March was the deadliest month ever recorded by Airwars during the Coalition’s campaign in Iraq and Syria. This coincided with the greatest number of munitions dropped by the allies so far in the war. The high number of alleged incidents across both countries forced Airwars temporarily to pause its full vetting of Russian airstrikes in order to keep pace with the reported Coalition toll.
After a disastrous strike on March 17th claimed up to 230 lives in Mosul, media attention intensified – and the Coalition began reviewing its strike policies in the campaign there. However, civilians were also killed in record numbers across the border in the vicinity of Raqqa, Syria. Indeed it appears highly likely that the Coalition killed hundreds of civilians in Syria during March, with little press coverage. Neither the campaigns for Raqqa nor Mosul have finished – and Coalition proxies backed by US forces have yet to even begin fighting in Raqqa city itself.
For the third straight month the reported civilian toll of Russian airstrikes in Syria was surpassed by that of the Coalition in both Iraq and Syria. But this may change, as Moscow again ramps up its own air campaign – one that has already left thousands of civilians dead.
Coalition military developments
As of March 31st 2017, 11,554 airstrikes had been carried out in Iraq and 7,831 in Syria since the start of the Coalition campaign against so-called Islamic State. During March, reported strike actions in Syria decreased by 21%, with 434 reported strikes. In Iraq, 268 strikes were declared – a marginal decrease of 1% over February. Yet as the record tolls of civilians killed and bombs dropped show, these strike numbers do not tell the whole tale.
The month actually saw the greatest number of munitions dropped during the war so far. The declared active members of the Coalition (the US, UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Australia – along with possibly Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) dropped a total of 3,878 munitions on ISIL targets in March, according to figures published by US Air Force Central Command. This was a 13% increase over the previous month. So far this year, 10,918 munitions have been dropped on Iraq and Syria, with January, February and March each setting new records for munitions dropped. This represents a 59% rise on the number of munitions released during January – March 2016, suggesting that President Donald Trump may be following through with his election promise to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”.
According to official figures provided to Airwars by CENTCOM, the US carried out 97% of all Coalition strikes in Syria during March. The remaining members of the alliance conducted just 13 strikes in Syria during the month – a drop of 28% on those carried out in February. In effect, the US is carrying out a quasi-unilateral campaign against ISIS in Syria – alongside its completely unilateral campaign against al Qaeda targets.
Over the same period there was a small decrease of 5% in declared US strikes in Iraq, with 166 airstrikes reported. According to figures provided by both the UK and France, strikes by both allies increased significantly during March. In the same four week period from February 26th to March 27th, the UK reported 41 strikes (a 128% increase on February) and France 43 strikes (a 169% rise on February).
Given that official CENTCOM figures show that all of the US’s allies carried out 70 strikes in Iraq during March between them, and that we know that the UK uses the Coalition’s definition of ‘strike’, it appears that – as in October 2016 – France may be using a more generous definition of the term ‘strike’ than that used by the Coalition.
Footage of an RAF Tornado strike on an ‘ISIL headquarters’, five miles east of Raqqa, on March 18th 2017.
Advances in West Mosul and Raqqa
The Iraqi Security Forces, backed by Coalition and Iraqi airpower, pushed further into West Mosul during March, ousting ISIL from more of the city.
On March 15th, the 9th Iraqi Armored Division liberated the Badush subdistrict and surrounding areas. The US announced the deployment of 250 soldiers in preparation for the forthcoming attack on the the Old City, the densest-populated part of Mosul.
Following a major casualty event in Al Jadida/New Mosul on March 17th, elements of the West Mosul offensive were reportedly paused due to growing concerns for civilian casualties, and reports that ISIL was unlawfully using local residents as human shields.
Meanwhile in Syria, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accelerated their operation to isolate Raqqa, prior to a multi-pronged offensive to seize the Tabaqa Dam. In an attempt to cut the Aleppo-Ar Raqqa highway, the US made a dramatic air drop to transfer 500 SDF fighters to the southern bank of the Euphrates River. Yet these aggressive military moves carried a heavy price tag for civilians in both Iraq and Syria.
Coalition civilian casualties
March saw the highest number of civilian deaths likely caused by the Coalition so far in the 32-month war, as the Coalition-backed campaigns to oust ISIL from West Mosul and Raqqa continued to intensify.
Across both Iraq and Syria, Airwars researchers tracked a record 166 incidents of concern allegedly involving Coalition warplanes – a 67% increase from the 99 events tracked in February. A massive total of 1,782 to 3,471 civilian non-combatants were alleged killed in these March events – numbers not seen from foreign strikes since the worst of Russia’s brutal air campaign in 2016.
The unprecedented scale of the alleged death toll meant that for the third straight month, civilian casualty events reportedly carried out by the Coalition in both Iraq and Syria significantly outweighed those allegedly involving Russia just in Syria. However, according to Airwars’ most recent monitoring, Russian strikes have begun once more to reap a heavy toll and this dynamic could flip once more, especially if the Coalition is firing less often. The unilateral US strike on a regime airbase in the early hours of April 7th may also lead to a reduction of Coalition sorties to avoid confliction with Russian planes.
Of the 166 claimed civilian casualty events attributed to the Coalition, Airwars had assessed 63 of these as fairly reported. That classification reflects an incident as having two or more credible sources, and which took place in an area where Coalition airstrikes were declared in the near vicinity. Between 477 and 1,216 non-combatants are currently assessed as likely having died in these events – over four times the 110 likely non-combatant deaths estimated for February. These are not anonymous people: 359 victims are so far named, each tracked and recorded by local monitoring groups and listed by Airwars in its public database.
There is significant debate concerning why civilians are at far greater risk on the battlefield. The Pentagon has denied that its rules of engagement have changed under Donald Trump’s presidency, which for the moment appears to be the case. As previously reported by Airwars’ Samuel Oakford, Iraqi officials have said that it is now easier to call in US and Coalition airstrikes – though this change reportedly dates back to December 2016. Coalition spokesman Colonel Joseph Scrocca has referred to any shifts in how airstrikes are called in, and who is authorized to do so, as “merely a procedural change”. While these changes may not match the military’s official definition of new “rules of engagement,” that is little solace for those affected by the new and looser guidelines.
Mosul: a near tripling of likely fatalities
The steep rise in civilian deaths witnessed in the last days of February continued into March, as civilians bore the brunt of the battle for West Mosul’s densely populated areas.
Overall, between 1,308 and 2,435 civilians were claimed killed by the Coalition in Mosul during March, across 68 separate civilian casualty events. Of these incidents, Airwars currently assesses 11 of them as likely carried out by the Coalition alone. Between 156 and 355 non-combatants likely died across these incidents – compared to 62 to 64 likely deaths in February. Additionally, at least 66 civilians were injured in these events. That low ratio of fairly assessed incidents reflects the confused situation on the ground in Mosul, where Iraqi security forces and ISIL are also responsible for many deaths. In some cases, all three may be linked to an individual incident.
March saw the highest proportion yet of events in Iraq graded as contested, with such events more than quadrupling against February. Across 44 such incidents, between 1,017 to 1,908 civilians were claimed killed.
“The rise in contested deaths shows the challenges we’ve faced in tracking incidents,” explains Airwars’ Iraq researcher. “Events could have been carried out by Iraqi forces or the Coalition – and in most incidents there were reports saying that both were responsible.”
Official data for March shows a significant Coalition escalation in West Mosul: In total, 152 airstrikes were reported near Mosul – an 11% rise on February. Yet those strike numberes mask the ferocity of the assault. Some 1,723 targets were bombed throughout the month – a sharp increase of 44% on the 1,194 bombed in February. From the outset of March it was clear that civilians were paying a deadly price for this rampup in actions.
As with February, Airwars continued to monitor reports of the deaths of entire families. The number of women and children killed rose steeply: at least 108 children and 30 women were reported killed across ‘fair’ and ‘contested’ events, with hundreds more slain in contested actions.
On March 2nd for example, 14 civilians from three families were reportedly killed when an airstrike targeted a car bomb parked near residential homes in West Mosul’s Nabi Sheet neighbourhood, according to local sources. FaceIraq News named the victims as Nazim Abdul Rahman Chet‘s family; the family of Dawood, Suleiman; and the family of Yousef Mahmoud Salhan.
In addition to homes, Airwars monitored reported strikes that damaged or destroyed civilian infrastructure. On March 6th, Nabi Sheet was attacked again, with local sources reporting that 16 civilians died and dozens more were injured in violent clashes and airstrikes which left the area’s busy market in ruins. On the same day, local residents and security forces reported the deaths of up to 33 civilians when the Coalition struck Mosul’s train station. Sources said that the majority of the victims were former members of the Iraqi security services, army and police detained by ISIL, which was using the station as a prison.
The frequency and severity of events in Mosul increased as the month wore on. In the two weeks from March 6th to March 19th, our researchers tracked 26 separate civilian casualty events – with over 80% of these assessed as ‘contested’ – but all of them containing at least one credible report which pointed towards the US-led Coalition.
On March 17th-18th, in the greatest loss of life in any one casualty event of the war, upwards of 230 civilians died after a reported Coalition airstrike on the Al Jadida/New Mosul neighbourhood, sparking international outrage. Initial reports said that the Coalition struck a house near Al Rahma Al Ahli Hospital housing hundreds of displaced people. Mosul Insta put the death toll at 250. However, in a filmed visit to the scene, the head of the Iraq Provincial Council, Basma Basim, said that she feared as many as 500 had died – a figure also given by the Iraqi Observatory – though these higher allegations may reflect overall casualties in the neighbourhood, adding to the confusion surrounding the event.
There were in addition reports of ISF artillery fire and possible ISIL truck bombs in the near area. The Coalition confirmed it had carried out a strike “in the vicinity of alleged civilian casualties” and launched an investigation. Airwars continues to track reports of those killed in this catastrophic incident. The dead include the twin brothers Ali and Rakan Thamer Abdulla, their father Haj Thamer Abdulla and 23 other family members; the family of the wife of Karim Jassim Al Salim; Hisham Hazem and Issam Hazem of the Sheikh family, the family of Khadr Kaddawi (12 people); the Basem al-Muhzam’s family (11 people); and the Sinjari family (30 people).
In the week of the Al Jadida incident – March 13th to 19th – the Coalition publicly declared 34 strikes in Mosul against 464 targets. On March 17th alone, the day of the event, it reported that 118 targets were bombed in four “strikes” in or near Mosul. In the days following the Al Jadida incident however, there was an almost immediate scaling back in the number of targets bombed in Mosul, according to official CENTCOM data reviewed by Airwars. From March 19th to March 31st, targets bombed fell by 59%. Over the same period there was a 75% reduction in claimed civilian fatalities.
While the last weeks of March didn’t see further incidents on the huge scale of Al Jadida, West Mosul’s civilians remained at extreme risk. On March 26th – in one of three major casualty events likely carried out by the Coalition that day – 19 members of the family of Hassan Younis Arzu al-Jarjar died in a strike on the Tawafa area of West Mosul , according to Iraqyoon, Yagein and Iraqi Spring Media.
Later that night, another 15 or more non-combatants perished in another alleged Coalition strike, this time near Al Batool hospital in Zanjili. Some sources said the victims were mostly children and elderly people.
The month ended on as grim a note as it had begun on, with six events reported on March 30th, likely killing a minimum of 35 non-combatants and wounding at least 27 more. In the third reported incident in the Zanjili neighbourhood in just five days, dozens of civilians died when an alleged Coalition raid and possibly mortars – of unclear origin – hit civilian homes according to multiple sources. A graphic video by Yaqein (sourced from ISIL’s media wing) offered distressing testimony in which a witness says to camera “Airstrikes are targeting us. It’s only a residential area, nothing is here…all the people are dead and nothing is left.”
Raqqa: civilian deaths spiral higher
Though international attention paid to the civilian toll in Mosul grew after the March 17th strike, there was far less consideration of deaths in Syria – particularly around Raqqa where the month proved the deadliest by far of the Coalition’s campaign. In fact the majority – 57% – of all alleged civilian casualties incidents tracked by Airwars for the month were not in Iraq but in Syria.
Across 52 incidents incidents assessed as fair by Airwars, between 320 and 860 civilians were likely killed by the Coalition during March – almost seven times the minimum likely death toll during February. Moreover, unlike in Mosul there were barely any ‘contested’ events (only two) and only four contested events reportedly also involving Moscow. There appears little doubt the Coalition was responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths in Syria during the month.
This spike in fatalities in Syria is in some respects more troubling than the civilian death toll observed in West Mosul. To an extent, casualties were expected to rise in densely populated areas of Mosul – though based on the Coalition’s reaction, they were still caught off guard by how many perished. Yet in Raqqa, fatalities have been predominantly in villages and towns that surround the governorate’s capitol. These areas share little in common with the narrow and packed streets of West Mosul, and yet numerous and large-scale casualty events have become the norm.
Neither can the spiraling death toll be explained by an increase in strikes and targeting. Notably, both strikes and targets bombed in Raqqa fell in March. Across 243 strikes (a decrease of 11% on February), 366 targets were bombed (down 38% from February). These factors clearly suggest the US may have changed the way it is conducting strikes in Syria – with deadly risks for civilians on the ground.
Tabaqa in particular continued to come under attack. In March, 15 civilian casualty incidents were tracked for the city during the month, likely killing a minimum of 100 non-combatants. On March 1st, up to 12 civilians including four children died and 14 others were wounded when civilian homes near the church roundabout in the Al Thani neighbourhood were allegedly hit by the Coalition.
As in West Mosul, displaced civilians repeatedly came under fire. On March 11th in Kasrat Al Faraj, east of Raqqa, up to 22 non-combatants including six children and seven women reportedly died when an alleged Coalition airstrike hit schools in the area. According to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, the Saqer Kureish school was among buildings struck in a midnight raid, while Syria News Desk reported that Coalition warplanes conducted four strikes which hit two schools hosting displaced people.
The worst reported incident in Syria during the month occured on March 21st in Al Mansoura. The former Al Badiya school – now reportedly full of displaced Syrians – was hit in a confirmed Coalition raid, killing at least 33 civilians and wounding up to 56 more according to locals. The death toll continued to climb, with the majority of sources stressing that most of the victims were women and children.
Coalition commander Lt General Townsend later denied that the strike had killed civilians – but local monitors disagreed, with some saying that up to 100 displaced families were on the premises The entire families of Khalif Al-Ayto; Kitan Al’amash and his family, Mohammed Jum’a Al-Hadid and his family; Khaled Hasan al-Qadi and his family and the family of Saleh Mohammad al Jassem made up of 18 people were among those reported killed. Airwars has identified numerous local media reports from late February onwards stating that internally displaced civilians had been moved to the Al Mansoura area – suggesting a major intelligence failing by the US and its SDF allies.
In the days prior to an offensive to retake the Tabaqa Dam on March 22nd, Airwars tracked an increase in civilian casualty events in the area, with three incidents reported on March 20th alone. Those likely left at least 12 civilians dead. Between March 21st and 22nd there were another three incidents, in which a minimum of 72 non-combatants died.
On March 22nd, 36 named civilians died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on an automated bakery in Tabaqa’s Al Thani neighbourhood. A local source told the Smart News Agency that there had been four raids “killing the owner of the bakery, the employees and dozens of civilians who were nearby.” Among those killed were six members of the Al-Qobos family, three from the Al Omar family and three from the Al Abed family. Some sources put the death toll as high as 52, including seven children and 10 women – with up to a further 55 wounded.
Before March ended, there would be more civilian casualty events reported in Al Mansoura. On March 29th, sources said that seven or eight civilian members of a family displaced from Maskanah died when an alleged Coalition airstrike hit their car. Six civilian homes were also reportedly destroyed. Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently named some of the victims as Mohammed Al-Hasa, A’ziz Al-Hasan, Ibrahim Al-Ali, Mohammed Al-Hamid, Hasan Al-A’klah and Mahmood Al-Mohammed.
The following day – March 30th – the family of Abd al Aziz Barakat al Ahmad Al Faraj (including his wife and four children) were reportely killed when an alleged Coalition raid hit their home in Al Mansoura.
With the assault on Raqqa yet to begin and hundreds of civilians already dying monthly in Coalition actions, urgent action is required from the US and its allies to reduce the risk of harm to non-combatants.
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The family of Abd al Aziz Barakat al Ahmad Al Faraj, killed in an alleged Coalition strike on their home in Mansoura, March 30th.
Russian military actions and civilian casualties
After two consecutive months of scaled-back actions in Syria, March saw a significant and lethal rise in the number of incidents of concern allegedly involving Russian warplanes. Overall there were 114 such events tracked by Airwars during March – an 80 per cent increase over February’s claimed incidents.
Though it will be some time before Airwars can fully assess the incidents, between 165 and 292 non-combatants are alleged to have died in these 114 events. However those figures are unvetted and unfiltered, and should not be directly compared to the Coalition numbers in this report.
“Russia’s focus seemed to be mainly on Idlib province, Hama and the Damascus eastern suburbs,” explains Kinda Haddad. “After a lull in January and February we saw a major increase in events in Syria. The end of the Astana peace talks in mid March could have been one of the factors in the spike.”
It remains to be seen whether Russian actions will continue to rise. At least for March, the death toll attributed to the Coalition for the month was at a level comparable to the most intense periods of Moscow’s brutal air campaign in Syria during 2016.