‘What do you mean by people?’ British military unsure how many killed in airstrikes

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Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials are unable to confirm how many people have died as a result of UK airstrikes in Iraq and Syria because it is not data that they “hold readily.”

Confronted with a request for casualty figures, an MoD spokesperson initially asked the Scottish Common Space website “what do you mean by people?

The spokesperson then explained that a lack of combat troops on the ground meant casualty figures were hard to verify.

Investigative group AirWars, which calculates casualties based on media reports, claims there have been more than 2,000 civilian and 23,000 combatant deaths in around 15 months of coalition bombing.

They suggest around 30,000 bombs and missiles have been used.

The group accepts an accurate number is hard to calculate given the nature and complexity of the Syrian war. It also concedes that “claims of [non-combatant] casualties from allied airstrikes [between 682 and 2,104] represent only a very small proportion of overall fatalities attributed to the conflict.

The MoD’s claim there are no boots are on the ground is contested, however.

Reports from August suggest UK Special Forces are operating in Syria carrying out reconnaissance and possibly calling in airstrikes.

Essentially, this is what we call ‘penny packet’ operations – small individual incursions, which hopefully join up to create tangible results,” a senior military source told the Express newspaper at the time.

The view here is long – it’s about finding and engaging targets, yes, but it’s also about assessing infrastructure and identifying where ISIS [Islamic State] is hiding its equipment in order to set the conditions for a potentially larger, future engagement.

As a matter of long-standing policy, the UK government refuses to comment on Special Forces operations.