Summary: with the publication of their annual report Airwars once again puts the focus on aerial warfare and artillery attacks on civilians whose death and injuries would otherwise go unacknowledged and unaccountable.
Today Airwars, the London-based NGO that tracks civilian casualties in Syria, Iraq and Libya caused by air and artillery attacks (what it calls Wide Area Effect weapons), released its annual report.
Though civilian harm numbers have come down dramatically, the report makes for grim reading nonetheless. In a subsequent Digest newsletter we will examine what the report has to say about casualties in Iraq and in the US counter-terrorism campaign in Yemen. Today we look at Syria.
Before we begin it is worth noting this comment from Chris Woods, the Airwars co- founder, from our 18 December podcast. He pointed out then that the mandate of the organisation, which began its work in late 2014, is to monitor the actions of foreign powers. The Airwars numbers, therefore, do not include civilian casualties caused by domestic combatants:
More than 20 foreign powers have bombed in Syria since 2011. And we felt there should be accountability for those foreign forces for the airstrikes, the artillery strikes that they conducted. We began monitoring in Syria when the US and its allies began conducting airstrikes and cruise missile strikes back in September 2014 and then, as other foreign powers have come in, for example, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel, we’ve also covered civilian harm from their activities as well. And we track civilian harm from all foreign powers operating, except where they’re effectively part of domestic forces.The report examines casualties caused by four actors; Russia, Turkey, the US-led Coalition and Kurdish forces responding to Turkish belligerent actions taken against them. Israel is not included at this stage but Airwars has told us it will release a report on Israeli strikes in Syria later in the spring. Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes on military targets since the war began, most of them linked to Iranian forces and Hezbollah. However on 13 January an Israeli strike killed at least 14 Assad regime soldiers.
Russia continued, into early 2020, its air campaign in support of a regime forces offensive aimed at crushing the last rebel-held enclave, Idlib governorate, in northwest Syria. The Russians also carried out strikes in Hama governorate and in the southern countryside of Aleppo governorate. “Even so,” the report notes “2020 saw a significant decrease in the number of alleged Russian civilian harm events tracked by Airwars. Overall, the year saw 251 claimed Russian civilian harm events in Syria – a 65% fall on the 710 events tracked in 2019.”
Airwars says that in the first two months of the year, before a ceasefire came into place, Russian actions killed at least 364 civilians. The worst incident occurred on 15 January when a busy vegetable market in Idlib city was struck leaving 22 civilians dead and more than 50 wounded. The Russians, as they have persistently done in all such incidents, deny they were involved in the attack. As Chris Woods told us: “Russia has never admitted a specific civilian death in more than five years of war in Syria.”
The report notes: “In total, since the start of Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 to December 2020, Airwars had tracked 4,496 locally alleged civilian casualty incidents reportedly linked to Russian forces. Between 15,553 and 25,243 civilians were allegedly killed in these events. Of those killed, as many as 5,021 were children and 2,809 were women. As many as 40,183 more civilians were allegedly wounded by Russian actions.” While other foreign actors, most notably the Americans (and to a lesser extent the British) are cooperating to some degree with Airwars, Russia steadfastly refuses to do so while clinging to the fiction it is not responsible for any civilian deaths.
The probable accidental shelling by Syrian regime forces of a Turkish convoy in Idlib in early February that killed 34 soldiers and led to a devasting counter-attack by the Turks on Assad’s troops was a major catalyst in the 5 March ceasefire. Neither the Russians or Assad wanted to see a further escalation with the Turks. With the truce, civilian deaths attributed to the Russians fell to 34 over the remainder of 2020.
As the report states: “During 2020, Airwars tracked a total of 60 locally alleged civilian harm incidents from Turkish-led actions in Syria, resulting in at least 37 alleged deaths and the injury of up to 152 more civilians.” The worst single incident involved the shelling of two villages north of Manbij in an area held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The attack left six civilians dead and at least 10 wounded. Among the dead were three children. Airwars named them as Fares Diab (13 years old), Ghofran Diab (7 years old) and Jamila Diab (11 years old).
US-led coalition forces
With the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in March 2019, coalition strikes continued to decline significantly. In 2020 Airwars tracked just 12 civilian harm incidents, down from 75 reported in 2019. As Chris Woods told us, US cooperation with the organisation has been reasonably good under both the Obama and Trump administrations and he is hopeful the trend continues with President Biden: “The Americans have been relatively accountable for their civilian harm. We significantly disagree with them on the number of civilians killed in the war against so-called Islamic State. But they have admitted more than 1400 civilian deaths now in that war, which is unprecedented.”
France which carried out thousands of airstrikes in the war against ISIS continues to insist, like the Russians it has caused no civilian casualties. As for the British, Woods rates the MoD “quite well for transparency” in that it provides information about its strikes. But accountability is poor: “They’ve conducted more than 2000 airstrikes across Iraq and Syria, many of them in densely populated cities using large munitions that inevitably, in our view, cause civilian harm. But the British have admitted to just one civilian killed in rural Syria in more than five years of war. And we think that’s absurd.”
Airwars saw a notable fall in the overall number of civilians reportedly killed by Kurdish actions in Syria. In total for 2020, Airwars tracked 14 claimed Kurdish casualty events – as opposed to 55 events reported during 2019. The number of civilian fatalities fell from between 60 and 73 to between 13 and 17. The worst incident involved the shelling of the local market in the town of Afrin, held by Turkish-led forces, in March 2020. Five civilians were killed and at least 15 wounded in a missile and artillery attack. From September 4th onwards, Airwars did not track any civilian harm allegations against Kurdish forces.
The annual report is the product of painstaking work, with the recording of civilian casualties built on information gathered at what Airwars calls a “hyperlocal level.” It uses eye witness accounts and evidence collected from social media platforms which are then cross-referenced with whatever information is provided by the foreign powers carrying out the strikes.
Asked in our podcast about the importance of the work his organisation is doing, Chris Woods said this:
“If nothing else we are bearing witness, we are gathering evidence, we’re preserving information that at a future point may prove useful. By preserving and capturing this information, we ensure that there is a permanent record of these deaths … we’ve tracked more than 55,000 reported civilian deaths across the conflict countries that we monitor. And every one of those reported deaths is of course, an individual, from a family, from a village, from a region in the country.”
Individuals like Fares, Ghofran and Jamila Diab.