US authorities must ‘come clean’ about full extent of civilian deaths caused by coalition attacks in Syria
USA has acknowledged only one death
Just 11 US-led coalition air strikes in Syria appear to have killed some 300 civilians, according to new analysis from Amnesty International today, despite US claims that only one person has been killed by such aerial attacks.
Amnesty has sent a memorandum to the US Department of Defense raising a series of questions about the conduct of coalition forces in Syria. The memorandum compiles and analyses information from various sources - including eyewitnesses to attacks - which suggests that US Central Command (CENTCOM), which directs coalition forces in Syria, may have failed to take necessary precautions to spare civilians and carried out unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians.
The memorandum was sent on 28 September, but to date no reply has been forthcoming from the US authorities. Amnesty is calling on US-led coalition forces carrying out air strikes in Syria to conduct thorough investigations into reports of civilian casualties from its operations and disclose their findings.
Meanwhile, research and documentation by leading human rights and monitoring organisations - including the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Airwars, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Violations Documentation Center - indicates that the total number of civilians killed by Coalition forces in Syria since operations began could be more than 1,000. To date CENTCOM has only acknowledged one single death in these attacks.
Amnesty has reviewed publicly available information from local human rights organisations and monitoring groups as well as media reports - and where feasible has interviewed eyewitnesses and carried out analysis of satellite imagery, photographs and video evidence - to piece together as much detail as possible about the circumstances of the 11 US-led coalition attacks.
Among the most recent incidents highlighted in the memorandum are three US-led coalition attacks in June and July on the Manbij area of Aleppo governorate, in northern Syria. Together the three attacks are thought to have killed more than 100 civilians in the villages of al-Tukhar, al-Hadhadh and al-Ghandoura. The attack on al-Tukhar on 19 July is believed to have caused the greatest loss of civilian life of any single coalition attack - at least 73 civilians were killed, including 27 children, and around 30 were injured. CENTCOM is investigating the attack. In its memorandum Amnesty has asked questions about who the intended targets were and the measures taken to verify intelligence or check whether civilians were present in the vicinity.
Meanwhile, air strikes just over a week later - on 28 July - killed at least 28 civilians, including seven children, in al-Ghandoura village, 15 miles north-west of Manbij. The strikes hit a market (which appears in a video clip that Amnesty was able to geo-locate in al-Ghandoura’s main street). The video-clip and other photographs show the bodies of many of the children killed.
Amnesty’s memo points out that a failure to adequately and transparently investigate reports of civilian casualties and of violations of international humanitarian law falls short of international standards and contrasts starkly with commitments by President Barack Obama in a July “executive order” to address civilian casualties from US operations. The lack of acknowledgment, apology or compensation is also at odds with the order, which committed the USA to strengthening post-strike investigations and offering condolence and compensation.
Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office, said:
“It’s high time the US authorities came clean about the full extent of the civilian damage caused by coalition attacks in Syria.
“We fear the US-led coalition is significantly underestimating the harm caused to civilians in its operations in Syria.
“Analysis of available evidence suggests that in each of these cases, coalition forces failed to take adequate precautions to minimise harm to civilians and damage to civilian objects. Some of these attacks may constitute disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attacks.
“Given the likely increase in air strikes by the US-led coalition as part of the Iraqi offensive to recapture Mosul, it is even more pressing that CENTCOM be fully transparent about the impact of their military actions on civilians. And it is crucial that they adhere scrupulously to international humanitarian law, including by taking all feasible precautions to spare civilians and to minimise harm to civilian homes and infrastructure.”
Coalition attacks in 2015
Earlier coalition attacks in Syria have also been deadly. A coalition attack in the early hours of 7 December 2015 which struck two houses where civilians were sheltering in the village of Ayn al-Khan, near al-Hawl in al-Hasakah governorate, killed 40 civilians, including 19 children, and injured at least 30 others, according to local human rights organisations. One media report suggests an unknown number of ISIS fighters were also killed in the attack. Amnesty was able to speak to one survivor from this attack who described how he was awoken by a huge explosion and ran out to dig through the rubble for survivors:
“The house shook and began to crumble. The windows shattered ... I ran outside and saw my neighbour’s house completely destroyed. I could hear people calling out from beneath the rubble.”
As he helped dig out survivors a helicopter gunship launched a second attack. He said:
“At this point I had a two-month-old baby boy in my arms whom I had rescued. The hit caused me to fall and drop him … I fell into the hole made by the air strike. That was what saved me … My mother, aunt, wife and children - a daughter who was four-years-old and a son who was two-and-a-half were all killed. The woman and her son who I’d rescued were killed. Everyone but me was killed.”
He also said that a commander from the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces who villagers spoke to after the attack told them the YPG had warned coalition forces of civilians in the area. The attack is believed to have been targeting a group of ISIS fighters who had moved into a house on the edge of the village five days earlier and were later joined by more fighters. Despite evidence indicating that multiple civilian casualties were caused, CENTCOM has not acknowledged responsibility although it acknowledges it carried out air strikes in the vicinity at around the same time. It is unclear whether the investigation set up by CENTCOM has reached any findings.
In another attack on 11 August, an air strike hit a building in Atmeh in Aleppo governorate which was being used by an armed group to produce mortars, but also destroyed two adjacent civilian homes, killing eight civilians. Six children aged between four and 17-years-old were killed. There are conflicting reports about whether ten fighters were also killed in the attack. CENTCOM has admitted carrying out the strike but denied there were any civilian casualties.
Satellite images obtained and reviewed by Amnesty indicate that the two civilian houses were completely destroyed, in addition to the building being used by the armed group. Talha al-Amouri, an eyewitness, told Amnesty that his sister-in-law, mother of five of the children killed, was eight months’ pregnant at the time of the attack and had a stillbirth as a consequence of it. He said he and his brother had gone to a shop a short distance away and returned to find children buried beneath the rubble. He said: “How could they have known that there was an ammunitions factory but not that there were homes with civilians nearby?” Although this attack was directed at a legitimate military target it also destroyed neighbouring homes and killed eight civilians and therefore may amount to a disproportionate attack.
In Iraq, as the military campaign to re-take the city of Mosul from ISIS enters its second week, fears for civilians there are running high. US-led Coalition forces are providing air and ground support for the operation. More than 200 Syrian civilians are believed to have been killed in coalition attacks during the campaign in Syria to oust ISIS from Manbij, which is far smaller than Mosul. Amnesty’s previous research on Pakistan and Afghanistan has also found that the US military has failed to effectively investigate possible violations of international humanitarian law or to acknowledge responsibility for civilian casualties.
Syrian and Russian attacks
Amnesty has researched and published findings on violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed by several parties to the conflict in Syria, namely: the Syrian government and its allies (including Russia), who are responsible for the vast majority of violations; ISIS; the predominantly Kurdish forces of the Autonomous Administration; and several armed opposition groups.