The almost yearlong bombing campaign against the Islamic State has likely killed hundreds of non-combatants in Iraq and Syria.
Despite repeated denials from the Pentagon, a new report by a London-based monitoring group cites “clear indications” that at least 459 civilians have died in the U.S.-led airstrikes, which started Aug. 8 in Iraq and Sept. 23 in Syria. Other, less reliable reports suggest the number could be as high as 1,086, the report said.
The Pentagon has acknowledged only two civilian deaths as a result of the airstrikes, tied to a November 2014 bombing in Syria it says “likely” killed two girls.
Airwars, which monitors bombing casualties from its offices in Europe and the Middle East, said that contention was concerning. “The coalition’s admission of only two ‘likely’ non-combatant deaths – conceded some seven months after the event – indicates a worrying lack of urgency on the part of all coalition members regarding civilian deaths,” the group said.
The United States has acknowledged only two ‘likely’ civilian deaths from the bombing.
Navy Cpt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, dismissed Airwars criticism. “We take every allegation of civilian casualties seriously,” he said.
Davis said the Pentagon is currently investigating six such claims, four in Iraq and two in Syria. He said it has completed probes of four other casualty allegations and determined that three of the allegations “were unfounded.” The fourth finished investigation revealed evidence of the two deaths in Syria nine months ago.
It is unacceptable that only one of 12 coalition partners – Canada – has consistently stated in a timely fashion both where and when it carries out airstrikes.
Airwars, however, said it had identified 57 instances where “sufficient publicly-available evidence” exists 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,” the group said.
The group said it had identified a total of 118 instances of reported civilian casualties.
The issue of non-combatant casualties has existed since the beginning of the U.S. campaign, when human rights advocates in Iraq and Syria complained that errant munitions had killed civilians. As early as the first bombing run in Syria, rebels battling Syrian government forces complained that U.S. cruise missiles had killed civilians who were asleep in an apartment building in northwest Syria.
Airwars criticized the United States and its allies for delaying the release of details about their air raids and for failing to robustly investigate reports of civilian casualties.
“Efforts to limit the risk to civilians on the ground continue to be hampered by an absence of effective transparency and accountability from almost all coalition members,” the report said. “It is unacceptable that only one of 12 coalition partners – Canada – has consistently stated in a timely fashion both where and when it carries out airstrikes.”
Airwars credited McClatchy with compelling the U.S. Central Command to acknowledge Jan. 10 that American planes had bombed an Islamic State hub in Al Bab, a Syrian village near the city of Aleppo, 13 days earlier, causing at least 58 civilian casualties. The Pentagon had not included that strike in its daily tally of raids, and has still not acknowledged the civilian toll.
Airwars also criticized U.S. Central Command, which claims to report all airstrikes by its partners, for leaving out Iraq bombing raids by Britain and France.
The United States has been joined by Britain, the Netherlands, France, Australia, Denmark, Canada and Belgium in the Iraq airstrikes.
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have participated in the U.S.-led bombing of Syria.
Through June 30, the period analyzed by Airwars, American pilots conducted more than two-thirds of 3,034 airstrikes in Iraq and 94 percent of 1,890 bombing raids in Syria. The airstrikes released almost 17,000 bombs and missiles, according to the U.S. Air Force.
U.S. Central Command, which is headquartered in Tampa, Fla., says the bombing destroyed more than 2,000 buildings along with hundreds of enemy vehicles, checkpoints and fighting positions.
The Pentagon estimates that 10,000 to 13,000 Islamic State militants were killed in the airstrikes and by Iraqi Security Forces through June.
Airwars acknowledged that the United States and its allies try harder to spare civilians than do the Islamic State or other militant groups.
“There is no doubt that – relatively speaking – the coalition goes to significant efforts to reduce the risk to civilians on the ground,” the report said. “Even so, the public record indicates that hundreds of civilians have been killed by the coalition in its intensive air war against Islamic State.”
But it took issue with an assertion in June by Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hesterman, the top U.S. commander overseeing the Iraq and Syria airstrikes, that “coalition airstrikes are the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.”
12 The number of nations conducting airstrikes with the US
“The present coalition policy of downplaying or denying all claims of non-combatant fatalities makes little sense and risks handing Islamic State and other forces a powerful propoganda tool,” the report said.
Airwars acknowledged difficulties in confirming claims of civilian deaths in the two countries.
“Because of the extreme security situation in Iraq and Syria, our own researchers and others have been severely limited in their ability to conduct field investigations into alleged civilian and friend forces deaths,” the group said.
“With most areas bombed by the Coalition under Daesh (a common Arabic term for Islamic State) occupation, access remains almost impossible,” it said.
In both its report and an online database the group maintains, Airwars relies on non-governmental organizations in Iraq and Syria, social media and news reports to supplement its analysts’ research.
Airwars established a grading system to rate the veracity of casualty reports with five levels of reliability: confirmed, fair, poor, contested events and disproven. It said “confirmed” or “fair” reports accounted for between 459 and 591 civilian casualties.
The United Nations on Monday said it was investigating claims that up to 40 civilians were killed July 31 in an airstrike outside Ramadi, the Iraqi provincial capital captured by Islamic State fighters in May. The U.S.-led coalition has not listed any bombing raids on that date in Rutba, the village near Ramadi where children were among the reported casualties.
Airwars, however, said the United Nations does not systematically monitor civilian casualty claims in Iraq as it does in Afghanistan and called on the international agency to do so.
In Syria, a Syrian Army plane crashed during a bombing run over Ariha, a northern Syrian town held by opposition forces, killing at least 31 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
That group is one of the organizations whose data Airwars used in its new report. Airwars quotes the group as saying that the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad has killed 4,879 civilians “mostly in indiscriminate airstrikes.”