Russian Military in Syria

A Russian combat aircraft at Khmeimim airbase in Syria being prepared for action. (Russian Ministry of Defence)

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Published

September 30, 2020

Written by

Airwars Syria team and Shihab Halep

At least 17 nations have intervened militarily in Syria in recent years. In their own words, Syrians describe the often devastating consequences for civilians.

In 1996, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked by reporter Lesley Stahl about sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Stahl asked. The Secretary of State responded: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

Airwars data collected from local sources indicates that since 2014, at least 15,000 civilians were likely killed as a result of airstrikes and shelling from at least 17 foreign powers fighting within Syria, including members of the US-led Coalition; Russia; Iran; Turkey; and Israel. Thousands more have been injured. Here the Airwars Syria team asks: has the price paid by civilians been worth it?

For some Syrians, the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria has its origins in the Assad government’s mishandling of mass demonstrations in the early days of a national uprising. Jala, a Syrian woman now living in London, told Airwars “Had the crisis been managed correctly by the Syrian regime back in 2011, and had the regime focused on a political solution and refrained from using power against its own people and from deploying the army in Dara’a, the intervening powers wouldn’t have found a pretext, and we wouldn’t be talking about the intervention now.”

Reasons for the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria vary widely. For Russia, assistance to the Assad government has helped deliver long dreamt of access to a Mediterranean port. For Iran, its costly efforts to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime while seeking to promote a regional anti-Israel axis have been paramount. For the United States and its Coalition allies, a desire to defeat the terrorist group Islamic State has more recently been supplemented by a desire to counter Iranian and Russian plans for Syria. President Erdogan of Turkey has used the chaos of Syria’s wars to impose a buffer zone in northern Syria and disrupt Kurdish efforts to carve out a new state. And Israel, although not involved in the ground conflict, has nevertheless conducted hundreds of airstrikes against both Iranian and Hezbollah forces within Syria in recent years.

With so many foreign powers and their proxy actors fighting within Syria, this chart by analyst Charles Lister from 2016 indicates the sheer complexity of the situation.

This *simple* chart shows all states of hostility currently being played out on #Syria’s territory#IntractableWar pic.twitter.com/1inprNB6U0

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 13, 2016

The US-led Coalition and civilian harm

Without the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria, the recent history of the nation would have looked very different. Starved of Russian and Iranian support, the Assad government would most likely have been overrun by rebel forces. ISIS would also likely have surged, using the vast arsenal of weapons it had captured in Iraq during 2014 to occupy more and more Syrian territory.

So did the international intervention save the Syrian peoples? Or instead has it elongated and exacerbated the conflict, and consequently the suffering of civilians?

Following an earlier military intervention in Syria by Iran in support of the Assad government, six years ago this week the US-led Coalition launched its first airstrikes in Syria on September 23rd 2014, targeting both the so-called Islamic State that now controlled vast swathes of Syria; and also al-Qaeda’s local Syrian faction. Dozens of strikes by US, Saudi, Emirati and Jordanian aircraft that day – as well as Tomahawk missiles fired from US warships – led to the Coalition’s first reported massacre of civilians in Syria in Kafar Dryan. The Coalition still denies civilian casualties in that attack.

According to Airwars data gathered from local sources on the ground since 2014, the long running Coalition campaign against ISIS in Syria has so far likely killed at least 5,658 civilians, a high proportion of whom were women and children. Almost four thousand more civilians have reportedly been injured. The alliance itself presently concedes 671 non combatants killed by its actions.

Hasan Al-Kassab is an activist from Raqqa, who worked in the research unit of the Euphrates Project which funds many reconstruction and body retrieval projects in Raqqa. Hasan told Airwars that he lost two of his uncles during the Coalition’s Raqqa campaign in 2017. One uncle, Abdul Latif Hasan Al-kassab, was taking water from the Euphrates river when a Coalition airstrike targeted the area on June 25th 2017. His uncle was immediately killed along with two other civilians. His other uncle died when another Coalition airstrike targeted a building in Raqqa days before the city was liberated. “There is no mechanism to contact the Coalition who I believe is responsible for the death of my two uncles to investigate their death,” says Hasan today.

Additionally, Hasan told Airwars that the Initial Response Team in Raqqa has so far found 28 mass graves in Raqqa, containing more than 6,000 bodies, with two thirds of them believed to be civilians.

Destruction in Raqqa city in 2017, following the Coalition’s successful campaign to oust ISIS (Picture via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Zain Al-Abidin Al-A’kedi, an activist from Deir Ezzor living in northern Syria, told Airwars that he believes that the Coalition’s intervention against ISIS in Syria was necessary, but had come too late. “The wasted time led to an increase in the number of deaths and casualties by ISIS and the US-led Coalition airstrikes, in addition to huge damage in the cities and towns,” Zain said.

Firas Hanosh, an activist from Raqqa and a former doctor with Medecins Sans Frontières in one of Raqqa’s field hospitals, also believes that the US-led Coalition intervention in Syria was necessary, because local forces were unable to defeat ISIS. However, he argues that the Coalition’s choice of the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as its ground proxy was a mistake. “The US-led Coalition didn’t choose the right partner on the ground (SDF) , which is racist against the Arab civilians.” Firas told Airwars that it is unsafe for him to return to his ravaged home city. He says he is also worried about being arrested by the SDF, because of his work as an activist monitoring the situation in Raqqa.

Wary of intervening on the ground in Syria or getting involved in the civil war, the US still needed to combat ISIS. It therefore turned to the Kurds – initially helping the newly formed SDF to drive out ISIS from its own areas. “Without the Coalition’s intervention forces, we would have lost Kobane, Qamishli and other Kurdish areas.” Dlshad, a Syrian cyber security engineer now living in Washington DC ,said. However, as the SDF then advanced against ISIS in primarily Arabic-population territory, tensions rose.

Other Syrians believe the US and its allies had hidden motives. Jala, a Syrian woman now living in London, believes that the US intervention in Syria, though declared to be against ISIS, was in fact aimed at controlling the oil fields of North East Syria. President Trump has done little to dispel this view, and US troops today occupy many of Syria’s oil fields.

Assad’s allies: Russia and Iran in Syria

Even as the US-led Coalition was ramping up its attacks against ISIS in Syria, the regime was losing badly on the ground to rebel forces. Reports estimated that despite Iranian and Hezbollah support, Bashar al-Assad held only 25% of Syria by late 2015. Assad asked for support from his Russian allies – leading to Moscow’s largest foreign intervention since its disastrous Afghanistan campaign of 1979-1989. The outcome in Syria would prove to be very different.

The first Russian airstrikes in Syria took place on September 30th 2015, targeting the towns of Za`faranah, Talbisah and Ar-Rastan in Homs; and Al Makrmeya and Jisr al Shughour in Idlib. From the first day, the effects on civilians were devastating. At least 43 civilians reportedly died in Russia’s initial airstrikes – with more than 150 more injured.

A BBC map from 2015 indicates how little territory the Assad government still held before Russia’s armed intervention.

Accused of indifference to civilian harm from its actions in Syria – and even the deliberate targeting of communities – Moscow has yet to admit to a single civilian death in five years of war. Airwars monitoring has so far recorded 4,487 locally reported problem airstrikes by Russia in partnership with the Assad government from 2015 to 2020 – which between them reportedly led to the deaths of as many as 22,000 non combatants, and the injuring of up to 40,000 more.

“The Russian intervention in Syria is not new,” argues Dlshad, a cyber security engineer now living in Washington DC: “I come from Rmeilan city which is rich with oil, and the Russians have been in the city for a long time.” That said, Dlshad believes the Russian intervention both extended the life of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime – and in some cases curbed his actions. He argues for example that Assad would have been more brutal against his own people without Russian control.

“The Russian military involvement changed the military equation,” argues Abdulkarim Ekzayez, a Research Associate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, University of London and himself a Syrian: “Large-scale aerial attacks on vital infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and bakeries have weakened the resilience of the targeted communities in opposition held areas. Consequently the regime was able to take control over most of the opposition pockets in central and southern Syria, pushing all opposition factions into the north west with clearly defined contact lines between the two warring parties.”

Mohammed Al Fares, the nom de plume of a humanitarian worker living in Idlib, believes that the Russians have followed a systematic plan to target civilians in Syria – something the US-led Coalition tried to avoid, he says. However, Jala believes that none of the actors in the Syrian conflict cared deeply about civilians, including Syrian fighters on the ground because they focused only on achieving military gains and not on civilians.

The other key ally of the Assad government, Iran, has taken a different approach. Years of sanctions have left it with a poorly equipped air force. Instead Tehran’s efforts in Syria focused on its domestic rocket and drone programmes, in turn channelling them to both Hezbollah and to the Syrian regime.

In addition, Iranian ground forces have played a key role in the fighting. The Quds Brigade is known to be involved at a senior level in the Syrian conflict and even in changing the structure of the Syrian army. The Syrian 4th Brigade is close to Iran for example, while the 5th Brigade has closer links to Russian forces.

Qassem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, pictured near Aleppo’s historic castle after the city’s capture from rebels (Image via Zaman al Wasl)

Unilateral interventions in Syria

With a weak government in Damascus, multiple foreign powers have for years conducted unilateral actions in Syria in support of their own national interests. The United States has long targeted al Qaeda-linked fighters in western Syria for example; while the British conducted a controversial targeted killing of a UK citizen in 2015. Two nations in particular have fought lengthy unilateral campaigns.

Turkey has launched several massive operations in North East Syria, alongside its earlier targeting of ISIS in Idlib. In January 2018, Ankara launched Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, and later Operation Peace Spring in October 2019.

Overall, hundreds of Syrian civilians have been locally reported killed by Turkish actions – both against Kurdish forces, and ISIS-occupied areas such as al Bab.

Syrians interviewed for this article were strongly opposed to Turkey’s interventions. “There was no threat against Turkey. Why did Turkey intervene? Turkey is racist against the Kurds and that’s it,” claimed Dlshad.

H.J, a female architect from Damascus who asked not to be fully named for safety reasons, argued: “Syrians thought that Erdogan was helping the Syrian cause, but he eventually used it as a bargaining chip with Europe; causing destruction and division between Arabs and Kurds, and turning Syrian youth into mercenaries”.

Israel’s own unilateral aerial campaign in Syria has proved devastating against both Iranian and Hezbollah forces. In early 2019, a senior Israeli commander declared that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had dropped more than 2,000 bombs on Syria during the previous year, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu said that “the IDF has attacked hundreds of times Iranian and Hezbollah targets.”

Despite the significant scale of Israel’s intervention, international attention has been limited. This may in part be due to the low levels of reported civilian harm from Israeli strikes in Syria compared with other foreign powers. Since 2019, Airwars monitoring indicates that between 13 and 22 civilians were killed and over 40 injured in nine Israeli airstrikes of concern. With its focus in Syria almost exclusively on military targets, Israel appears to have limited the widescale civilian harm seen in the actions of others.

According to Mohammed Al Fares, a Syrian spoken to for this article, “It is good that Israel is destroying the regime’s military installations. However, they are doing it because they don’t want Iran to get an upper hand in Syria, not for the sake of the Syrian people.”

The reverberating effects of foreign intervention

Years of conflict in Syria, combined with external intervention by at least 17 foreign powers, have changed the face of the country for ever. According to the UNHCR, there are 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, currently internally displaced within Syria, the largest such population in the world. Beyond Syria’s borders, the total number of registered Syrian refugees has so far reached 5.5 million.

The direct links between external interventions and the displacement of civilians can be challenging to unpack.

In North East Syria for example actions by rebels; by ISIS; and later by Turkish forces, saw more than 215,000 people driven from their homes. While many have returned, an estimated 100,000 remain displaced.

Similarly, Syrian Arab Army operations supported from the air by Russia have proved highly disruptive. During the last major campaign between December 2019 and March 2020 in North West Syria, the UN reported a new displacement of more than 960,000 people, including more than 575,000 children.

Humanitarian worker Mohammed Al Fares, himself an IDP, told Airwars about his own experience. “When you are forced outside your residence, you die slowly. You lose everything, your home, your land, your job and your money. You try to start over and build a new life, but it is difficult.”

A Syrian woman pictured in an IDP camp in north east Syria (Picture courtesy of Refugees International)

The destruction of Syria’s infrastructure over the past nine years has also been extreme – much of it the result of foreign actions. Among the most brutal examples have been Aleppo and Raqqa – the first significantly at the hands of Russian forces; the latter mostly as a result of  the US-led Coalition’s targeting of ISIS. According to ReliefWeb: “About a third of homes in Syria were thought to have been damaged or destroyed by 2017. In 2018, the UN estimated the cost of material destruction in Syria at $120 billion.”

Hasan Al-Kassab told Airwars that eleven bridges in Raqqa were destroyed including Raqqa’s New Bridge during the Coalition’s 2017 campaign, and that civilians are only slowly starting to return because of a lack of basic services. For example, 60% of Raqqa is still without electricity.

East Aleppo, which witnessed brutal bombing by the Assad government supported by its Russian ally, experienced a similar fate. Battles which began in  2012 reached their climax in November 2016, when SAA troops began a decisive campaign that ended a month later with the retaking of the city. This caused very significant damage to Aleppo.

H.J, the architect from Damascus, believes that the destruction in Syria has been systemic and not just ‘collateral damage’ as militaries claim. “The destruction caused by all different actors is called many things, of which: Urbicide/ Identicide. That is, to commit a massacre against the urban environment; to target relationships that connect people and places, erasing their identities. Nowadays, one third of Syria is destroyed, and about 80% of Syria’s Night lights are gone.”

Significant opposition remains from many countries to the reconstruction process in Syria while Bashar al-Assad remains in power. However, the US is implementing small scale rebuilding activities in areas under SDF control, focusing on basic services like water, electricity and rubble removal that don’t reach the level of reconstruction. At the same time, with Russia and Iran unable significantly to support the regime financially as it seeks to rebuild Syria, limited scale investments risk lining the pockets of warlords, profiteers and cronies.

A price worth paying?

Mohammed Al Fares believes that overall, external intervention by so many foreign powers has had a negative impact on the course of the Syrian revolution, and on the general situation in the country. “Syrians had been in a state of solidarity with each other when the revolution started and [they eventually] controlled about 70% of Syria. External intervention including money channelling, divided the Syrians and brought into the decision making people who were not fit to lead. This in turn made the revolution very political until it lost its momentum. However, the revolution continues with its youth, women, elders and children despite all the obstacles it faces”

However others see more subtlety. According to Hasan Al-Kassab from Raqqa: “We can’t put all the interventions in the same basket. The Coalition intervened to eliminate ISIS, Russia intervened to oppress the people and legitimise the regime against the civilians, while Turkey intervened to fight the PKK and secure its borders. However every intervention is still an occupation, because there is no mechanism to give oversight to the people. They built military bases and disturbed the fabric of the Syrian people.”

From her side, H.J, the female architect from Damascus, argues that after the regime started killing civilians in 2012, the Syrian people tolerated even ‘allying with the devil’ to oust Bashar Al-Assad. ‘’I didn’t personally support this opinion, but we needed any offerings, we naively thought that the world would help us without anything in return. We were wrong, and all interventions were bad. The country was divided, and military bases were established.”

With peace still nowhere in sight in Syria – and fighting likely to resume as the Covid pandemic recedes – there is little sign of foreign powers withdrawing any time soon. While their interventions have radically changed conflict dynamics, they have done little to support the Syrian peoples in their aspirations for freedom and justice. Yet if the same kind of resource spent by foreign powers on bombs and missiles could one day be diverted to Syria’s infrastructure development, to education, and to the fostering of civil society, another future remains possible.

▲ Syria's Bashar al-Assad in the cockpit of a Russian Su-35 fighter at Hmeimim air base, Latakia in December 2017 (Image via Syrian regime Facebook page)

Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Killing of Iranian commander by US drone strike represents 'not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff', warns Special Rapporteur

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Baghdad in January 2020, was unlawful on several counts, according to a new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council by its expert on extrajudicial killings.

Dr Agnes Callamard, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, asserts in her latest report that Soleimani’s controversial assassination by a US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd 2020 had violated international law in several ways.

Noting that the US drone strike had also killed several Iraqi military personnel, Dr Callamard notes that “By killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

The Special Rapporteur also argues that by failing to demonstrate that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to the United States – and instead focusing on his past actions dating back to 2006 – that his killing “would be unlawful under jus ad bellum“, the criteria by which a state may engage in war.

In the bluntest condemnation yet of the Trump Administration’s killing of Iran’s leading military commander, Dr Callamard argues that “the targeted killing of General Soleimani, coming in the wake of 20 years of distortions of international law, and repeated massive violations of humanitarian law, is not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff.”

She also warns that the killing of Iran’s top general may see other nations exploit the US’s justification for the assassination: “The international community must now confront the very real prospect that States may opt to ‘strategically’ eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a ‘known’ war, and seek to justify the killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a ‘terrorist’ who posed a potential future threat.”

Speaking to Airwars from Geneva ahead of her presentation to the UNHRC, Dr Callamard described the US killing of General Soleimani as “a significant escalation in the use of armed drones, and in the use of extraterritorial force. Until now, drones have focused on terrorism and on counterterrorism responses. Here we’re seeing the displacement of a counterterrorism strategy onto State officials.” She described the Trump administration’s justification of the assassination of a senior Iranian government official as “a distortion of self defence.”

Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s highest ranked military commander, was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad on January 3rd 2020 (via @IRaqiRev).

‘The second drone age’

Dr Callamard’s denouncement of the US’s killing of Qasem Soleimani marks the latest in almost 20 years of concerns raised by United Nations experts on the use of armed drones for targeted assassinations. In 2002, following the killing of five al Qaeda suspects in Yemen by the CIA, then-rapporteur Asma Jahangir warned for example that the attack constituted “a clear case of extrajudicial killing”.

UN reports since then have tended to focus on controversial drone campaigns outside the hot battlefield, in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With her new report, delivered to the UNHRC on July 9th, Dr Callamard seeks to bring the discussion on armed drone use up to date, noting that “the world has entered what has been called the ‘second drone age’ with a now vast array of State and non-State actors deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, making their use a major and fast becoming international security issue.” The term ‘second drone age’ was originally coined by Airwars director Chris Woods, to reflect a growing wave of armed drone proliferation among state and non-state actors.

My latest report to the UN #HRC44 focus on targeted killings by armed drones: https://t.co/qLsqubaMpA The world has entered a “second drone age”, in which State and non-State actors are deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, a major international, security issue.

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

As Dr Callamard and her team write: “The present report seeks to update previous findings. It interrogates the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises; questions the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized; and identifies the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings. The report shows that drones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism operations, and so-called peace situations.”

Many of the conflicts monitored by Airwars are referenced by Dr Callamard.

    In Iraq, she notes that non state actors including ISIS deployed armed drones, sometimes to devastating effect. “In 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, for example, within a 24-hour period ‘there were no less than 82 drones of all shapes and sizes’ striking at Iraqi, Kurdish, US, and French forces.” In Libya, the Special Rapporteur asserts that “The Haftar Armed Forces carried out over 600 drone strikes against opposition targets resulting allegedly in massive civilian casualties, including, in August 2019, against a migrant detention center.” Callamard notes that a ‘nations unwilling or unable to act’ defence – first used by George W Bush’s administration to justify drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere – had been employed by several nations, including Turkey and Israel, to justify attacks in Syria. The UN Special Rapporteur also cautions that as more States acquire armed drones, their use domestically has increased: “Turkey has reportedly used drones domestically against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), while Nigeria first confirmed attack was carried out against a Boko Haram logistics base in 2016. In 2015 Pakistan allegedly used its armed drones for the very first time in an operation to kill three ‘high profile terrorists.’ Iraq has similarly purchased drones to carry out strikes against ISIS in Anbar province in 2016.” Finally, Dr Callamard warns that non-State actors including terrorist groups increasingly have access to remotely piloted technologies – noting that “At least 20 armed non-State actors have reportedly obtained armed and unarmed drone systems.”

“Drones are now the weapon of choice for many countries. They are claimed to be both surgical and to save lives – though we have insufficient evidence to conclude either,” Dr Callamard told Airwars. “Drones may save the lives of ‘our’ soldiers – but on the ground is another matter.”

Civilian harm concerns

The UN Special Rapporteur’s latest report highlights concerns about ongoing risks to civilians from armed drone use. Citing multiple studies, she writes that “even when a drone (eventually) strikes its intended target, accurately and ‘successfully’, the evidence shows that frequently many more people die, sometimes because of multiple strikes.”

Callamard also cautions that “Civilian harm caused by armed drone strikes extends far beyond killings, with many more wounded. While the consequences of both armed and non-combat drones remain to be systematically studied, evidence shows that the populations living under ‘drones’ persistent stare and noise experience generalized threat and daily terror’.”

The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings additionally notes the key role drones play in helping militaries to determine likely civilian harm: “Without on-the-ground, post-strike assessment, authorities rely on pre- and post-strike drone-video feeds to detect civilian casualties leaving potentially significant numbers of civilian casualties, including of those misidentified as ‘enemies’, undiscovered. Studies showed that in Syria and Iraq the initial military estimates missed 57% of casualties.”

The Special Rapporteur does however point out that civilian harm can be reduced by militaries, “through stronger coordination, improved data analysis, better training of drones’ operators, and systematic evaluation of strikes.”

▲ Aftermath of US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 which assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (via Arab48).

Published

June 22, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

Foreign power involvement risks linking Syria and Libya wars, experts warn.

Civilians are continuing to benefit from a months-long ceasefire in northern Syria, which has seen casualty numbers sharply fall to levels last seen in the early months of the civil war. Experts remain divided however, on how long this pause in fighting will last – and what it means for Syria and its divided people.

April and May 2020 marked the first complete months since the beginning of the Russian campaign in Syria in September 2015, in which Airwars did not monitor any civilian casualty allegations against Moscow. A ceasefire beginning in early March – and international pressure in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis – brought an end to months of violent air raids on Idlib governorate, which had killed up to 556 civilians.

On March 5th, 2020, Russia and Turkey reached agreement on a ceasefire in Idlib governorate, after recent escalations had led to the deaths of 36 Turkish soldiers. Terms included the provision of a 12 kilometre long safety corridor alongside the M4 highway, which connects Aleppo with Latakia; and joint patrols by Russian and Turkish forces.

“The reason why Russia signed the ceasefire is because it got what it wanted. Their endgame has always been to secure the integrity of the Syrian regime,” argues Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). “The priority in Idlib was never to take it over in its entirety. The campaign was not targeted at getting every centimetre. There were and there are two major goals: securing the M5, which connects Aleppo and Damascus, and the M4 highway, connecting Aleppo with Latakia.”

According to some experts, Turkey did less well out of that agreement. Gerhard Mangott, a professor at the University of Innsbruck specialising in international relations and security in the post-Soviet region, notes: “The ceasefire is a compromise between Russian and Turkish interests, with poor results for Turkey and good results for Russia. Turkey had set an ultimatum to the Syrian government to withdraw to the front line of April 2019, when Syrian and allied forces started their offensive in Idlib. Due to Russian pressure, Turkey had to accept the actual front line.”

Idlib offensive: at least 423 civilian deaths

As the last remaining opposition stronghold, north west Syria was targeted heavily during a three-month campaign by the Assad regime and Russia as they sought to gain control of the region. Russian-backed pro-government forces (made up of Syrian Government forces, Hezbollah, and allied armed groups) attempted to push into both Idlib and Aleppo Governorates, and defeat remaining anti-government rebels.

The beginning of the offensive saw pro-government forces make quick advances against rebel troops. By the end of December 2019, the Assad government had captured large parts of the Ma’arat Al Nu’man countryside including Jarjnaz, the largest town in the area; and had completely encircled the main Turkish observation point in Sarman.

Then, following a short-lived ceasefire between January 9th and 15th, the Syrian Government made some of its most significant advances in Idlib since the civil war began in 2011. By January 28th, pro-government forces had managed to capture Ma’arat Al Nu’man, a city of major strategic and symbolic importance due to its position on the Aleppo-Damascus Highway, which serves as one of the country’s main economic arteries to areas under government control in northwestern Syria.

Just eight days later, the town of Saraqib – another locale which had served as a bastion against the Assad Government for many years – was captured. The following weeks saw more government advances including the full capture of the province of Aleppo for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war.

Russian airpower has been crucial to each pro-government advance. However, these military victories came at a catastrophic cost to civilians, in both Idlib and Aleppo. Heavily populated urban areas were pummelled before each incursion, with almost no respite for residents.

During the three months of the campaign, Russia was allegedly involved in 250 separate civilian harm incidents – averaging more than three events every day. These airstrikes led to between 423 and 556 civilian deaths and the injuring of up to 1,137 more, Airwars monitoring of local sources indicates. At least 128 children were killed during the campaign – more than a quarter of all tracked fatalities – showing that the most vulnerable often bore the brunt of a ruthless air campaign.

Additionally, crucial civilian infrastructure was hit numerous times. Schools were targeted on at least 15 occasions, while hospitals and medical centres were struck at least nine times. This targeting of civilian infrastructure by Assad and Russia was not new. According to the World Health Organisation, there have been 83 attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria since April 2019.

The Idlib campaign triggered a widespread displacement crisis in northern Syria. By the end of the assault, at least 980,000 people, most of them women and children, were forced to flee the violence. According to Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, these displaced people were struggling to survive in what he described as “horrific conditions”.

Tank rolling through ruins in Maarat Numan (via Oleg Blokhin).

Impact of Covid-19

The fighting in Idlib eventually stopped after Turkey escalated its own operations against pro-Assad government forces, following a devastating airstrike on a Turkish infantry battalion on the road between al-Bara and Balyun, which had left 32 Turkish soldiers dead and many others wounded.

Following this event, Ankara took the bold decision to intervene directly on the side of the rebels. The ferociousness of Turkey’s intervention was unprecedented, with Turkish forces launching a barrage of attacks on pro-regime positions, destroying dozens of military vehicles, equipment and several Russian-made air defence systems. These attacks devastated the Syrian Government, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that 170 pro-regime forces died. Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar put the toll far higher – claiming that Turkish forces had destroyed two Syrian Su-24 fighter jets, two drones, 135 tanks, and five air defence systems; and had “neutralised” more than 2,500 fighters loyal to the Syrian government.

The risk of being embroiled in an all-out confrontation with Turkey forced the hands of both the Syrian and Russian governments, and prompted a formal ceasefire agreement between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladmir Putin of Russia. While the eventual ceasefire provided a much-needed respite for civilians in northwestern Syria, millions continued to suffer from the after-effects of the brutal campaign. And with the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating in the region, refugees from the violence in Syria, clustered into overcrowded camps, may remain most at risk of suffering from the virus.

Khlebnikov at RIAC says he does not, however, think the Covid-19 crisis was the main driver of the ceasefire: “I wouldn’t say it is a game-changer or a strong factor in this ceasefire. The Ukraine crisis did not impact Russia’s foreign policy, even though the economy was under great distress. So why would Covid-19? It might affect the intensity of the conflict in the long run, and it slows things down because diplomats and leaders are unable to meet in person.”

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Syria expert, agrees: “I don’t think the Covid-19 crisis impacted the calculations of the warring parties in this conflict.”

That the ceasefire has lasted following the Covid-19 outbreak might seem paradoxical, given that both Russia and Turkey recently increased their involvement in Libya. However, those contributions are relatively small for now, compared to Syria. That said, the conflict in Libya has become both interlinked with Syria – with Russia and Turkey again on opposite sides – and also a continuation of the civil war on different soil, as Syrian mercenaries recruited by both Turkey and Russia now fight each other in the Maghreb. Talks between Moscow and Ankara to explore a deal that might see the fates of Syria and Libya connected have been put off for now.

Disinfectant teams battling Covid-19 working in Northern and Eastern Syria (via Rojava Information Center).

“Costs of violating the ceasefire are much higher now”

Previous Syria ceasefires have been fairly short-lived. So why is the Idlib pause still holding more than three months on? “The situation on the ground is different from two years ago. Idlib is now the only lasting stronghold of opposition armed groups and terrorists. And a ceasefire during a civil war, it is not a literal thing. There are certain violations,” asserts Khlebnikov.

According to his own estimates, there were 80 violations of the ceasefire in the first half of May. Even so, Khlebnikov sees the ceasefire as quite successful: “Since March 5th, the violence fell significantly. The first [joint Russian and Turkish] patrols were 5 or 7 kilometres long, now they are 45 kilometres long. This builds trust; and the Russian and Turkish militaries are getting used to interacting with each other on hostile ground. That creates a certain restraint for [other] armed groups to escalate.”

Mangott also views the results of the ceasefire as so far positive: “I think it will last. Russia is in a difficult economic and financial situation, the GDP will drop by 10% this year. There will probably be a drop in military spending. The current spending priority is on social causes [at home] to take care of the economic crisis, so there is no money for an escalation in Syria.”

In mid June there were some reports of violations of the ceasefire, with Russian airstrikes on Idlib and reports of civilian casualties. These appeared to be in retaliation for attempts by the HTS to seize several villages, and attack Russian targets, however. Dr Elizabeth Tsurkov remains positive: “This is the first time in the history of ceasefires in Syria when Russia and the regime will be punished for violating it. Turkish drones will be up the skies, killing soldiers. The costs will be much higher for them. It is difficult to make predictions, because there are too many uncertain factors right now, also looking at the elections in the US coming up. But I think the ceasefire will last for the rest of 2020.”

Tsurkov adds: “The area north of the M4 highway will remain out of regime hands for the foreseeable future. Until a deal is reached, the area will essentially be annexed into Turkey. We are already seeing the dynamics of that in northern Aleppo.”

Amplifying fears in Damascus of a de facto annexation, in mid June Turkish-backed opposition groups introduced the Turkish Lira and the US dollar as local currencies in cities and towns across Idlib governorate in an effort, they claimed, to stabilise the local economy after the ongoing depreciation of the Syrian pound.

Russia’s endgame in Syria 

Whenever it might end, Khlebnikov sees the ongoing ceasefire between Russia, the regime and Turkey in northern Syria as a temporary solution: “It is definitely not a final solution. There are two options with the ceasefire: it will be cancelled, or updated. I don’t think there will be any major breaches.”

“On the other hand, there is a certain risk of escalation, because if Turkey won’t be able to deliver on its promises to clear the buffer zone, that may become a legitimate reason for Russia and the Syrian army to launch operations.” But, warns Khlebnikov: “In the last four months, Turkey allocated about 15.000 troops and upped military equipment. It is amassing its forces in Idlib. Any fight with Turkey will be a disaster for Russia.”

With a mass outbreak of the Covid-19 virus still threatening Syria – with its heavily weakened health care system after nearly a decade of war – a fight between Russia and Turkey on Syrian territory would not only carry great risk for Moscow. It is likely that Syrian civilians would bear the greatest losses, once again.

▲ Russia patrol in northern Syria (via Rojava News Network).

Published

May 26, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers and Oliver Imhof

Airwars and design partners Rectangle are commemorating those civilians killed and injured in conflicts, by livestreaming over 24 hours the names of 8,337 civilian casualties the international monitor has documented in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia in recent years.

The digital event marks the occasion of the UN’s 2020 Protection of Civilians Week.

Every name has a story

Over twenty-four hours starting at midnight London time on May 26th/27th – the date of the UN Secretary General’s annual Protection of Civilians (PoC)  speech –  the names of just some of the many civilians reportedly killed by air and artillery strikes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia since 2007 will be livestreamed on our website and YouTube channel.

Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid were about to drop off their friend Barakat Barakat at his home in October 2019. The three friends were eating pumpkin seeds while driving through Barisha in northwestern Syria when they were reportedly hit by helicopters searching for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

“There were so many shells falling on us, it was like rain. My hand, the one holding up Khaled’s head, got cut off,” Barakat explained to NPR last year. “Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I’m just a civilian. I didn’t have any weapons. We’re farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I’m handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves.”

Barakat Barakat is just one of 8,337 civilian casualties over the past 13 years whose names Airwars has recorded while monitoring conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia.

UN Protection of Civilians Week 2020

Through its daily monitoring of local news organisations, social media and official sources, as well as via sources on the ground, Airwars has in total recorded over 119,000 reported civilian deaths and injuries since we began documenting conflicts in August 2014 – of which more than eight thousand casualties attributed to specific belligerents can presently be named.

This UN PoC Week, Airwars aims to commemorate those who have lost their lives, while calling for governments to better account for their military actions.

The project Conflicting Truth is in partnership with the Scottish-American design team Rectangle, who also produce the complex mapping and data representations on the Airwars website.

This week’s live cast is based on an original installation by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer, first shown in Detroit in March 2019. It had been hoped to show Conflicting Truth in New York during this year’s UN PoC Week. Instead, due to the Covid-19 crisis, the decision was taken to livecast a digital version.

Rimas and Shahem Hamdou with their father Hamza al Haj Hamdou. The children were killed in an alleged Russian strike in Thalatheen Street in Idlib city on March 3rd 2020 (image courtesy of the Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Not just numbers

The Airwars/ Rectangle project seeks to show that those killed and injured in conflict are not mere statistics –  they are people with names, friends and families. Their loss inflicts severe pain on relatives, and the communities they belong to.

“I was washing dishes. Suddenly our house was filled with shrapnel. I went out and called Arif (my son), but I did not see him. I only saw black smoke. When the smoke faded away, I saw my son on the ground as a martyr,” said a mother whose son Arif was among eight other children reportedly killed in alleged Turkish shelling on Tal Rifaat in Syria on December 2nd, 2019.

The suffering often does not end with losing loved ones or seeing them disabled: it also heavily impacts the lives of those spared by the fighting. “All a young man like me cares about now is how he gets home safe every day. Or when you go to bed, all you’re thinking about is the possibility that a rocket falls on you,” Marwan, a resident of the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli recently told Airwars. “I lost friends, relatives, loved ones in this war,” he elaborates. “I’m doing an MA now, and I’m afraid to lose my dream, and my future and I can’t do anything. That makes me want to run away, to live a decent life with equal opportunities.”

Airwars aims to add as many biographical details of victims as possible. On May 16th of this year for example, the 5-year-old Bangladeshi boy Wahi Zuhair Matin was killed in alleged LNA artillery strikes on Al Fornaj neighbourhood in Tripoli. The GNA-affiliated Burkan Al Ghadab Operation wrote on Facebook that the child’s “ambition was to buy a bike and play ‘like the kids’.”

Civil Society Call for Action

Airwars is also joining with other international partners and organisations in a Civil Society Call for Action to Protect Civilians during PoC week. The joint statement signed by 22 organisations calls on the UN Security Council, Member States, and the UN System to take urgent, bold and practical steps to respond to the challenges that remain in the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

The UN Security Council added the protection of civilians in armed conflict (PoC) to its agenda in 1999, recognising PoC as a matter of international peace and security. The UN PoC Week is held annually between May 27th and June 1st. The United Nations celebrates UN Peacekeeping Day on May 29th.

▲ The original physical installation Conflicting Truth was shown in Detroit in March 2019, and was developed by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer. It features the names of civilian victims preserved in the Airwars database. (Image courtesy of Rectangle)

Published

February 11, 2020

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Assisted by

Dmytro Chupryna, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

During 2019 - for the first time in five years - monitors tracked a sharp move away from US-led Coalition civilian deaths.

Airwars research shows that at least 2,214 civilians were locally alleged killed by international military actions across Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia during 2019 – a 42% decrease in minimum claimed deaths on the previous year. This sharp fall was largely because deaths from reported US-led Coalition actions plummeted following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria in March.

However, elsewhere civilians remained in significant danger. Russian strikes in support of the Assad regime claimed at least 1,000 lives in the fierce Idlib and Hama offensives. Meanwhile, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in October saw over 300 non-combatants alleged killed.

The year also saw alarming developments in Libya. From April, the Libyan National Army’s Tripoli offensive had a devastating impact on civilians. As more foreign powers joined the conflict, alleged deaths rose by an astonishing 720% on 2018. Almost half of all civilian deaths in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred last year.

Download our full annual report for 2019

The US-led Coalition in Syria: a brutal final assault

On March 23rd, after 55 months of war, ISIS was finally ousted from Syria, when the Syrian Democratic Forces seized the town of al-Baghuz al Fawqani in Ezzor governorate. This followed the terror group’s earlier defeat in Iraq in December 2017.

Yet this final assault came at a terrible cost for civilians trapped on the ground. Of the minimum of 2,214 civilians locally alleged killed during 2019, at least 470 deaths (21%) reportedly occurred as a result of US-led Coalition strikes in the first quarter of 2019, in Deir Ezzor governorate.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th – 19th 2019, which allegedly killed at least 160 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

After March 23rd, with ISIS downgraded to an insurgency, there was a significant winding down in Coalition strikes. As a result, locally alleged civilian deaths from alliance actions rapidly declined.

For the first time in five years, the Coalition was no longer the primary driver of civilian harm in Airwars monitoring. Indeed, our tracking shows that many more civilians were claimed killed by almost every other monitored belligerent than by the US-led alliance between April and December 2019.

With this shift away from Coalition civilian deaths, Airwars’ focus with the alliance and with partner militaries began moving towards post-conflict restitution and reconciliation engagements.

Syria’s civilians remain at great risk

Civilians may finally have gained respite from Coalition strikes, but 2019 saw them face increased danger on other fronts. Russia’s ongoing campaign in Syria continued to devastate civilian populations and infrastructure.

In total, our researchers tracked at least 1,000 civilian deaths in 710 casualty incidents reportedly carried out by Russia. Some 81% of these events were in Idlib governorate, where Russia lent its formidable airpower to the regime’s offensive to oust the rebels.

The aftermath of an alleged Russian airstrike on a popular market in Saraqib on July 30th (via Edlib Media Center).

Additionally, in October, Syria’s civilians faced a new threat from Turkey. The offensive came against a backdrop of repeated Turkish threats to unilaterally invade northern Syria. The chaotic withdrawal of US forces on October 7th gave Turkey a green light to launch its ‘Operation Peace Spring’.

Airwars research shows that there were between 246 and 314 locally alleged civilian deaths in 207 casualty incidents involving both sides during the final three months of 2019. Most disturbingly, there were numerous claims of war crimes by both sides, including summary executions of civilians and enemy fighters.

Libya: a 720% rise in civilian deaths

Meanwhile, civilian harm spiralled in Libya. Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched its offensive on Tripoli in April. However, what was intended to be a brief conflict soon turned into a protracted siege, with foreign powers playing an increased role, particularly in a proxy drone war between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

The impact on civilians was dire. Between April 4th and December 31st 2019, local sources reported between 279 and 399 civilian deaths. A measure of the intensity of 2019’s bombing is shown by the fact that more than 48% of all locally reported civilian fatalities in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred during the nine months between April and December 2019.

Image caption translation: “Warlord Haftar’s warplane bombs oil facility and tannery in Tajoura, east Tripoli”, June 19th 2019 (via Libya Observer)

Somalia: Record number of declared US actions

In April, Airwars expanded its conflict portfolio when it took over the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s long running monitoring of US counter terrorism drone strikes and civilian harm claims in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. We are currently reviewing this significant dataset using Airwars’ own internationally-respected methodology.

Our assessment of US air and ground operations in Somalia since 2007 is now complete – with our annual report revealing that a maximum of 44 civilian deaths were alleged during 2019, in thirteen locally claimed civilian harm events. Overall the US declared 63 airstrikes against both al Shabaab and ISIS for the year – the highest ever tally.

Advocating on behalf of affected non-combatants

Our emphasis at Airwars has always been working on behalf of affected civilians. Throughout 2019, our advocacy teams continued to engage with the US-led Coalition and its allies. More than half of all Coalition-conceded conceded civilian harm events during the year were Airwars referrals for example – with at least 220 additional deaths conceded.

Substantial talks on transparency and accountability for civilian harm were also held with senior Pentagon officials; with the British and Dutch ministries of defence; and with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

In November, the Netherlands finally admitted responsibility for a June 2015 strike in Hawijah, Iraq, which killed at least 70 civilians, according to locals. Airwars is now partnering with a number of Dutch NGOs and academics, with a focus on securing long term improvements in transparency and accountability for civilian harm by the Netherlands military.

“Since Airwars began in 2014, our exceptional team has tracked more than 50,000 locally reported civilian deaths across several conflict nations,” notes Airwars director Chris Woods. “As our 2019 report demonstrates, civilian harm remains a constant in war. Yet too often, belligerents deny or downplay civilian harm – even when local communities themselves are making clear the true costs of conflict.”

Download our full annual report for 2019

Scene of a devastating Coalition strike at Hawijah, Iraq which killed up to 70 civilians (via Iraqi Spring)

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Russian or Syrian regime airstrike on Saraqib, Idlib, June 22nd 2019 (via White Helmets)

Published

February 5, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Six month study will examine how effectively journalists reported on recent civilian harm in Iraq and Syria.

Hundreds of journalists will be canvassed for their views on recent conflict casualty reporting by the US media as part of a major new project by Airwars.

The six month study—funded by the Reva and David Logan Foundation in the US, and the J Leon Philanthropy Council in the UK—aims to help assess and improve mainstream media reporting of civilian harm issues. The study is being authored by US reporter Alexa O’Brien.

Provisional research conducted for Airwars indicates that field reporters are still critical when it comes to properly reflecting civilian harm issues. But casualty reporting can sometimes suffer when conducted remotely by journalists back home. The new project is aimed at better understanding the constraints and challenges of modern conflict reporting – and is expected to include practical suggestions for improvement to editors and reporters.

“While our research focus is US reporting on civilian harm in the war against ISIS, Airwars will we hope help lay the groundwork for better assessments and reporting of conflict casualties by media professionals in other military conflicts,” says Alexa O’Brien, Airwars project lead and author of the forthcoming report.

“Airwars not only seeks to better understand the character of US reporting, but also the underlying capabilities and constraints of those who cover conflicts. The project includes a major survey of US reporters, as well as in-depth interviews with media professionals and subject matter experts.”    

Chris Woods, the founder and director of Airwars and himself a journalist of almost 30 years’ experience, says the new study has the potential to improve future conflict reporting: “There’s an imperative to ensure civilian casualties—including from our own actions—are properly reflected amid broader media coverage of modern conflicts,” says Woods. “This new Airwars project will help not only to improve our understanding of why and when civilian harm is (or is not) reported, but also offer practical suggestions for improvements to media professionals.”

The six month study is expected to publish in June 2019. 

    If you’re a journalist who has covered the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq for a US media outlet—whether inside or outside the conflict zone—and you want to participate in the study’s survey, please email survey@airwars.org

Alexa O’Brien

▲ A young girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 2017 (Image courtesy of Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

Published

September 10, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The government of Bashar al Assad stands poised to recapture the last part of Syria held by rebels, with millions of civilians also under threat. Yet just three years ago the capital Damascus appeared likely to fall, and with it Assad himself. That dynamic changed with the aggressive intervention of Russia in Syria’s turbid civil war. Airwars reports on Moscow’s most ambitious foreign military intervention in decades, A version of this feature is also published by Foreign Policy. 

When the Assad government moved on rebel-held areas of southwest Syria in late June, events followed a troublingly familiar route. As with the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta and Aleppo city before it, pro-government forces turned to Russia for blistering and deadly aerial support. Moscow ordered attacks in and around the provincial capital of Dara’a, unleashing a barrage of strikes over a matter of days. In the last week of June alone, Russian forces were implicated in at least 150 alleged civilian deaths, according to Airwars tracking.

Just as in Ghouta and Aleppo, Airwars also monitored multiple reports claiming the consistent targeting of civilian infrastructure, including clinics and other medical facilities in Dara’a, as well as residential areas and shelters where fleeing civilians had sought refuge. On June 28th, at least 20 civilians were killed after alleged Russian strikes reportedly hit several shelters in Al-Massifra. Photographs also showed a hospital in the town in ruins from the bombing.

Compared to other urban campaigns in Syria, the Russian onslaught on Dara’a was short lived. Airstrikes were overwhelming, and by the second week of July the government flag was already being hoisted.

While US Coalition strikes against ISIS remnants are now largely relegated to narrow parts of eastern Syria, the Russian campaign is gearing up again for what may be the deadliest – and effectively final – battle of the war. On September 4th, local monitors began reporting heavy Russian and regime strikes in the northern province of Idlib, the last substantial redoubt of opposition forces including dominant jihadist factions.

The UN has warned that some three million civilians, many displaced from elsewhere in the country, are penned inside Idlib – trapped between encroaching regime forces and the closed Turkish border. Already facing humanitarian catastrophe,this all makes them more vulnerable to airstrikes, which have already claimed thousands of lives in the province.

From verge of collapse to near victory

When Russia began bombing Syria in support of the government three years ago, large swathes of the country had been lost by the regime. ISIS controlled much of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassaka governorates – while rebel and extremist islamist groups such as Al Qaeda affiliate the al Nusra Front had seized territory across much of northern and southern Syria – and even parts of the capital. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov asserted in a September 5th interview, “If you remember, we started assisting Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, when ISIS militants had almost reached Damascus, and the al-Assad Government was on the verge of collapse.”

Since then the regime – backed by intense and deadly Russian airpower, and Iranian and other proxies – has captured large urban centers in the center and north of the country, and eventually pushed opposition groups from the outskirts of the capital itself. Advances by US-backed SDF forces meanwhile droves ISIS from nearly all of northeast Syria. Tens of thousands have been reported killed during these parallel air campaigns.

Yet there have been significant differences between these two campaigns. Although Russia recently declared conducting 39,000 airstrikes in Syria since 2015, those strikes have stopped and started – undulating with political developments. Victory for the US-led alliance has always been focused on the military defeat of ISIS, a goal that the campaign has bulldozed towards at all times. Yet Russia’s goals in Syria have always been wider, with airstrikes and other military support focused primarily on helping the Assad government to secure control over all of Syria.

“The military strategy here depends entirely on the political,” said Yury Barmin, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst. “They don’t carry out airstrikes because they need to eliminate this or that group, but they carry out airstrikes because they need to implement political goals.”

In Idlib, those dynamics still hold out some hope for a political solution. For the last year, the province has been under a partial ceasefire involving Turkey, Iran and Russia. These same powers, pulling at the myriad anti-government forces on the ground, could still reach some sort of agreement, though given the finality of any Idlib offensive for the war, it would likely be far more complicated than anything previously brokered.

Russia has at times halted strikes following local and national ceasefires.  It has ignored other cessations entirely, or observed them only to later escalate ferociously to bring about desired results. Moscow has shown little regard, either in its actions or words, for civilian life – so much so that civilian harm has appeared not just unpreventable but calculated.  Russian strikes in this way can be extremely punitive, said Matti Suomenaro, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, a conservative think tank in Washington DC that tracks the Russian campaign.

“A good example of this is after mid-September of last year, when there was an opposition offensive launched in Idlib province,” said Suomenaro. “Russia specifically increased its targeting of almost all medical facilities in southern Idlib, almost as punishment.”

Diplomatically, Russia has also maneuvered cannily with power-players in the region. In southwest Quinetra, Moscow recently refrained from bombing, apparently due to the area’s proximity to Israel. When Turkey shot down a Russian plane and Russia’s ambassador was later assassinated in Istanbul, it led only to more productive relations between the two increasingly illiberal nations.

While the US-led Coalition’s sole aim has been the military defeat of ISIS, Moscow’s campaign has broader aims – with strikes modulating to reflect broader political issues.

‘A counter terror operation’

Though Syrians are by now familiar with Russia’s bombings in their own country, clues to what remains in store for civilians trapped in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold – can be found in both Russia and the Soviet Union’s military past.

Officially, Moscow’s campaign in Syria has been explained as a counterterror operation, key to the national security interests of Russia and carried out at the express invitation of a despotic but technically recognized government. “All of this military activity is a manifestation and kind of support of the concept of sovereignty,” said Timur Makhmutov, deputy program director at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a think tank based in Moscow.

“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict,” said President Vladimir Putin in a televised address announcing the campaign in September 2015. “We will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups.” In Syria, Russia would provide airpower in support of regime and other ground forces including the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Iranian troops.

An early example of Russia’s approach came halfway through the first year of the Russian campaign. From 99 alleged Russian-linked civilian casualty incidents tracked by Airwars in Syria during October 2015, reports rose steadily, hitting an early peak of 182 in February 2016. Then, after a ceasefire was agreed, allegations fell dramatically, to 39 claimed events by May.

“I think there are some failures and these failures should be recognized on the ground but Russia is trying to make ceasefires to let people who are under the attacks and [in] these crisis situations out,” said Ruslan Mamedov, a colleague of Makhmutov’s at RIAC in Moscow. Russia, he noted, engaged Turkey, which he said helped bring about effective surrenders and evacuations among groups over which they held influence . “These kinds of approaches helped to save lives,” said Mamedov.

Ceasefires in Syria have rarely held. In November 2016, Airwars tracked 215 separate events that included allegations of over 1,000 civilian deaths at the hands of Russia – about two-thirds of which were in Aleppo, which was now under direct attack. By December, all hospitals in eastern Aleppo were reportedly wrecked from regime and Russian bombings – attacks that the UN Commission of Inquiry found to “strongly suggest the deliberate and systematic targeting of medical infrastructure as part of a strategy to compel surrender.” That tactic was a war crime, said the Commission.

“We see that now when the Russians wanted to have a softer approach with the opposition they would stop bombing for a while, introduce short periods of calm,” said analyst Yuri Barmin. “When they see that the opposition isn’t cooperative, then they ramp up the bombing.”

This brutal strategy worked – at enormous cost. Russia, the Assad government and those opposition fighters that remained did reach a deal in mid December that saw at least 34,000 people evacuated from Aleppo to neighboring Idlib governorate. Thereafter, Airwars monitored a significant drop in civilian casualty events tied to Russia in Syria.

Targeting ISIS

When it first militarily intervened in Syria, Moscow claimed to be doing so in order to fight the so-called Islamic State. That assertion has been controversial ever since. Well into 2017, Russia and the regime stood accused by Western adversaries of bombing ISIS lightly, or not at all. It was certainly the case that in the early days of its campaign Russia primarily focused on rebel and extremist groups in the west of Syria, rather than on ISIS.

Yet Russia did later shift its firepower eastward – towards Palmyra and then beyond – in what was viewed in part as a counter to US influence in the area. Soon pro-government forces were racing against the US’s proxy fighters in Syria, the SDF, to reach the Euphrates River Valley area along the border with Iraq. Beginning in September 2017, monitors began reporting significant death tolls from suspected pro-government strikes in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate.

On February 24, 2018, amid the carnage in Eastern Ghouta, UN Security Council diplomats passed a nationwide cessation of hostilities (leaving out ISIS and al Qaeda-linked groups) that was immediately ignored. In the lead up, Amnesty International insisted that Russian and Syrian government forces “deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities.” Those attacks amounted to war crimes, said the group.

Air strikes, shelling and ground incursions all increased after the resolution. In the month that followed, the UN monitored some 1,700 deaths in Eastern Ghouta, caused in particular by airstrikes. UN investigators recorded 29 separate attacks on health facilities in the enclave.

According to Airwars monitoring, in one seven day period Russia faced allegations of responsibility for over 300 deaths. Doctors Without Borders separately reported a death toll of 1,000 in just two weeks.” Russian officials called the reports “disinformation.” The Siege of Eastern Ghouta was over by April, with much of it in ruin. (By comparison, more than two-thirds of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by the US-led campaign there.)

Despite tens of thousands of Russian airstrikes and three years of war, Moscow has yet to concede a single civilian fatality from its Syria campaign. Nor is Airwars aware of any Russian civilian harm monitoring process comparable with that of the US-led Coalition – which by contrast has admitted to more than 1,000 civilian deaths across Iraq and Syria.

“I’m not aware of any serious discussions within the military about who is a civilian and who is a legitimate target,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre, and a former analyst with the International Crisis Group. “I don’t think for them this is generally a point of concern.”

Both the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Mission to the UN in New York did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

A suspected Russian airstrike on a Daraa suburb on June 30th killed seven civilians according to local reports (Image via White Helmets)

Urban destruction

Recent figures released by Russia’s Ministry of Defense show the staggering scale of Moscow’s deployment in support of the Assad regime. Along with 39,000 airstrikes with more than 86,000 “militants” claimed killed, a total of 63,000 Russian personnel have so far been deployed to Syria.

Deaths among Russian personnel have nevertheless been relatively light – not unexpected given that Russia, just like the US-led Coalition, is primarily focused on remote airstrikes. Most aircrew have died as a result of crashes, though a small number of aircraft have been shot down.

Yet these official combat deaths in Syria appear to be significantly outweighed by those of Russian contractors. In February 2018, at least dozens and possibly hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed when pro-regime fighters reportedly attacked an SDF base in eastern Syria where American troops were also based.

The roots of Moscow’s intent to minimize official casualties (which can also be seen in the current Ukraine conflict) may be found in another intervention more than three decades ago: the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By the time they were driven out nearly a decade later, some 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed, and the communist bloc was close to collapsing.

“What we call Afghan syndrome – the memories of the Afghan war – are still very strong in this society,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “The Afghan war in public consciousness is associated with a very protracted war with many casualties among the Russian conscripts which was inconclusive and damaging for the Soviet Union.”

If the approach to keeping its own forces out of harm’s way came from Afghanistan, Sokirianskaia looks to Chechnya for insight into how Russia fights in urban settings. During two wars in the Muslim-majority region in 1990s and early 2000s, urban areas – specifically the capital of Grozny – were levelled.

“I’ve been working on armed conflicts involving Russia for the last 17 years and what we’ve seen is these campaigns have often been indiscriminate,” she said. “Chechnya is a good example – Syria on a smaller scale. In Grozny, with a half million civilians inside, hardly a single building was spared.”

Images of the destruction in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta drew comparisons to infamous pictures showing Grozny’s shattered skyline. (Russia gleefully trolled those on social media, making the comparison itself.) Thousands of Russian soldiers – and countless more civilians – were killed in fighting for the Chechen city. “The Russian lesson from Grozny was don’t do urban warfare with your own people,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA.

Yet the wars in Chechnya were not viewed as failures, despite the intense civilian harm they caused.. “Chechnya works fine as far as Russia is concerned because it is [now] peaceful, it is subdued, it has arrived at a method of government which resolves the problem,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme. “For Russia, civilian suffering is a tool to be exploited to win the war.”

Syrian civil society and and monitors have made extensive years-long efforts to track the civilian toll of the war in Syria, including from Russian strikes. But do these reports make it back to Russia? How many Russians are even aware of the thousands of civilians killed by their military? The answer – as with most citizens of Coalition member nations like the US – is that very few likely are.

“An average Russian who doesn’t have independent information on Foreign Policy and relies on the state media for their knowledge of international relations trusts the official narrative on who is committing violations,” said Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “In the end both the media and the Russian citizens prefer to not to really focus on the humanitarian disaster, just to distance themselves from this issue. Everyone knows it is a bloodbath in Syria, but we working to restore peace and are fighting terrorists.”

In response to questions stating that Russian and government forces have killed untold thousands, Vladimir Putin told Fox News in July 2018 that recent US actions also carried a heavy price: “A huge proportion of the civilian population of Raqqa died. It was erased from the face of the earth. It reminds me of Stalingrad from World War II, and there is nothing good about it.”

The Russian president’s point appeared to be that such destruction and mass civilian casualties is an inevitability of urban warfare – whoever the belligerent.

The final blow?

After weeks of protracted and apparently failed negotiations, Syrians are poised once more for the regime – and the Russian Air Force – to turn their firepower upon Idlib. Civilians there have reason to be terrified. According to the United Nations more than three million people are at risk. Most have nowhere left to run.

There is still hope that diplomacy may prevail: after all, Russia’s airstrikes act as a means to an end. Airstrikes in Idlib fell considerably during August, as hope still held that a diplomatic solution from talks in Astana might perhaps peel off some less hardline groups in the province. During the final full week of the month, Airwars monitors didn’t track a single casualty event in Syria that was blamed Russia. That ended on September 4th when reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes — all in Idlib.

“We have seen a pattern where the number of airstrikes usually drops before big battles,” said Airwars’ Syria researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan. “If or when this campaign on Idlib starts, the consequences on civilians would be catastrophic. The Syria-Turkish borders are closed and there does not seem any other place they can go to in order to be safe from the airstrikes.”

Any casualties at Idlib will join a lengthy list. In the three years since Moscow entered the war in September 30th 2015, Airwars has monitored over 18,485 alleged civilian deaths tied to Russian actions in Syria. At least 5,917 of those reported killed have been named in local outlets, on social media or by casualty recorders. Though Airwars is still working to vet all the nearly 18,000 deaths alleged against Russia, other casualty recorders such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, have put the figure at more than 7,800 civilians killed through the end of June 2018.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently implied that some measures will be taken to protect “compliant” civilians in Idlib – just as he claims occurred at Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta: “We always set up humanitarian corridors and always did our best to sign a local ceasefire agreement with the compliant opposition. They were pardoned by the Syrian government, laid down their weapons and rejoined peaceful life in Syria.”

Yet for military planners, any concerns over the safety of civilians will take a back seat to Moscow’s ultimate goal: the complete triumph of Bashar al Assad’s regime.

Published

March 7, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Note: this article has been updated to include a response from the Coalition. 

United Nations investigators charged with monitoring the Syrian conflict have accused both Russia and the US-led Coalition of potentially violating international law or war crimes for strikes in the country during 2017.

In a year which saw shocking reports of civilian harm across Syria, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic launched a blistering attack on the many belligerents, domestic and foreign, who now crowd Syria’s soil.

The latest report of the Commission of Inquiry outlined cluster munition use by pro-government forces; an attack on a hospital that was treating victims of an April 4th 2017 sarin gas attack; and a brutal pro-government campaign in the second half of that year in the Aleppo countryside, targeting schools – a campaign which the Commission said amounted in each instance to war crimes.

ISIS was accused of using snipers and landmines to deliberately target civilians at Raqqa, forcing them to remain within the beseiged city, and of forcibly moving civilians into neighbourhoods under attack from assaulting forces: “By deliberately placing civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations, for the purpose of rendering those areas immune from attack, ISIL militants committed the war crime of using human shields in Raqqah governorate,” the Commission noted.

Investigators also cited the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for conscripting children as young as 13 as fighters. In the aftermath of fighting in Raqqa, the Commission noted, the SDF has been interning up to 80,000 displaced people in desert camps, ostensibly to vet them for possible connections to ISIS. According to the Commission, “Irrespective of the legitimacy of a security threat, the blanket internment of all internally displaced persons from Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr by the Syrian Democratic Forces cannot be justified.”

The Commission also implicated, in effect, four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with involvement – either directly, or by association – with likely unlawful airstrikes. That marked a significant change from late 2015, when Commission chair Paulo Pinheiro said there was “no possibility that we will investigate the American air strikes or French or British or Russian.” In the years since, Russian and US-led airstrikes have reportedly killed thousands of civilians in Syria, leading to a far more robust response from the Commission. 

In the case of November 13th 2017 airstrikes in Aleppo, UN investigators took the important step of naming Russia as the perpetrator — not simply “pro-government” forces or the regime and its allies. In a separate investigation, the Commission offered new details about what may be the deadliest airstrike of the entire US-led campaign in Iraq or Syria – an alliance that also counts among its ranks UNSC permanent members France and the United Kingdom.

Highest civilian toll of entire Coalition war

On the night of March 20th-21st 2017, the Al-Badiya school in al Mansourah, by almost all accounts filled with at least 200 internally displaced people, was struck by the Coalition.The US-led alliance has confirmed it conducted the attack – though continues to insist that only ISIS fighters died.

In a September 2017 Human Rights Watch report, researchers interviewed local residents who said some “ISIS members and their families displaced from Iraq had moved into the school prior to the attack,” but that many also were “completely unaffiliated with ISIS.” HRW found that at least 40 named civilians, including 16 children were killed, and said the toll was likely much higher. The UN-sponsored Commission now assesses that 150 civilians were in fact killed that night – and insists no Islamic State fighters died.

Human Rights Watch investigation video interviewing al Mansour survivors

Though it is not allowed to enter Syria by the Assad government, the Commission was able to interview 20 survivors, relatives, rescuers and other witnesses. “Interviewees explained that, since 2012, Al-Badiya school housed internally displaced families,” wrote the UN investigators. “Some of the residents were recent arrivals while other internally displaced persons had been living in the school for years.”

In the weeks after the strike, Airwars itself provided the Coalition with a 28-page dossier of reports monitored prior to and after the attack which in part described the movement or presence of IDPs in the near area.

In their new report, UN investigators found that the school was hit by three separate airstrikes, “each using multiple bombs that destroyed most of the building rendering it uninhabitable.” They also obtained photographs which showed the type of aerial weapons, including Hellfire missiles, which were likely used.

The al Mansoura strike, and the Coalition’s response, immediately raised serious concerns. As reports emerged suggesting a large civilian toll, the Coalition’s then-top commander General Stephen J. Townsend appeared to preempt his own investigative team.

“We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school,” Townsend told reporters on March 28th 2017. “And we observed it. And we saw what we expected to see. We struck it.”

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there… it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend continued. “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that. In fact, everything we’ve seen since then suggests that it was the 30 or so ISIS fighters we expected to be there.”

The aftermath of a Coalition strike on a school in Al Mansoura, March 21st . This is one of the few images to show the destruction of the attack. (via Mansoura in its People’s Eyes)

In its most recent report, the Commission of Inquiry rebutts that version of events. “Information gathered by the Commission does not support the claim that 30 ISIS fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by ISIS,” it wrote. Investigators said the Coalition should have been aware that the school had been sheltering displaced families for five years. Indeed, among the reports provided to the Coalition by Airwars that described the presence of IDPs were several that predated the strike by several weeks.

The Commission concluded that the Coalition violated international law in failing to “take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”

The Coalition’s investigative team ultimately concluded that allegations of civilian harm in the Mansoura incident were “non-credible.” As in other high profile US or US-led attacks, Coalition investigators did not visit the site of the strike, instead relying on its own internal sources such as strike video. The Coalition’s subsequent investigation, said the Commission, should have been able to “identify the high number of civilian casualties resulting from this incident.”

Even after Human Rights Watch provided the Coalition with detailed information from its own in-person investigation and published those findings, the Coalition did not reopen the case. Reached by Airwars following the release of the Commission’s report, the Coalition repeated their earlier non-credible assessment but said they would consider the findings.

“Based on all evidence provided, to include weapons system video, we have no solid indication civilian casualties resulted from this strike,” said a Coalition spokesperson. “We are interested in the facts the U.N. used to reach a different determination than our assessment. We have in the past re-examined our assessments based on new information, and are willing to reevaluate this assessment if credible or compelling additional information can be obtained.”

Possible Russian War Crimes

The tandem Russian-Syrian aerial campaign in Syria continues to pose significant roadblocks to accountability. Most reports citing Russia during the recent bombing in eastern Ghouta, for instance, have also cited the regime as the possible culprit. Unlike the Coalition however, neither Moscow nor the regime make any effort to admit civilian harm. That makes the second significant case study of international strikes so important in the new UN report.

In an important piece of detective work examining a mass casualty event at Atareb on November 13th 2017, the Commission’s investigators were able to study flight records and pilot communications – and declare that the Russian air force was responsible for a series of strikes that left at least 84 civilians dead and some 150 injured. “Using unguided weapons, the attack struck a market, police station, shops, and a restaurant, and may amount to a war crime,” the Commission said in a statement.

Aftermath of the November 13th attack in Atareb. (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

At the time of the attack, while some local reports did cite the regime the large majority blamed Russia alone. Based on those reports, Airwars assessed that the events in Atareb were the deadliest in all of Syria that week to be tied to Russia. According to to the UN, these early accounts – monitored by Airwars – citing local testimony and observations of planes flying overhead proved accurate.

The first target hit in Atareb was a police station, where at least 13 officers and six prisoners died. The Commission found that the police were not involved in fighting, and that the station was not a “lawful military objective.” Four minutes later, a nearby three-story building was bombed.

A third, catastrophic wave of strikes then followed, hitting “a market street killing and maiming civilians and destroying vegetable and clothing shops as well as nearby residential buildings.” The Commission said it was able to corroborate local accounts by using video captured at the scene, and via satellite imagery.

“Shop owners explained that, at the time of the attack, the market was crowded with people who had left work, most of whom were men since many women had stopped going to the market after the earlier attacks,” wrote investigators.

In the market area, the Commission found evidence consistent with damage caused by unguided Russian-made OFAB-500 bombs. Elsewhere was an entry hole through which an unexploded bomplet fell. “Evidence at the scene and video evidence is consistent with a BeTAB-500 unguided ‘bunker buster’ carrying 12 rocket-assisted penetrators,” wrote investigators. “Using such weapons in a densely civilian populated area was certain to impact civilians.”

While Coalition strikes have mostly tailed off after Syrian Democratic Forces captured Raqqa in October 2017, Russian strikes have been blamed for record numbers of civilian deaths in recent weeks. Between February 19th and February 25th alone, Airwars tracked a record 78 new alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria – nearly all in eastern Ghouta – that reportedly left at least 324 civilians dead. 

On March 5th 2018, the UN Human Rights Council requested that the Commission of Inquiry conduct an urgent investigation into the offensive in the besieged suburb of Damascus.