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Disturbing civilian death trends in Iraq-Syria air war: A researcher’s view

Ibrahim Sherkhan/IRIN

Kafaa al-Mustapha and two of her relatives were on their way to work in the Raqqa countryside when their car was hit by an alleged coalition airstrike last month. All three of the women, along with up to 20 other agricultural workers, were reportedly killed. They are among more than 700 estimated civilian victims of airstrikes by the US-led international coalition fighting so-called Islamic State in the last three months in and around Raqqa.

The attack that killed Kafaa was just one of 160 reported “coalition casualty” events Airwars, which archives the war against IS, tracked in Iraq and Syria during May 2017. According to our estimates, last month was second only to March as the deadliest for civilians since coalition airstrikes began in August 2014.

We have seen an unprecedented and sustained rise in reported civilian deaths since January, when the campaigns to liberate Raqqa and Mosul began to escalate. Airwars is not alone in noting this trend: UN investigators have cited a “staggering” loss of civilian life from coalition airstrikes in Raqqa, and there is now serious concern for the estimated 100,000 people still trapped in Mosul’s Old City.

Spiralling death toll

In just five months – from January to the end of May of this year – Airwars tracked a third more likely civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria than during the entirety of 2016.

Our most recent detailed assessment revealed that in May alone, likely civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes rose by 23 percent compared with the month prior. With the Raqqa offensive now well underway, we are already tracking up to six incidents per day in that city alone, with fears of worse to come (and putting the Airwars monitoring team under exceptional pressure just to record it all.)

As I enter these events into Airwars public database each day, the stories I encounter have become distressingly familiar. Documenting the devastation, combing through eye-witness testimony and watching frequently graphic videos, I see the extraordinary danger ordinary Iraqis and Syrians face.

Within the last three months I’ve watched the growth of arguably the most shocking trend of all: the frequent killing of entire families in likely coalition airstrikes. At least 57 women died in Iraq and Syria during May alone in such actions – a record for any month – along with a minimum of 52 children.

In a typically harrowing event, multiple local sources reported that Iraqi forces rescued a baby from a house in west Mosul’s Zanjili neighbourhood on 11 June. He had survived the shelling, but the rest of his family perished. One source, describing the event on Twitter, blamed “US planes” for the strike, however others didn’t say who was responsible.

In Mosul – now in the eighth month of a brutal campaign to dislodge IS – it has become increasingly difficult to determine who is to blame for a casualty event. Conflicting reports often point to both the coalition and Iraqi forces, and sometimes also IS.

In Syria, however – where thanks to our excellent researchers I am sometimes able to list up to 50 individual sources for any given incident – there is generally less doubt as to who is responsible for the killings. During May, we assessed 59 percent of all incidents we monitored in Syria as likely to have been carried out by the US-led coalition. Reviewing these incidents day after day, I can’t help but feel that coalition protections for civilians are woefully inadequate.

More alarming still are accounts of civilians being killed as they attempt to flee the carnage – often at the urging of the coalition and its allies. On 5 June, in one of several such events recently tracked by Airwars, up to 21 civilians are said to have died when the coalition allegedly struck boats ferrying people to safety across the Euphrates River. Coalition members need to protect non-combatants who are following what are at times contradictory evacuation orders.

Those lucky enough to have escaped are often wounded, malnourished, and severely traumatised. Among the most upsetting events I’ve encountered this month was the report of the death of eight-year-old Hashim Abdul Fattah Al-Ali. He was sitting with his parents in their home in Abu Kamal, Deir Ezzor, when the explosion from a nearby airstrike was said to have put him into such panic that his heart failed – the third such case we’ve seen alleged this year.

The Trump effect?

In addition to publishing these disturbing reports, my job involves analysing official data as Airwars seeks to understand the increasing death toll. While the coalition likes to talk about numbers of airstrikes, a far more reliable metric is targets bombed. In Mosul, in May alone, 1,577 objects were bombed – an increase of 55 percent on April – adding credence to US President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”.

The spike in casualties we’ve seen in Raqqa, however, is even more troubling. To some extent, given how densely populated parts of Mosul city are, it was expected that civilian death tolls would be high. But the villages and towns that surround Raqqa governorate’s capital hold comparably fewer civilians – and yet numerous and large-scale casualty events have become the norm since March.

In Raqqa, there appears to be little correlation between what is being destroyed and civilian fatalities. In a recent study, I discovered that the number of targets bombed in Raqqa decreased by 39 percent from February to March. Consequently, we expected to see civilian deaths decrease – instead they rose more than fivefold to an all-time high of at least 275 civilians likely killed in the area.

In short, more civilians are dying in Raqqa even when fewer targets are hit – reinforcing what Airwars has believed for some time: that the high increase in deaths from coalition actions is most likely related to changes in the rules of engagement – or to offensive procedures on the battlefield – exposing civilians to greater risk.

For the last six months, Airwars has also tracked more civilian casualties tied to coalition raids in Iraq and Syria than those carried out by Moscow. In May, with Russian strikes heavily reduced across Syria, we saw upwards of 2.5 times more alleged coalition civilian casualty events than Russian. Given the international outcry over Russia’s notoriously brutal campaign in Syria, this puts the US-led coalition in an increasingly compromising position. Moreover, it damages its credibility.

The warnings from the UN and various NGOs are stark and clear: hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped between IS snipers and mines, plus coalition and allied air and artillery strikes. With the Mosul battle in its final terrible days, and the Raqqa campaign now moving into the city itself, it is imperative that the coalition and its ground allies exercise more restraint in their bombing – and urgently improve safeguards to reduce the very high death count.

(TOP PHOTO: Civilians displaced near the Mosul front line in late 2016. Ibrahim Sherkhan/ICRC)


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