The director of the Airwars monitoring project tells DW that German intelligence likely plays a role in civilian casualties in Syria. But Chris Woods says poor intelligence also poses a risk to civilians.
DW: German media are reporting that German Tornado reconnaissance jets played a role in targeting a school in Syria where at least 33 civilians were killed on March 20. But according to your data, that attack is just one of many where civilians were killed after the coalition against the "Islamic State" (IS) started bombing targets in September 2014. So what's your most recent estimate when it comes to the number of attacks and civilian casualties in this war against IS?
Chris Woods: The war against IS dates back to August 2014. The strikes began in Syria a month later, in September 2014. Our present estimate dating back to September 2014, which obviously predates Germany's involvement here with the provision of aerial intelligence, is that more than 1,400 civilians have been killed in coalition actions in Syria alone. So it's a significant conflict, with unfortunately a fairly significant death toll among civilians.
The German public is told that those Tornadoes are not involved in actual combat. But can there actually be a distinction between reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, and targeting and killing? What's exactly the role of those Tornadoes and how important are they?
The conflict in Syria is very heavily dependent on aerial intelligence. So countries which may not be involved in the direct fighting in Syria, such as Germany, are nevertheless playing a key role in gathering crucial aerial intelligence, which then feeds into lethal strikes by others, primarily the United States. Ninety-five percent of coalition airstrikes in Syria are by the United States. So those German Tornadoes are not firing on targets, but they are gathering intelligence which will then be used in lethal operations. The British, before they formally became involved in airstrikes in Syria, were doing something similar with their Reaper drones; they were gathering intelligence which was then being used in lethal strikes. So, certainly Germany is not pulling the trigger or dropping the bomb, but German intelligence will be playing a crucial role in airstrikes on IS targets.
So the German public actually has to wake up to the fact that it is actively involved in the war, where people, real people, are killed.
That would be your comment, not mine.
But now we have the offensive against Mosul; we have the offensive against the IS capital of Raqqa. Do we have to expect more loss of civilian life, now that the noose is going to tighten around Mosul and Raqqa, and IS in general?
I don't think we should ever be complacent about the risk of civilian casualties. We've in fact been tracking a very significant rise in civilian deaths around Raqqa in recent months, and that's before the assault on the city itself has begun. And that has us particularly worried, because most of these civilian deaths are occurring in fairly lightly populated villages and towns. And one concern we've had is that these deaths may be occurring in part because of the high tempo of conflict. We're seeing ten times more coalition airstrikes in Raqqa province now than we were six months ago, for example. But we're also concerned that civilian deaths are occurring because of poor intelligence, both from the air and from the ground. The proxy forces that the coalition works with in Raqqa are the Kurdish SDF. They are not from that area, that region; they are from other parts of Syria, and coupled with the coalition's own limited knowledge of the local conditions, we feel that civilians are dying on occasions because of poor knowledge, because of poor intelligence. And this is what happens when you're fighting with proxy forces and you're fighting primarily from the air. The risk to civilians, in our view, increases.
Chris Woods is the director of Airwars, a project led by journalists that is monitoring and evaluating civilian casualties caused by international airstrikes in the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
The interview was conducted by Matthias von Hein.