A major new Airwars study of British military actions at Mosul and Raqqa during the 2016-2017 battles to oust so-called Islamic State raises troubling questions about the UK’s unwillingness to concede civilian harm from urban fighting - despite the RAF hitting more than 1,000 targets at the time.
More than 11,000 civilian deaths from all parties to the fighting have been credibly reported for the battles of Mosul and Raqqa - part of an epic and mostly successful struggle to expel so-called Islamic State from Iraq and Syria. The UK’s own involvement represents one of its biggest military actions since the Korean War. Yet more than a year on from the capture of Mosul and Raqqa, the UK has yet to admit to a single civilian fatality from those battles.
As the new study notes, “It is the view of Airwars that the Ministry of Defence’s claim of zero civilian harm from its actions at Mosul and Raqqa represents a statistical impossibility given the intensity of fighting, the extensive use of explosive weapons, and the significant civilian populations known to have been trapped in both cities.”
The new 42-page report - Credibility Gap: United Kingdom civilian harm assessments for Mosul and Raqqa - was submitted as part of Airwars’ evidence to the British Parliament’s Defence Select Committee hearings on the UK’s military involvement at Mosul and Raqqa. As well as taking oral evidence from senior British commanders, the inquiry has received submissions from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and other NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
By any measure, the battles for Mosul and Raqqa marked the most significant periods both of destruction and of civilian harm in the four year fight against ISIS. According to monitoring groups and detailed field investigations, at least 9,000 civilians were likely killed in Mosul by all parties to the fighting, with an estimated 2,400 or more civilians killed at Raqqa. Across both battles Airwars has so far identified 413 alleged civilian harm events where - based on public reporting - British involvement was in theory possible,
For the majority of these cases the UK’s position is still unestablished, though Airwars has so far directly referred 40 events to the Ministry of Defence for assessment. In 39 of these cases the MoD has rejected any involvement, while one case remains open. Indeed, the United Kingdom has conceded only one civilian harm event in its entire war against Islamic State, despite more than 1,700 RAF strikes to date.
The Airwars study identifies what it believes to be a major flaw in UK civilian harm estimations for urban warfare - an over-reliance on what is observable from above, when most deaths occur in unobservable spaces within collapsing buildings, where civilians had either lived; had taken shelter; or on occasion had been forcibly detained by ISIS.
According to analysis of public MoD reporting, during the battle for East Mosul British forces targeted buildings in at least 31% of RAF strikes. For Raqqa, that proportion rose to 63%.
The greater the intensity of explosive weapons use – predominantly in urban areas – the higher the civilian toll, the study also indicates. Yet as the report also notes, the weapon of choice for RAF strikes in both Mosul and Raqqa appears to have been the 500lb Paveway Mark IV bomb - a munition with significant destructive power in urban settings.
The Airwars study commends the Ministry of Defence for its general openness during the war against ISIS - ranking the UK as the most transparent member of the 16-nation Coalition which took on ISIS. However when it comes to accountability for civilian harm, the UK ranks far below other nations including the United States and Australia.
The report recommends a number of improvements which would enable the MoD to better understand and report on civilian harm from its own actions. These include:
The establishment of a dedicated MoD civilian harm assessment team for all future conflicts.
An urgent review as to whether the UK is presently over-reliant on remote monitoring when determining non combatant harm during military campaigns.
A review of whether smaller precision guided munitions might deliver the same effect in urban fighting with fewer risks to civilians.
That the MoD undertakes a full and proper assessment of more than 400 civilian harm allegations during the battles of Mosul and Raqqa in which UK forces might have been involved.
As Airwars director Chris Woods notes, “We do believe the UK can and should do much better when it comes to monitoring and admitting civilian harm. Having belligerents take proper responsibility for their actions on the battlefield would offer some relief for affected Iraqi and Syrian families. A failure to do so risks affected communities once again believing themselves abandoned – making them future targets for extremism.”
Based at Goldsmiths University of London, Airwars was founded in 2014 to help better understand the public reporting of civilian harm on the modern battlefield. This is achieved primarily by acting as an all-source monitor of local population claims, as well as by tracking related reporting by belligerents.
Airwars also seeks to work with stakeholders to help improve understanding of conflict casualties, with the longer term goal of harm reduction. The British Government has positively cited its engagement with Airwars, as indicative of its commitment towards properly assessing potential civilian harm allegations relating to UK forces.