Chris Woods of Airwars: ‘We're talking here about a unilateral US war’ in Syria

“There are two separate US wars going on in Syria right now,” says Chris Woods, the head of Airwars, an independent monitoring group that tracks and assesses airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. “There's the coalition war, which is the well-known one, and there's the separate, shadow war against so-called Al-Qaeda remnants (Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham).”

In the last several weeks, the number of airstrikes by the United States-led international coalition against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has jumped exponentially. With it, civilian casualties. This month, there have been more than 1,000 claimed civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, Airwars reports.

We thought it was time to turn to Chris Woods, since Airwars is leading the way in understanding where and how frequently airstrikes are unfolding.

In Syria, the coalition has carried out nearly 7,800 airstrikes in total. “The latest numbers from the coalition show that 95 percent of airstrikes in Syria are by the United States,” Woods tells Syria Direct’s Kristen Demilio.

Q: I often meet people, in America at least, who do not understand the role the government is playing in Syria. I'm wondering whether it has something to do with the term "coalition," which is accurate but in some ways misleading. An Airwars report from a few months back indicated that roughly 92 percent of the airstrikes on Syria were American.

We've been asking the coalition every week since about December 2014 how many strikes are carried out in Syria, and Iraq, each week by the US and by the other coalition partners. We got some comprehensive data on that, and the latest numbers from the coalition show that 95 percent of airstrikes in Syria are by the United States. Really, we're talking here about a unilateral US war, although other coalition partners, mainly the British, the French, the Belgians, the Saudis and Emiratis are still carrying out the occasional strike in Syria...but really, this is a US war in Syria.

There is a lot of assistance to the American bombing campaign from allies, such as Germany, for example. In terms of the actual war fighting against the so-called Islamic State, it is a US campaign. We usually refer to them [the Syrian Democratic Forces] as the US proxies rather than the coalition proxies, because they are very much the US's chosen forces in Syria.

[Ed.: The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a multi-ethnic coalition founded in October 2016. The SDF is composed mostly of Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the YPG, and their female counterparts, the YPJ. The umbrella group also contains Sunni Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen brigades. The Kurdish-led coalition—backed by US support and coalition airpower—is battling the Islamic State in northern Syria.]

It is a US war in Syria, and we never fully understood why this is. In Iraq, one third of airstrikes are conducted by the allies. So, very heavy British airstrikes, French airstrikes, the Belgians, the Australians—all in Iraq. Once we cross over the border into Syria, there seems to be this significant reticence on behalf of the other allies to conduct airstrikes. The British usually only conduct about one strike a week in Syria these days. The French, similar.

Same enemy, different terrain, very different makeup of coalition forces, and that suggests that there is something that still makes the other coalition partners nervous of Syria. They've never been publicly forthcoming about that, but clearly there is a reason why the US is conducting 95 percent of airstrikes in Syria.

Q: If you just look at US military actions in Syria, rhetoric aside, what do you see?

The first thing I'd say is that there are two separate US wars going on in Syria right now. There's the coalition war, which is the well-known one, and there's the separate, shadow war against so-called Al-Qaeda remnants (HTS).

[Ed.: The US-led coalition is waging an aerial war against Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS), Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian wing, in northwestern Syria. In late January, JFS—formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra—merged with several Islamist rebel factions across Syria to form Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS). Follow Syria Direct’s timeline coverage of US strikes on Jabhat Fatah a-Sham in Syria here.]

Longer term, even with the defeat of the so-called Islamic State, I think there's every indication that the US will remain a belligerent within Syria long after the last Islamic State fighter has fallen because of this US war against other radicals in Syria. On the coalition side, Iraq is really a binary situation. You have a democratically elected government in Baghdad that lost a third of its territory to an invader, an occupier. The government and armed forces of Iraq are pushing back and attempting to recapture territory.

As you know, there is nothing binary about Syria. It is an incredibly complex patchwork quilt of alliances that changes weekly, sometimes daily. The US is trying to weave its way through that very challenging environment to defeat the so-called Islamic State. And that can vary from province to province, as we saw with what the US is doing around Manbij at the moment. Raqqa is really where huge coalition resources have been shifted, really US resources, over the last six months.

 Graph from Airwars February 2017 report showing shift toward Raqqa strikes. All data courtesy of Airwars.

That is a massive ramping-up of activity in support of SDF forces on the ground that are attempting to complete the encirclement of Raqqa. I guess that's the picture I see; two US campaigns, and how the US fights the Islamic State can quite significantly differ even from province to province as the US tries to negotiate the local tensions within the civil war.

Q: Do you think the Islamic State can be defeated militarily? Is this a sound strategy?

I think it is a given that the so-called Islamic State will be defeated militarily. They will no longer hold territory. There will come a point where both Mosul and Raqqa have fallen; we might see isolated pockets of Daesh [the Islamic State] in particular parts of Iraq or Syria. My expectation as a journalist, and I've covered Iraq since before 2003 where IS had some of its origins, is that it will simply be a new phase in the fighting where IS will, in a way, return to its roots as a terror-based insurgency which will create all sorts of fresh problems both for Syria and Iraq.

How the coalition responds to that, or even if the coalition survives into that part of the fight, is another matter. But we're going to see the resumption of the kind of insurgency we saw in Iraq during the occupation and primarily targeted at not just civilians but so-called IS deliberately trying to drive ethnic groups apart in Iraq, which they have done in the past successfully.

In Syria, we just don't know how that would play out. I mean, how did Daesh function as an insurgency within the craziness that is already Syria? I don't really know what that's going to look like.

What comes next after IS falls as a territory-holding power - that's the big question.

Q: There will be tribal scores to settle. In eastern Syria, the Islamic State came in to these tribal areas and basically usurped the tribal system and inserted itself at the head of the tribal system, co-opted the tribes and killed the dissenters and that is pretty much how it has been. These are sparsely populated areas, and their strategy worked; they're not trying to take over Damascus this way.

That's a very interesting tactic; I've never heard it quite described like that but that is exactly what Al-Qaeda did in Pakistan's tribal areas after 2001. Literally, word for word what they did in Pakistan.

Q: Explain why Russia has not taken on this battle with the Islamic State in place of the United States. Why not have Russia continue and extend what it was already doing in Syria?

I think's that somewhat of an unfair characterization; certainly early on, when Russia engaged in Syria, its primary focus was not IS. But really into 2016, we did see some quite significant Russian firepower directed at the Islamic State.

 Estimated minimum civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes until April 30, 2016. Graphics by Airwars – Basile Simon. Geolocation by Christiaan Triebert.

You can see there is quite a significant cluster of civilian casualties here. Everything to the east and also toward Palmyra, that's IS. So we've always pushed back a little bit about Russia not targeting the Islamic State. It's gone in phases; sometimes they'll heavily target Raqqa for a month, and then they'll stop. They completely took their eye off Palmyra for Aleppo and paid a heavy price for that. I would say that Russia's engagement with the Islamic State has been intermittent, but it has been significant, as the casualty figures show.

Q: You've covered the Raqqa airstrikes quite a lot. I want to share with you a quote from March 22 that Omar, a displaced father, gave us from his shelter in what was a Raqqa school: "I don't think we'll be in this school long. Soon we'll be lying dead beneath its rubble after SDF or coalition bombardment." What is your reaction?

Sadly, we're hearing comments like that from affected civilian populations around Raqqa consistently. We've been hearing that for months. We've been tracking steep rises in civilian casualties around Raqqa, really going back to the last months of the Obama administration, and we are deeply troubled by this.

I'm going to show you another graph:

 Data courtesy of Airwars.

You can see the spike that we've got here from March, which is Mosul, and the green means it's contested. We don't know who carried out that airstrike for sure. Look at the difference in Syria: not only are the alleged civilian deaths in Syria at a record high in March, a significant portion we classify as "fair"—it is highly likely in our view that the coalition or, less likely, the SDF, was responsible for those deaths. And that very clearly shows that what people have been saying from Raqqa is correct. Sometimes we're tracking three, four, five alleged incidents a day around Raqqa now and many of these attacks are on less densely populated villages and towns around Raqqa city where we wouldn't have expected so many civilian casualties, even a few months ago.

So something has really shifted in Raqqa that has put civilians at far more risk of harm. We don't understand why those deaths have increased so dramatically so quickly.

Q: This is why I'm asking you. I don't understand why so many people have to be displaced, traumatized and trapped, with their homes or towns damaged and destroyed. We read of this man I just mentionedand he is not the only onepredicting his own death due to an American airstrike. Given this huge uptick, I have to admit that I don't understand it, and I don't see a path to accountability for it.

I would agree. We've speculated that the SDF is effectively an outside force. It's not from the immediate region; their local knowledge is poor. We find the SDF being really challenging about being open about civilian casualties, investigating casualties they might be involved in, and that suggests they might not be as empathetic to the local population as we hoped they would be.

Q: As someone who does something similar to what we do, which is sort of witnessing tragedy and people doing bad things all the time, with all the sadness around that, what motivates you to continue to do this work?

Many of our team are Iraqis and Syrians. They are covering professionally, with a remarkable dedication, what is happening to their countries from the perspective of civilians. It's always been my view as a journalist that people get drawn into conflict for all sorts of reasons, and civilians can be at the bottom of the pile, particularly when wars are so often these days remote wars, where we don't have our own troops on the ground, and we're just doing airstrikes and we're not connected to the populations.

For all of the team, I think that is the driving force, to be a voice on behalf of Syrians and Iraqis and to advocate, and to push back when the military says they're not killing civilians and the evidence on the ground shows otherwise. All of our research is permanently archived; it is a huge resource that is built into our articles. When the fighting finally ends in Iraq and Syria, our entire resource will be handed over to Iraqi and Syrian civic society. That's so important for us. More and more of our work these days is about engaging with the militaries when they'll sit down with us and saying, this is what you think, this is what's being reported from the ground. Can we work with you to help you understand what happened here?

Every single person in Airwars—I think their motivation when they get up in the morning is that at the very least they are bearing witness and maybe, just maybe, they'll make a little bit of a difference.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.