Surge in civilian deaths from suspected US-led air strikes in Syria and Iraq overwhelms monitoring group
A non-profit organisation that tracks civilian casualties caused by airstrikes in the Middle East said it has shifted nearly all of its resources to track a surge of claims regarding US-led strikes in Syria and Iraq.
The group, called Airwars.org, had been tracking deaths caused by both Russian and US airstrikes but said in a statement Friday that it was suspending its work on “alleged Russian actions in Syria - so as best to focus our limited resources on continuing to properly monitor and assess reported casualties from the US and its allies.
“Almost 1,000 civilian non-combatant deaths have already been alleged from coalition actions across Iraq and Syria in March - a record claim,” the statement said.
“These reported casualty levels are comparable with some of the worst periods of Russian activity in Syria.”
In the last week, three mass casualty incidents have been attributed to US-led forces in Iraq and Syria, making March one of the most lethal months for civilians in the two-year-old war against the Islamic State.
Last week, US drones targeted what locals deemed a mosque in Aleppo province in a bid to target al-Qaida leaders. US officials said dozens of terrorists were killed, but those on the ground said at least 47 civilians also died in the strikes. The Pentagon denied that there were any civilian casualties but has launched a formal investigation into the incident.
On Monday, a conflict monitoring group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said a strike near Raqa targeted a school that was serving as a home for multiple families displaced by fighting in the area, killing at least 33. The Pentagon admitted US aircraft were operating in the vicinity but, according to Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon, the military is having a hard time rectifying the location of the building that was targeted with what was shown as destroyed on social media.
On Thursday, Iraqi media reported that an air strike in Mosul killed more than 200 people. The Pentagon is investigating the claims.
After the fall of Aleppo to Syrian and Russian forces in December and the recent escalation of the US-led campaigns against the Islamic State in Mosul and Raqa, claims of civilian casualties caused by American-led forces have outstripped those caused by Damascus and the Kremlin, according to Airwars.
As Syrian forces advance into opposition-held Hama in central Syria, Airwars has recorded roughly 50 civilian casualty events caused by the joint Russian and Syrian air campaign in March.
Airwars uses varying methods to investigate and confirm civilian casualties, relying on a medley of local news outlets, NGOs, civilian volunteers and social media to determine if casualty reports are fair, weak, contested or disproved. For March, nearly half the alleged strikes are contested, according to Airwars data.
According to Airwars, more than 2,500 civilians have been killed by the US-led coalition, which has admitted to killing only roughly 220 civilians. In recent months, the Pentagon said it has taken strides to investigate a backlog of claims while starting to release monthly civilian casualty assessments.
“The decision to temporarily suspend our Russia strike assessments has been a very difficult one to take,” Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, said in a statement.
“Moscow is still reportedly killing hundreds of civilians in Syria every month. But with Coalition casualty claims escalating so steeply - and with very limited Airwars resources - we believe our key focus at present needs to be on the US-led alliance.”