With depressing predictability, the House of Commons voted yesterday to launch air attacks in Syria. I watched the first few hours of the debate, although debate is hardly the right word, as MPs were largely explaining their own reasons for voting one way or another without engaging in any form of dialogue. But that is quite understandable.
One point that I would like to record is that the majority of both Welsh and Scottish MPs voted against these air strikes. Getting dragged into unwanted wars by a consistently belligerent England still remains one of the most important reasons why Wales and Scotland should become independent.
However that is not the main point I want to make in this post. One of the repeated claims that particularly struck me yesterday was that the UK had been responsible for no civilian casualties in its air strikes in Iraq. Indeed on the BBC news at 1pm today, Group Captain Rich Davies, the RAF spokesman, even went so far as to claim that "with over 400 strikes that the RAF has carried out in Iraq, we have had absolutely no civilian casualties reported ... and I am absolutely confident that will continue to be the case with operations in Syria".
This demonstrably untrue. For those who aren't aware of it, Airwars.org is a website dedicated to publishing a detailed database of all air attacks against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It has a section on civilian casualties, and this is an extract from it:
Summary findings on Coalition airstrikes:
August 8th 2014 to December 1st 2015
To December 1st 2015, an overall total of between 1,592 and 2,104 civilian non-combatant fatalities had been reported from 267 separate incidents, in both Iraq and Syria. However, some caution is needed given the significant challenges of casualty verification at present.
It is our provisional view at Airwars that between 682 and 977 civilian non-combatants are likely to have been killed in 115 incidents where there is fair reporting publicly available of an event, and where Coalition strikes were confirmed in the near vicinity on that date.
Some 42 of these incidents were in Iraq (332 to 498 reported deaths) and 73 events in Syria (with a reported fatality range of 364 to 498).
Across both nations, 24 alleged incidents have in our view been disproven, i.e. are highly unlikely to have involved Coalition aircraft (154 to 243 claimed deaths). An additional 30 to 48 civilians reportedly died in eight events where the reporting appears fair, but where it remains unclear whether the Coalition carried out any attack in the vicinity on the date in question.
A further 479 to 506 claimed deaths are attributed to 82 alleged Coalition airstrikes which are presently weakly reported or single-sourced. And an additional 224 to 298 asserted fatalities resulted from 36 contested events (for example, claims that the Iraq military might instead have been responsible).
In addition, 126 to 200 ‘friendly fire’ deaths of allied ground forces have been attributed to the Coalition from 13 incidents, with varying levels of certainty.
To date, the international coalition has only conceded two “likely” fatality events. The first was an event in Syria in early November 2014. The second event, which took place in Hatra in Iraq, was publicly conceded eight months after the event in November 2015.
To mid-November 2015 the Coalition had provisionally investigated 74 alleged casualty incidents in total. Of these it reports further investigating seven incidents of concern; carrying out credibility assessments on a further 13 cases; and has concluded three more investigations – having found no ‘preponderance of evidence’ to support civilian casualty claims.
So, to be clear, between 1,592 and 2,104 civilian deaths from 267 air strikes have been reported and, according the Airwars, just under half of these reports are likely to be true. But the international coalition has only conceded two of these air strikes as even being "likely" to have caused civilian casualties. There is clearly a very wide gulf between what our political and military leaders would like us to believe and reality.
Turning now to the detail, it is of course more difficult to determine which of the individual coalition partners might have been responsible for the reported civilian casualties. But a brief search through the details on this page shows that the UK was involved in at least three reported incidents:
March 13th, 2015: Hatra, Kirkuk province, Iraq
Summary: An internal CENTCOM assessment found “likely credible” evidence to suggest that a Coalition strike had killed civilians at an ‘ISIL checkpoint’ at Hatra near Kirkuk.
According to the FOIA’s document, a woman who may have been the source for the information had put in a claim for her destroyed car. The report went on to say that “CAOC CIVCAS assessment determined that the allegation of CIVCAS was likely credible. CAOC SJA indicated that a command directed investigation would be initiated.” The outcome of that investigation is not presently known.
While the nationality of the aircraft responsible for the strike is not yet publicly known, the British MoD has reported carrying out two or possibly three strikes near Kirkuk that day (see below).
While Airwars researchers have identified no public claims of civilians killed that day, there were widespread reports of Coalition strikes on Islamic State positions in the area.
Civilians reported killed: 2 or more
Reported injured: Unknown
April 3rd, 2015: Al Waeliyah, Mosul, Nineveh province, Iraq
Summary: Abdarahman Alloizi MP, a deputy in the Iraqi parliament, claimed that as many as 26 civilians from one family died when the coalition struck a house near Mosul, in the village of Al Waeliyah.
Civilians reported killed: 26
Reported injured: Unknown
April 19th, 2015: Ar Rutbah, Anbar province, Iraq
Summary: In a likely US or British drone strike, a truck was inadvertently hit during an airstrike at Ar Rutbah, according to a declassified CENTCOM report. “2 seconds prior to weapon impact, a large truck inadvertently arrived at the checkpoint. The back section of the truck was possibly damaged during the strike.” The driver was observed fleeing.
The weapon used was an AGM-114 Hellfire, most typically used by Reaper drones and by Apache attack helicopters. Britain has confirmed carrying out a drone strike on the date in question “in western Iraq.” The outcome of any investigation at the time the document was collated (most likely early May 2015) was not known.
Airwars researchers have not identified any public claims of civilians killed or injured for this date. though news reports did note the very heavy bombing in Iraq that day – with 26 airstrikes by “fighter and bomber aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles against Daesh.”
Civilians reported killed: Unknown
Reported injured: 2
There is more detail about each of these incidents on the Airwars page itself.
Truth is the first casualty of war ... and on the very day when the UK launches airstrikes in Syria, the UK has been shown to have lied.
We should not let ourselves be fooled into believing that when UK forces perform air strikes they are in some way immune from causing civilian deaths.