1418 strikes and you’re still in…

The Syrian Archive has announced the release of a database of Russian-led airstrikes on civilian targets in Syria between September 2015 and September 2018.

Several years of monitoring alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria reveals a pattern of indiscriminate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. In an analysis of 3303 videos documenting alleged Russian airstrikes from 116 sources between 30 September 2015 and 9 September 2018, Syrian Archive has identified 1418 incidents in which Russian forces allegedly targeted civilians or civilian infrastructure of little to no military value. Content included in this database can be viewed, analysed and downloaded.

While data presented in this collection does not include all incidents of alleged Russian airstrikes on civilians between 2015 and 2018 [my emphasis], it presents all incidents for which visual content was available and verifiable as of the date of publication. Syrian Archive hopes this will support reporting, advocacy, research, and accountability efforts…

This open source database is fully searchable and queryable by date, location, keyword, relevance, and confidence score..

The database includes more than 3,000 videos of 1,400 incidents (some taken by citizens and activists, some by human rights organisations, and some by the Russian Ministry of Defence); its compilation involved a series of negotiations with YouTube over the removal of some of the video evidence (see here and my extended discussion of visual evidence here).

Airwars continues to do stellar work documenting civilian casualties from the US-led coalition’s military operations in Syria and elsewhere, but the Syrian Archive’s contribution is particularly valuable since, as Airwars notes:

Airwars maintains an extensive database of all known allegations in which civilians have been reported killed by Russian forces in Syrian casualty events since September 30th 2015. Our published month by month records include a case report on each known alleged event; photographs, videos, names of the dead where known; archived links to all known sources; and our provisional assessment as to whether Russian forces were likely responsible.

Due to the scale of the Russian campaign and the number of reported civilian casualty allegations, our team rolls out monthly assessments as we are able to complete them. Much of our deep assessment work had to be suspended in early 2017 given the high number of alleggations against the US-led Coalition.

Chemical weapons in Syria

A new, detailed report from the BBC investigates the Assad regime’s strategic deployment of chemical weapons.  The joint investigation by the Panorama team and BBC Arabic determined ‘there is enough evidence to be confident that at least 106 chemical attacks have taken place in Syria since September 2013, when [President Assad] signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and agreed to destroy the country’s chemical weapons stockpile‘ (my emphasis).

The BBC team considered 164 reports of chemical attacks from September 2013 onwards. The reports were from a variety of sources considered broadly impartial and not involved in the fighting. They included international bodies, human rights groups, medical organisations and think tanks.

In line with investigations carried out by the UN and the OPCW, BBC researchers, with the help of several independent analysts, reviewed the open source data available for each of the reported attacks, including victim and witness testimonies, photographs and videos.
The BBC team had their methodology checked by specialist researchers and experts.
The BBC researchers discounted all incidents where there was only one source, or where they concluded there was not sufficient evidence. In all, they determined there was enough credible evidence to be confident a chemical weapon was used in 106 incidents.

Almost half the documented attacks were in Idlib and Hama; most casualties were recorded in Kafr Zita (in Hama) and Douma (in East Ghouta).  Aircraft were used in almost half the attacks, and the experts consulted by the BBC concluded that in the majority of cases it was overwhelmingly likely that the Syrian Arab Air Force was responsible.  In this connection, it is telling that:

Many of the reported attacks occurred in clusters in and around the same areas and at around the same times. These clusters coincided with government offensives – in Hama and Idlib in 2014, in Idlib in 2015, in Aleppo city at the end of 2016, and in the Eastern Ghouta in early 2018.

The report pays particular attention to the use of chemical weapons during the offensive against East Ghouta earlier this year – see my detailed analysis here; see also here – and provides a detailed map:

Panorama: Syria’s Chemical War will be broadcast in the UK on Monday 15 October on BBC One at 20:30. It will be available afterwards on the BBC iPlayer. It will also be broadcast on BBC Arabic on Tuesday 23 October at 19:05 GMT.

Trauma Geographies online

My Antipode Lecture on Trauma Geographies is now available online via YouTube.

(If you wonder why I’m hunched over my laptop, the microphone was fixed to the podium….).  Since I’m now turning this into an essay, I’d welcome any questions, comments or suggestions.

You can find more details  including open access to a series of related articles – at the Antipode Foundation website here.

Trauma geographies, woundscapes and the clinic

I returned from the RGS/IBG Conference in Cardiff to the start of term (which explains and I hope excuses my silence: I’ve updated my two course outlines for this term, and you can find them under the TEACHING Tab if you are interested; if you have any comments or suggestions I’d be happy to have them).

My next order of business is to turn my Antipode Lecture on “Trauma Geographies” into a text (the video will be online soon, I hope); I’ve already started on the translation, helped by questions and feedback from the presentation, and I’ll post the draft when it’s ready.

The argument moves from medical care and casualty evacuation in Belgium and France, 1914-1918 through Afghanistan 2001-2018 to Syria 2011-2018, and in each case I address both combatants and civilians.  Much of this trades on (and develops) posts that will be familiar to regular readers – and if you’re not the GUIDE tab ought to help direct you to the most relevant ones – but I’ve also returned to my ideas about corpography and used them to flesh out (sic) the concept of a ‘woundscape‘.  I decided to that because one of the themes of the conference was landscape, and the idea of a woundscape seemed to take that debate in a fruitful new direction.  I first encountered it in Jennifer Terry‘s brilliant Attachments to War, and she in turn found it in the work of Gregory Whitehead (particularly Display Wounds).

I’m drawn to the way in which both authors/performers try to coax wounds to speak, to read their violent ruptures of the body, and to transcend the typically narrowly bio-medical discourse that frames them.  At the same time, I don’t want to ignore that scientific framing, not least because it is profoundly performative and has such vital consequences (both physical and affective), so in my rendering a ‘woundscape’ is constituted through the explosive intersection of the military gaze (‘the target’) and the medical gaze (the injured body) but immediately spirals beyond those visual registers – and indeed beyond visuality – to include a range of other senses and sensibilities. A woundscape thus includes the bio-physical, cognitive and affective landscapes in which casualties are created, moved and treated.  The affective envelope that surrounds and invades the injured body is a constant concern; this extends beyond the casualty to a host of other actors – as Omar Dewachi shrewdly observes, when wounds travel they ‘enter new social worlds and multiple histories of violence’ – but I I focus on physical injury (rather than PTSD) because so many accounts of later modern war have represented it as what James Der Derian dubbed ‘virtuous’ war whose seeming remoteness is rendered as at once increasingly virtual, fought on and through screens and algorithms, and at the limit radically, absurdly disembodied. Against this, I’m trying to respond to John Keegan’s dismayed observation that the wounded – he included the dead too – ‘apparently dematerialize as soon as they are struck down…’

So here are the slides from my presentation that summarise my interim propositions about woundscapes, drawn from the three case studies; I’ll be revising and elaborating them as I proceed, but I hope this might start a conversation:

Finally, Omar’s wonderful essay that I cited earlier appeared in MATMedicine, Anthropology, Theory – and I would be remiss not to draw attention to its most recent issue.  The editorial on ‘Clinic and Crisis‘ by Eileen Moyer and Vinh-Kim Nguyen sends me back to the other essay I’m currently trying to finish, on “The Death of the Clinic“, which plainly intersects with ‘Trauma Geographies’:

A common thread runs through the articles of this issue of MAT: the conjoining of clinic and crisis. Here we refer, in the manner of Foucault (1963) to the clinic as both an epistemology (a way of knowing) as well as a material space where the ill seek care. Crises are moments of rupture, where the surface of everyday life splinters to reveal what lies underneath and new dangers can appear; they are also turning points where futures can be grasped and foretold. Moments of social crisis manifest in bodies, and therefore in the clinic. Das’s notion of ‘critical events’, as discussed in Affliction: Health, Disease, and Poverty and also taken up in MAT’s September 2017 issue, furnishes perhaps the most thorough consideration of crisis. As she and others have pointed out, crisis is an everyday reality for many who live in conditions of precarity and existential instability. More generally, the current geopolitical climate and the growing urgency of climate change contribute to the sense of crisis. The clinic is symptomatic of crisis, a place where a state of emergency becomes finally visible.

More soon – and I haven’t forgotten that I need to return to my series of posts on Ghouta and, in particular, to address the issue of medical care and casualty evacuation (or lack of it) there too.

Siege and forcible displacement

I’m now back at work on Syria and in particular the attacks on hospitals and healthcare (I’ll be drawing on some of this for my Antipode lecture in Cardiff next month).  More on that soon, but in the meantime there are two reports that (more than) deserve notice.

First, Siege Watch has produced its tenth quarterly report, and Part I is devoted to East Ghouta (February-April 2018).  Its 84 pages make for chilling reading:

Data collected during the quarter from a network of Eastern Ghouta contacts and other sources showed that:

At least 1,700 people were killed, 5,000 injured, and 158,000 displaced, leaving entire towns empty. In some areas, upwards of 90% of the structures were destroyed.

The brutal campaign created a ‘demonstration effect’ and was used to push other besieged areas to surrender with significantly less force.

At least eight suspected chemical attacks were launched against civilians and ghters in Eastern Ghouta during the reporting period. In total, an estimated 45 civilians were killed and nearly 700 injured in these attacks.

More than 65,000 people, most of them civilians, were forcibly displaced to Idlib and Aleppo in northern Syria as part of the final surrender agreements.

In the wake of the capture of Eastern Ghouta and Jobar by pro-government forces, there were reports of field executions, detentions, threats, and widespread looting. Thousands of men from Eastern Ghouta were forced into mandatory military service.

The end of the siege of Eastern Ghouta highlights the government’s demographic engineering strategy. Roughly 200,000 people remained in the enclave by the end of the reporting period – around half of the estimated population from before the offensive began, and just 18% of the area’s pre-war population.

I’ll draw on some of the details from the report in my later post.

Notice those forced displacements to Idlib, described as ‘an elaborately constructed killbox.’  The International Crisis Group recently published its first illustrated commentary, Voices of Idlib, which you can find here.

Scenes of crimes

I’m still on the road, but my series of essays on siege warfare in Syria has not ground to a complete halt: far form it.  Expect more soon, but in the meantime, two reports from the New York Times of considerable importance.

First, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria confirmed that the siege of eastern Ghouta was marked by war crimes and crimes against humanity:

Dramatically escalating their military campaign to recapture the besieged enclave between February and April, pro-Government forces carried out aerial and ground bombardments which claimed the lives of hundreds of Syrian men, women, and children. By April, numerous homes, markets, and hospitals had been all but razed to the ground, amounting to the war crimes of launching indiscriminate attacks, and deliberately attacking protected objects.

In an effort to avoid the bombardments, terrified civilians relocated to makeshift basement shelters in February, where they subsisted for months underground in dire circumstances.

“It is completely abhorrent that besieged civilians were indiscriminately attacked, and systematically denied food and medicine,” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro. “What is clear from the terminal phase of this siege is that no warring party acted to protect the civilian population”, he continued.

Through the widespread and systematic bombardments of civilian inhabited areas and objects in eastern Ghouta, and the continued denial of food and medicine to besieged civilians during the period under review, pro-Government forces perpetrated the crime against humanity of inhumane acts causing serious mental and physical suffering, the report finds.

Between February and April, besieged armed groups and terrorist organisations also relentlessly fired unguided mortars into neighbouring Damascus city and nearby areas, killing and maiming hundreds of Syrian civilians.

“Even if pro-Government forces are bombing and starving the civilian population of eastern Ghouta into submission, there can be no justification for the indiscriminate shelling of civilian inhabited areas in Damascus”, said Commissioner Hanny Megally. “Such actions by armed groups and members of terrorist organisations also amount to war crimes.”

The report notes that, by the time Government forces declared eastern Ghouta successfully recaptured on 14 April, some 140,000 individuals were displaced from their homes, tens of thousands of whom are being unlawfully interned by Government forces in managed sites throughout Rif Damascus.

“The blanket internment of all civilians who fled eastern Ghouta through humanitarian corridors, including women and children, is reprehensible,” said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “In many instances, the on-going internment of these individuals amounts to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and the unlawful confinement of tens of thousands of individuals,” she continued.

Pursuant to local truces and “evacuation agreements”, up to 50,000 civilians from eastern Ghouta were displaced to Idlib and Aleppo governorates, none of whom were provided aid by the Syrian Government.

The report also states that the cumulative physical and psychological harm wrought by the five-year siege continues to impact negatively hundreds of thousands of Syrian men, women, and children countrywide.

I’ve taken that summary from a press release on 20 June; the full report will be presented today, and you can download it here. (scroll down).

I’ll have more to say about this report when my series resumes, but what is important for now is that – according to a report by Maggie Haberman and Rick Gladstone for the New York Times – details of two chemical attacks were drastically reduced:

At least twice this year, the Syrian military fired Iranian-made artillery shells filled with a chlorine-like substance that oozed poison slowly, giving victims just a few minutes to escape.

In another attack, Syrian forces dropped a chemical bomb on the top-floor balcony of an apartment building, killing 49 people, including 11 children. Their skin turned blue.

These details and others blaming Syria for atrocities in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, were uncovered by a United Nations commission investigating and documenting possible war crimes in the seven-year-old conflict. But when the commission issued a report on Wednesday, the details were omitted.

Seven pages that had been in an earlier draft, provided to The New York Times, were summarized in two paragraphs in the final document…

The materials in the leaked draft paint a far more frightening picture of chemical weapons use in eastern Ghouta than had been previously reported. And they assert without qualification that Syrian forces and their allies were responsible, rebutting repeated denials by Mr. Assad’s government and his backers in Russia and Iran.

One of those attacks was the assault on Douma on 7 April that I discussed in detail in Gas Masques.  The NYT report explains:

On April 7, the draft said, an improvised explosive delivered from the air hit a multistory residential building roughly 200 yards from the Rif Damascus Hospital, the last functioning hospital in Douma.

The draft described the explosive as a “single industrial gas cylinder” with fins that struck the top-floor balcony and appeared to have “rapidly released large amounts of a substance into the interior space of the residential apartment building.”

“Positions and physical symptoms displayed by victims of the attack support witness claims that the agent acted rapidly,” the draft stated, “and likely indicate that a high concentration of the chemical sank downwards.”

Based on witness statements and “material evidence received and analyzed by the Commission,” the draft stated, the dead showed “an array of symptoms consistent with exposure to a choking agent, including signs of foaming at the mouth and nose, blue skin indicating impaired blood circulation, meiosis (constriction of the pupils), as well as some cases of dilated (wide open) pupils.”

“Statements and material evidence received and analysed by the Commission in relation to the deceased within the apartment building revealed an array of symptoms consistent with exposure to a choking agent, including signs of foaming at the mouth and nose, blue skin indicating impaired blood circulation, meiosis (constriction of the pupils), as well as some cases of dilated (wide open) pupils. Numerous victims unable to flee the building collapsed shortly after exposure.”

You can download those missing pages here.

All of this is a vital preface to a second report from the New York Times: a reconstruction of the attack on that apartment building presented in Augmented Reality here.

The still above will probably look familiar to regular readers, because the reconstruction relies in large measure on the work of Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture agency and contributions from Eliot Higgins‘s Bellingcat (the image at the head of this post is taken from one of its tweets. ) The NYT again:

We were unable to visit Douma. But to get to the truth of what happened, we forensically analyzed the visual evidence unwittingly provided by the Russian reports. Combining those pictures with other videos filmed by Syrian activists, we reconstructed a 3-D model of the building, the balcony and the bomb, in partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London research agency, Forensic Architecture.

The reconstruction brought a virtual crime scene to us. We could inspect how the bomb related to the trove of visual evidence around it, the debris strewn across the balcony, the bomb’s design, the architecture of the rooftop, the damage inscribed on the bomb’s casing, the hole punctured in the roof, and how the bomb penetrated into the room beneath.

Key pieces of evidence indicate that this bomb was not planted, as officials claimed, but dropped from a Syrian military helicopter. The evidence supports chlorine was involved. And it affirmed when it happened — on the evening of April 7, a time frame that is consistent with witness reports and interviews of that day.

The analysis confirms the narrative I set out in Gas Masques, but adduces several other evidentiary or inferential details.  In particular, it reveals that the apartment building (lower left in the diagram below) was located on a street that was regularly used by ambulances ferrying casualties to reach an underground tunnel that gave access to the only functioning hospital in Douma (upper right) – and may have been attacked for that very reason.

The reconstruction that follows included: geo-locating the building and plotting the locations of 34 victims on two floors and the stairwell (below) –

– analysing imagery of the bomb and its residues and fragments from cellphones and from video broadcast by Russian and Syrian agencies to show that the bomb had been rigged to fall from a helicopter (a standard tactic), a finding that reinforces the observed flightpaths from Dumayr Air Base that evening –

– and, finally, devastating film of the victims whose bodies, so experts confirmed, exhibit signature symptoms of exposure to chlorine gas at highly concentrated levels.  They do not rule out the use of other chemical agents, but they also conclude that the casualties did not die from a conventional weapons attack (see my discussion of Robert Fisk‘s reporting in Gas Masques) and neither were they somehow staged (I also discuss this in detail in that same essay).

Many of the victims had been sheltering the in the basement from the bombardment; smelling chlorine, the report concludes, they ran up the stairs towards the top floors of the building – the usual response, since chlorine is heavier than air – not knowing that the gas had been released from a bomb on the roof….

It’s an appropriately corrosive report, and you can watch the full 12-minute video here.  Please do.

Drones and Shadow Wars

I ended my lecture at the Drone Imaginaries conference in Odense this week by arguing that the image of the drone’s all-seeing ‘eye in the sky’ had eclipsed multiple other modalities of later modern war:

Simply put, drones are about more than targeted killing (that’s important, of course, but remember that in Afghanistan and elsewhere ‘night raids’ by US Special Forces on the ground have been immensely important in executing supposedly ‘kill or capture’ missions); and at crucial moments in the war in Afghanistan 90 per cent of air strikes have been carried out by conventional aircraft (though intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from remote platforms often mediated those strikes).

To sharpen the point I showed this image from a drone over Afghanistan on 15 April 2017:

This showed the detonation of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB or ‘Mother Of All Bombs’):

This is a far cry from the individuation of later modern war, the US Air Force’s boast that it could put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and that often repeated line from Grégoire Chamayou about ‘the body becoming the battlefield’.

And, as I’ve been trying to show in my series of posts on siege warfare in Syria, there are still other, shockingly violent and intrinsically collective modalities of later modern war.  Drones have been used there too, but in the case of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces targeting has more often than not avoided precision weapons in favour of saturation bombing and artillery strikes (see here).

All this means that I was pleased to receive a note from the brilliant Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the widening of its work on drones (which will continue, to be sure):

Under President Donald Trump the US counterterrorism campaign is shifting into another phase, and the Bureau is today launching a new project to investigate it – Shadow Wars.  The new phase is in some ways a continuation and evolution of trends seen under Obama. The same reluctance to deploy American troops applies, as does the impetus to respond militarily to radical groups around the world. But as extremist groups spread and metastasise, the US’s military engagements are becoming ever more widespread, and complicated. Peter Singer, a senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, who is a leading expert on security, says: “Shadow wars have been going on for a long time, but what’s clearly happened is that they’ve been accelerated, and the mechanisms for oversight and public notification have been peeled back. The trend lines were there before, but the Trump team are just putting them on steroids.”

A new US drone base has been built in Niger, but its ultimate purpose is unclear. In Afghanistan, the US is trying to prevail over the Taliban, without committing to a substantial increase in troop numbers, by waging an increasingly secretive air war. In Yemen, the US is leaning on the United Arab Emirates as its on the ground counterterrorism partner, a country with a troubled human rights record. Meanwhile, proxy confrontations with Iran are threading themselves into the mix.

Our Shadow Wars project will widen the focus of the Bureau’s drone warfare work. Over the next year, we will bring new and important aspects of US military strategy to light, of which drones are just one troubling aspect.

We aim to explore issues such as America’s increasing reliance on regional allies, the globalisation of the private military industry, the blurring of lines between combat and support missions and the way corruption fuels a state of permanent conflict. As with our work on drones, our primary concern in this new project is to publicise the effects these evolving practices of war have on the civilians on the ground.