Study: Hundreds of Civilians Reported Killed in First Year of Coalition Airstrikes

A six-month investigation into alleged civilian and ‘friendly fire’ deaths from Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria has identified more than 120 incidents of concern to June 30th according to an Airwars report published today – three times more problem events than the Coalition itself was aware of.

Airwars believes that for 57 of these incidents, there is sufficient publicly-available evidence to indicate Coalition responsibility for civilian and friendly forces deaths. Between them these events account for 459-591 alleged civilian fatalities, and the reported deaths of 48-80 allied forces.

In stark contrast, the Coalition has investigated just ten incidents – and has so far conceded just two civilian deaths in thousands of airstrikes across Iraq and Syria since August 2014.

1,000 alleged fatalities

Since February Airwars has been examining claims totaling more than 1,000 alleged civilian fatalities. Many of these incidents remain difficult to verify. Some are contested, with counterclaims that Iraqi or Syrian forces carried out an attack. Other events are poorly reported. On occasion claims of civilian fatalities have turned out to be false, researchers found.

Even so, the public record clearly suggests a significant underreporting of civilian deaths by the Coalition.

Airwars is publishing its own full findings online, with detailed descriptions of each event and links to every known source. The database features hundreds of photographs and videos, along with the names of more than 260 alleged victims.

‘The international Coalition has boasted that its air war against Islamic State is “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.” Yet facts from the ground suggest a very different story,’ says Chris Woods, Director of Airwars.

‘With more than 5,800 airstrikes so far and over 18,000 bombs and missiles dropped on the cities and towns of Iraq and Syria, all indications are that hundreds of civilians have already died in Coalition strikes.’

Airwars also reports a troubling lack of accountability among the twelve Coalition members. Only Canada has consistently reported where and when its aircraft strike.

In contrast other nations have released almost no information about their actions, with Australia claiming that it ‘will not release information that could be distorted and used against Australia in ISIL propaganda.’ With Coalition nations individually liable when civilians are killed in Iraq or Syria, those affected on the ground presently have almost no recourse to justice or compensation.

Key findings

  • Between August 8 2014 and June 30th 2015, 53 incidents of concern were reported for Iraq, with claims of between 578-732 civilians killed by the Coalition. Most reports are focused on cities and towns – scene of the heaviest bombings. Of these events, Airwars believes 17 Iraqi cases in particular (involving 233-311 alleged fatalities) warrant urgent further investigation.
  • Coalition airstrikes began in Syria on September 23rd 2014, and to June 30th 2015 Airwars has identified 65 alleged incidents in which civilians died. Of these, we believe 35 cases demonstrate a fair level of public reporting – with Coalition airstrikes also confirmed in the near vicinity for that date. An estimated 226-280 civilians died in these Syrian events.
  • Nine claimed ‘friendly fire’ incidents have occurred since Coalition operations began – eight in Iraq. These allege that up to 185 allied forces (mostly Shia militia) have been killed. Airwars believes there is reasonable evidence to support five of these claims – which killed an estimated 48 to 80 friendly forces between them.
  • Although overall the Coalition does a fair job of informing where and when it strikes, it remains almost impossible to hold any of the 12 individual members accountable in the event of civilian deaths. Only Canada consistently reports where and when its aircraft attack.

Shared concerns

Other monitoring groups tracking the violence in Iraq and Syria are also raising concerns, with each reporting hundreds of civilian fatalities from Coalition strikes to June 30th.

~ Iraq Syria Totals
Airwars [total range] 233-732 226-354 459-1,086
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 173 ~
Syrian Network for Human Rights 198 ~
Syria Violations Documentation Center 276 ~
Iraq Body Count 487* ~
Averaged fatality estimates 360-641 218-250 578-891*

Monitoring groups in Syria accept that the Coalition generally tries to limit civilian fatalities – particularly when compared with other actors in the brutal civil war.

Yet as Bassam al-Ahmad of VDC notes to Airwars, the Coalition still has its own obligations when it pursues Daesh amid civilian populations: ‘We know that ISIS is taking civilians as human shields, and is building all its military bases in civilian neighborhood. But according to the Laws of War, the Coalition also has to take into account the general principles of international humanitarian law when conducting its strikes.’

As the international air war against Islamic State enters its second year, there is little sign of the risk to civilians on the ground abating.

As Airwars published its report July 2015 was emerging as the most intensive month yet of Coalition bombings, with 371 strikes reported in Syria alone. Civilian casualty claims also peaked, with 14 new alleged events reported for Syria and eight for Iraq – a new and grim record.

Read The Guardian’s comprehensive report on our investigation here.

Read more by Chris Woods