Mass Murder in Slow Motion (III): Military and paramilitary violence

This is the third in a series of posts on siege warfare and East Ghouta (Damascus); the first is here and the second here.  It’s also an extension to my post on the chemical weapons attacks on Douma here.

Slow violence and siege warfare

In an earlier essay in this series I described the slow violence intrinsic to siege warfare: the malnutrition and misery set in train once food becomes a weapon.

But there is another slow violence inscribed into the calculus of siege warfare: the subjection of the trapped population to multiple forms of military and paramilitary violence from which there is little or no escape. I’ve written about the slow violence of bombing – the dread anticipation of the next strike, even when death from the skies has become normalized, and the long drawn-out aftermath: the search for survivors in the rubble, the rescue and often prolonged treatment of casualties, the salvage, clearance and rehousing operations, and the enduring grief and traumatic flashbacks of the survivors.

All of this was multiplied in East Ghouta, which was under siege by the Syrian Arab Army and its proxies and allies from the winter of 2012 until the spring of 2018 (‘April is the cruellest month…’). The parameters of this slow violence were exacerbated and extended in multiple ways: by the systematic targeting of hospitals and clinics and the withholding of medical supplies; by the forcible displacement of those who surrendered to a series of what critics have described as elaborately constructed killboxes elsewhere in Syria, where the violence will surely follow them; by the confiscation of their homes and property under new ‘absentee’ laws; and for those who chose to remain, by the abuses, humiliations and assaults (and for some, detentions) involved in the regime’s ‘reconciliation agreements’ and screening and resettlement operations.

Here I focus on direct military and paramilitary violence; in the next post in the series I’ll deal with medical care under fire, and in the final post I’ll address the bruising aftermath: the displacements, property confiscations, resettlements and more.

It’s important to remember throughout my discussion that the two modalities of siege warfare – the denial of food, other resources and medical supplies and the direct violence of air and ground attack – worked like scissors.  Sometimes one was dominant, sometimes the other, and sometimes they cut into the lives of the besieged population together.  But they have always depended on each other: interdicting movement across the siege lines required military and paramilitary cordons, while military and paramilitary offensives were predicated on degrading the ordnance and resources of the armed groups and weakening the resolve of the besieged population.  It’s also necessary to recognise that direct violence has been inflicted on the people of the Ghouta not only from outside – by aircraft, helicopters and artillery, and eventually by ground assault – but also from inside through the summary executions, detentions and repressions carried out by the armed opposition and the infighting between its different constituencies.

In the early stages of the siege the situation was fluid.  There were times when the armed opposition groups beat back the Syrian Arab Army and its supporting militias and advanced deeper into Damascus; at others they were forced to retreat to their bases in the Ghouta from where they continued to launch guerrilla raids and mortar attacks on the capital and its perimeter.  In the course of the war, pro-government forces launched three major offensives that successively transformed the terms of military engagement with East Ghouta and I’ll consider them in turn.

Offensive I: Operation Capital Shield

In the early months of 2013 pro-government forces stormed several towns to the south of Damascus, and there were allegations that chemical weapons had been used in the course of capturing al-Otaybeh on the southern fringe of East Ghouta in March and April (and at least two other districts outside the Ghouta).  The loss of al-Otaybeh was a major blow to the rebels – it cut a major supply line from the south – and by June 2013 it was clear that pro-government forces were moving to secure the perimeter of the capital, supported by Iranian troops and militias and by Hezbollah fighters.  Precisely because the situation was so fluid it’s impossible to be definitive, and the sources are fragmentary and open to competing interpretations; here is how the Institute for the Study of War summarised the state of play on 9 August 2013:

This preliminary report was written by Elizabeth O’Bagy – who may well have exaggerated the reach of the rebels (for an alternative reading of the situation on the ground see here) – but her analysis was subsequently supported by a detailed security report written for ISW by Valerie Szybala.  Their combined narrative suggests that rebel forces had launched a major co-ordinated counter-offensive on 24 July 2013 from Irbeen, Zamalka and Ain Tarma in the Ghouta, pushing across the M5 highway into Jobar, al-Qaboun and Barzeh, and then using those neighbourhoods as springboards to launch attacks on pro-government forces designed to bring them within striking distance of central Damascus:

[The first map is from the ISW security report, the second from information supplied by reporter Mohammed Salaheddine and used by Hisham Ashkar here].

There were also reports that rebel groups had captured an ammunition depot and had used radar-guided surface-to-air missiles to bring down a Syrian Arab Army helicopter and two fighter jets.  Emboldened, the rebels warned the government that any of its aircraft flying over East Ghouta would be shot down.  This was no doubt bravado, but these threats were straws in the wind to a regime building a bigger haystack.  Szybala argues that rebel advances and their use of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems, combined with a mortar attack on Assad’s convoy on 8 August (probably from Jobar) and the heightened fear of increased international support for opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army, meant that the regime ‘felt increasingly threatened in Damascus and believed itself to be at unprecedented risk.’

On 21 August 2013 the Syrian military launched Operation Capital Shield focused on West and East Ghouta, ‘their largest-ever Damascus offensive, aimed at decisively ending the deadlock in key contested terrain around the city.’

At 0245 reports began to flood in about a chemical weapons attack on Ain Tarma and Zamalka in East Ghouta; these were followed by reports of a third attack on Moaddamiya in West Ghouta at 0500 (see map above).  Dexter Filkins spoke with Mohammed Salaheddine by telephone soon afterwards:

When Salaheddine arrived [in East Ghouta], he saw four big pits, where trucks were carrying bodies of the dead. He estimated that he saw about four hundred corpses. Salaheddine said that he went to the central hospital in a town called Zamalka, where, he told me, there were so many Syrians suffering symptoms of poison gas that the doctors could not treat them all.

“There were so many people I could not count them,’’ Salaheddine said of the hospital. Many of the people, he said, were weak and couldn’t breathe; the doctors were trying to give injections of atropine, an antidote, to as many of the victims as they could, and administer oxygen to others. “People were unable to breathe,’’ Salaheddine said. “They were asphyxiating. The doctors had really limited resources. We were trying to help, but we didn’t have enough.

“People were panicking,” he went on. “They were saying, Am I dead or am I alive?”

The worst moment, Salaheddine said, came when he found three women huddled together in the hospital; a young woman, her mother, and her grandmother. All were suffering the symptoms of poison gas, he said, and each was trying to comfort the others. “I was trying to rescue the grandmother,” Salaheddine said. “She was dying. I was trying to give her oxygen. She kept saying to me, ‘My son—my heart, my heart.’ She was gasping for air. She was in agony. She died in my arms.”

And here is a doctor who helped to treat the casualties:

I was sleeping in the doctor’s house in one of the basements beside the operati[ng] room. At about 2:30 am, we got a call from the central ER. The physicians who were on staff that night informed me that it was a chemical attack. I arrived and in the next 10 minutes, it was like a nightmare. One of the medics entered and said gas had fallen in Zamalka and all the people died. Then I realized that it was a huge chemical attack. All of the hospitals from Zamalka to Douma were filled. I asked some people to go to the mosque and use the speakers to request that everyone who had a car go to Zamalka and help. I don’t know if it was a wise decision or not. But there were so many heroes that night. Our local culture says that we would die to save others.

The numbers became over all capacity. I asked to our staff to do medical work in two schools and mosques, where there are water tanks. If there is no water, you don’t have a hospital. There was just one person who could classify the patients— me. I was the only one who studied it. I had to decide quick response for bad cases and delay medium and moderate cases. After 30 minutes, there were hundreds. We didn’t realize how many, but we knew there were hundreds.

I put two medics on the door of the ER. I said that every patient who is unconscious or shaking, take him down to the ER. All kids or seniors, or anyone shouting loudly, put him in the second ER. All others should go in the third medical point. We could not do anything in the second or third medical points—we could not provide them with any medicine. From the first hour, I gave all staff their mission so that they know what to do.  I told them not to ask, just to give atropine to all…

After 90 minutes, one of my medical staff fell down. The symptoms began to appear on medical staff themselves, and we had to change our strategy. I chose to see the patients one by one, and check vital signs to see if there was a misunderstanding.  I spent 5 seconds for every patient, and did not do any medical procedures myself – I just made decisions. The staff did a great job here.

At 11 am, the bombs and shelling began…  I called my friend Majed and he was crying as we prepared the first report for media. The number in Douma was 630 patients and 65 victims. We could realize some symptoms we never saw before.

The Syrian-American Medical Society estimated that more than 1,300 people were killed in the attacks – 97 per cent of them civilians – and 10,000 others were affected.  Their symptoms, described by eyewitnesses and confirmed by multiple videos and digital images, were consistent with exposure to a nerve-agent.  A month later hundreds still suffered from respiratory problems, nausea, weakness and blurred vision that were sufficiently serious to require medical attention (though this was compromised by the continued siege and the consequent difficulty of obtaining medical supplies, including oxygen).

Other sources provided other casualty figures, but that’s not surprising.  As Human Rights Watch explained in its analysis,

Because the August 21 attacks took place in two separate areas of Ghouta, and owing to the chaos resulting from the large number of casualties, it is difficult to establish a precise death toll. The areas affected do not have any large hospitals, and rely on several small, badly supplied underground clinics to provide medical assistance. According to the doctors interviewed by Human Rights Watch, these small medical clinics were overwhelmed by the number of victims, and many of the dead were never brought to the clinics and thus not registered. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, at least 3,600 persons were treated for symptoms consistent with exposure to neurotoxic agents at three hospitals it supports in the area in the first three hours following the attacks.

Whatever the numbers, these were clearly mass-casualty events: and for that very reason, the victims too often remained not only faceless but nameless.  That same month (August 2013)  Hisham Ashkar provided an important corrective to the de-humanising anonymity of the statistical shrouds (and the photographic record):

(The original photograph was taken at al-Ihsan Hospital in Hammouriya; the victims all had numbers fixed to their foreheads).

This was vital work, but even the anonymity of the victims was eclipsed by the almost immediate desire to identify those responsible for the attacks.  This too is exceptionally important, but Hisham is right to remind us of what is lost in all the maps and calculations of missile trajectories.

A team of UN weapons inspectors led by Professor Ake Sellström was already in Damascus to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use, and after several days (and an attack by unidentified snipers) the investigators were allowed to visit the three Ghouta sites during a temporary ceasefire, where they took samples and interviewed 36 survivors (with ‘severe clinical presentations’ since they would have had ‘significant exposure to the chemical agent’) along with doctors, first responders and other witnesses.  Their report was delivered on 13 September and concluded that ‘the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin’ had been used in the attacks.

The authors were not permitted to assign responsibility, but two dossiers published before the UN  investigation delivered its report to the Secretary-General claimed to have identified the likely culprits.  On 30 August the Obama administration published an unclassified summary of what it called a ‘government assessment’ based on multiple streams of intelligence (‘human, signals, and geospatial intelligence’) as well as open source reporting. It concluded ‘with high confidence’ that the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks.  Intercepts revealed preparations for the attacks three days before they were launched, and satellites had identified ‘rocket launches from regime-controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media.’  The assessment linked the attacks to Operation Capital Shield:

The Syrian regime has initiated an effort to rid the Damascus suburbs of opposition forces using the area as a base to stage attacks against regime targets in the capital. The regime has failed to clear dozens of Damascus neighborhoods of opposition elements, including neighborhoods targeted on August 21, despite employing nearly all of its conventional weapons systems. We assess that the regime’s frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on August 21…

On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations. At the same time, the regime intensified the artillery barrage targeting many of the neighborhoods where chemical attacks occurred. In the 24 hour period after the attack, we detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days.

This was a rapid response and the accompanying map of areas affected by the attacks turned out to be inaccurate: as a note on the map conceded:

Reports of chemical attacks originating from some locations may reflect the movement of patients exposed in one neighborhood to field hospitals and medical facilities in the surrounding area. They may also reflect confusion and panic triggered by the ongoing artillery and rocket barrage, and reports of chemical use in other neighborhoods.

For critics this was far from the only inaccuracy, but on 10 September, just three days before the UN investigation delivered its report, Human Rights Watch also concluded that the evidence its analysts had examined ‘strongly suggests that the August 21 chemical weapon attacks on Eastern and Western Ghouta were carried out by government forces.’

They based their preliminary conclusions on the large scale of the attacks, the Syrian military’s documented possession of the types of rocket retrieved from the affected sites, and the state’s ability to prepare or obtain and deliver nerve-agents in sufficient quantity.

Once the UN report had been published, HRW used the detailed specifications of the rockets tabulated in an appendix to calculate possible trajectories:

The two attack locations are located 16 kilometers apart, but when mapping these trajectories, the presumed flight paths of the rockets converge on a well-known military base of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade, situated only a few kilometers north of downtown Damascus and within firing range of the neighborhoods attacked by chemical weapons.

According to declassified reference guides, the 140mm artillery rocket used on impact site number 1 (Moadamiya) has a minimum range of 3.8 kilometers and a maximum range of 9.8 kilometers. The Republican Guard 104th Brigade is approximately 9.5 km from the base. While we don’t know the firing range for the 330mm rocket that hit impact site number 4, the area is only 9.6km away from the base, well within range of most rocket systems.

 

HRW conceded that its results were not conclusive, but the balance of probabilities from these dossiers was used by many commentators to indict the Assad regime.  Similarly, on 17 September the New York Times tracked the co-ordinates of the rocket trajectories given in the UN report and concluded that they pointed back to ‘the center of gravity of the regime’ on Mount Qasioun.

The geometry of culpability was complicated by other assessments – I am leaving on one (far) side the vindictive delusions of a distant nun (who, among other lunacies, demanded to know where all the victims shown in the photographs and videos had come from since the Ghouta was ’empty’, ‘a ghost town’, and insisted that the dead and injured were ‘women and child abductees’; and also the anonymously sourced speculations of Seymour Hersh that Turkey had supplied Jabhat al-Nusra with the sarin to carry out an attack that would draw the United States across Obama’s ‘red line’ to intervene directly in the conflict (for critical comments, see here and here) – to focus on the calculations made by Richard Lloyd and Professor Theodore Postol (which also reappear in the debate surrounding Hersh’s conjectures: see here).  They claimed that the munitions used in the attacks were ‘improvised’ and that, when the aerodynamic drag exerted on the rockets by their heavy payload is factored in, their range contracts to around 2 km.  Superimposing the new radii on the map previously published by the Obama administration identified launch locations far from ‘the center of gravity’ of the regime:

Accordingly Lloyd and Postol concluded that the US government assessments had to have been based on faulty intelligence and that they were almost certainly wrong.  That may well be so, but it does not follow that these new geometries reassign culpability to the opposition.   The large volume of sarin factored in to the heavy payload of the rockets makes the involvement of a state actor far more likely than a non-state actor (see Dan Kaszeta‘s analysis here) and the ring around East Ghouta that appears on the revised map follows the cordon lines through which the siege was being so actively contested in the days and weeks before the attacks: a situation plotted inaccurately on the assessment map in both its versions but shown on Hisham Ashkar‘s map I reproduced earlier (see Eliot Higgins‘s analysis here and also here).  In short, the reduced range does not militate against the use of mobile rocket-launchers from territory held by pro-government forces (however precariously).

I’m not the person to adjudicate between these competing views, though I do believe that the weight of evidence makes it far more likely that the Assad regime carried out the attacks than any opposition group.  Instead I want to emphasise two other conclusions.

First, these chemical weapons attacks were designed to inflict maximum possible harm on civilians.  Those are not my words; they come from Theodor Postol himself:

  • This attack was designed to cause the maximum possible harm to civilians with the technology that was available to the attacker.

  • The attack was executed at a time of day that would maximize the density of nerve agent near the ground where the civilians reside.

  • The pancake geometry of spreading nerve agent at that time of day greatly increased the area on the ground, causing the maximum number of people possible to be exposed to an organophosphorous nerve agent.

  • If soldiers with proper equipment had been attacked in this manner, casualties would have almost certainly been very low.

Second, the result of Operation Capital Shield was a stalemate, and it is clear that civilians in the Ghouta continued to be caught between the overwhelming fire power of the Assad regime and its allies and the brutalities of the armed opposition.  As Linah Alsaafin explained eighteen months later:

The residents of Eastern Ghouta [are] trapped between a rock and a hard place, facing down constant shelling by Syrian government forces on the one hand, while on the other living through the ongoing rebel struggle for control.

“People are tired from all the factions,” [Nuran al-]Na’ib said. “They don’t care so much about the protests and who is in power. Their only concern is to find food for themselves and their families.”

Abu Ahmad agreed: “Most people in Ghouta do not want Assad to stay in power, but at the same time there is a high number of complaints against the course the revolution has taken. There is no love lost for Jaysh al-Islam.  The ethical superiority we witnessed at the beginning of the protests … has all degenerated in the face of the crimes these armed groups are committing against civilians in Damascus and elsewhere.

A rock and a hard place

The background throb of daily violence continued as the front lines were consolidated in the wake of the initial offensive and response. In January and February 2014 uneasy truces were negotiated with armed groups in al-Qaboun and Barzeh that allowed the continuation of crucial, quasi-clandestine supply lines into East Ghouta (see my extended discussion here).  The stalemate materially assisted the Assad regime by opening time-space windows of opportunity for pro-government forces, which had been weakened by defections and casualties from opposition offensives, and enabled a renewed focus on the besieged cities of Homs and Aleppo.

During those two northern campaigns air and artillery strikes on the Ghouta were not suspended.  Syrian forces had deployed cluster munitions and ‘parachute bombs’ against the towns of the Ghouta since 2013, and they continued to use them without regard for the civilian population.  Both weapons are notoriously indiscriminate; the former disperse clusters of bomblets over a wide area to detonate on contact, thus delivering ‘maximum destruction with minimum accuracy’, while the slow descent of the unguided fuel-air bomb by parachute is terminated by an explosion metres above its impact site that releases an aerosol cloud which ignites to destroy everything within a 25 metre radius.  In those years the use of equally indiscriminate ‘barrel bombs’ – aerial IEDs – dropped by Syrian helicopters was more common in Aleppo, but their use became more widespread against the Ghouta from the summer of 2015.  Amnesty International, citing the Violations Documentation Center, reported:

Syrian government air strikes killed 2,826 civilians in Damascus suburbs between 14 January 2012 and 28 June 2015.  Of these, according to the VDC, more than half – 1,740 civilians – were killed in Eastern Ghouta. In the same period, according to the VDC, Syrian government air strikes killed 63 anti-government fighters in Eastern Ghouta, indicating the indiscriminate and disproportionate nature of government air attacks on the area.

There are few eyewitness reports during this period, but Amnesty investigated ten air strikes in detail that took place between December 2014 and March 2015.  Here is one student describing the aftermath of an attack by a parachute bomb on Douma on 5 February 2015:

Usually the Syrian government does not start its aerial attacks before 10am or 11am. On that day the strike was carried out at 8.20am. I woke up to the sound of the fighter jet. I looked out and saw the MiG. I heard explosions a few seconds later. I was 200 metres away from the strike. I arrived at the site after five minutes. When I arrived I saw the site had been hit four times 50 metres apart. One of the bombs totally destroyed a residential building and damaged the buildings around it. Residents told me that they had seen a rocket strapped to a parachute but they had not had time to run.

The targeted residential buildings are located next to Taha mosque in Khorshid neighbourhood [see image above]. It was a bloody morning. Injured people were scattered everywhere… I don’t remember the exact number of bodies but I saw at least 10 bodies on the street. I saw other bodies but I don’t know if they were alive or dead. I also saw old people among the injured.

Over the same period the region also came under artillery fire from Syrian batteries launching missiles and rockets from Mount Qassioun and from other ground forces firing mortars from positions much closer to the front lines.

The situation worsened over the summer, and August was one of the bloodiest months of all.  Hospitals in East Ghouta supported by Médecins Sans Frontières treated at least 150 cases of violence-related trauma per day between 12 and 31 August 2015:

“This is one of the bloodiest months since the horrific chemical weapons attack in August 2013,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations.  “The hospitals we support are makeshift structures, where getting medicine is a dangerous and challenging endeavor, and it is unthinkable that they would have been able to cope with such intense emergency traumas under such constraints. The Syrian doctors’ continued unswerving effort to save lives in these circumstances is deeply inspiring, but the situation that has led to this is totally outrageous.”

The data for the mass casualty influxes at six of the 13 MSF-supported hospitals in East Ghouta reveal 377 deaths and 1,932 wounded patients in August. Among them, 104 of the dead and 546 of the wounded were children younger than 15. The intensity of the bombings temporarily cut some communication channels, but based on initial reports from other MSF-supported facilities, it is clear that at least 150 war-wounded patients were treated per day from August 12 to 31.

The misery of the civilian population was heightened by simmering tensions between the armed opposition groups, which erupted into open conflict at the end of April 2016 when around 300 people were killed in fighting between Jaish al-Islam (JAI) and a Free Syrian Army group Failaq al-Rahman.  The fighting became so intense that nearby clinics and pharmacies could only open for an hour or so each day; some of them were attacked and looted.  According to the same report, the bloody climax was reached

when Jaish al-Islam stormed and took control of the towns of Misraba and Mudira, both held by Failaq al-Rahman, using tanks. The attack prompted Failaq al-Rahman to accuse JAI of “leading East Ghouta into a sea of blood.”

When a deal was reached to end hostilities several days later Misraba was declared a ‘neutral area’ and both JAI and Failaq al-Rahman agreed to withdraw.  But by the end of July residents protested that their town was still a military zone ‘surrounded by earthen berms and security checkpoints’ and demanded that all armed groups leave along with their ‘heavy weaponry’.  A group of brave women led a demonstration against the continued (para)militarization of the town – according to Syria Direct men did not join ‘because they were afraid of being arrested, beaten or shot’ – and the local (civilian) council backed their demands:

We left Bashar al-Assad for freedom and dignity.  It doesn’t make sense for another group to come along and revoke our freedom.

Those last three words are freighted with meaning; the men had good reason to fear detention.  JAI had previously paraded regime prisoners taken during skirmishes on the front lines through the streets and placed some of them in cages on rooftops as human shields against air strikes (see here and here, and the statement by Human Rights Watch here), but its cruelty extended to opponents of the regime who failed to support or submit to its own authority too.

One young man who survived incarceration in JAI’s notorious al-Tawba (‘Repentance’) prison in Douma (above, after JAI’s withdrawal) described what happened to Syria Deeply:

The young man said he was interrogated and tortured by being electrocuted and beaten with metal wires while hanging from a wall. “I was detained at the regime’s air force security prison once, and I found no difference between the two, except that Jaish al-Islam claims to be part of a revolution,” he said.

“I was determined that no matter what they did, I would never admit to something I had not done. I believe my stubbornness frustrated them, so they started a new cycle of torture – they starved me.”

After two months of torture, Saeed was transferred to another cell, where he spent another six months. He was never brought before a judge nor allowed to have any visitors.

He recalled: “[Six months later] they finally called me to the interrogation room again. There, one of them said to me, ‘This was a lesson, so that you learn not to criticize Jaish al-Islam’s leaders. If you do it again, your punishment will be serious.’”

At least one commentary claims there was a difference between the prisons that formed part of the criminal justice system introduced by the armed opposition groups and these  nominally secret jails for political prisoners, but in practice the distinction did not always amount to much.  In August 2016 two young brothers, desperate for food, stole a pair of shoes from outside a mosque during prayers; their plan was to sell them for bread, but they were caught by JAI and tried in its regular court.  The older boy – like many other ‘ordinary’ criminals – was sentenced to one month’s hard labour, which involved cementing and transporting dirt as part of ongoing tunnel construction.  The younger was imprisoned in an underground cell at al-Tawba with adult prisoners for a month; he was just ten years old (details here).  Arbitrary arrests were also common; in another report Syria Deeply interviewed one man who was imprisoned in al-Tawba over a mundane dispute with a neighbour who, unfortunately for him, had high-level connections with JAI.  He was inside for a month and tortured.

These violations and abuses mirrored the still greater excesses that were the lifeblood of the regime’s vastly more extensive carceral archipelago – see for example Amnesty International‘s report on Saydnaya Prison (which it describes as a ‘human slaughterhouse’) here and here and its collaboration with Forensic Architecture here and here – but when besieged Ghouta was so often described as a giant prison many of those trapped inside were understandably sickened to discover that their jailers were not only on the outside.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Army supported by Hezbollah had capitalised on the internal fighting to break through the front lines to the south in May and capture the Marj, an agricultural landscape of farms, small towns and villages that had served as the Ghouta’s breadbasket throughout the siege.  JAI had supposedly withdrawn 800 of its fighters from the district a few days before, leaving other ‘rebels scrambling to fill the void‘, but JAI protested that it had been forced to do so because Jabhat al-Nusra (an ally of Failaq al-Rahman) had blocked the road to the Marj and prevented the evacuation of wounded and the resupply of its fighters.

The loss of al-Marj was a body blow to the Ghouta’s siege economy, exacerbating the immiseration of the population, and the recriminations that followed did little to assuage tensions between the armed opposition groups.

These spilled over into open violence again less than a year later.  At the end of April 2017 Aron Lund reported renewed clashes between Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman and allied rebel groups.  In the first five days of fighting more than 95 people were killed and hundreds wounded.  In short order Médecins Sans Frontières was forced to suspend medical support to East Ghouta when armed men stormed one of its hospitals ‘to seek out specific wounded patients’ belonging to an opposing faction – in direct violation of the medical neutrality required by international humanitarian law – and could not safely restore its provision until June.  There were dozens of peaceful public demonstrations calling for an end to the in-fighting, but in response to one such protest in Irbin some of JAI’s fighters opened fire on the crowd and wounded 13 people:

This was a grim realisation of the fears of would-be demonstrators the year before, and another dismal echo of the regime and the response of its security forces to peaceful demonstrations in 2011 that did so much to spark the civil war in the first place.  It’s as unsurprising as it is regrettable that the office of the Violations Documentation Center in Douma should have been raided by a mob from the ‘Popular Movement’ of JAI in August, which stole equipment and attacked the staff, and that JAI’s local police should have done nothing to protect the building or its occupants.

These roiling divisions within the armed opposition combined with the regime’s pyrrhic victories over Homs (whose siege ended in May 2014) and Aleppo (whose recapture was completed by December 2016) to allow two renewed offensives that affected East Ghouta.  Both government campaigns were considerably strengthened by direct support from Russian armed forces (which had started in September 2015).

Offensive II: al-Qaboun, Barzeh and the violence of ‘de-escalation’

On 18 February 2017 pro-government forces abandoned the truce and attacked al-Qaboun and Barzeh without warning and with extraordinary ferocity.  One of the defining dimensions of siege warfare is that its victims have precious few escape routes from its indirect or direct violence.  Here is one resident from al-Qaboun speaking to Syria Direct:

“The bombardment came out of nowhere,” [Abu Ahmad] al-Halabi … told Syria Direct on Sunday morning. “We were working, living our daily lives. We didn’t sense anything until the rockets began to fall.”

Al-Halabi says that he and his seven children tried to flee their neighborhood after the shelling began on Saturday, but they were prevented from passing through regime checkpoints and leaving the area.

Many people fled through the tunnels, seeking sanctuary in East Ghouta.  By the end of March the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that more than 17,000 people had fled into the Ghouta, and that the situation for the 25 – 30,000 who remained in al-Qaboun and Barzeh was increasingly precarious.  The neighbourhoods were in ruins, barely recognisable, and still the bombing and shelling continued.

The ground and air offensive reached its peak during May – the image above shows pro-government forces in al-Qaboun – and surrender agreements were rapidly concluded.  Convoys of buses started the process of forcible transfer of fighters and civilians to Idlib; the Free Syrian Army had already described the campaign as a ‘systematic strategy of ethnic cleansing’.  Some people remained in Barzeh, but if the wretched cleric to whom I referred earlier really wanted to see a ‘ghost town’ she should have looked outside the Ghouta and after the Assad regime’s assault on al-Qaboun.  Siege Watch reported:

After the final buses left Qaboun, leaving the neighborhood depopulated, photos emerged of what appeared to be rampant looting and vandalism by pro-government forces and the burning of remaining property. The looted property was sold in the government-controlled Mezze 86 neighborhood in so-called “Sunni Markets.”

By then pro-government forces had breached all the tunnels, and the siege of the Ghouta was absolute (more here).  Those who had escaped into East Ghouta soon found they had been forced from the frying pan into the fire, and now – like thousands of residents in the Ghouta – they faced multiple displacements.  For these attacks prepared the ground for the third and final offensive, the endgame that was played out during the winter of 2018.

Yet in May 2017, as the attacks on Barzeh and al-Qaboun escalated, East Ghouta was recognised as one of four ‘de-escalation zones‘ through an agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran (al-Qaboun, which was described by the Russian Foreign Ministry as ‘controlled by insurgents of Jabhat al-Nusra’ [reconstituted as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)], was explicitly excluded from the agreement).  The Ministry’s briefing was a surreal affair, conjuring up a world in which there was no siege at all: ‘In the morning, most civilians leave Eastern Ghouta for Damascus for earning money, and, in the evening, they come back.’

The officer providing these fanciful details, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy (the first Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff) acknowledged that the enclave was far from being a ghost town: ‘About 690,000 civilians live in Eastern Ghouta.’ The estimate was roughly twice that of the UN and most NGOs, but the recognition that the Ghouta was overwhelmingly inhabited by civilians (‘about 9,000 insurgents are controlling it’) should be remembered in the light of what followed.

Failaq al-Rahman accepted the terms of the de-escalation agreement in August 2017 but, like Jabhat al-Nusra/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, JAI was explicitly excluded from the provisional truce and was regarded as a legitimate target by pro-government forces.  This did nothing to de-fuse tensions between the armed opposition groups, but in any case the agreement was moot.  The slow violence of the siege accelerated and within months the military offensive had started to gear up too.  In mid-November Failaq al-Rahman and its allies were accused of attacking the Military Vehicles Administration base near Harasta, a key government strongpoint, and in response both shelling (including ground-launched cluster munitions) and air strikes intensified; by early December the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 200 civilians had been killed in East Ghouta by these attacks.  De-escalation had only existed on paper and it was evidently now a dead letter.  Human Rights Watch claimed that a number of the attacks were indiscriminate and so were also violations of international law – war crimes – but its protestations were ignored.

The bombing, the shelling and the killing continued, and by January residents were reported to be ‘moving from town to town with little more than the clothes on their backs to escape an amorphous frontline.’  Some found lodging (but rarely shelter) with family and friends; the more fortunate might be able to rent rooms, but these were often on the upper floors of buildings so that their fortune was short-lived: these were highly vulnerable to an air strike, and many people were already moving down to the basements.

Offensive III: The endgame

The endgame started with a cataclysmic storm of aerial violence on 18 February 2018.  Abudlmonam Eassa, a local photographer, kept a diary of the first days of the assault. ‘A strike hits very close today,’ he wrote on 19 February (a day when 19 air strikes killed at least 127 people):

The whole area seems to have been burned. During the first few seconds, you think no one is dead, you just see ashes and destruction. That’s because people hide as soon as they hear the sound of a rocket or a plane.

Two days later, scorched earth and rubble as far as his eyes could see:

I climb to the rooftop to get a better view. Everything is burning. It seems like everywhere was shelled – Saqba, Misraba, Douma, Kafr Batna… it seems like the whole area is burning.

By the end of the week:

People are cowering in shelters. Everyone is in shock. We can’t understand anything. Everything is out of service. I can’t believe the difference four days of bombardment has made. The whole area has been changed, erased. The streets aren’t there anymore. They’re full of dust, rubble.

A broken landscape of flames and ash, dust and rubble: and already the Syrian government was claiming there were ‘few civilians left in eastern Ghouta‘.  The UN and most NGOs estimated there were at least 350,000 of them still trapped in the enclave.   Many, perhaps most, were in basements, shelters and tunnels, too scared to leave even to search for food in many cases: ‘just a cup of water or a piece of bread may cost a man his life.’  ‘It’s not a war, it’s a massacre,’ exclaimed one exhausted local medic.  An official with UOSSM [an international coalition of humanitarian and medical NGOs] described the bombardment as ‘hysterical’ – ‘a humanitarian catastrophe … the mass killing of people who do not have the most basic tenets of life’ – while the Russian ambassador to the United Nations presented his own diagnosis of hysteria, airily dismissing accounts of civilian casualties as ‘mass psychosis’ and images of terrified families huddling in makeshift shelters as merely ‘propagandistic scenarios of catastrophe.’  Rejecting calls for a ceasefire, he continued:

You get the impression that all of eastern Ghouta consists only of hospitals and it is with them that the Syrian Army is fighting…  This is a well known method of information warfare.

In fact hospitals were key targets – 13 of them were hit in the first 48 hours alone, four of them destroyed completely – and the same doctor claimed that aircraft were circling overhead and following ambulances (there were never enough of them) to locate clinics and medical centres.  

That might seem fanciful given the speed at which fighter jets streak across the sky, but Syrian Arab Army helicopters laden with barrel bombs were perfectly capable of executing such a manoeuvre.  In addition, many different drones were in operation above the Ghouta.  These ranged from small commercial drones used by the Syrian Arab Army (see below; also here) to much larger Russian and Iranian drones, all of them relaying real-time video to facilitate targeting from other platforms and some of them (like the Shahed-129) carrying their own weapons.  A senior officer explained that the drones ensured the Army ‘was well aware of all the fortifications, defenses, warehouses and logistics routes’ and established ‘coordination between command and the advancing forces.’  Targeting was directed at more than those military objectives.  Humam Husari, a Douma film-maker, explained: ‘Usually people could move a little bit at night and sometimes during the day, but now because of the drones they capture any movement and will be targeted immediately.’

Precision intelligence doesn’t count for very much without precision weapons, and there were persistent reports that both Russian and Syrian aircraft were using unguided ‘dumb’ bombs. Subsequently Robert Fisk seemed to confirm the indiscriminate nature of the bombardment:

[T]his from a Russian source – outside Syria, but all too familiar with Russian military operations inside the country – who knows about the trajectory of rockets: “The bombs we used in Ghouta were not “smart” bombs with full computer guidance. Maybe some. But most had a variable of 50 metres off target.” In other words, you can forget the old claim of “pin-point” accuracy… These Russian bombs launched against eastern Ghouta had a spread pattern of 150 feet each side of what the pilots were aiming at; which means a house instead of an anti-aircraft gun. Or one house rather than another house. And anyone inside.

I say ‘seemed’ to confirm, because in the same report Fisk added this bizarre rider:

There are streets in Ghouta, incredibly enough, whose buildings are still standing relatively unscathed. They were spared during the bombardment because their inhabitants said – by mobile phone – they wanted to stay in their homes and would not resist the Syrian army.

So all those inaccurate, unguided bombs that could not distinguish between ‘one house rather than another house’ were nevertheless able to distinguish between the location of one cellphone and another?  I doubt it (and I’ve seen no other reference to those phone calls).   Other observers noted that Syrian pilots were not trained in the use of smart weapons – which were far more expensive – and suggested that Russian pilots followed suit either to make attribution more difficult or simply as ‘a tactic aimed at scaring civilians.’  That rings true; the most common way to compensate for a lack of precision is through volume – hitting the target area with multiple strikes – which, in the Second World War, was sometimes called ‘terror bombing’.  Targets in East Ghouta came under fire from aircraft and from artillery.  

In consequence:   

“We stopped comprehending where the bombing is coming from, either from the sky or the ground,” Khalid Abulwafa, an ambulance driver and member of the Syrian Civil Defence, told Al Jazeera. “We arrive at a site that has been hit, and immediately another attack follows… we just run to pull out as many people as possible before it’s too late,” he said. “Multiple raids hit different areas at the same exact time… we don’t have the ability to rush to all the areas at once.”

Another doctor told the Syrian-American Medical Society:

Hospitals are overwhelmed. Floors are overflowing with injured and blood. Those patients we discharged a couple of days ago are now back with more serious injuries.

In the first six weeks of the year, before the onslaught began, hospitals and clinics supported by Médecins Sans Frontières had recorded 180 dead and more than 1,600 wounded (up to 18 February); in the next three days alone a further 237 dead and 1,285 wounded were reported, ‘extraordinary mass-casualty influxes’, and this was only a partial accounting.

It was as difficult and dangerous to attend to the dead as it was to the injured.  According to one report on 21 February:

Pathologists and gravediggers in the [Ghouta] said before the violence accelerated that they had 20 to 50 graves on standby at any given time. This week, they said that was not enough.  “We are overwhelmed. We are throwing body parts in mass graves. It’s all we can do,” said one man.

The next day one grieving relative confirmed the enormity of what was taking place:

Abdullah was desperate to bury his uncle quickly in line with Muslim practice. He spent an hour retrieving the corpse from the bombed wreckage of the family home. But for a day he could not lay it to rest. By daylight, the constant Syrian regime air strikes were too heavy to risk going out. By night, he feared the graveyard would be deadly. “If they [the regime] caught any light or movement, we could be immediately targeted,” says Abdullah, his voice trembling. “I don’t think the situation can be worse — there is no ‘worse’ left.” Abdullah, who asked not to be identified by his full name, entrusted the body to the undertakers, to be buried in darkness with no loved ones nor final rites.

The aerial assault deployed the full arsenal of the Syrian military and its allies, including barrel bombs, cluster munitions, ‘elephant’ rockets and missiles; there were also reports of  chlorine gas.

A young mother, Nivin Hotary, kept a diary of those desperate weeks confined to a basement (see also here) and like a prisoner – ‘detained in this prison, under house arrest’ – marked the days of her incarceration on the wall (above).  Here is part of her entry for 22 February:

Detained… we know that our crime is that we called for freedom, but we don’t know the sentence.  Detained… we are tortured in so many ways. For example, rest.

For so many people in this tiny basement, sleep is forbidden. The regime’s rockets fall every ten minutes, ensuring that nobody is allowed to sleep…

From a small window in my group prison cell, the basement, I look at the world! The sky is so far away and hard to see, blocked by fighter-jets, MiGs, Sukhoi warplanes, and bombers. Our weather forecast is filled with barrel bombs and rockets, with a heavy hail of shrapnel.

During a lull in the bombing one of the mothers in the shelter took her son outside for some fresh air.  When he returned he announced: ‘I saw them in the sky! One was black and the other white. The planes have eyes, and they were watching us.’

Somehow the front lines held through the first three weeks of February, and the map below (from Le Monde) shows the territories then still controlled by the main opposition groups: Jaish al-Islam on the east, centred on Douma; Failaq al-Rahman further west (the so-called ‘Central Section’), including the towns of Ayn Tarma, Irbin, Jobar and Zamalka, with some pockets under the sway of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS); and Ahrar al-Sham, which controlled Harasta.

But on 25 February – hard on the heels of a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a ceasefire from which unspecified ‘terrorists’ were excluded – the aerial assault was joined by a ground offensive spearheaded by tanks and armoured vehicles, and the situation changed rapidly and dramatically.  The first map below plots major strikes by Russian and Syrian aircraft between 18 and 23 February; the second map (also from Le Monde) superimposes on this the direction of the initial ground attack.

This was a calculated change of strategy.  Nawar Oliver explained that over the preceding six years the rebels had become experts in urban warfare (the photograph below shows JAI commanders working with a detailed map of the Ghouta); they knew every square metre of towns like Jobar and Ain Tarma in the west, where pro-government forces had tried time and time again to break through without success: so the Syrian Arab Army and its allies staged this new assault from the east and across open country.  The rebels were ready for this too, but JAI accused Failaq al-Rahman of cutting water from the Barada River that was to have flooded a defensive trench system and so accelerating the advance of the Syrian Arab Army.  In response, Failaq al-Rahman claimed to have been ‘stabbed in the back’ by JAI which, so it complained, had failed to hold the front line.

As the map from Le Monde shows, the rapid advance of pro-goverbment forces across a widening front was accompanied by a second, more concentrated assault from the west on the Harasta Farms area.

Realising that the ‘cease-fire’ was already a dead letter, thousand of people abandoned their homes.  Here is one teacher, Sarah, describing the flight of her family:

When night fell [on 25 February], Sarah and her family decided to flee to a nearby basement that they hoped would be safer. To ensure the survival of some family members, they divided into three teams taking separate routes. When one missile fell, and then another, and another, they took shelter. “A missile hit the roof of the building where we were hiding, and the children cried more and more… We decided to run: whatever happens, never stop . . . . We ran, missiles came again, a child fell down. I carried her and kept running.” They finally made it to the basement, but it reminded her of one of “the regime’s prisons.” “There were about a hundred persons in a 150-square meter basement … No lighting, no water, no food…

The same stories were repeated, endless variations on a single theme: families running together and leaving virtually everything behind them.  Here is a farmer from al-Shifouniyeh describing how his family fled to Douma from the rapidly advancing eastern front:

“The forces advanced into the farms…We lifted the kids and ran in the night… We don’t even have clothes…  The warplanes and rocket launchers pounced. The bullets were reaching our building.” With their three children, he and his wife also live in a basement. “It’s disgusting,” Abu Firas added. “We want to return home…We have our lands. We abandoned them, our cows, our sheep.” The army now controls the village.

 

Not everyone abandoned their animals (above).  According to the New York Times:

[S]ome [were] accompanied by their livestock as agricultural areas were lost… “The smell of rotten garbage is all around, in addition to animals’ smell,” said Thaer al-Dimashqi, an anti-government activist in Douma who uses an alias for safety, adding that 100 families had flooded into his neighborhood alone. “Sheep and cattle are surrounding my house — imagine, cows are being kept inside houses.”

Amidst this mounting chaos Syrian Arab Air Force helicopters were dropping thousands of leaflets (original and translation below) on Douma and the surrounding area calling on civilians to leave through a ‘humanitarian corridor’ that would be opened via the al-Wafideen crossing during a daily truce between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., starting on 27 February:

Despite the risibly contrary claims from Damascus and Moscow that the Ghouta had been abandoned to ‘terrorists’, this was a clear admission that civilians were present and in grave danger.  And, as Halim Shebiya underscored, issuing a warning did not nullify the legal requirement for attacks to be proportionate and confined to military targets.  Although their tempo was reduced during the ‘pause’, however, air strikes and shelling continued – prompting one activist to demand how people could trust the forces carrying out the bombing to ensure their safety if they chose to evacuate – and there were also reports that rebels had shelled the corridor to prevent civilians from leaving.  In any event, nobody did so.

Three days later the ceasefire collapsed.  Fierce fighting continued to rage across the Ghouta: between 18 February (when the military offensive kicked off) and 3 March at least 1,000 people had been killed and 5,000 injured, many of them suffering acute trauma.  These are minimum estimates, derived only from medical facilities supported by MSF (and even then, not all of them had reported), ‘meaning that the overall toll [was] significantly higher.’

Satellite imagery confirmed the extent of the physical devastation (see also here).  The first map shows new physical damage between 3 December and 23 February; the orange cells show ‘minor damage’ caused between those dates, the red cells ‘major damage’.  Analysis showed ‘29% of the cells were affected by major new damage, with presence of buildings completely destroyed or severely damaged between 3 December 2017 and 23 February 2018.’

This second map shows new physical damage between 23 February and 6 March, when ‘14% of the cells were affected by major new damage’.  You can see the locus shifting from the west to the east with the ground offensive.

It bears repeating that these maps plot only new damage.  To give you some idea of the base figures, in December 2017 analysis of satellite imagery revealed that 93 per cent of all the buildings in Jobar had been destroyed or damaged; 71 per cent in Ain Terma; 59 per cent in Zamalka (Douma was not included in the December survey).

As the perimeter of devastation widened, people continued to flee from the front lines and deeper into Ghouta, many of them displaced multiple times, but always more and more people crowding into a smaller and smaller space.

By 12 March pro-government forces had shrunk the space controlled by rebel groups in East Ghouta and the two ground offensives – across the wide front to the east and through the deepening wedge from the west – bisected and then rapidly trisected the area.  They left behind scorched earth and towns of rubble.

Thousands of civilians had been displaced, but as this map from OCHA (dated 12 March) shows, virtually nobody had moved through the ‘humanitarian corridors’.  A second had been opened from the zone controlled by Failaq al-Rahman to the south four days earlier, but there were reports that rebel snipers had ‘slammed shut’ both escape hatches.

The aerial assault never slackened, and the death toll mounted.  As this map shows, the focus of air strikes and artillery bombardments shifted again, back from the east to the west, focusing on Harasta and the area to the south controlled by Failaq al-Rahman:

But conditions were also bleak to the north.  By 12 March Ahmad, a member of a specialized team charged with collecting bodies – and body parts – from hospitals and clinics described scenes of utter horror in Douma:

Usually the family of the deceased is responsible for burying their relatives, but now the situation is catastrophic. Bodies are piling up at medical facilities as the bombings make it difficult for residents to go out and collect them. It doesn’t make sense for somebody to be killed because they are transporting and burying the dead….[so] there is more pressure on the transport teams and the civil defense…

Funeral ceremonies and services are now a forgotten matter. Even a proper grave is a luxury. Increasingly, we are resorting to mass graves…

The people of Ghouta are prevented from saying goodbye to their loved ones. The deceased arrives at the cemetery alone, or accompanied by one family member. Getting a white shroud for the deceased is just a dream. We are wrapping bodies in whatever we can get our hands on: cloth, blankets or plastic bags.

One week later and it was too dangerous to reach the graveyards even at night, and the dead were being buried in parks and backyards.

Eventually the pressure proved too much for many people to bear.  Social media started to register the bone-weariness of the survivors – writing on Facebook from a basement crammed with 200 people, most of them women and children,  Ward Mardini wrote ‘They’re all tired of shelling and siege’; ‘We believe that the Ghouta is precious for you,’ she told rebel commanders, ‘but we’re tired and the situation demands a realistic solution that stanches the waterfall of blood’ – and there were protests in Kafr Batna and Hammouriyeh calling on the rebels to leave.

 On 15 March Josie Ensor reported:

Hammouriyeh’s residents have borne the brunt in the last few days with a relentless onslaught of barrel bombs, mortars and chemical strikes, until surrender looked to be the only remaining option. The last of the messages from inside Hammouriyeh came in the middle of the night on Wednesday [14 March]. “More than 5,000 people are at risk of annihilation,” a doctor in the town said via [WhatsApp] text. “Please get our voice out to the world, this might be the last message I’m able to send. The wounded are in the streets and cannot be moved and the planes are targeting any movement. I witnessed an entire family getting killed in front of me by air strikes, I’m by a basement trying to send this message.” The internet connection in the town went down shortly after and their fate is unknown.

The barrage was so intense that for most people escape to other areas in the Ghouta was blocked, and the dam burst early the next morning.  On 15 March thousands of civilians started to stream out from Hammouriyeh on foot – as many as 15,000 by nightfall – running the gauntlet of Syrian television cameras:

Throughout the day, Syrian state television broadcast live coverage of columns of families walking out of the town toward Syrian government lines, clutching children, suitcases and plastic bags of belongings. Men were bowed under heavy suitcases. Women carried children and torn plastic bags of clothes. An injured, blood soaked man was carried on a stretcher. An elderly man pushed his wife in a wheelchair, another walked with a herd of cows….

Some walked silently past the camera, turning their faces away and refusing to talk….

Later Thursday afternoon, state television began broadcasting from inside the recaptured town, where many thousands of people were milling in the streets with suitcases and bundles, preparing to leave. Pick up trucks, Syrian army vehicles and buses then arrived and residents piled furniture and mattresses on board as they were escorted out of the town.

The refugees streamed east towards Hawsh al-Ashaari and newly-occupied government territory aiming for Adra:

Elsewhere, the assault continued without slackening, and people continued to flee the onslaught.  Those who managed to escape Hammouriyeh for shelter elsewhere in the Ghouta found respite but few found refuge.  ‘We don’t know what will happen,” one exhausted man told the New York Times in a voice message, ‘the sound of rocket fire in the background. “I run to Hammouriyeh, they bomb it. I run to Zamalka, more bombing is ahead of us”’ (he was right; the photograph below by Abdulmonam Eassa shows Zamalka on 24 March).

Everywhere the refugees were met by new horrors.  Nivin and her son and daughter were forced to leave their basement and flee again on 16 March:

It’s like Judgement Day… people are running and screaming. People in their nightgowns and people barefoot. Cars loaded with people, speeding around at over 100 [km/h].  And I too am screaming, looking at what I see around me.  Usually these kinds of posts end with me waking up and realizing it was all just a nightmare. I wish it were a nightmare. But it’s not. Our days are worse than nightmares.  I’m running while holding my daughter’s hand, my eyes are on my son. A five-year-old girl is crying out and yelling: “Tell them, tell them not to kill us!” But I don’t have any answer to calm her down.

There is a helicopter directly over our heads right now, and it seems to be spinning slowly as it showers the neighborhood with bombs.

The photographer Abdulmonam Eassawriting from Ain Terma on 21 March (he was transferred from Arbin to Idlib two days later):

I have been moving from one area to the next since March 15, when I left Hammouriyeh, my hometown. The bombing wasn’t even the main reason why I left – it was the clashes and the regime’s advance. I spend most of my time cowering in basements.
I am walking in a neighbourhood of Ain Terma. The road is very narrow and there is a woman and her child walking near me. A shell hits. It’s three or four metres away from me, but very close to the woman and the child. I don’t feel anything for several minutes. Then I feel a massive shock. I look around. The child is on the ground, crying. I pick him up. There is no one else around. His mother is on the ground. She is dead. I pick him up and run to the entrance of a nearby building. Another shell hits. I put the kid on the ground. His foot is almost detached. I try to hold it in place.  I pick him up and run with him through the streets. They are truly the streets of death.

The net continued to close.  By then the Syrian Arab Army and its allies had captured around 80 per cent of East Ghouta, and that same day (21 March) Russian forces brokered a deal between Ahrar al-Sham and the Syrian government to allow fighters and their families to be removed from Harasta to rebel-held Idlib; buses started to arrive early the next morning for the forcible transfer of thousands of people. Those who elected to stay were given guarantees ‘that no harm [would] come to them.’

Two days later (23 March) Failaq al-Rahman concluded a similar agreement covering the towns of Arbin, Zamalka, Ain Terma and Jobar.  The sick and wounded would be evacuated immediately.  Then fighters, their families and any civilians who wanted to leave with them would be taken by bus to Idlib – al Jazeera explained that ‘other civilians are leaving as well, people who were involved in opposition activities like media activists, medics, civil defence volunteers’ because they ‘are considered terrorists by the Syrian government so they cannot stay’ – while those who chose to remain were assured that they would not be prosecuted provided they ‘reconciled‘.

These were difficult, traumatic decisions that often divided families, and in a later post I’ll discuss the fate of the deportees, those who moved to nearby resettlement camps and government shelters (usually with the desperate hope of returning to Ghouta in an uncertain future), and those who stayed in what was left of their homes.  But these capitulations left Jaish al-Islam isolated in its stronghold of Douma.  There were reports that JAI was preventing civilians from leaving the town, who were caught between the fear of being shot and the fear of being bombed, but small groups of exhausted people fled on foot through the al-Wafideen corridor.  According to a spokesperson for the International Committeee of the Red Cross,

“People are very exhausted, as they spent days on the move before reaching the shelters, with the clothes they wear as sole belongings.  One woman was telling me that she had to throw on the road the few clothes she managed to bring for her and her children, as it became too heavy to carry them while walking for many hours before reaching the crossing point.”

They were taking precious advantage of an uneasy truce that lasted for ten days – broken by intermittent air strikes – while JAI negotiated terms.  Some of its members wanted to fight on, while others wanted to leave with their families but refused to go to Idlib: not only was the rebel-held area widely regarded as Assad’s next killing ground, an elaborately constructed shooting gallery where the offensive would soon be resumed, but JAI had a ‘blood feud’ with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which controlled much of the area.

Some medical evacuations of the sick and wounded were successfully completed, and there were reports that transfers of some JAI fighters to Jarablus (in the Turkish-occupied north of Syria) had taken place too, but further negotiations stalled and eventually broke down.  JAI reportedly placed new conditions on subsequent transfers and refused to release prisoners it had held captive for several years, and on the afternoon of 6 April it shelled Damascus, killing four and wounding another 22. The assault by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies immediately resumed with a vengeance.  A ground offensive was launched under the cover of a sustained air and artillery bombardment broadcast live on state TV.

Haitham Bakkar sent this urgent message from Douma:

We are being wiped out right now. We are being bombarded with barrel bombs and rocket launchers. The town is overcrowded and many people have no place to hide.

Meanwhile, against the grain of the preceding paragraphs – every single one of them – here is Robert Fisk reporting from the territory regained by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies in East Ghouta on 4 April.  Comparing its soldiers to the French poilus on the Western Front (the geopolitics of that metaphor bears reflection), Fisk was nonetheless puzzled by their failure to dig any trenches, a staple of wars of attrition – and yet, he continued, that explained their shock when they burst through the front lines.  Here is one of them:

I have never seen so many tunnels. They had built tunnels everywhere. They were deep and they ran beneath shops and mosques and hospitals and homes and apartment blocks and roads and fields. I went into one with full electric lighting, the lamps strung out for hundreds of yards. I walked half a mile through it. They were safe there. So were the civilians who hid in the same tunnels.

Think, now, of the weight of that last sentence pressing on my previous paragraphs.  Fisk had already prepared the ground for it: ‘Why the wasteland of homes and streets,’ he asked, ‘and how did so many of the civilians survive…?’  And in case you missed it, he repeated the conclusion of his informant without qualification: the tunnels ‘are deep and dank and glisten with moisture. But they are safe.’

Fisk (above) was not wrong about the rebels’ mastery of underground operations.  As the Syrian Arab Army advanced from the east it encountered a formidable trench system cutting across the rural landscape, and as this satellite image reveals there were trenches carved across the heart of Ghouta too (those brown scars):

Here is a ground view of a trench connecting Harasta and Ain Terma:

The trenches would obviously have been exposed to air attack, but the tunnels were a different story.  Those dug to connect East Ghouta with Barzeh and al-Qaboun were common knowledge (more here, including maps); they had all been blown by pro-government forces during their offensive the previous year.   But there were also tunnels inside Ghouta.  When Jobar, Ain Terma and Zamalka fell, Syrian troops discovered ‘a spider’s web’ of tunnels running for 5 km between the three towns, excavated under the orders of Failaq al-Rahman.  The major ones were 15 metres deep, their walls reinforced with steel rods and fitted with lights and even surveillance cameras.  These were wide enough to drive a vehicle through; others were accessible only on foot.

During the negotiations with Jaish al-Islam, one of the Russian demands was for maps of its tunnel system, which supposedly linked Douma with al-Shifouniyeh to the east and Misraba to the south-west (one of the tunnels is shown under construction below).

I haven’t been able to discover how extensive the system was (or, given the friction between the rebel groups, whether it was a system at all).  It may be that some of the tunnels and trenches were connected, and the basements of new buildings in Douma were often connected to the subterranean grid.   Still, I suspect that the Army officer who told CNN that ‘all of Ghouta is connected by tunnels’ was exaggerating; there must have been huge swathes of territory outside the networks.   And given the often ambivalent and sometimes antagonistic relations between rebels and civilians, it’s unlikely that many people found sanctuary in the tunnels with the rebels: first-person testimonies describe, almost without exception, families leading a wretched existence in crowded, unsanitary basements and shelters.

Fisk’s report never mentions the shelters in which most of the besieged population sought refuge of sorts but instead elaborates the safety of the tunnels.  You might wonder why, if the people of East Ghouta were so safe and had so little to fear from the advancing Syrian Arab Army and its allies, they should have risked their lives to flee not once but multiple times.

For most people it was about degrees of danger: as the offensive intensified, being outside and above ground was to court almost certain death – ‘a suicide mission‘ according to Bayan Rehan, a member of the Women’s Council in Douma, ‘like playing Russian roulette‘, according to Ahmad Khanshour, another community activist in Douma – but being underground was far from safe.  Most of the shelters were makeshift affairs.  Here is one young mother who fled with her husband and daughter to ‘the only underground shelter’ in Saqba:

The dusty basement they now shared with 14 other families was once used as a warehouse by a furniture merchant. After removing useless furniture, they laid out mattresses and hung up curtains for a bathroom. The men tried to fortify the basement with sandbags meant to help absorb the blasts or shrapnel from barrel bombs.

Across Eastern Ghouta, which contains three cities and 14 towns including Saqba, residents worry whether their underground shelters will be sturdy enough to protect them…

Other families hastily dug shelters underneath their homes; the scene below is from a house in Hammouriyeh:

Unlike the tunnels, shelters like these had few if any facilities – no electricity, running water or sanitation and poor ventilation – and they were not reinforced with steel (or very much at all):

Under cracked ceilings that bulge downwards from the force of previous strikes, they string sheets across the basement to partition off rooms for entire families.

“Look at it. It is completely uninhabitable. It is not even safe to put chickens in. There is no bathroom, just one toilet, and there are 300 people,” said a man in a shelter in the region’s biggest urban centre, Douma….

Overhead, steel rebars were visible in the large cracks and depressions of a concrete ceiling that seemed poised to collapse over the shelter’s terrified inhabitants at any new blast nearby.

Apart from the fear of being buried alive if the building collapsed – many called the shelters ‘graves’ or ‘tombs’ – there were other dangers.  ‘It is the closest place considered safe,’ said one young teacher.  ‘But it is not safe. The barrel bomb sometimes lands at the shelter. Either at the door or inside, injuring or killing many.’  Even if people were too scared to go outside, they often stood near the entrance to get air (or cellphone reception) and were exposed to danger.  Here is Nivin Hotary again:

I was standing by the cellar door trying to get cellphone reception. A cluster bomb fell and there were explosions all around me. One explosion was only about a meter from the cellar door. I saw a big fire and heard a deafening sound. I ran down the steps, and the fire followed me…. On a night not long ago, rockets fell somewhere nearby. The pressure of exploding iron spins you around.

And of course buildings did collapse – Nivin explained that ‘they tried everything to bury us alive in the basements’ – but even if the concrete and breeze-block withstood the blast from the bombs and shells, death could still penetrate the interior.  There was the ever-present fear of chlorine gas, and in anticipation of another attack – the possibility was on everyone’s lips – people in the basements made improvised masks with charcoal.  

The danger was acute because chlorine gas is heavier than air and seeps into basements and cellars.  Nivin again, on 22 March:

A white wave – I saw it from my spot – descending the stairs and filling the whole width of the staircase.  Afterwards it entered through the door of the room where we were, and spread.  And it entered the men’s room.  In seconds it filled the space, such that those around me started shouting: who switched off the light!  The light didn’t switch off but the white wave filled the space..

From the moment it entered through the door, the man yelled to us one word: “Chloooride”..

Neither were those in the basements and shelters shielded from other, still more deadly weapons.  Thermobaric bombs were used throughout the offensive; they disperse an explosive cloud into the air that detonates in an intense fireball accompanied by a high-pressure shock wave that can reverberate,  ‘hitting the people inside at high force over and over again.’ Perhaps that is what Nivin described in her first report (above), in which case she had an extremely narrow escape.  

Phosphorus and napalm (above) were used time and time again, and on 23 March al Jazeera reported:

“An air strike targeted one of the underground cellars in Irbin last night where between 117 to 125 people, mostly women and children, were hiding,” Izzet Muslimani, an activist in Eastern Ghouta, told Al Jazeera.

Abul Yusr, an activist and citizen journalist in Irbin told Al Jazeera that the death toll was 45, and that the air raid had hit two shelters connected to one another by a corridor, leading to one becoming completely destroyed.

“The air strike entered through one shelter, where it exploded and killed everyone in it. The fires spread through to the second shelter, which soon became totally engulfed in flames,” Abul Yusr told Aljazeera.

“Some people managed to escape the fire in the second shelter, but their injuries are quite severe.”

 

On 7 April one of the most feared weapons of all was used against people sheltering in two buildings in Douma (though Fisk was at pains to cast doubt on that too).  I’ve discussed this in detail in ‘Gas masques‘, so I will simply repeat that the ‘shelters’ afforded no protection against chemical weapons either (in fact, the basement of one of the buildings turned out to be a death-trap).  JAI capitulated almost immediately, and another round of forcible displacements was set in train.

Dying and mourning

The trauma experienced by the residents of East Ghouta did not end with the siege (if it has indeed ended), and I’ll explore its continued slow violence in a later post.  When I wrote ‘The everywhere war’ I emphasised ‘the emergent, “event-ful” quality of contemporary violence, what Frédéric Gros saw as “moments of pure laceration” that puncture the everyday’, but I’d now want to qualify that (and will do so in a subsequent essay) because it privileges particular modalities of later modern war and marginalises others.  Siege warfare in Syria and elsewhere has been punctuated by moments of spectacular excess – the chemical weapons attacks, the cataclysmic bombardments, the attacks on hospitals – but it has also been characterised by a constant, background rhythm of violence (bombing and shelling, deprivation and malnutrition) that became ‘the everyday’, a ‘new normal’ endured by the besieged population but more or less accepted by outside observers.  

Yet that compromised everyday also included ways of being in the world that were precious, freighted with communion and compassion, which became occasions for mourning when it was time to leave.  Some of those forcibly displaced described leaving as itself a form of dying.  Here is Muataz Sameh, originally from Hammouriyeh, who worked as a nurse in a field hospital:

Leaving, it is as though I have died.

I will miss my home. I will miss my mother and my sister, who have left for the shelters [in Damascus]. I have heard nothing from them, no news to console me.

I will remember my brother, who died on the frontlines one week ago, and my friends who died in the bombings. I will remember the lives we lived, our gatherings and our peaceful protests…

Something has died inside us. We are leaving, running away from the reality that the regime won and we lost. I should have died before leaving. It would be more merciful.

   And here is Umm Muhammad, another nurse:

All of Zamalka is grieving. Mothers are saying goodbye to their sons, who [are leaving] so as not to be detained by the regime. Siblings bid each other goodbye.

I will miss everything here—the trees, the breeze. I will miss my children’s graves, which I must leave behind. They were taken from me in life, and now in death.

I visited my children’s graves to tell them what happened. I asked my sons to forgive me for leaving them behind in Zamalka. I told them they are blessed to remain entombed in this earth. Stay here, as witnesses.

There were other, less sombre memories: but these too were sources of mourning.  And so, finally (for now), here is a message from the Syria Campaign on ‘Leaving Ghouta‘:

When the bombs started falling on neighbourhoods its teachers and doctors took schools and hospitals underground and ordinary residents put on white helmets and rushed to rescue their friends and neighbours. The people of Ghouta launched inspiring civil society projects, often women-led. They created new media platforms and produced award-winning photojournalism. They created alternative energy resources and introduced new farming techniques…

Ghouta has set the ultimate example of civil resistance and what a society can be when neighbour helps neighbour. It is up to all of us continue living by that example every day.

To be continued

Cities and War

This week the Guardian launched a new series on Cities and War:

War is urbanising. No longer fought on beaches or battlefields, conflict has come to the doors of millions living in densely populated areas, killing thousands of civilians, destroying historic centres and devastating infrastructure for generations to come.

Last year, the world watched the Middle East as Mosul, Raqqa, Sana’a and Aleppo were razed to the ground. Across Europe, brutal attacks stunned urban populations in Paris, London and Berlin, while gang warfare tore apart the fabric of cities in central and south America.

In 2018, Guardian Cities will explore the reality of war in cities today – not merely how it is fought, but how citizens struggle to adapt, and to rebuild stronger than ever.

The series opened on Monday with a photographic gallery illustrating ‘a century of cities at war’; some of the images will be familiar, but many will not.  When I was working on ‘Modern War and Dead Cities‘ (which you can download under the TEACHING tab), for example, I thought I had seen most of the dramatic images of the Blitz, but I had missed this one:

It’s an arresting portfolio, and inevitably selective: there is a good discussion below the line on what other cities should have made the cut.

The first written contribution is an extended essay from Jason Burke, ‘Cities and terror: an indivisible and brutal relationship‘, which adds a welcome historical depth and geographical range to a discussion that all too readily contracts around recent attacks on cities in Europe and North America, and suggests an intimate link between cities and terrorism:

[I]t was around the time of the Paddington station attack [by Fenians in 1883]  that the strategy of using violence to sway public opinion though fear became widespread among actors such as the anarchists, leftists and nationalists looking to bring about dramatic social and political change.

This strategy depended on two developments which mark the modern age: democracy and communications. Without the media, developing apace through the 19th century as literacy rates soared and cheap news publications began to achieve mass circulations, impact would be small. Without democracy, there was no point in trying to frighten a population and thus influence policymakers. Absolutist rulers, like subsequent dictators, could simply ignore the pressure from the terrified masses. Of course, a third great development of this period was conditions in the modern city itself.

Could the terrorism which is so terribly familiar to us today have evolved without the development of the metropolis as we now know it? This seems almost impossible to imagine. Even the terror of the French revolution – Le Terreur – which gives us the modern term terrorism, was most obvious in the centre of Paris where the guillotine sliced heads from a relatively small number of aristocrats in order to strike fear into a much larger number of people.

The history of terrorism is thus the history of our cities. The history of our cities, at least over the last 150 years or so, is in part the history of terrorism. This is a deadly, inextricable link that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

Today Saskia Sassen issued her ‘Welcome to a new kind of war: the rise of endless urban conflict‘.  She begins with an observation that is scarcely novel:

The traditional security paradigm in our western-style democracies fails to accommodate a key feature of today’s wars: when our major powers go to war, the enemies they now encounter are irregular combatants. Not troops, organised into armies; but “freedom” fighters, guerrillas, terrorists. Some are as easily grouped by common purpose as they are disbanded. Others engage in wars with no end in sight.

What such irregular combatants tend to share is that they urbanise war. Cities are the space where they have a fighting chance, and where they can leave a mark likely to be picked up by the global media. This is to the disadvantage of cities – but also to the typical military apparatus of today’s major powers.

The main difference between today’s conflicts and the first and second world wars is the sharp misalignment between the war space of traditional militaries compared to that of irregular combatants.

Irregular combatants are at their most effective in cities. They cannot easily shoot down planes, nor fight tanks in open fields. Instead, they draw the enemy into cities, and undermine the key advantage of today’s major powers, whose mechanised weapons are of little use in dense and narrow urban spaces.

Advanced militaries know this very well, of course, and urban warfare is now a central medium in military training.  Saskia continues:

We have gone from wars commanded by hegemonic powers that sought control over sea, air, and land, to wars fought in cities – either inside the war zone, or enacted in cities far away. The space for action can involve “the war”, or simply specific local issues; each attack has its own grievances and aims, seeking global projection or not. Localised actions by local armed groups, mostly acting independently from other such groups, let alone from actors in the war zone – this fragmented isolation has become a new kind of multi-sited war.

This is, in part, what I tried to capture in my early essay on ‘The everywhere war’, and I’m now busily re-thinking it for my new book.  More on this in due course, but it’s worth noting that the Trump maladministration’s National Defense Strategy, while recognising the continuing importance of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency, has returned the Pentagon’s sights to wars between major powers – notably China and Russia (see also here)– though it concedes that these may well be fought (indeed, are being fought) in part through unconventional means in digital domains.  In short, I think later modern war is much more complex than Saskia acknowledges; it has many modalities (which is why I become endlessly frustrated at the critical preoccupation with drones to the exclusion of other vectors of military and paramilitary violence), and these co-exist with – or give a new inflection to – older modalities of violence (I’m thinking of the siege warfare waged by Israel against Gaza or Syria against its own people).

The two contributions I’ve singled out are both broad-brush essays, but Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has contributed a two-part essay on Mosul under Islamic State that is truly brilliant: Part I describes how IS ran the city (‘The Bureaucracy of Evil‘) and Part II how the people of Mosul resisted the reign of terror (‘The Fall‘).

Mosul fell to IS in July 2014, and here is part of Ghaith’s report, where he tells the story of Wassan, a newly graduated doctor:

Like many other diwans (ministries) that Isis established in Mosul, as part of their broader effort to turn an insurgency into a fully functioning administrative state, the Diwan al-Siha (ministry of health) operated a two-tier system.There was one set of rules for “brothers” – those who gave allegiance to Isis – and another for the awam, or commoners.

“We had two systems in the hospitals,” Wassan said. “IS members and their families were given the best treatment and complete access to medicine, while the normal people, the awam, were forced to buy their own medicine from the black market.

“We started hating our work. As a doctor, I am supposed to treat all people equally, but they would force us to treat their own patients only. I felt disgusted with myself.”

(Those who openly resisted faced death, but as IS came under increasing military pressure at least one doctor was spared by a judge when he refused to treat a jihadist before a civilian: “They had so few doctors, they couldn’t afford to punish me. They needed me in the hospital.”)

Wassan’s radical solution was to develop her own, secret hospital:

“Before the start of military operations, medicines begun to run out,” she said. “So I started collecting whatever I could get my hands on at home. I built a network with pharmacists I could trust. I started collecting equipment from doctors and medics, until I had a full surgery kit at home. I could even perform operations with full anaesthesia.”

Word of mouth spread about her secret hospital.

“Some people started coming from the other side of Mosul, and whatever medicine I had was running out,” she said. “I knew there was plenty of medicine in our hospital, but the storage rooms were controlled by Isis.

“Eventually, I began to use the pretext of treating one of their patients to siphon medicine from their own storage. If their patient needed one dose, I would take five. After a while they must have realised, because they stopped allowing doctors to go into the storage.”

The punishment for theft is losing a hand. Running a free hospital from her home would have been sedition, punishable by death…

When Wassan’s hospital was appropriated by Isis fighters [this was a common IS tactic – see the image below and the Human Rights Watch report here; the hospital was later virtually destroyed by US air strikes] her secret house-hospital proved essential. More than a dozen births were performed on her dining table; she kicked both brothers out of their rooms to convert them into operating theatres; her mother, an elderly nurse, became her assistant.

As the siege of Mosul by the Iraqi Army ground on, some of the sick and injured managed to run (or stumble) the gauntlet to find medical aid in rudimentary field hospitals beyond the faltering grip of IS, while others managed to make it to major trauma centres like West Irbil.

But for many in Mosul Wassan’s secret hospital was a lifeline (for a parallel story about another woman doctor running a secret clinic under the noses of IS, see here).

Yet there is a vicious sting in the tail:

For Wassan, the ending of Isis rule in Mosul is bittersweet. After many attempts to reach Baghdad to write her board exams for medical school, she was told her work in the hospital for the past three years did not count as “active service”, and she was disqualified.

“The ministry said they won’t give me security clearance because I had worked under Isis administration,” she said.

This, too, is one of the modalities of later modern war – the weaponisation of health care, through selectively withdrawing it from some sections of the population while privileging the access and quality for others.  ‘Health care,’ writes Omar Dewachi, ‘has become not only a target but also a tactic of war.’  (If you want to know more about the faltering provision of healthcare and the fractured social fabric of life in post-IS Mosul, I recommend an interactive report from Michael Bachelard and Kate Geraghty under the bleak but accurate title ‘The war has just started‘). 

The weaponisation of health care has happened before, of course, and it takes many forms. In 2006, at the height of sectarian violence in occupied Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’a militia controlled the Health Ministry and manipulated the delivery of healthcare in order to marginalise and even exclude the Sunni population.  As Amit Paley reported:

 ‘In a city with few real refuges from sectarian violence – not government offices, not military bases, not even mosques – one place always emerged as a safe haven: hospitals…

‘In Baghdad these days, not even the hospitals are safe. In growing numbers, sick and wounded Sunnis have been abducted from public hospitals operated by Iraq’s Shiite-run Health Ministry and later killed, according to patients, families of victims, doctors and government officials.

‘As a result, more and more Iraqis are avoiding hospitals, making it even harder to preserve life in a city where death is seemingly everywhere. Gunshot victims are now being treated by nurses in makeshift emergency rooms set up in homes. Women giving birth are smuggled out of Baghdad and into clinics in safer provinces.’

He described hospitals as ‘Iraq’s new killing fields’, but in Syria the weaponisation of health care has been radicalised and explicitly authorized by the state.

You may think I’ve strayed too far from where I started this post; but I’ve barely moved.  For towards the end of her essay Saskia wonders why military and paramilitary violence in cities in so shocking – why it attracts so much more public attention than the millions murdered in the killing fields of the Congo.  And she suggests that the answer may lie in its visceral defilement of one of humanity’s greatest potential achievements:

Is it because the city is something we’ve made together, a collective construction across time and space? Is it because at the heart of the city are commerce and the civic, not war?

Lewis Mumford had some interesting things to say about that.  I commented on this in ACME several years ago, and while I’d want to flesh out those skeletal remarks considerably now, they do intersect with Saskia’s poignant question about the war on the civic:

In The Culture of Cities, published just one year before the Second World War broke out, Mumford included ‘A brief outline of hell’ in which he turned the Angelus towards the future to confront the terrible prospect of total war. Raging against what he called the ‘war-ceremonies’ staged in the ‘imperial metropolis’ (‘from Washington to Tokyo, from Berlin to Rome’: where was London, I wonder? Moscow?), Mumford fastened on the anticipatory dread of air war. The city was no longer the place where (so he claimed) security triumphed over predation, and he saw in advance of war not peace but another version of war. Thus the rehearsals for defence (the gas-masks, the shelters, the drills) were ‘the materialization of a skillfully evoked nightmare’ in which fear consumed the ideal of a civilized, cultivated life before the first bombs fell. The ‘war-metropolis’, he concluded, was a ‘non-city’.

After the war, Mumford revisited the necropolis, what he described as ‘the ruins and graveyards’ of the urban, and concluded that his original sketch could not be incorporated into his revised account, The City in History, simply ‘because all its anticipations were abundantly verified.’ He gazed out over the charnel-house of war from the air — Warsaw and Rotterdam, London and Tokyo, Hamburg and Hiroshima — and noted that ‘[b]esides the millions of people — six million Jews alone — killed by the Germans in their suburban extermination camps, by starvation and cremation, whole cities were turned into extermination camps by the demoralized strategists of democracy.’

I’m not saying that we can accept Mumford without qualification, still less extrapolate his claims into our own present, but I do think his principled arc, at once historical and geographical, is immensely important. In now confronting what Stephen Graham calls ‘the new military urbanism’ we need to recover its genealogy — to interrogate the claims to novelty registered by both its proponents and its critics — as a way of illuminating the historical geography of our own present.

It’s about more than aerial violence – though that is one of the signature modalities of modern war – and we surely need to register the heterogeneity and hybridity of contemporary conflicts.  But we also need to recognise that they are often not only wars in cities but also wars on cities.

Killing cities

In a perceptive commentary on the ground-breaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal into civilian casualties caused by the US air campaign against Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq – see also my posts here and hereRobert Malley and Stephen Pomper write:

The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Part of the problem, as they note, is the nature of the campaign itself.  This is not the sort of counterinsurgency campaign that emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq in which air power was used in support of US and allied ground troops (although we know that also produced more than its share of civilian casualties); neither is it a counterterrorism campaign directed against so-called High Value Targets who supposedly ‘present a direct and imminent threat to the United States’ (ditto; and as I discuss in ‘Dirty dancing’ – DOWNLOADS tab – ‘imminence’ turned out to be remarkably elastic, a deadly process of time-space expansion).
Ultimately, though, their anxieties turn on what they call the ‘over-militarization’ of the US response to al Qaeda and its affiliates and to IS.  They explain, succinctly, what has encouraged this militarized response (not least the lowering of the threshold for military violence allowed by remote operations):
[U]ntil this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.
In December the Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirmed an escalation in US air strikes across multiple theatres in Trump’s first year in office:
President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen [in 2017].

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Much remains unclear about these actions, apart from Trump’s signature combination of machismo and ignorance, but we do know that Obama’s restrictions on the use of military force outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been loosened:

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House.

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

In September NBC reported that the Trump administration was planning to allow the CIA to take a more aggressive role and to give the agency more authority to conduct (para)military operations.  In consequence a comprehensive revision of Obama’s guidelines was in prospect:

The drone playbook, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, includes a provision that no strike should go forward unless analysts determine that there is a near-certainty that no civilians will be harmed. And it includes a provision forbidding the addition of new detainees to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The Trump administration is contemplating removing both of those restrictions.

Pakistan remains a nominally covert area of operations.  US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas resumed in March after a nine-month hiatus – though Trump’s latest spat with Islamabad raises questions about the sporadic but systematic co-operation that had characterised so much of the campaign – and (provocatively: again, see ‘Dirty Dancing’ for an explanation) one strike took place outside the FATA in June 2017.  The Bureau’s detailed list is here: five strikes are listed, killing 15-22 people.

In Afghanistan the Bureau noted that air strikes had doubled and that this escalation has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in transparency (Chris Woods told me the same story for Iraq and Syria when we met in Utrecht).

All of this confirms the report released today by Action on Armed Violence.

At least 15,399 civilians were killed in the first 11 months of 2017 according to Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) recording of English language media explosive violence events.  This devastating toll – up to the end of November – strongly suggests that 2017 was the worst year for civilian deathsfrom explosive weapons since AOAV’s records began in 2011.

This sharp rise, constituting a 42% increase from the same period in 2016, when 10,877 civilians were killed, is largely down to a massive increase in deadly airstrikes.

Compared to 2011, the first year of AOAV’s recording, the rise in civilians killed by explosive violence in the first 11 months of 2017 constitutes an 175% increase (5,597 died in the same period seven years ago).

On average, our records to November show that there were 42 civilian deaths per day caused by explosive violence in 2017.

The report continues:

For the first time since our recording of all English language media reports of explosive weapon attacks began, the majority of civilian deaths were by air-launched weapons. Of the total civilian deaths recorded (15,399), 58% were caused by airstrikes, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Civilian deaths from airstrikes in this 11-month period was 8,932 – an increase of 82% compared to the same period in 2016 when 4,902 civilians were killed, or 1,169% compared to 2011, when 704 died.

Significantly, as airstrikes are almost always used by State actors, rather than non-State groups, States were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from explosive weapons for the first time since our records began.

Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV commented:

 These are stark figures that expose the lie that precision-guided missiles as used by State airforces do not lead to massive civilian harm. When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, the results are inevitable: innocent children, women and men will die.

In the same vein, Karen McVeigh‘s summary for the Guardian quotes Chris Woods from Airwars:

This is about urban warfare and that’s why we are getting crazy numbers… War is moving into cities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Russia or the US-led coalition or ground forces leading the assault, the outcome for civilians under attack is always dire…. We’re becoming too complacent about urban warfare, and militaries and governments are downplaying the effects.

I think that’s right, though I also think war is moving back into the cities (if it ever left them); the serial military operations in Mosul and Raqqa are vivid examples of what Chris means, but they also recall the assaults on Fallujah and other cities documented in Steve Graham‘s still utterly indispensable Cities under siege.

The point is sharpened even further if we widen the angle of vision to take in air campaigns conducted by other air forces: the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force in Syria, or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Yet again, killing cities to save them.  As a spokesperson for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently put it last summer, ‘This is very similar to the Vietnam war, where entire cities were destroyed… What is happening in Raqqa is like dropping a nuclear bomb in stages.’

Steve’s work should also remind us that these dead cities are not produced by air strikes alone.  Once reduced to rubble they have often been disembowelled (I can think of no better word) by ground forces; it’s as though these now barely human landscapes compel or at any rate license the continued degradation of both the living and the dead:  see, for example, Kenneth Rosen on ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’ here or  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad‘s chillingly detailed report on the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul here.

I’m still astonished that all those high-minded theoretical debates on planetary urbanism somehow ignore the contemporary intensification of urbicide and urban warfare (see ‘Mumford and sons’ here).

Those who don’t count and those who can’t count

An excellent article from the unfailing New York Times in a recent edition of the Magazine: Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal on ‘The Uncounted‘, a brilliant, forensic and – crucially – field-based investigation into civilian casualties in the US air war against ISIS:

American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.

The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.

What Azmat and Anand found on the ground, however, was radically different:

Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.

We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history [my emphasis].  Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes …  remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

They provide immensely powerful, moving case studies of innocents ‘lost in the wreckage’.  They also describe the US Air Force’s targeting process at US Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar (the image above shows the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division at the CAOC, which ‘provides a common threat and targeting picture’):

The process seemed staggeringly complex — the wall-to-wall monitors, the soup of acronyms, the army of lawyers — but the impressively choreographed operation was designed to answer two basic questions about each proposed strike: Is the proposed target actually ISIS? And will attacking this ISIS target harm civilians in the vicinity?

As we sat around a long conference table, the officers explained how this works in the best-case scenario, when the coalition has weeks or months to consider a target. Intelligence streams in from partner forces, informants on the ground, electronic surveillance and drone footage. Once the coalition decides a target is ISIS, analysts study the probability that striking it will kill civilians in the vicinity, often by poring over drone footage of patterns of civilian activity. The greater the likelihood of civilian harm, the more mitigating measures the coalition takes. If the target is near an office building, the attack might be rescheduled for nighttime. If the area is crowded, the coalition might adjust its weaponry to limit the blast radius. Sometimes aircraft will even fire a warning shot, allowing people to escape targeted facilities before the strike. An official showed us grainy night-vision footage of this technique in action: Warning shots hit the ground near a shed in Deir al-Zour, Syria, prompting a pair of white silhouettes to flee, one tripping and picking himself back up, as the cross hairs follow.

Once the targeting team establishes the risks, a commander must approve the strike, taking care to ensure that the potential civilian harm is not “excessive relative to the expected military advantage gained,” as Lt. Col. Matthew King, the center’s deputy legal adviser, explained.

After the bombs drop, the pilots and other officials evaluate the strike. Sometimes a civilian vehicle can suddenly appear in the video feed moments before impact. Or, through studying footage of the aftermath, they might detect signs of a civilian presence. Either way, such a report triggers an internal assessment in which the coalition determines, through a review of imagery and testimony from mission personnel, whether the civilian casualty report is credible. If so, the coalition makes refinements to avoid future civilian casualties, they told us, a process that might include reconsidering some bit of intelligence or identifying a flaw in the decision-making process.

There are two issues here.  First, this is indeed the ‘best-case scenario’, and one that very often does not obtain.  One of the central vectors of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is volatility: targets are highly mobile and often the ‘window of opportunity’ is exceedingly narrow.  I’ve reproduced this image from the USAF’s own targeting guide before, in relation to my analysis of the targeting cycle for a different US air strike against IS in Iraq in March 2015, but it is equally applicable here:

Second, that ‘window of opportunity’ is usually far from transparent, often frosted and frequently opaque.  For what is missing from the official analysis described by Azmat and Anand turns out to be the leitmotif of all remote operations (and there is a vital sense in which all forms of aerial violence are ‘remote’, whether the pilot is 7,000 miles away or 30,000 feet above the target [see for example here]):

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the United States Air Forces Central Command at Udeid, told us what was missing. “Ground truth, that’s what you’re asking for,” he said. “We see what we see from altitude and pull in from other reports. Your perspective is talking to people on the ground.” He paused, and then offered what he thought it would take to arrive at the truth: “It’s got to be a combination of both.”

The military view, perhaps not surprisingly, is that civilian casualties are unavoidable but rarely intentional:

Supreme precision can reduce civilian casualties to a very small number, but that number will never reach zero. They speak of every one of the acknowledged deaths as tragic but utterly unavoidable.

Azmat and Anand reached a numbingly different conclusion: ‘Not all civilian casualties are unavoidable tragedies; some deaths could be prevented if the coalition recognizes its past failures and changes its operating assumptions accordingly. But in the course of our investigation, we found that it seldom did either.’

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that whenever there is an investigation into reports of civilian casualties that may have been caused by US military operations it must be independent of all other investigations and can make no reference to them in its findings; in other words, as I’ve noted elsewhere, there is no ‘case law’: bizarre but apparently true.

But that is only part of the problem.  The two investigators cite multiple intelligence errors (‘In about half of the strikes that killed civilians, we could find no discernible ISIS target nearby. Many of these strikes appear to have been based on poor or outdated intelligence’) and even errors and discrepancies in recording and locating strikes after the event.

It’s worth reading bellingcat‘s analysis here, which also investigates the coalition’s geo-locational reporting and notes that the official videos ‘appear only to showcase the precision and efficiency of coalition bombs and missiles, and rarely show people, let alone victims’.  The image above, from CNN, is unusual in showing the collection of the bodies of victims of a US air strike in Mosul, this time in March 2017; the target was a building from which two snipers were firing; more than 100 civilians sheltering there were killed.  The executive summary of the subsequent investigation is here – ‘The Target Engagement Authority (TEA) was unaware of and could not have predicted the presence of civilians in the structure prior to the engagement’ – and report from W.J. Hennigan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske is here.

Included in bellingcat’s account is a discussion of a video which the coalition uploaded to YouTube and then deleted; Azmat retrieved and archived it – the video shows a strike on two buildings in Mosul on 20 September 2015 that turned out to be focal to her investigation with Anand:

The video caption identifies the target as a ‘VBIED [car bomb] facility’.  But Bellingcat asks:

Was this really a “VBIED network”? Under the original upload, a commenter starting posting that the houses shown were his family’s residence in Mosul.

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike. Do you really know who these people were? They were innocent and happy family members of mine.”

Days after the strike, Dr Zareena Grewal, a relative living in the US wrote in the New York Times that four family members had died in the strike. On April 2, 2017 – 588 days later – the Coalition finally admitted that it indeed bombed a family home which they confused for an IS headquarters and VBIED facility.

“The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition, told Airwars.

Even though the published strike video actually depicted the killing of a family, it remained – wrongly captioned – on the official Coalition YouTube channel for more than a year.

This is but one, awful example of a much wider problem.  The general conclusion reached by Azmat and Anand is so chilling it is worth re-stating:

According to the coalition’s available data, 89 of its more than 14,000 airstrikes in Iraq have resulted in civilian deaths, or about one of every 157 strikes. The rate we found on the ground — one out of every five — is 31 times as high.

One of the houses [shown above] mistakenly identified as a ‘VBIED facility’ in that video belonged to Basim Razzo, and he became a key informant in Azmat and Anand’s investigation; he was subsequently interviewed by Amy Goodman: the transcript is here. She also interviewed Azmat and Anand: that transcript is here.  In the course of the conversation Anand makes a point that amply and awfully confirms Christiane Wilke‘s suggestion – in relation to air strikes in Afghanistan – that the burden of recognition, of what in international humanitarian law is defined as ‘distinction’, is tacitly being passed from combatant to civilian: that those in the cross-hairs of the US military are required to perform their civilian status to those watching from afar.

It goes back to this issue of Iraqis having to prove that they are not ISIS, which is the opposite of what we would think. We would think that the coalition would do the work to find out whether somebody is a member of ISIS or not. Essentially, they assume people are ISIS until proven otherwise.

To make matters worse, they have to perform their ‘civilianness’ according to a script recognised and approved by the US military, however misconceived it may be.  In the case of one (now iconic) air strike in Afghanistan being an adolescent or adult male, travelling in a group, praying at one of the times prescribed by Islam, and carrying a firearm in a society where that is commonplace was enough for civilians to be judged as hostile by drone crews and attacked from the air with dreadful results (see here and here).

This is stunning investigative journalism, but it’s more than that: the two authors are both at Arizona State University, and they have provided one of the finest examples of critical, probing and accessible scholarship I have ever read.

Tracking and targeting

News from Lucy Suchman of a special issue of Science, Technology and Human Values [42 (6) (2017)]  on Tracking and targeting: sociotechnologies of (in)security, which she’s co-edited with Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber.

Here’s the line-up:

Lucy Suchman, Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber: Tracking and targeting

This introduction to the special issue of the same title sets out the context for a critical examination of contemporary developments in sociotechnical systems deployed in the name of security. Our focus is on technologies of tracking, with their claims to enable the identification of those who comprise legitimate targets for the use of violent force. Taking these claims as deeply problematic, we join a growing body of scholarship on the technopolitical logics that underpin an increasingly violent landscape of institutions, infrastructures, and actions, promising protection to some but arguably contributing to our collective insecurity. We examine the asymmetric distributions of sociotechnologies of (in)security; their deadly and injurious effects; and the legal, ethical, and moral questions that haunt their operations.

Karolina Follis: Visions and transterritory: the borders of Europe

This essay is about the role of visual surveillance technologies in the policing of the external borders of the European Union (EU). Based on an analysis of documents published by EU institutions and independent organizations, I argue that these technological innovations fundamentally alter the nature of national borders. I discuss how new technologies of vision are deployed to transcend the physical limits of territories. In the last twenty years, EU member states and institutions have increasingly relied on various forms of remote tracking, including the use of drones for the purposes of monitoring frontier zones. In combination with other facets of the EU border management regime (such as transnational databases and biometrics), these technologies coalesce into a system of governance that has enabled intervention into neighboring territories and territorial waters of other states to track and target migrants for interception in the “prefrontier.” For jurisdictional reasons, this practice effectively precludes the enforcement of legal human rights obligations, which European states might otherwise have with regard to these persons. This article argues that this technologically mediated expansion of vision has become a key feature of post–cold war governance of borders in Europe. The concept of transterritory is proposed to capture its effects.

Christiane Wilke: Seeing and unmaking civilians in Afghanistan: visual technologies and contested professional visions

While the distinction between civilians and combatants is fundamental to international law, it is contested and complicated in practice. How do North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers see civilians in Afghanistan? Focusing on 2009 air strike in Kunduz, this article argues that the professional vision of NATO officers relies not only on recent military technologies that allow for aerial surveillance, thermal imaging, and precise targeting but also on the assumptions, vocabularies, modes of attention, and hierarchies of knowledges that the officers bring to the interpretation of aerial surveillance images. Professional vision is socially situated and frequently contested with communities of practice. In the case of the Kunduz air strike, the aerial vantage point and the military visual technologies cannot fully determine what would be seen. Instead, the officers’ assumptions about Afghanistan, threats, and the gender of the civilian inform the vocabulary they use for coding people and places as civilian or noncivilian. Civilians are not simply “found,” they are produced through specific forms of professional vision.

Jon Lindsay: Target practice: Counterterrorism and the amplification of data friction

The nineteenth-century strategist Carl von Clausewitz describes “fog” and “friction” as fundamental features of war. Military leverage of sophisticated information technology in the twenty-first century has improved some tactical operations but has not lifted the fog of war, in part, because the means for reducing uncertainty create new forms of it. Drawing on active duty experience with an American special operations task force in Western Iraq from 2007 to 2008, this article traces the targeting processes used to “find, fix, and finish” alleged insurgents. In this case they did not clarify the political reality of Anbar province but rather reinforced a parochial worldview informed by the Naval Special Warfare community. The unit focused on the performance of “direct action” raids during a period in which “indirect action” engagement with the local population was arguably more appropriate for the strategic circumstances. The concept of “data friction”, therefore, can be understood not simply as a form of resistance within a sociotechnical system but also as a form of traction that enables practitioners to construct representations of the world that amplify their own biases.

M.C. Elish: Remote split: a history of US drone operations and the distributed labour of war

This article analyzes US drone operations through a historical and ethnographic analysis of the remote split paradigm used by the US Air Force. Remote split refers to the globally distributed command and control of drone operations and entails a network of human operators and analysts in the Middle East, Europe, and Southeast Asia as well as in the continental United States. Though often viewed as a teleological progression of “unmanned” warfare, this paper argues that historically specific technopolitical logics establish the conditions of possibility for the work of war to be divisible into discreet and computationally mediated tasks that are viewed as effective in US military engagements. To do so, the article traces how new forms of authorized evidence and expertise have shaped developments in military operations and command and control priorities from the Cold War and the “electronic battlefield” of Vietnam through the Gulf War and the conflict in the Balkans to contemporary deployments of drone operations. The article concludes by suggesting that it is by paying attention to divisions of labor and human–machine configurations that we can begin to understand the everyday and often invisible structures that sustain perpetual war as a military strategy of the United States.

I’ve discussed Christiane’s excellent article in detail before, but the whole issue repays careful reading.

And if you’re curious about the map that heads this post, it’s based on the National Security Agency’s Strategic Mission List (dated 2007 and published in the New York Times on 2 November 2013), and mapped at Electrospaces: full details here.

Killing over Kunduz

This is the second in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones.  It examines the US attack on the Trauma Centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Kunduz on 3 October 2015.  I provided preliminary discussions here (on the conduct of US military investigations into civilian casualty incidents), here (on MSF’s own investigation into the attack), here (on the Executive Summary of the US military investigation), here (on two first-hand accounts from MSF personnel), here and here on the final report, and here (on the likelihood that the attack constituted a war crime).   This post draws on those discussions but also on a close reading of the redacted report of the US military investigation [all page references refer to that report], on work by investigative journalists, and on ancillary materials and commentaries. 

spooky-mainOne year ago today, in the early hours of the morning of 3 October 2015, a US AC-130U gunship (‘Spooky’) launched a concentrated attack on the Trauma Centre in Kunduz run by Médecins Sans Frontières.  In an otherwise probing report on what happened,  the Washington Post claimed that the gunship has sensors ‘that give it a “God’s eye” of the battlefield’.  Here  I explore some of the multiple ways in which such a view was – and remains – impossible.  For militarized vision, like any other optical modality, is never a purely technical affair.  A series of cascading technical errors bedevilled the US attempt to re-take Kunduz from the Taliban, who had swept into the city a few days earlier, but these were compounded by a series of profoundly human decisions and interactions and it was the intimate entanglement of the technical and the human that determined the hideous outcome.

At least 42 people were killed, including 24 patients, 14 medical staff and 4 caretakers.  Many others were wounded and traumatized.  Here is Dr Evangeline Cua, a Philippina surgeon who was on duty when the attack started:

msf164464-profileWe were like two headless chickens running in total darkness — me and the surgeon who assisted me in an operation. The nurses who were with us a moment ago had run outside the building, braving the volley of gunshots coming from above. I was coughing, half-choked by dust swirling around the area. Behind my surgical mask, my mouth was gritty, as if somebody forced me to eat sand. I could hear my breath rasping in and out. Layers of smoke coming from a nearby room made it hard to see where we were. Blinking around, I caught sight of a glow, from a man’s hand holding a phone. He seemed mortally wounded but was still trying to send a message…perhaps to a loved one?

I stood transfixed, not knowing where to turn or what to do. All around us, bombing continued in regular intervals, shaking the ground, sending debris sweeping and flying. One. Two. Three. I tried to count but there seems to be no abatement to the explosions. I stopped counting at eight and silently prayed that we could get out of there alive.

Fire licked at the roof at one end of the building, dancing and sparkling in the dark, reaching towards the branches of the trees nearby. The ICU was burning.  Outside, only the constant humming from above pointed to the presence of something. An aircraft? Airstrike? Why the hospital? Why us? Then, without warning, another tremendous, ear splitting blast shook the building. The ceiling came crashing down on us and the last remaining lights were turned off, sending us to total darkness. I screamed in terror as wires pinned me to the ground. That was the last thing I could remember.

What follows is an attempt to answer those questions.  It is fraught with uncertainty: the most detailed investigation to date has been carried out by the US military, but the redacted version of the final report that has been released to the public is (by the standards of other US military investigations) profoundly unsatisfactory – redacted with a brutishly heavy hand.  Time and time again, ironically, references to the time of events have been removed; transcripts of radio communications and interviews by the investigating panel that have been released in other cases have been suppressed; and some redactions seem to have been made not for reasons of privacy or security but to avoid embarrassment (more here; you can download the report from US Central Command’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) library here).

All of this reinforces MSF’s original call for an independent investigation.  I understand May Jeong‘s pessimism:

A former Afghan special forces commander who was at the command and control center in Kunduz during the fight assured me I would never get to the bottom of the attack. The reason why I couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened, he said, was the fog of war. “Ground truth is impossible to know. Even those who were there wouldn’t be able to tell you what they saw.”

But when the ‘fog of war’ – so often a convenient cover for all manner of horrors – is deliberately thickened – when visibility is ruthlessly reduced by redaction – then perfectly proper public interest is trumped by political and military expediency.

***

When the NATO-led combat mission to Afghanistan conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) finished at the end of 2014 it was replaced by a much smaller advisory mission, Resolute Support, which was ‘to provide further training, advice and assistance for the Afghan security forces and institutions’.  Resolute Support was authorized by a Status of Forces agreement between NATO and the Afghan government in Kabul.  Its central hub was Kabul/Bagram, with four ‘spokes’ formed by four other ‘Train Assist Advise’ Commands to support four Afghan National Army Corps outside the capital (more here and here):

resolute-support

US troops were the major contributor to Resolute Support, but they were also assigned to the United States’s continuing (‘concurrent and complementary’) counter-terrorism mission now designated as ‘Operation Freedom’s Sentinel’.  Until March 2016 both missions were under the overall command of General John Campbell.

By September 2015 the focus of US concern in Afghanistan was Helmand in the south – where the Taliban were on the ascendant, forcing Afghan government forces to retreat as they seized control of key districts and gained control of the Kajaki dam – and US Special Forces were rushed to Camp Bastion after the fall of Musa Qala gave the insurgents a strategic advantage.

By contrast, Kunduz in the north was regarded as ‘secure’ [135] after a series of combat operations at the start of the fighting season earlier in the year.  As late as 13 August Brigadier-General Wilson Shoffner, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications with Resolute Support, declared that although there had been ‘an attempt by the Taliban to try to stretch the Afghan security forces in the north’ the city of Kunduz ‘is not now and has not been in danger of being overrun by the Taliban’ (he also described the situation at Kajaki as merely a ‘local security challenge’).  But those previous operations in Kunduz had targeted Taliban operations areas and did not extend to support zones outside the city.

isw-taliban-attack-and-supply-zones-in-kunduz

Obeid Ali reports that during the summer the Taliban continued to make inroads until they controlled areas to the south west, north west and south east of the city.

On 28 September 2015, the Taliban stormed various ANSF locations in Kunduz city from the three different directions they had spent so long preparing… The simultaneous attacks on the city and the collapse of check posts at the city ‘gateways’ destroyed the confidence of the ANSF inside the city in their ability to stand against this unexpected offensive. In the face of the well-organised and coordinated insurgent operation, most held out for only a few hours. A chaotic environment quickly spread and government officials, ALP [Afghan Local Police] commanders and some of the ANA [Afghan National Army] officers, fled to the military base at the airport [Camp Pamir], leaving Kunduz effectively leaderless.

taliban-has-captured-the-city-of-kunduz-late-sep-28-monday

Kunduz was a spectacular, strategic prize: the first city to fall to the mujaheddin in 1998 and the first time the Taliban had seized a major city since 2001, its capture signalled both a resilient Taliban and a faltering government footprint in the region.

•••

On 28 September there was a detachment of US Special Forces (‘Green Berets’) based at Kunduz airfield as part of the Train, Assist, Advise mission.  Like every Operational Detachment – Alpha (OD-A) it consisted of just 12 soldiers, all cross-trained and capable of operating for extended periods of time with little or no support.  On 29 September their superior command – the US Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan – ordered two other OD-As to Kunduz.  While they were in the air the OD-A on the ground sketched out a contingency plan (‘Kunduz City Foothold Establishment’) to assist the Afghan forces to return to the city and secure the Kunduz City Hospital and the Prison.  There were repeated US airstrikes against Taliban positions in and around the city throughout the day, but by the time the OD-A reinforcements, together with other Afghan troops including Afghan Special Security Forces (below), arrived in the evening it was clear that the original plan was unworkable and their immediate priority had to be the defence of the airfield [032, 382].

afghan-special-forces-arrive-at-kunduz-airfield-29-september-2015

The US reinforcements included Major Michael Hutchinson, who assumed overall command of the combined OD-As (he was identified as the Ground Force Commander by the New York Times).  He had misgivings about the mission but accepted that ‘we can’t lose the provincial capital’ [377].   The next day a revised plan (‘Kunduz Clearing Patrol’) was submitted to the Special Operations Task Force for approval, which was granted that night, and the OD-As requested that Afghan Special Security Forces be accorded ‘designated special status’ that would permit the Green Berets to extend their own envelope of self-defence and assume a direct combat role (including calling in air strikes) to defend their partner forces if they came under attack [046-7].

By this time Médecins Sans Frontières had been in contact with both US and Afghan forces to ensure that they were aware of the location and status of its Trauma Centre in Kunduz.  It was in the eye of the storm.  Dr Kathleen Thomas, an Australian doctor in charge of the Emergency Room and the Intensive Care Unit, explained:

We all knew that at times, our hospital was in the middle of the rapidly changing front line – we could feel it. When the fighting was close – the shooting and explosions vibrated the walls. I was scared – we were all scared. When a loud “BOOM” would sound a bit closer to the hospital, we would all drop to the floor away from the large windows that lined the ICU walls. We also tried to move the patients and large (flammable) oxygen bottles away all from the windows, but the layout of the ICU prohibited doing this effectively. I worried constantly about the exposure from those windows – yet never thought to worry about the exposure from the roof.

kunduz_2

Most of the patients were civilians.  Of the combatants, MSF reported that most of them were from the Afghan army and police, as had been the case since the Trauma Centre opened, but once the city fell on 28 September ‘this shifted to primarily wounded Taliban combatants.’  The Afghan government speedily arranged the transfer of all its patients (apart from the most severely wounded cases) to another hospital.

By that night the Taliban announced that it was in control of the district.  Kathleen Thomas described the scene:

The first day was chaos – more than 130 patients poured through our doors in only a few hours. Despite the heroic efforts of all the staff, we were completely overwhelmed. Most patients were civilians, but some were wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict. When I reflect on that day now, what I remember is the smell of blood that permeated through the emergency room, the touch of desperate people pulling at my clothes to get my attention begging me to help their injured loved ones, the wailing, despair and anguish of parents of yet another child lethally injured by a stray bullet whom we could not save, my own sense of panic as another and another and another patient was carried in and laid on the floor of the already packed emergency department, and all the while in the background the tut-tut-tut-tut of machine guns and the occasional large boom from explosions that sounded way too close for comfort.

Although the Trauma Centre had been on US Central Command’s ‘No-Strike List’ since October 2014 MSF now re-supplied its GPS coordinates and reminded the Ministry of Defence in Kabul that ‘MSF and its personnel observes strict neutrality and impartiality in the name of universal medical ethics and rights of populations affected by conflicts to humanitarian assistance’ and claimed ‘full respect of these principles and rules in order to be able to continue responding to the humanitarian and medical needs of all Afghans’ [144].  On 29 September MSF issued what would prove to be a remarkably optimistic statement:

We are in contact with all parties to the conflict and have received assurances that our medical personnel, patients, hospital and ambulances will be respected.  With the government provincial hospital not currently functioning, MSF’s hospital is now the only place in Kunduz where people in need of urgent trauma care can receive it.

msf153705-1

MSF had withdrawn from Afghanistan in August 2004 – after the targeted killing of five of its aid workers in June, the government’s failure to arrest those responsible, and Taliban threats to target organizations like MSF that they falsely claimed ‘work for US interests’ – and returned five years later with agreements from the US-led coalition, the Afghan government and the Taliban to respect the de-militarization of its hospitals (including a strict ‘no-weapons’ policy inside them). Initially MSF assumed responsibility for two public hospitals in Kabul and Helmand; two years later it opened its Trauma Centre in Kunduz inside the old Spinzer cotton factory.  It soon became immensely important:

operative-volume-at-msf-trauma-centre-kunduz-2011-2015-trelles

[Source: Miguel Trelles, Barclay T Stewart and others, ‘Averted health burden over 4 years at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Trauma Centre in Kunduz, Afghanistan, prior to its closure in 2015’, Surgery (2016) in press]

Between August 2011 and August 2015 the Trauma Centre cared for 6,685 patients; roughly one-third were suffering from ‘violence-related trauma’, which included land mines and bomb blasts, gunshots, stabbings, assaults, rape and torture; one quarter of those were children.  Procedures for complex wounds were the most common – debridement (excision), removed of shrapnel, care of burns – followed by orthopaedic procedures (including amputation).  Those injuries increased dramatically in the months before the city fell to the Taliban.  Miguel Trelles and his collaborators estimate that during this period the Trauma Centre averted 154, 254 ‘Disability Adjusted Life Years’; more prosaically:

The MSF Kunduz Trauma Centre provided surgical care for a large number of wounded and injured patients in the region. The surgical epidemiology is consistent with reports from other areas of prolonged insecurity in that unintentional, traumatic, non–war-related injuries generally outnumber those from violence. Nevertheless … the Trauma Centre provided surgical care for many adults and children injured directly by conflict (eg, injuries due to gunshots, land mines, bomb blasts). The health burden averted by surgical care at the Trauma Centre was large…

And yet, despite the importance of the Trauma Centre and its inclusion on a centralized No-Strike List that database was not consulted during the operational vetting and legal approval of the two plans drawn up by the OD-As [032, 045] (which, to be fair, had never been in the city and had no direct knowledge of the terrain; their Joint Terminal Attack Controllers had tried to print hard copy of ISR imagery before they set out from Camp Pamir but the base’s only printer was so old all it could produce were ‘giant magenta blobs’  that were completely useless [383] – so initially they relied on a single 1:50,00 map to plan and execute their operations [048]).

In fact – the irony is extraordinary – one member of the Special Operations Task Force testified that even they had no access to the No-Strike List and only discovered the existence of the Trauma Centre by accident, when ‘somebody was looking for additional medical facilities for use as emergency means to treat our own casualties’ if they could not make it back to Camp Pamir and the Forward Surgical Team based there [217, 219].  It was only then, late in the night of 29 September, that the Trauma Centre was added to the database maintained by the ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] Tactical Controllers at the Special Operations Task Force at Bagram; early the next morning e-mails with this information were sent to ‘all ISR assets supporting operations in Kunduz’ [213].

***

us-army-personnel-leave-a-truck-inside-afghan-military-base-kunduz-1-oct-2015

On 30 September there was a secure videoconference between General Campbell, his Afghan counterpart and Major Hutchinson.  It was clear that Campbell was exasperated at the conduct of the Afghan forces and attached great importance to re-taking the city.  Fired up, Hutchinson briefed his men on the planned Kunduz Clearing Patrol, relaying the spirit of Campbell’s comments and telling them this was ‘a no fail mission’, that ‘all of the civilians have fled and only the Taliban are in the city’, and that ‘everything is a threat’ [256].  That night, once the mission had been approved, the Green Berets fought their way into the city alongside the Afghan Special Security Forces, with Close Air Support from US aircraft including an AC-130 gunship that ‘continuously called out and engaged [Taliban] ambush sites’ [325].  This seems to have been the same aircraft and crew that returned on 2/3 October; the sensor operator described that fateful mission as their third flight over Kunduz, following two others on 2 September and 30 September, the last when they provided armed overwatch for a US convoy into the city centre and engaged the Taliban at multiple locations.  Indeed, he claimed that those previous missions had provided them with ‘good situational awareness’ of Kunduz and the ‘patterns of life’ of both civilians and insurgents [362].

Before dawn on 1 October the US and Afghan troops had cleared several key buildings and established a defensive strongpoint in the Provincial Chief of Police Compound [PCOP].  They hunkered down and came under repeated mortar, rocket-propelled grenade and automatic weapons fire, and throughout that day and the next their Joint Terminal Attack Controller called in multiple strikes from F-16 aircraft, many of them ‘danger close’, in immediate proximity to the PCOP [332].

nyt-map-kunduz-ops

By the end of the afternoon on 2 October several Afghan troops had been wounded.  Their commander was all for taking the casualties back to Camp Pamir immediately, but Hutchinson persuaded them that this was madness: they were stable so the medical evacuation should wait for the cover of darkness.  The Afghan Special Security Forces agreed; while they were at Pamir they would re-supply and then return to attack a command and control centre they said had been established by the Taliban in the National Directorate of Security compound (NDS) to the south west of the PCOP which the Afghan SSF also referred to as ‘the NDS prison’ [386-8].  The investigation report includes this map showing the relationship of the PCOP to the NDS Compound and the MSF Trauma Centre:

map-pcop-msf-and-nds-in-kunduz

[A similar map included in a detailed analysis by The Intercept mis-locates the PCOP – almost certainly confusing it with the NDS Prison that the Operations Center in Bagram wrongly assumed was the intended target of the air/ground operation: see below]

The Afghan Special Security Forces were assured that Close Air Support would be extended to the convoy once they had returned to the ‘self-defence perimeter’ beyond the PCOP – a ‘bubble’, Hutchinson called it, roughly defined by the range of the heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns used by the Taliban [387].

But by then the F-16s providing close air support were running low on munitions and in the early evening, with the situation in Kunduz remaining precarious, the Special Operations Task Force scrambled the AC-130 gunship from Bagram to take over.

***

The AC-130 (call-sign ‘Hammer’) was a mission in a hurry and the aircraft took off without a proper briefing or any geospatial intelligence products.  All the aircrew had was the grid location of the PCOP and the call sign and contact frequency for the OD-As [052].  By then, superior commands had received the e-mail detailing the location of the Trauma Centre, and at 1847 the Fires Officer from Combined Joint Special Operations e-mailed a package of ‘mission products’ to the Electronic Warfare Officer onboard the AC-130 which included that information.  But en route to Kunduz one of the aircraft’s communications systems failed and the message never arrived; when the aircrew did not acknowledge receipt, the Fires Officer at Bagram made no attempt to pass the information over the radio (which was working) [052].

At 0130 on 3 October the Afghan convoy left on its evacuation and re-supply mission, and Hutchinson contacted the AC-130 through his Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) to ask them to carry out a ‘defensive [infrared] scan’ of the area of operations.  Specifically, he wanted to prepare the ground ahead of the convoy’s return: if they were ambushed and ‘got fixed in place what I wanted to do was to reduce heavy weapons and strongpoints so that they would be able to effectively maneuver on to the objective’ [390].  To that end he supplied the aircraft with a grid location for the NDS compound.

It is unclear – from the redacted report, at least – how the co-ordinates of the target were obtained. Hutchinson said that when the Afghan Special Security Forces showed him their plan for securing the NDS compound it included ‘a grid [which] said, I think, NDS prison’, but when he plotted the location he realised it was not the Prison to the south that was one of the objectives included in the original plan to establish a foothold in the city. Hutchinson riffed on the multiple NDS facilities throughout Kunduz, but this begs a crucial question: how did he plot the grid to confirm the location?  He claimed to have been working from the 1:50,00 map spread out on the hood of his armoured vehicle, which could hardly have provided the co-ordinates required for a precision strike.  The Joint Terminal Attack Controllers would have had access to digital imagery stored on their laptops, but by this stage they were running low on batteries and cannibalising the radios of other Green Berets to keep communications with the AC-130 open [334, 383].  ‘The worst part of it,’ Hutchinson said, was that the day after the strike they found a detailed 1:10,000 map produced by a Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2013 ‘with nice crisp imagery, and it had everything labelled with 10-digit grids’ [397].  The commanders of the other two OD-As remembered it differently, both testifying that the map was found in the provincial governor’s office on 1 October.

ac-130u_sensor_operator

All this matters because when the TV sensor operator on the AC-130 (above) inputted the grids that were passed by Hutchinson via his JTAC he found ‘it put me in a field with residential buildings’.  The AC-130 has a sophisticated sensor suite, including high resolution sensors (an All Light Level Television system, infrared detection set and strike radar to permit all weather/night target acquisition).  But reading between the redactions in the investigation report there is some suggestion that there are also known technical issues with the system (perhaps distortion introduced by the aircraft’s height and/or orbit, because the AC-130 had been forced out of its overhead orbit at 2220 by taking evasive action against a surface-to-air threat): ‘Nothing in the immediate location matched the target but from training I was aware that at significant [redacted]…’ [363].

So the sensor operator widened the search and found a large compound 300 metres to the south that appeared to match the description of the target.  It was not difficult to find: the Trauma Centre had its own generator and was the only building in the city that was still brightly illuminated.  At first sight the sensor operator said ‘there was nothing else near the original location that could match the description of a prison.’

msf-kunduz-attack

‘As we got closer,’ s/he continued,

I observed multiple [redacted: this is surely MAMs or ‘military-aged males’, a term the US military was supposed to have discontinued, which would explain the otherwise puzzling deletion] walking in between buildings [redacted] entrances with [redacted: guards?] posted. After passing back the information to the JTAC he said the compound was under enemy control and that those [redacted: MAMs?] were declared hostile [363].

The navigator had informed the JTAC that the grids had originally plotted to the middle of a field but they now had a large compound in their sights, a T-shaped structure with an arch gate and nine people ‘roaming outside’.  The Green Berets conferred with the Afghan Special Security Forces in the PCOP who confirmed that this was the NDS compound, and the Fire Control Officer on the AC-130 adjusted the target location in the fire control system accordingly [054, 242].

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But the sensor operator, more mindful of the Tactical Guidance issued by General Campbell (below), testified that he wanted ‘to make sure we were not inadvertently declaring civilians hostile’.

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So he re-entered the original co-ordinates (‘to determine any system [redacted: error?]’) – by then the AC-130 had moved to a more accurate, overhead orbit [057] – and this time the sensor homed in on a second compound:

a much smaller compound with two large buildings, what appeared to be a third smaller shack, two overhangs, a wall surrounding, what appeared to be guard towers at the four corners with a single entrance on the south side of the compound and was unable to observe any movement in that compound [363].

This underscored his concerns.  ‘Now that we are closer,’ he told the rest of the crew,

even though that compound [is] the only one that’s limited and has activity, if you look in the TV’s screen you can see this hardened structure [the second compound] that looks very large and could also be more like a prison with cells. So I just want to verify that before we start declaring people hostile, that we are 100 per cent sure that this is the correct compound [057].

He asked the navigator to request a more detailed target description from the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (though the JTAC was not told that the aircraft’s sensors had now identified two different compounds from the same grids).

The JTAC came back with a target description of multiple buildings with a wall surrounding, and a main gate with an arch shape. I asked for further clarification on which side of the compound that gate was on, to which he replied the North side of the compound. The gate I was able to make out at the first compound was on the north side and matched the target description [363].

The first compound was the MSF Trauma Centre; the second was the NDS compound.

***

The redacted version of the investigation report includes a satellite image of the MSF Trauma Centre but conspicuously failed to include a corresponding image of the NDS compound.  Yet from TerraServer’s satellite imagery (below) it is clear that the two are radically different, and in fact the gate on the NDS compound faced south not north.

kunduz-imagery-001

kunduz-imagery-002

kunduz-imagery-003

Neither Hutchinson nor his JTAC had access to real-time imagery from the AC-130 because the same antenna that prevented the aircraft receiving the e-mail with the No-Strike List also prevented it from transmitting a video feed to the JTAC’s laptop, and so both the aircrew and the US forces on the ground had to rely on verbal descriptions.  The investigation report calls the characterisation of the target building ‘a vague description’ [034] but, as Mathieu Aikins pointed out in a superb analysis of the strike, ‘it’s actually a rather specific description that corresponds to MSF’s distinctive layout.’  Indeed, when the aircrew compared the two compounds they were persuaded by the description of a ‘T-shaped structure’ that they had identified the correct target.

Once the AC-130 aircrew’s description of the Trauma Centre had been confirmed by the Afghan Special Security Forces as the NDS compound, the circle was closed.  As Hutchinson testified, he had a report from the AC-130 ‘that describes a target, the disposition of the target and the pattern of life on it that’s completely consistent with what I’ve heard from the Afghans…’  Whether the Afghans deliberately substituted a description of the Trauma Centre for the NDS compound remains an open question.  From their own (separate) interviews in Kunduz, both May Jeong and Mathieu Aikins repeatedly raise this as a distinct possibility.  Some informants insisted that the Trauma Centre had been overrun by the Taliban, confirmed (so they said) by raw intelligence and communications intercepts, even that it was being used as a firing position – a claim that was repeated by the government in Kabul in the immediate aftermath of the strike – while others complained that MSF treated Taliban casualties who then returned to the fray: ‘patching up fighters and sending them back out.’  Much of this is ex post facto rationalisation; clearly many Afghans regarded the attack on the Trauma Centre as perfectly justified.  But Aikins asks a more pointed question: Did Afghan forces, out of longstanding mistrust of MSF, draw the United States into a terrible tragedy?’

If they did, then it had to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision to take advantage of a developing situation, since the Afghan Special Security Forces had originally provided the correct grids for the NDS compound.

More telling, I suspect, is that from 0100 until well into the attack on the Trauma Centre the only people who had the co-ordinates for the target now in the sights of the AC-130 were the aircrew, who did not pass the grid location for what they had incorrectly identified as the target back to Hutchinson.  And yet the ground force commander had already told the navigator he had ‘great confidence in the grids passed [057]’, and it is astonishing that this did not prompt a more extensive discussion among the aircrew since the original grids had plotted first to an open field and second to the NDS compound but never to the Trauma Centre that had now been designated as the target.

Neither did the aircrew pass the revised grids back to the Special Operations Task Force who were monitoring events from Bagram.  Repeating Hutchinson’s earlier mistaken assumption, the staff in the Operations Center at Bagram believed the target (‘the NDS prison’) was the Prison in the south of the city which had been included in the original Kunduz City Foothold Establishment plan, and they tasked an MQ-1 Predator to provide surveillance over that location [059].

nds-compound-and-prison-in-kunduz

Hutchinson could not view the video feed from the Predator, since the laptops in the PCOP were desperately short of batteries, but the Special Operations Task Force did have access to the drone’s real-time imagery.  Nothing was happening around the Prison, and confident that this was the strike location nobody at Bagram attempted to confirm the coordinates until the attack on the Trauma Center was well under way.  At 0207 they heard a sudden, direct transmission from the AC-130 – ‘unreadable numbers followed by going hot/rounds away’ – and ‘the quickness of the going hot call’ suggested to one experienced JTAC at Bagram that ‘there was possibly a dire situation on the ground.’  But ‘the passing of engagement grids was broken, unreadable’, and s/he immediately ‘made multiple attempts to get a resend of [the] grid of engagement’.  Those requests ‘were either not acknowledged or met with “still engaging/hot”‘, but this was ‘not uncommon due to the task saturation during coordination and employment by ground JTACs and aircraft’.   Meanwhile another JTAC in the Operations Centre, realising that ‘no activity was noted at the facility’ – presumably by the Predator on station over the Prison; the Taliban had reportedly freed all the prisoners when they took the city – tasked the Predator crew to ‘find the engagement area’ [261-4].  At 0220 they were successful, and once the new grids had been checked the Operations Center realised that the AC-130 was attacking the Trauma Center.

***

Hutchinson provided two contradictory rationales for the attack.  One was offensive: his JTAC relayed to the AC-130 that Hutchinson’s intent was to ‘soften the target’ (meaning the NDS compound) for the Afghan convoy returning from Camp Pamir.  When the aircrew asked for clarification they were told they were to ‘destroy targets of opportunity that may impede partner forces’ success’ [059].  When he was questioned by the investigating officers, Hutchinson represented this as pre-emptive and precautionary: ‘If they were going to take contact I did not want to play twenty questions while they were taking fire’ [391].  The other was unambiguously defensive: the immediate trigger for Hutchinson to clear the AC-130 to open fire was the sound of automatic gunfire from the east-west road near the NDS compound.

What did it for me in the end was when I believed the [redacted] convoy to be at that parallel cross street … or the perpendicular cross street … to the facility, I heard sustained automatic weapons fire … and it was coming from that general direction. And so I asked the [redacted] are they in contact yet. He can’t get through [to] them at first, and so I think okay, so that’s a sign they’re probably in contact… Fire continues and I ask him again and he says strike now, assume they are decisively engaged’ [393-4].

It’s not clear from the redactions who Hutchinson was talking to, but it was almost certainly someone from the Afghan Special Security Forces in the PCOP.  What is certain – and known to the aircrew on the AC-130, who were also tracking the convoy, but not to Hutchinson – was that the convoy was nowhere near the NDS compound or even the Trauma Centre at that time but 9 km away, still within the northern perimeter of the airfield.

Hutchinson’s attention was on the sound of gunfire.  He explained that most of the fire directed against his forces in the PCOP compound had been from the west, and it was ‘unthinkable’ that ‘there would have been anything functional over there in terms of essential services’ [394] – like a hospital.

And so, at 0202 Hutchinson had his JTAC instruct the AC-130 to strike the ‘objective building first’ and then to provide ‘suppressing fire’ (which the JTAC later described as a ‘PAX cocktail’ and the aircrew translated as ‘MAMs’ [military-aged males]).   Again the aircrew sought clarification; they wanted to be sure that their target was the ‘large T-shaped building in the centre of the compound’ and that ‘we are [also] cleared on people in this compound.’  It was and they were; at 0208 the first round was fired as the Electronic Warfare Officer announced the grids over the radio: the garbled transmission received at Bagram [064-6].

***

ac-130h-u_007-ts600

The AC-130 made five passes over the Trauma Centre at 15-minute intervals, firing a total of 211 rounds.  But ’rounds’ fails to convey the scale of the ordnance involved.  As May Jeong notes, the AC-130 is ‘built around a gun’; it is, after all, a gunship.  It has a 105 mm M102 Howitzer that fires high explosive shells at 10 rounds a minute (reputedly the largest gun ever operated from a US aircraft); a 40 mm Bofors cannon that fires 120 rounds a minute; and a 25mm 5-barrelled Gatling cannon that fires incendiary rounds at 1,800 rounds a minute.  YouTube has a video of a live-firing exercise carried out by the 4th Special Operations Squadron in 2016 that is truly chilling:

All these weapons are side-firing; the AC-130 performs a slow left-banking pylon turn in a five-mile orbit to keep its weapons on target for much longer than a conventional strike aircraft:

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The results on the ground were catastrophic.

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All the patients in the ICU died except one, alongside the caretakers who were with them; one doctor, three nurses and a cleaner who were in the ICU were also killed.  Here is Kathleen Thomas again:

I hope with all my heart that the three sedated patients in ICU, including our ER nurse Lal Mohammad, were deep enough to be unaware of their deaths — but this is unlikely. They were trapped in their beds, engulfed in flames.

The same horror that rocked the ICU rocked the rest of the main building as the plane hit with alarming precision. Our ER nurse Mohibulla died. Our ER cleaner Najibulla died. Dr. Amin suffered major injuries but managed to escape the main building, only to then die an hour later in the arms of his colleagues as we desperately tried to save his life in the makeshift operating theater set up in the kitchen next to the morning meeting room.  The OT nurse, Abdul Salam, died. The strikes continued further down the building, tearing through the outpatients department, which had become a temporary sleeping area for staff. Dr. Satar died. The medical records officer Abdul Maqsood died. Our pharmacist Tahseel was lethally injured. He also made it to safety in the morning meeting room, only to die soon after, having bled to death. Two of the hospital watchmen Zabib and Shafiq also died.

Our colleagues didn’t die peacefully like in the movies. They died painfully, slowly, some of them screaming out for help that never came, alone and terrified, knowing the extent of their own injuries and aware of their impending death. Countless other staff and patients were injured; limbs blown off, shrapnel rocketed through their bodies, burns, pressure wave injuries of the lungs, eyes, and ears. Many of these injures have left permanent disability. It was a scene of nightmarish horror that will be forever etched in my mind.

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***

The loss of life and the destruction of the hospital was appalling.  But the effects of the air strike have reverberated far beyond the Trauma Centre and the events of 3 October.  In February this year Sophia Jones told the troubling story of a father of four who lost his right arm and the sight of one eye when he was caught in cross-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan army.  With the destruction of the Trauma Centre in Kunduz there were no local hospitals capable of treating his life-threatening injuries, and it took him two agonising days to travel 200 miles to the Surgical Center for War Victims run by another NGO, Emergency, in Kabul – now ‘the only free, specialized trauma hospital of its kind treating war victims in Afghanistan.’  Like MSF, Emergency is absolutely clear that ‘we cannot be on one side of the war’: ‘a patient is a patient’.  Like MSF, most of Emergency’s patients are civilians.  But, as Luke Mogelson found in the spring of 2012,

At Emergency’s hospital in Kabul, it’s not unusual to find Afghan national security forces recovering in the same ward as Taliban insurgents, and after a while, the ideas that make enemies of the two men lose their relevance; the daily spectacle of their impact on human bodies invalidates them.

That was then.  ‘After Kunduz’, Emergency’s program co-ordinator now concedes, ‘anything is possible.’  It would be truly, desperately awful if one of the casualties of the air strike on the Trauma Centre turned out to be the core principle of medical neutrality.

One year after Kunduz, Christopher Stokes, MSF’s General Director, warned that ‘A war without limits leads to a battlefield without doctors.’  MSF pledged not to allow that to happen.  They must not stand alone.

To be continued

#PortesOuvertes

Like many other people, I’ve been trying to make sense of the horrific attack in Nice on 14 July. I’ve delayed writing about it because so much remains unknown – though that has not stopped a cascade of malignant certainties spewing from those on the Right who see every event as an opportunity to foment fear, harness hatred and deepen division.

A Tunisian man with no known history of political activism or religious affirmation kills 84 people by deliberately driving a truck through crowds along the Promenade des Anglais who were celebrating Bastille Day; a man who lived on the margins with a record of petty crime and domestic abuse; somebody with precious few resources, yet able to rent a truck and acquire weapons; and a claim to have ‘inspired’ the attack from Islamic State, which then hailed him as a ‘soldier’.

No wonder that Peter Beaumont agonises over ‘a new kind of terror – one we can’t define‘, where the systematic recruitment, training and organisation of other terrorist attacks bleeds into the savage violence of the ‘lone wolf’ prowling undetected in the darkness.  The incorporation and adulation of individuals and small groups with no previous connection to IS or other jihadi groups reverses what he calls the standard ‘polarity of responsibility: encouraging acts of violence that it accepts as bloody tributes thrown at its feet.’

The link with petty crime is not surprising.  Scott Atran notes that

Serious jihadi involvement with petty criminal networks began after the September 11 attacks as an unintended consequence of the ability of the United States and allies to cut off the flow of funding to suspect groups, especially through Islamic charities. So al-Qaeda and others began looking for funding and arms in criminal networks instead. And in these networks there were large numbers of marginalized immigrant youth, especially in France.

Indeed, Joseph Micallef makes a plausible case for IS expanding its involvement in criminality as its territorial hold on Iraq and Syria comes under intensifying assault: ‘The smuggling networks that are used to bring in armaments and militants can be just as easily be used to traffic in drugs and illegal immigrants.’  His inclusion of ‘illegal immigrants’ should give us pause for thought; I have no idea if he intends this to include refugees from the turmoil in Iraq, Syria and Libya (it shouldn’t).  But to the extent that IS is involved in human trafficking then this is a double victimisation of its prey.

All of this may be granted; but a causal link between Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s murderous drive through crowds of innocent people and the designs of IS or any other radical version of political Islam is proving remarkably elusive.  There is a wider debate in France about whether the terrorism serially inflicted upon its people is at root about ‘the radicalization of Islam’ (Gilles Kepel – below left) or the ‘Islamicization of radicalism’ (Olivier Roy – below right) – there is a good summary here – but in this instance it is far from clear that either of them is relevant.

Gilles Keppel and Olivier Roy

Indeed, Farhad Khorokhavar, a sociologist at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, doubts that ‘radicalisation’ is the appropriate term at all:

“I don’t think he was radicalised at all… It’s a case of raw violence. He took a decision to kill in a moment of despair. My guess is that it’s much more like a mass shooting in the US than [Islamist] radicalisation.”

He speaks instead of ‘mimetic violence’, where previous attacks have furnished ‘a model that fragile people can imitate.’

So I don’t know whether the atrocity in Nice can be attributed to IS or not – but I have no doubt that the precipitate rush to do so has substantive consequences.

One place to start thinking critically about them is this photograph of a woman consumed by grief as she searches for her son after the attack:

Nice July 2016

The image serves to remind us that – if, to repeat, this does prove to be an attack whose trail can be traced back, however indirectly, to the dismal doors of Islamic State – the victims of such atrocities include people of many cultures and faiths.  Theirs is not a ‘war’ against a single, monolithic enemy; Nice is far from being a homogeneous city – like France, like the rest of Europe – and Alissa Rubin captures what she calls its ‘many-layered’ geography better than most:

There is the Nice of popular imagination, the old-world resort dotted with palm trees and cafes that look out on the Mediterranean Sea, suffused with an incandescent light prized for centuries by artists.

Then there is the other Nice, one that begins to show its face a few blocks inland from the seaside Promenade des Anglais, the majestic arc of a boulevard where 84 people were killed by a 31-year-old Tunisian immigrant at the wheel of a 19-ton truck. This Nice is home to many Muslim immigrants from North Africa, including a secular middle-class that has lived alongside non-Muslim French, and is also a place that local officials estimate has sent as many as 100 young people to fight in Syria with extremists.

“It is rare that these two worlds mix with each other except at the moment of festivities or of agreement, like the gatherings on Saturday,” said Feiza Ben Mohamed of the Muslims of the South, an organization that fights radicalization, referring to the public mourning for those killed in the truck attack.

“Yet the first victim was Muslim, and a good number of the victims were Muslims,” Ms. Mohamed added. “Just yesterday I was on the promenade reflecting on what had happened, and a journalist asked me if I was there to apologize in the name of Muslims. I said to him, ‘No, I came to weep for the dead like everyone else.’”

You can read another (short) essay by Farhad Khorokhavar on these divisions in France, ‘Jihad and the French exception’, here.  In Nice they have been intensified, not only by recruiters for the butchery in Syria – and there is no doubt of their success in Nice: Alpes-Maritimes was one of the first French départements to implement a counter-radicalisation strategy of sorts – but also by the advance of the far right National Front, and no doubt by memories of France’s colonial adventures in North Africa and the Levant and its deepening military involvement in Syria.

For now, France seems under repeated attack: the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015; the attacks on the Bataclan and other public places in Paris last November; and now the murder of more than 80 people in Nice.

Martin Rowson cartoon Guardian

Each of these mass murders is truly, wrenchingly shocking: but those of us who live in Europe or North America cannot afford to allow those shock-waves to be refracted by geography because this would erect the bloody partition that is one of IS’s central objectives.  Nihilism meets narcissism.

I made much the same point about Paris and Beirut last year.  Now we might twin Nice with Baghdad. Like Nice – like all cities worthy of the name – Baghdad is far from homogeneous, for all the ethno-sectarian ‘cleansing’ that occurred during the US occupation (see my account of ‘The Biopolitics of Baghdad’: DOWNLOADS tab), and those tensions continue to roil.  The truck bombing and subsequent fire that killed 300 people in the Karrada district as they broke their Ramadan fast at the end of the day on 3 July may have seemed like the ‘new normal’ to commentators watching the rising tide of violence in post-occupation Iraq; it too was claimed by IS.  So too many of us doubtless shrugged our shoulders.

Documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq 2003-July 2016 (Iraq Body Count)

Documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq 2003-July 2016 (Iraq Body Count)

And yet, as Walaa Chahine so movingly testified after another bombing there on 12 July, ‘We may be used to bombings in Baghdad, but Baghdad isn’t‘:

We are used to it, so we don’t make hashtags, change our profile pictures, or memorize their names. By taking away these rights away from them, and yes, they have become rights, as long as other victims are given them, we are taking away their connection to us as humans. We forget that we would probably never get used to having our hometowns bombed every day, that just like us, they are humans who don’t forget, can’t forget.

No, the eleven people killed today weren’t used to dying. The 292 killed last week were not used to it. Their families will never get used to it. No matter how long you spend in a war area, you never get used to it. Ask a soldier, ask a refugee, ask someone who experiences violence and pain on the daily if they ever truly get used to it. We might be able to tune out their screams, but we weren’t the ones screaming in the first place.

Iraqi woman grieving in Karrada July 2016

And so, as this contrapuntal geography shows, it bears repeating – until even the tone-deaf Donald Trump gets it – that most of the victims of Islamic State’s terrible violence are other, innocent Muslims.  And they live – and die – outside Europe and North America too.