Why Airstrikes Became So Much Deadlier for Civilians in 2017
There was a 42 percent increase in civilian deaths from 2016.
Earlier this week, Action on Armed Violence released a report detailing a staggering jump in civilian casualties from explosive ordinance in 2017 – more than 15,000 were killed, up by 42 percent from 2016. The report suggested that this increase was largely caused by airstrikes, primarily in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – so I got back in touch with Chris Woods, the man behind Airwars, an independent monitoring group tracking civilian casualties in the war on Islamic State (IS), who we first spoke with in 2016.
I wanted to get a better idea of the factors that made 2017 an especially deadly year for civilians, and what – if anything – the US-led coalition has done to stem these deaths.
This interview has been edited for length.
VICE: First off, do the alarming findings of the report from AOAV tally with what you have seen in terms of civilian casualties in 2017?
Chris Woods: Our focus at the moment is only on Iraq and Syria, and just in that theatre, 2017 was a terrible year for civilian harm. Certainly there was a significant rise in civilian deaths that we tracked from international military actions in those two countries, which entirely chimes with the very bad news that other NGOs and international agencies have been reporting.
When you see an uptick in reports of civilian casualties, what are the key factors you would usually expect to be driving that?
Whether you are looking at allegations against Russia, the coalition or Iraqi ground forces, there are always a few strong determinates when it comes to civilian harm. Allegations are usually clustered around specific offences, so with an attack on a particular town or city or region we will always see a spike in civilian harm. But what we also saw very strongly in 2017 was a correlation between the intensity of bombardment and outcomes for civilians. So, bluntly, the more bombs and missiles dropped in a particular area, the greater the risk to civilians. That sounds obvious, but it’s actually quite difficult to get data that supports that. But we got a lot of it in 2017.
So there were more airstrikes overall, but what were the other factors that led to this alarming rise in civilian casualties?
The biggest issue we saw in 2017 – particularly if we look at the US-led coalition – was that the war moved very heavily into cities. That, more than any other single factor, resulted in the deaths of many more civilians and casualty events. We saw a similar pattern at the back end of 2016, when Russia and the Assad regime heavily bombed east Aleppo. There’s a very strong correlation between attacks on cities and large numbers of civilian casualties. And frankly, it doesn’t matter who’s carrying out those attacks. The outcome for civilians is always dire.
Which changes to the way the war was prosecuted last year led to this move to urban areas and this increase in airstrikes?
One of the criticisms the Trump administration levelled at Obama was that he was too cautious in his war on [the Islamic State]. But there was a reason for that caution, which was about limiting civilian harm as much as possible. We saw far fewer civilian casualties, relatively speaking, for the number of strikes under Obama than Trump. The one moment at which that shifted a bit was in the battle for east Mosul, which began in November, 2016.
About six weeks into that campaign, the Americans and Iraqis took stock. It had been a very tough campaign for Iraqi ground forces – some accounts put casualties in Iraqi special forces as high as one in three. That’s a very high toll indeed for elite troops. The reason those casualties were so high is that they were going in and clearing houses by hand. One reason the Iraqis gave for having to do that was that it was too hard to call in airstrikes. In the closing weeks of the Obama administration the rules of engagement were changed, meaning it was far easier to call in airstrikes. We saw an immediate transfer of risk from Iraqi forces onto the civilian population.
When Trump came in we saw a significant continuation of that. Things didn’t get any better under Trump for civilians – in fact, they got a lot worse. One of the reasons for that was the intensity of the bombardment. We saw an absolutely ferocious bombing campaign by the US and its allies in both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Between those two cities, the coalition alone dropped 50,000 munitions. One bomb or missile was dropped on Raqqa every 12 minutes, on average, for the duration of the four-month battle.
You said earlier that it doesn’t really matter who’s doing the bombing, which might surprise some people, given the criticism levelled at Russia in the past for its wide use of dumb-bombs over guided munitions… can you talk more about the weapons used and how that impacts civilian casualties?
When Russia and the Assad regime were bombing Aleppo in late 2016, we had assumed that a key reason for the large number of civilian casualties was down to the fact they were primarily using dumb-bombs. We have actually changed our modelling since then, based on what we have seen with the coalition in places like Raqqa and Mosul. The reason is that even when you use precision bombs on cities, really, the outcome for civilians is the same as a dumb bomb. You can’t control for what the bombs do when they land.
We saw very little difference between Russian and coalition strikes when it came to bombing cities. This is the big problem we have with a shift to urban warfare – it’s really taking us to the limits of any benefits we might have in terms of protecting civilians by using precision munitions.
So the whole post-Gulf War Western military narrative of "surgical strikes" is effectively out the window when those strikes are on built-up areas?
Yes. The single clearest example of that was in March, 2017, when the US conducted a very precise airstrike on IS fighters, dropping two 500lb bombs on the roof of a house in an area of Mosul called Al Jadidah. They didn’t know, however, that there were more than 100 civilians sheltering in the basement of that building, who all died when it collapsed. So that was a very precise strike, but precision didn't help at all there – in fact, precision was part of the problem; it was the absence of intelligence that led to those deaths.
The first time we spoke there was, you said, a huge disparity in terms of coalition members’ levels of transparency and accountability. Has the mounting civilian death-toll forced any improvement in that area?
It's been a surprise for us just how little transparency and accountability we've had from most coalition members, including countries like the Netherlands, France and Canada – countries you might have expected better from. Perhaps the other big surprise has been that the United States has been by far the most accountable nation in the war. Indeed, accountability significantly improved for the majority of Trump’s first year in office. That was against expectations and a very positive thing. The US admitted the civilian casualty event at Al Jadidah. Had the strike been from one of the US' allies, we may still have never had any formal recognition of that harm.
How does the UK rate on this?
The UK is a real problem, as is France. Between them, they have conducted more than 3,000 strikes. In 2017, most of those strikes were in urban areas. During the battle of Mosul, Michael Fallon put out a statement boasting that British aircraft had destroyed 750 targets inside Mosul, second only to the United States. And yet the UK claims zero civilian casualties from its strikes. The AP recently released a report suggesting that as many as 10,000 civilians died in Mosul – at least a third of them killed by air or artillery strikes. So something is clearly going very wrong with British monitoring of civilian harm.
Interestingly, the UK are one of the most transparent members of the coalition – they give us far more information about what they're doing, where and when. That's a good thing. But transparency hasn’t led to accountability for the British. We have been pushing for a proper independent inquiry into British battle-damage assessments. We just don't think they are fit for purpose – they are, it seems, incapable of detecting civilian harm.
In terms of the raw numbers of casualties, just how bad was 2017?
This has been a long, hot war. We're in the fourth year of the war on IS, and it’s still not over. More than 100,000 munitions have been dropped, more than 30,000 airstrikes and artillery strikes. It’s a very intense war. It has seen the highest numbers of civilian casualties from Western actions – for the US and Australia – since Vietnam. For the British and European allies, probably the highest numbers of civilian casualties in a conflict they have been directly involved in since Korea. These are levels of civilian harm we have not seen in generations.
Looking toward 2018, I assume there’s a predicted dip in civilian casualties with the effective end of the battles for the key urban IS strongholds?
The war – especially in Syria – is cyclical. And coalition actions there have now declined. But Russian actions have accelerated. There have been 30 alleged Russian casualty events in the last week. The UN is reporting that 70,000 Syrians are on the move right now because of the Russian and Syrian offensive. So while coalition strikes might be going down for the moment, from the Russian-led side they have gone up.
We are also worried that in 2017 there were some extremely worrying precedents set. There is no doubt that war is moving deeply back into cities in a way it hasn’t for decades. According to the UN, the attack on Mosul in 2017 was the biggest urban assault since WWII and resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.
I think we are becoming far too complacent about this kind of shift in warfare. And our militaries and governments are not taking this seriously enough. There is no way we can protect civilians when war moves into cities. Yet, here we are, with our governments bombing in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan pretty much day in, day out.
This is not something any of us should be comfortable with.