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British Government’s record on civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq questioned

The UK government has long claimed an almost perfect record in its aerial bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Despite admitting to one civilian casualty in May 2018, critics have challenged the UK’s claim of a spotless record. A report by the Guardian and Airwars has examined the credibility of the UK’s official position and the implications of any discrepancies in the government’s account.

The UK government admitted to one civilian death caused by its military in eastern Syria in May 2018. However, the then-defence secretary, Gavin Williamson’s description of the strike does not align with records of civilian casualties kept by its allies in the international coalition flying bombers and drones over Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Syrian human rights groups and journalists have no record of a civilian death in the area on that day.

A Guardian investigation with the research group Airwars identified six strikes in the Iraqi city of Mosul that killed civilians and appear to have been carried out by British forces. The discrepancies in the government account of the only civilian death accepted by UK authorities raise concerns about Britain’s ability or willingness to document civilian deaths and injuries caused by its bombing campaign.

The Statement
The only record of the strike in question, or of the death the UK government claims it caused, came on 2 May 2018 in a written statement to the House of Commons. The statement provided details of a hellfire missile strike aimed at three militants, during which a civilian motorbike crossed into the strike area at the last moment, resulting in the unintentional death of one civilian.

Contradictory Findings
The coalition assessed only one report of a civilian casualty incident in eastern Syria on that day, giving the location as Abu Kamal. However, investigators ruled out any civilian deaths in a coalition strike in the area, concluding that no coalition strikes were conducted in the geographical area that corresponded to the report of civilian casualties. This conclusion was reached even though coalition standards of proof were more relaxed than British ones.

Absence of Records
The strike in question is also missing from recently released UK records. The British government provided the London research group Airwars with logs of location and date for all RAF airstrikes that killed militants in response to a freedom of information request. However, the data shows no British strike that killed militants anywhere in Syria on the day in question. This raises questions about whether the UK was part of the coalition mission, the target, the justification, and the legality of the attack.

Identity of the Civilian
No Syrian non-governmental organisations or local Facebook groups have any record of a civilian being killed on that day, in eastern Syria, in circumstances that match those described by Williamson. This suggests that the UK government did not reach out to Syrians to investigate the death.

The Ministry of Defence declined to comment directly on discrepancies in the UK public record, with coalition public statements or with data from Syrian groups. A spokesperson stated, “We remain confident in the transparency of our reporting and data published by the department can be considered as authoritative on UK military operations as possible.” Williamson did not respond to requests for comment on his statement.

UK Claims Questioned
To date, this strike remains the sole occasion the UK has officially accepted harming civilians in nine years of bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In that time, British aircraft have launched more than 4,300 munitions, and the Ministry of Defence claims to have killed more than 4,000 ISIS militants. The coalition overall has accepted its strikes killed at least 1,437 civilians, the majority of them in American strikes.

David Omand, the former head of GCHQ and permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence, said the UK government’s position on civilian casualties “invites challenge” and suggested the official claim of a ‘perfect war’ in Iraq lacked credibility.

Questions about the nature, location, and impact of the 26 March strike are so fundamental that the government statement only undermines trust and raises more questions than it answers. The UK’s Ministry of Defence continues to fight a lengthy and expensive legal campaign to avoid releasing further details of the strike. A tribunal hearing this year will decide on the legality relating to releasing further information pertaining to outstanding freedom of information requests, ones that effectively determine how much the British public has a right to know about civilians killed in their name in the fight against ISIS.