‘Turkish strikes as big a problem as those of any other belligerent in Syria,’ says Chris Woods of Airwars

Airwars is a London-based monitoring group that tracks and documents civilian casualties of air and artillery strikes by international actors in Syria and Iraq, reporting on airstrikes by Russia and the US-led coalition, and, as of this week, Turkey.

Now, the monitor will report on civilian casualties of the Turkish-backed offensive against Syria’s northwestern Afrin region, says Chris Woods, the head of Airwars.

“We have seen a continued reluctance from the Turkish authorities to concede civilian harm,” Woods tells Syria Direct’s Tariq Adely. “That is a problem.”

Turkey and allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels launched “Operation Olive Branch,” a military assault on Afrin on January 20. The stated aim of the offensive is to “eliminate terrorists” along Turkey’s southern border, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported at the time.

Ankara considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that militarily controls Afrin, to be a terrorist organization because of its ties to the Kurdish Workers’ party (PKK) in Turkey, with which Ankara has been embroiled in an internal conflict for decades.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are launching air and artillery strikes across Afrin as FSA rebel groups storm the region from multiple axes. YPG forces have responded with retaliatory fire on Turkish provinces along the Syrian border.

Bombardment of towns and villages along Afrin’s border with Turkey displaced an estimated 15,000 residents in the first 10 days of the military campaign, according to UN estimates.

“Turkish air and artillery strikes are as big a problem relating to civilian harm as those of any other belligerent on the battlefield in Syria,” Chris Woods tells Syria Direct.

Since January 20, “dozens of civilians have already credibly been reported killed.”

Q:Airwars launched a new project this week to track civilian casualties of the Turkish-backed military offensive on Afrin. What was the impetus for this monitoring campaign?

Airwars covers civilian harm from international military action in Syria. We track both the US-led coalition and Russia and have been tracking allegations against Turkey for several years now. We just haven’t had that on the public site. Those allegations are often contested events. For example, during the al-Bab offensive back in 2016, many of those allegations [against Turkey] were contested with the coalition.

[Ed.: The Turkish Armed Forces and allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels seized al-Bab in February 2016 from the Islamic State after a months-long offensive. The al-Bab offensive, a part of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, received air support from Turkish, Syrian, Russian and US-led coalition warplanes while heavy Turkish artillery fire struck the city daily in the latter weeks of the campaign.]

With coalition actions dropping off, we had some capacity [to launch the project]. Also, Afrin has the potential to get unpleasant. A lot of civilians were potentially in harm’s way, and a lot of heavy weaponry was being brought in. We thought it was important to properly monitor and assess that from the start.

Q: Airwars has only reported on Iraq and Syria in the past. Now, you will be publishing findings on civilians casualties from Turkish military actions as well as YPG counter-fire, both on Syrian and Turkish soil. How does monitoring Turkish airstrikes and YPG rocket fire compare with tracking US-led or Russian airstrikes in Syria?

Certainly, Turkish air and artillery strikes are as big a problem relating to civilian harm as those of any other belligerent on the battlefield in Syria. We have tracked Turkey previously, for example during the fairly lengthy assault to capture al-Bab from ISIS.

There was a high level of destruction and civilian harm. In addition to that, we have seen a continued reluctance from the Turkish authorities to concede civilian harm—that is a problem.

Looking at our raw data, we’ve tracked 30 events within Afrin [since January 20]. We have an additional 12 allegations where civilians outside of Afrin—either in Turkey or in other Syrian locations—have been killed or injured by outgoing Kurdish fire, including Wednesday’s events in Reyhanli. [There are] significantly more harm events directed inwards toward the Afrin population.

[Ed.: YPG rocket fire on Turkey’s Reyhanli, west of Afrin, on Wednesday purportedly killed a Syrian resident of the city and wounded one other civilian, reported Turkish state and local media.]

Q: The Airwars statement announcing this campaign brings up an interesting point about local media coverage of the Afrin offensive—whether pro-Turkish or pro-YPG—being polarized in reporting airstrikes and artillery. How can Airwars effectively monitor the situation on the ground in Afrin?

I think it’s fair to say that both Turkish and Kurdish communities have very vociferous and active online communities. People are passionate about what is happening in northern Syria at the moment.

In terms of proper media outlets, they are reporting it fairly well, possibly from one side’s perspective, but that’s to be expected. [Monitoring] is more challenging where we’re seeing recycled images.They are images of civilians that have been killed or injured in Syria, but it’s just that they’re being wrongly attributed.

Smoke billowing from Afrin city on January 31. Ahmad Shafie Bilal/AFP.

We’ve found a number of occasions where images from previous events are being tagged as related to the Afrin campaign, then pushed and picked up [by media outlets]. It’s muddying the waters and the picture. It’s making the monitoring of civilian harm more difficult, and it takes away from the very serious issue of civilian harm that is already there. Dozens of civilians have already credibly been reported killed in many well-documented cases.

The images are still relatively rare. I don’t want to overemphasize this. We used fairly standard image analysis software [to verify images]. You can take any image and run it through Google. It will identify through algorithms whether that image has previously been used. It takes seconds. Videos are more challenging, but often there will be indicators, embedded information. Or people will step forward and say: ‘Actually, that’s not true—I know that video. It relates to this event in Idlib in 2015,’ or whatever. Sometimes it takes a little longer, but it is possible in almost all these cases to identify where these images occurred.

That’s the saddest thing. It’s not that these aren’t images of civilians who’ve died in terrible circumstances in Syria. It’s just that it’s not during the Afrin campaign.

Q: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Armed Forces and members of the Turkish government—leading up to and since the beginning of Operation Olive Branch—are continually delivering statements and updates on the offensive. The Turkish deputy prime minister told state media on January 21 that the operation “only targets terror groups and no Kurds, Arabs, or Turkmen.” Do statements like this line up at all with the situation you are seeing and documenting on the ground in Afrin?

We are only monitoring the civilian harm strikes.

[Ed.: Airwars assesses “all known claims of civilian non-combatants killed or injured” in US-led coalition, Russian or other international airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, according to an explanation of the monitoring group’s methodology. “Though we often use the term “civilian,” as shorthand, it should always be assumed—unless otherwise stated—that we are referring to civilian non-combatants who were taking no active part in the hostilities.”]

Clearly, there are many, many more strikes taking place which are targeting either infrastructure, where civilians aren’t harmed, or YPG forces. We’re not monitoring those.

Obviously, we’re monitoring official Turkish outlets. What has surprised us is that Turkey and the Turkish military are continuing to claim that their assault is targeting not only the YPG but also Daesh [the Islamic State]. The YPG opposition to ISIS is entirely clear to all. We are not aware, and I don’t think anyone is aware, of any ISIS presence at Afrin, other than perhaps underground as a terror organization as it were. For Turkey to continue to frame this in its daily reports as strikes against YPG and ISIS doesn’t seem to match any reality on the ground.

Q: The bulk of the airstrikes and artillery fire on Afrin since the start of the operation have not been hitting major population centers, but rather border regions and villages near the fronts. But, on Wednesday, Turkish rocket fire reportedly hit a district of Afrin city, a centrally located and densely populated area. Have you noted any shifts in where these strikes are focused in recent days?

There was a strike on Afrin city at the very beginning by Turkish-backed forces, a presumably Turkish airstrike. Wednesday, there was a credible report of a strike on the city where 12 civilians were injured. For the moment, the strikes and assaults appear to be focused on more outlying and rural towns and villages, but that’s to be expected.

If the Turkish objective is Afrin, they will close in on the city. The very real risk here is a Turkish assault on Afrin. If we look back at al-Bab and what happened there—how many civilians died in that assault where Turkey used very heavy air and artillery power to capture that town from ISIS—there clearly need to be concerns for the civilian population. Many civilians are fleeing from outlying areas to what they view as the relative safety of Afrin city at the moment. The UN is reporting a significant movement of civilians trying to get away from the fighting, which may lead to an even higher concentration of civilians within Afrin.

[Ed.: An estimated 300,000 people live in the Afrin region of Aleppo province. Some 15,000 residents have been displaced since the start of Operation Olive Branch, Ursula Mueller, Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the UN Security Council on January 30.]

It’s not just the local Kurdish population here. There’s a significant number of Syrians displaced from elsewhere by the fighting. A lot of the civilians that we’ve tracked as killed and injured have actually been internally displaced people from places like Idlib, for example. People have come to Afrin, because they view it as a safer space. That is a concern.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.