to colleagues outside the country.
Making things more complicated, emotive footage or reports of civilian deaths are used for propaganda by all sides of the chaotic war. In three cases, Airwars found evidence that it believes disproves claims of civilian deaths, for example by unearthing online videos that show that supposed non-combatants were active Isis members.
But in many cases civilian deaths are well-documented. In some attacks, multiple sources suggest that scores of civilians may have been killed.
The bloodiest was a 3 June air strike on a suspected IED [improvised explosive device] factory and storage facility in Hawija, Iraq. Videos and photos posted online after the bombing show a landscape of destroyed buildings and mangled metal. Local people told al-Jazeera and Reuters that over 70 civilians were killed.
In a press briefing shortly after the strike, Hesterman said the coalition used a "fairly small weapon on a known IED building in an industrial area", but that this had hit a "massive amount of Daesh [Isis] high explosives". He added: "If there are unintended injuries, that responsibility rests squarely on Daesh."
Centcom has since announced a formal investigation after receiving "credible" evidence of civilian deaths.
In Syria, the worst incidents include a 28 December air strike on an Isis facility in Al Bab that was being used as a temporary prison. Reports gathered by Airwars found that at least 58 prisoners – many of whom were being held for petty infractions of Isis' rules, such as buying cigarettes – were killed. Local activists claimed that the use of the building as a prison was well known.
The coalition did not acknowledge the attack for nearly two weeks, after which it conceded, following repeated questions by news agency McClatchy, that it had conducted the strike.
A Syrian man carries the body of a young girl pulled from the ruble of a building after an airstrike.
Centcom spokesman Lt Co Kyle Raines said the coalition takes great care to avoid civilian deaths. "We take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously, and we apply very rigorous standards in our targeting process to avoid or to minimise civilian casualties in the first place," he said. The UK is the second-most active participant in the coalition, having launched almost 250 strikes in Iraq.
As Britain's MPs prepare to vote this autumn on expanding UK air strikes from Iraq to Syria, Labour MP Tom Watson called for thorough official investigations into claims of civilian deaths to allow an "informed debate" about the campaign. He added: "The UK should be leading in the tracking, reporting of and response to allegations of civilian casualties."
Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell told the Guardian he was in favour of expanding British strikes into Syria. "But if it's our common objective to win hearts and minds and split off the terrorist thugs from the related population, then we have to acknowledge that killing innocent civilians acts as a significant recruiting sergeant for the terrorists," he said.
A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said that the UK takes "every possible measure" to avoid civilian casualties. "We are not aware of any incidents of civilian casualties as a result of UK strike activity over Iraq," she added.
Woods, from Airwars, said the US-led campaign's focus on urban areas made civilian deaths unavoidable, despite "significant efforts" to avoid them. "What we are seeing in Iraq and Syria is the coalition is bombing where Isis is, and that's in the cities . . . Unsurprisingly, that's where we are tracking the highest number of civilian casualties." The Isis stronghold of Mosul, Iraq, alone accounts for 40% of all civilian casualty reports in Airwars' data.
The sheer pace of the strikes adds to the risk to civilians. Raines said that pre-planned missions made up approximately 10% of strikes.
The vast majority are on "emerging targets". In these strikes the targeting process takes "anywhere from minutes to hours depending on collateral damage concerns, while maintaining careful consideration for each target to ensure we do our best to minimise civilian casualties and collateral damage," Raines said.
Even the highest estimates of civilian deaths in international air strikes are dwarfed by numbers believed killed by Syrian regime barrel bombings and Iraqi government air strikes, and by armed groups including Isis and al Nusra Front.
But Woods said Airwars' findings suggest that the coalition's narrative of virtually no civilian casualties may not be true. "You can't have an air war of this intensity without civilians getting killed or injured, but they need to be more transparent," he said.
(July 21, 2016) -- The airstrikes at dawn on Tuesday pulverized entire families, including young children -- families that were fleeing Islamic State militants but were instead mistaken for being those very fighters. Depending on whom you ask, the number of bodies found in the rubble is 56, 85, 160 or 212. Pictures of the mangled bodies, covered in dust, are a testament to the carnage.
People who live near where the bombs fell -- about 10 miles north of Manbij in northern Syria -- said the only planes they'd seen since June were from a US-led coalition battling the Islamic State. The area is just a few miles north of the front line between the Islamic State and the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). If Tuesday's airstrikes were indeed by coalition jets, and not Russian or Syrian government warplanes, this would easily be the highest civilian toll from any action by the coalition since it formed in 2014.
Faced with the likelihood of a grave error by the coalition, US officials responded cautiously, emphasizing the need to verify what had happened.
"If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step," a statement from US Central Command said. The military also said that it had carried out 18 airstrikes on Tuesday around Manbij. That is a small chunk of the 450 strikes near the town since May and the 10,500 total since the campaign began.
"This has been the most precise air campaign in history, and we're going to make sure that it stays that way, but I don't have any further information on this," said Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition. The US military has since announced that it is launching an investigation.
But the probability that it was a coalition airstrike makes this a huge deal, beyond the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians died. The dead and their kin are the same people whose hearts and minds the coalition hopes to win over. The deaths, and the perception that they were caused by the coalition, mean that that hope is probably lost. Liz Sly, one of The Washington Post's Middle East correspondents, reported that many fighters in the SDF were questioning whether they could remain in the force.
"People are now full of hatred for the SDF. We thought they were coming to finish ISIS, but it seems they are finishing us first," said Jassem al-Sayed, a politician from Manbij, speaking with Sly over the phone. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.
From the perspective of a Western onlooker, Tuesday's strikes are easy enough to write off as another grisly chapter in a grinding war. And for the US military, it is probably another internal investigation that will wear on until the public has largely forgotten which airstrikes and which civilians it is talking about. The average time between a strike and the release of a redacted Centcom investigative report is seven months, said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But in November, Centcom announced that it would stop publicly releasing the results of each and every investigation. But standards for how much is released had anyway been unclear. Centcom news releases, often published in bulk on Friday afternoons, usually list only a date, a location and an estimate of civilian damage, while the nitty-gritty of the investigation is redacted or simply unreleased.
In other words, it is possible but improbable that we will hear the final word from the US military on what happened Tuesday and whether the coalition bears any culpability.
The US military has no strategic imperative to kill Syrian civilians, so the probability of faulty intelligence being the cause is high. Being so close to the front line, it is entirely possible that civilians there were being used as human shields for the Islamic State, as they have been elsewhere.
But a prolonged investigation resulting in a redacted document would be tantamount to obfuscation. If the coalition isn't to blame, why isn't it rushing to absolve itself?
Is it possible that if the media paid more attention to such atrocities, there might be a greater sense of outrage and urgency? That something like this wouldn't seem so routine? Because it isn't, even if hundreds are being killed in Syria's civil war every day.
The Post has had one staff-written article on the airstrikes, which failed to make it to the top of the home page online. The New York Times and most others "ran a wire." Television stations ran an item in their tickers. But writing more than what has been written is tough. The strikes took place in a war zone. How do you get there to verify people's stories -- and make it out alive? And from below, fighter jets are hard to recognize.
The following video shows coalition forces bombing a location north of Manbij two weeks ago, right next to where Tuesday's bombing occurred. It gives a sense of what an airstrike looks like from the perspective of a pilot, or a drone.
Without an official answer from the coalition, it is almost impossible to verify who dropped the bombs, leaving reporters in a gray zone of speculation. And even if it turns out that the airstrikes were by Russian or Syrian forces, it's not like they would ever own up. Their airstrikes have killed many, many more civilians than those by the coalition. The haziness of the truth only contributes to a larger narrative bubble we see around the war in Syria -- one in which civilians are mostly death tolls or collateral damage.
That haze is probably one reason that, despite the unusually high death toll in this week's airstrikes and the high possibility of US culpability, neither candidate for the American presidency has issued a statement of condolence or concern.
The US military is usually very strict about avoiding civilian casualties. It turns down countless target requests from its partners in Syria and Iraq because it can't verify the situation on the ground. The White House's numbers on civilian deaths from drone strikes in counterterrorism operations are low. But, then again, few agree with those figures.
Last year, a London-based group of journalists published a study saying that in the coalition's first 12 months of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, it killed 459 civilians in 57 incidents. The Pentagon admits only to 26 deaths. And egregious mistakes have led to US drones blowing up wedding processions in both Afghanistan and Yemen.
Each of these is a tragedy, and a setback for American objectives. Syrians and Americans alike deserve to know what happened.
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