A Belgian F-16 Fighting Falcon approaches refueling from a US KC-135 Stratotanker as poart of Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve over the skies of Iraq on April 11, 2017. Photo: Joshua A. Hoskins | US Air Force
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Because of different or the complete lack of civilian casualty reporting methods used by countries in the US-led global international coalition to defeat ISIS, the coalition has announced that such reports will no longer be tied to a specific country.
“We will just say ‘Coalition,’ and we won’t say if it was US or not,” Airwars reported US Central Command (CENTCOM) Director of Public Affairs Col. John Thomas as saying.
Since the coalition was formed in 2014, more than 21,733 strikes have been attributed to member nations, tallied the conflict monitor Airwars, whose methodology relies on official government reports of strikes.
An investigation published jointly by Airwars and the American news publication Foreign Policy this week, found that a dozen partner nations (minus the Untied States) “have launched more than 4,000 [in Iraq and Syria] airstrikes between them, they have so far claimed a perfect record in avoiding civilian casualties.”
While mostly transparent in their strikes, coalition member nations report civilian casualties to varying degrees or not at all. Since the US began reporting their own causalities within the coalition in May 2015, they have confirmed their strikes are responsible for 377 civilian deaths — including the March 17 strike that killed 105 people in Mosul, as first reported by Rudaw on March 23.
The most recent April 30 coalition civilian casualty report noted 80 new deaths “attributable to Coalition strikes to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria from August 2014 to present [that] had not been previously announced.”
“In reference to the 80,” Airwars reported a CENTCOM official as saying, “those do reference non-US strikes.”
After the coalition receives reports of causalities — often from journalists or via social media — detailed allegations are referred to its civilian casualty team for assessment. It then releases monthly reports of credible and non-credible allegations and those still pending assessment.
The 80 newly reported deaths hadn’t appeared on previous coalition casualty reports, and lacked the usually associated details of time and place.
Airwars says it attempted to contact all 12 non-US coalition partners responsible for the 80 deaths, responses ranged from denial of involvement by Australia, Denmark, Canada and Britain, to no response by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates and ambiguous statements by the remaining countries.
Because of varying rules of engagement and the lawful participation of some countries armed forces in the coalition, it is often not politically expedient to reveal civilian causalities.
Australia's defence department stated on May 2 its strike aircraft have been involved in two incidents that gave rise to "credible claims" of civilian casualities. But it hasn't substantiated the claims.
Australia added that it will report credible claims of civilian casualties "on occurrence."
However, a senior legal advisor at rights organization Human Rights Watch says countries engaging in campaigns in other places should be transparent.
“Just being in a coalition, especially in an air campaign, does not remove or reduce individual states’ responsibilities,” said Clive Baldwin, as cited by Airwars. “The Coalition cannot be an excuse or justification for hiding.”
Despite the US’s claimed efforts at transparency, coalition officials have told Rudaw that other entities are often better able to assess civilian causalities.
The coalition says “although we are unable to investigate all reports of possible civilian casualties using traditional investigative methods, such as by interviewing witnesses and examining the site, the Coalition interviews pilots and other personnel involved in the targeting process, reviews strike and surveillance video if available, and analyzes information provided by government agencies, non-governmental organizations, partner forces and traditional and social media.”
Such non-governmental agencies often rely on local media reports, social media and funeral announcements.
From January 2013 through February 2017, the conflict monitor Iraqi Body Count has reported 7,622 “civilian deaths” in Iraq due to “US-led coalition including Iraqi state forces.” Another 3,634 civilian deaths in that span the monitor attributes to “Iraqi state forces without coalition.”
The UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights relevant reports from March 2011 to March 2017 claims “international coalition forces" were responsible for 945 deaths, "Kurdish self-management forces (mainly PYD)" 529, and "other parties" 3,074.