Russian Military in Syria

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

start date
end date
20 Results
sort by:

Published

June 13, 2022

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Assisted by

Clive Vella, Maia Awada, Sanjana Varghese and Shihab Halep

Survivors of the assault on the Al-Shifa hospital in northern Syria still seeking answers

A year on from a devastating assault on the main hospital in the Syrian city of Afrin, a new Airwars visual investigation has pieced together key features of the attack.

At least 19 people were reportedly killed in two strikes on the Al-Shifa hospital on June 12th, 2021 in what was the single deadliest incident tracked by Airwars in Syria during 2021.

Hospital attacks in Syria are sadly common, with both the Syrian government and allied Russian forces striking dozens of them since the civil war began in 2011. The US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State, Turkey and Kurdish groups have also all been accused of targeting medical facilities.

But the Al-Shifa hospital strike was unusual in that the survivors didn’t all identify the same culprit. Some accused the Syrian regime, others the Russians, while others still blamed the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces or allied Kurdish militias. Some even claimed Turkey was responsible for an attack in a city under its influence.

By bringing together satellite imagery, CCTV footage, witness testimony and expert analysis, Airwars created a comprehensive visual assessment of the strike. We were seeking to understand what munition was used and where the rocket was fired from.

While the investigation was not able to definitively conclude which party was responsible, it did define a seven-kilometre wide region from where the rockets were likely launched. In that area the Syrian regime, SDF and Russians all operated.

“We hope that by publishing this investigation on the anniversary of this horrific attack, we will spark a new conversation about the brazen targeting of a hospital,” Emily Tripp, Airwars’ Director, said.

“This case is one of far too many in Syria’s long civil war where families are left seeking answers about who killed their loved ones.”

The full visual investigation is available here.

 

The context

Afrin is a geopolitically significant city – located at the forefront between multiple belligerents in the 11-year Syrian civil war.

The city is close to the Turkish border and is currently under the control of Turkish-backed groups that operate under the broad title of the Syrian National Army (SNA).

Turkey has fought significant conflicts with Kurdish groups, including the SDF – the closest ally of the United States in Syria. The SDF controls much of the territory to the east of Afrin.

At the time of the strike the Syrian government and its Russian backers also had military capabilities in the region, controlling territory to the southeast of Afrin, while also being known to operate in the east. Russian and Syrian government forces have been the most common strikers of hospitals during the civil war.

Al-Shifa hospital is located in the west of the city and is reportedly close to multiple Turkish government and SNA buildings. The hospital is partly run by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

At the time of the attack Turkish president Erodogan accused the SDF, who in turn accused Syrian government forces. Allegations were also made against Russian forces and even Turkey itself.

The strikes

Most investigations of this type begin by analysing the remnants of the missiles at the scene. However, according to medical sources on the ground, Turkish-backed authorities removed all shrapnel and other physical evidence from the hospital in the hours after the attack, and also prevented activists and media from accessing the site for several hours. Without these vital clues, we drew on other forms of evidence that might give us an idea of where the projectiles might have been launched from.

Airwars compiled all available visual evidence, including drone footage, CCTV recordings provided by SAMS, social media posts, photographs and satellite imagery. We also gathered witness testimony, including speaking to survivors. Using this information we produced a 3D model of the hospital, mapping the impact locations.

The first strike hit the alleyway of the emergency department at 6.55pm – CCTV footage captured the explosion before cutting out shortly after as the electricity failed. The strike caused significant damage to buildings on both sides of the alleyway and reportedly killed, among others, a woman giving birth.

A screenshot from Airwars’ 3D model of the Afrin attack

“It was terrifying. It felt like an earthquake,” medic Mohammed al-Aghawani, who was injured in the attack, told Airwars. “At first I didn’t understand what had happened – whether I was alive or dead.”

The second strike, occurring a few seconds later, hit the main building and damaged the physiotherapy, paediatrics, ENT and surgical clinics. Photographs of the second impact location show a metal rafter broken and bent in half by the projectile as it penetrated the wall.

Image of the impact site (Via Syrian National Commission on Detainees)

From this we determined that the projectile would have arrived at an angle perpendicular to the bend of the bar. Plotting this onto a wider map, we concluded that the projectile must have come from a near due easterly direction.

The third strike

Hoping to narrow down the potential launch area further, we extended our 3D model to map a third impact location allegedly from the same volley of projectiles. Dr. Amin Qosho was at sitting at his kitchen table in his apartment home a few hundred metres away from the hospital. Around 7pm a projectile struck the building opposite his apartment. Instead of penetrating the wall, it hit the building’s reinforced elevator shaft, sending a large spread of shrapnel towards Qosho’s balcony and through his door, killing him instantly.

Using video footage and photographs of this impact location we were able to determine the relative height of the building struck and the building directly to the east. Building upon our previous determination that the projectile came from the east, we concluded that the angle of impact must have been high enough to clear the neighbouring building.

To narrow down our launch area further we investigated the munition used.

The type of weapon

While the Turkish-backed authorities removed all munitions remnants from the hospital itself, an image shared on social media that day showed a projectile found between Qosho’s home and the Al-Shifa hospital.

Images showing part of what appears to be remnants of a 122mm BM-21 rocket (spring-loaded fins) taken ~175m from the site of the Afrin hospital attack that killed over a dozen. Possibly from the first part of the double tap strike, hitting surrounding area

36.509510, 36.860433 pic.twitter.com/w8PAUvsTYU

— Alexander McKeever (@AKMcKeever) June 14, 2021

The projectile was identified as a 122mm, fired from a BM21 GRAD rocket launcher. This type of launcher was first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s but are now a very common – used by multiple sides in the Syrian war. Such launchers fire up to 40 projectiles in a single volley and are inherently inaccurate – designed for open battle fields not urban warfare.

While it was impossible to say with absolute certainty that the hospital and Qosho’s home were also hit by 122mm rockets, it is likely they were from the same volley of rockets.

 

Firing tables for GRAD rockets give a typical range of between 5 and 20 kilometres. However, using our model we determined that to clear the top of the building to the east, the rocket would have had to enter at a minimum of 23.4 degrees. This narrowed our potential launch area down further to between 12.3 and 20.5 kilometres.

Airwars modelling of the potential angles of impact

We shared all our visual evidence with a leading world expert in GRAD rockets, Ove Dullum. He agreed that the projectiles came from an easterly direction, adding that the fragment patterns from the impact indicated a low angle of impact, narrowly clearing the neighbouring building to the east.

Compiling his analysis with our own findings we estimate that the rockets were likely fired from the east and within the closer half of our range.

A still image of the estimated launch area, showing multiple groups operating there

Other investigations have found that the same type of rockets have been launched from the same area, including one by @obretix on a strike that hit the headquarters of a medical first responders organisation in Afrin six weeks after the attack on Al-Shifa hospital.

Conclusion

At the time of the incident, our estimated launch area was mostly under control of the SDF, America’s closest ally in Syria, along with allied militia groups. However control of this region is complicated. Reports in the weeks prior to the attack showed evidence of Russian and Syrian military forces operating within our estimated launch area.

On the 2nd of June, alleged Turkish artillery targeting SDF positions in Mara’anaz reportedly killed a Lieutenant in the Syrian militant, showing the presence and proximity of both the SDF and Regime forces in the area. Two days prior to the Al-Shifa attack, three soldiers from the Syrian military were reportedly injured by alleged Turkish bombardment on Menagh airbase, located within our potential launch area.

As such official designation of responsibility remains unclear. The SDF, Russians and Syrian Government all deny responsibility for this attack on a vital resource.

For the families of the victims and the survivors, the lack of accountability makes the suffering harder.

“I tried to check on the families of the martyrs – their psychological and financial situations are very bad,” Al-Aghawani said. “Personally, every few nights I dream of bombing.”

Airwars invites anyone with additional information to come forward.

▲ A screenshot from Airwars' 3D model of the Afrin attack. Image via Sham News Network.

Published

April 8, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

International gathering brings nearer a protocol on restricting explosive weapon use in urban areas.

States edged closer to a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas on April 8th, after three days of crunch talks in Geneva.

More than 65 states descended on the Swiss city for key talks on the wording of a political declaration that advocates believe would save thousands of lives by restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Detractors, such as the United States government, argue it would unfairly limit the freedom of their own military actions and have threatened not to sign.

While no final text was agreed upon Friday, all sides struck an optimistic tone at the end of the three-day meet – saying a deal was nearer than ever. Delegates will meet again for one day in two months before an adoption ceremony expected in the summer.

“There are clearly differences of opinion but we have seen a very positive, solution oriented approach,” the chairperson, Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, said. “We are not simply working on a formula of words in a political declaration –  we want to make a real difference and impact on the ground and foster behavioural change.”

The talks were given additional urgency by the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Russia’s extensive use of explosive weapons on its cities. Moscow did not attend the talks.

Even the United States, widely viewed as one of the most hostile states to a declaration with teeth, struck a more positive tone than in previous meets. “There are still tough drafting issues and decisions ahead, and we have to get them right. The US delegation pledges our goodwill, to help to get to a positive outcome. We look forward to doing so.”

Since 2018, Ireland has chaired consultations on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In the sessions since, the need for such a declaration – which is not legally binding and so does not create new legal obligations – has only become clearer.

“The draft declaration text holds the potential to make a meaningful contribution to the protection of civilians, and negotiations over the past few days have overall been constructive,” Laura Boillot of INEW, a network of NGOs pushing for the protocol, told Airwars.

“But decisions will now need to be made if the final text is going to have humanitarian effect. Most importantly it needs to establish a presumption against the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in towns, cities and other populated areas.”

It will be a failure to leave this room agreeing that simply restating existing laws will reduce civilian harm – a failure for all of us who came here with the intention to reduce that harm in the first place." @alma_osta in HI concluding remarks at #EWIPA negotiations today. pic.twitter.com/pTKpgfqWWU

— HI_Advocacy (@HI_Advocacy) April 8, 2022

Civil society groups and international agencies made a strong case for restricting EWIPA.

Three days of consultations

During three days of focused talks, several key fissures bubbled. While states in attendance – and civil society organisations – repeatedly emphasised the shared desire to produce a tangible and meaningful political declaration that could help save civilian lives on the ground, the practicalities of the process made clear that good intentions weren’t going to be enough.

On the first day of the informal consultations on April 6th, states made general remarks – affirming their support for the proceedings as well as their national positions – after an introductory statement from Ireland, the penholder.

In these general remarks, most states tended towards re-affirming the positions they had made clear in previous negotiations. On the hawkish side, the UK, US, Israel and Canada all emphasized that their positions as militarily active states meant that they would not sign a declaration in its current form, which included strong language about avoiding the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. Throughout the week, the delegates from these countries could often be seen meeting as a bloc outside of formal proceedings.

Many of the sticking points that emerged on the first day continued to dominate both the main floor and side conversations. The predominant line of argument was between those who argued that the declaration needed only to reaffirm the importance of international humanitarian law and provide further guidance about how to do so in this context; and those who asserted that this declaration needed to strengthen existing commitments and add new ones for states around the use of explosive weapons.

The second day of discussions took a more technical turn, with the majority of interventions focused on the wording of specific clauses and paragraphs of the text.

Clause 3.3, which attracted much attention in previous consultations, was once  again hotly debated. It is one of the first clauses in Section B, the operative section – which lays out the actions that states have to comply with if they choose to sign onto the declaration.

In the current draft, Clause 3.3 says states must: “Ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, when the effects may be expected to extend beyond a military objective.”

The bulk of the discussion around this clause was on the second sentence, as many states intervened on the use of “restricting or refraining,” with some suggesting it was strong enough while others lobbied instead for the use of “avoid”.

A split between the majority of civil society organisations and militarily-powerful states was apparent during these parts of the discussions, with NGOs and international agencies pushing for stronger language, rather than trying to place limits on what kinds of civilian harm would be protected under this new declaration.

Airwars’ incoming director and current head of research Emily Tripp also made an intervention – emphasising how crucial it was for states to actually track civilian harm.

Airwars’ incoming director Emily Tripp addresses a UN-backed conference on explosive weapons in Geneva on April 7th, 2022 (Image: Airwars)

At the end of day two INEW, one of the organisers, named nine states – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Israel, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States – that it said had “worked to weaken declaration provisions.” The UK delegation, for example, agreed that tracking civilian harm was a ‘moral obligation,’ but then highlighted ways in which it claimed this was not feasible – arguing that live hostilities made it near impossible to monitor casualties properly.

But INEW also said that there had been a “shift in the collective tone set by states since the last round of negotiations, with more governments explicitly committed to strengthening the protection of civilians through the declaration.”

The statement said this was likely as a response to the bombing of Ukrainian towns and cities, and the Ukraine crisis loomed large over the conflict. Not only did the majority of states open their remarks with condemnation of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, many also emphasised the importance of a meaningful political declaration with specific reference to Ukrainian cities and towns such as Mariupol, Bucha and Khrarkiv.

There was also an emphasis on the value of protecting civilian objects and infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, with states such as Mexico and the delegate for the Holy See (which holds observer state) urging specific language around the need to protect hospitals, blood transfusion centres, and environmental and religious sites.

Speaking at the end of the latest talks, Ambassador Gaffey said Ireland and organisers would review the submissions from all parties before a month or two of further work on the text. He said states and NGOs would then hold a final one-day consultation in a couple of months, before a political adoption ceremony where states would declare their support for the text.

As Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, of Humanity and Inclusion, noted in her own concluding remarks to delegates: “Eleven years in Syria, seven years in Yemen and over a month in Ukraine have taught us that explosive weapons with wide area effects should not be used in towns, cities and populated areas. The status quo is no longer an option.”

Civilians increasingly bear the brunt of modern conflicts. Addressing the devastating harm to civilians from Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas is a priority for 🇮🇪. We welcome states, international organisations and civil society to consultations in Geneva this week #EWIPA pic.twitter.com/pAyglwZO9D

— Disarmament IRELAND (@DisarmamentIRL) April 6, 2022

Ireland chaired Geneva talks on restricting urban use of explosive weapons

▲ The three-day EWIPA conference in Geneva sought to reach a deal on the use of explosive weapons in urban environments (Airwars)

Published

April 7, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

Crunch talks in Geneva aim to hammer out protocol on explosive weapons in urban areas

The shadow of the Ukraine conflict loomed large over the first day of the informal UN-backed consultations on a political declaration on restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA), currently underway in Geneva.

Delegates from more than 65 nations have gathered to fine tune the language of the political declaration, along with more than 15 civil society organisations including Airwars. The chairperson, Michael Gaffey of Ireland, opened the proceedings by calling for a minute of silence for Ukraine.

Nujeen Mustafa, who had fled the war in Aleppo, then powerfully testified via a video message, saying, “throughout history, diplomats have discussed world problems while sitting at a table with a nice coffee. People trapped in a conflict zone cannot do that. Today, you have the possibility to change a terrible situation and protect civilians.”

Nujeen Mustafa, a Syrian who fled Aleppo after it was largely destroyed by explosive weapons, addresses delegates:“While you’ve been negotiating whether a declaration should be made, 11,076 people have fallen victim to these weapons" she sayshttps://t.co/DI9vYhD6nq

— Airwars (@airwars) April 6, 2022

While there are two days of discussion left before proceedings close on Friday evening, many of the most pressing issues arose in proceedings on Wednesday – particularly as states laid out their own positions during opening remarks. Here are five key themes from the first day of EWIPA negotiations.

1. The conflict in Ukraine adds a sense of urgency

The first statement was made by the Ukrainian delegate, who noted that “our cities and towns have been turned into dead ash because of the use of these explosive weapons” – highlighting a new sense of urgency and relevance which the negotiations have taken on.

Every delegate who spoke made reference to the Ukraine conflict, with many emphasising that the violent and horrific violence against Ukrainian civilians must move states to act more effectively. The French delegate noted that Russia did not attend the proceedings, while the Japanese delegation emphasised the importance of documenting civilian harm in Ukraine.

Many other states called on Russia to cease its aggression and indiscriminate bombing of civilians and it was noted multiple times that Russia’s campaign has targeted and destroyed civilian neighbourhoods using wide area effect explosive weapons – referring to the scenes of destruction in Kherson, Mariupol, and Kharkiv.

2.  The gap between ‘IHL is enough’ and ‘IHL does not go far enough’

Broadly the delegates and countries fall into two groups – those that believe international humanitarian law (IHL) is enough to protect civilians under attack in urban areas – and those that argue more is needed to protect civilians.

States such as the USA, UK, France and Israel argued that any political declaration could not introduce new legal requirements (which it cannot) and that the requirements currently set out under IHL should be sufficient protection for civilians. Currently, these frameworks emphasise for example that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure constitutes a violation of IHL – and that any military actions must be both proportionate, and distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Those backing strong wording to the political declaration text – from Ireland to the ICRC – insist that adherence to IHL alone is not doing enough to protect civilians during much urban fighting.

The US nevertheless called on those states gathered not to produce an “unrealistic impression” that civilians would not be harmed in conflict, while emphasising that explosive weapons are “considered a legitimate and lawful means of warfare when used in accordance with IHL.”

But other states, as well as civil society organisations such as Human Rights Watch, emphasised that any resolution which merely restated the value of IHL – and how states must abide by it – would effectively be useless, as it would be an iteration of what states have already committed to.

States such as Finland and Sweden remarked that there are gaps within IHL around EWIPA , and mere compliance with IHL is not enough to protect civilians.  This has been an ongoing fissure during previous consultations, and continues to be a major fault line.

3.  Reverberating effects

The particularities of the language used in the eventual political declaration are at the heart of the ongoing consultations in Geneva – with discussions about whether to “avoid” or “restrict” the use of explosive weapons in populated areas already a key sticking point.

An additional area of tension appears to the so-called “reverberating effects” of EWIPA, which are essentially the long-term effects.

An example of a reverberating effect would be the destruction of a bridge. If destroyed, it has the immediate effect of removing a crucial piece of civilian infrastructure. But even after the conflict finishes the destruction could also mean that people can’t travel across a certain river, making it harder to access other kinds of civilian infrastructure such as hospitals or schools.

These long-term impacts were the subject of much discussion on Wednesday – with some states, such as the US, Israel, and the UK all noting that ‘reverberating effects’ is neither a legal term nor – they claimed – a widely accepted term with a clear definition. The US also said it would not accept a ‘novel’ term such as reverberating effects in the eventual political declaration.

However, civil society organisations such as PAX and observer states such as the Vatican suggested that it would be difficult to meaningfully understand the full implications of how civilian populations were impacted without incorporating ‘reverberating’ effects.

4. Focus on the humanitarian impacts

The Holy See opened its own remarks by noting that it believes conventional weapons should be named “weapons of mass displacement,” a nod to the ongoing long term effects that explosive weapons can have. The Danish Refugee Council also noted that the use of EWIPA can contribute to displacement, and in time, continuously produce forms of renewed displacement.

Some other states such as Uruguay emphasised the need to collect and monitor the impacts of EWIPA on specific groups – such as those with disabilities, or those who face discrimination because of their gender. Organisations such as CIVIC, PAX and Humanity and Inclusion also spoke about the psychological and mental effects of the use of explosive weapons, notably the need for a survivor-centric approach to any kind of political declaration.

 5. The impact of non-state actors 

While the political declaration is primarily a matter between states, the UK, Israel, the US and others asked that the considerations around EWIPA must also extend to non-state actors, such as armed groups, in the interest of maintaining what they termed a balanced account of how explosive weapons are actually used in populated areas.

The US noted for example that “the declaration has to make it clear that all belligerents, including non-state armed groups, must take steps to address the harms to civilians and civilian objects.” The Turkish delegation argued that asking non-state actors to really consider these impacts would also mean they would be considered as legitimate parties to an international armed conflict – which they are currently, for the most part, not.

The declaration has to make it clear that all belligerents, including non state armed groups, must take steps to address the harms to civilians and civilian objects,” says the USA, intervening for the second time today. pic.twitter.com/cNBYvzncqN

— Airwars (@airwars) April 6, 2022

▲ MPs from various European countries attend the first day of EWIPA talks on April 6, 2022 (Photo: INEW)

Published

March 24, 2022

Written by

Airwars Syria team

A review of 61,000 unique sources reveals the intensity and scale of civilian harm resulting from alleged Russian actions

Since the beginning of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015, Airwars has tracked, documented and preserved every local allegation of civilian harm resulting from Russian actions – over 4,000 individual incidents from 61,915 unique sources.

We have collected 11,181 names of civilians reported killed, and identified 1,383 family members killed in the same incidents. In total, our archive indicates that by March 2022, as many as 24,743 civilians had been locally-alleged killed by Russian actions in Syria, and another 43,124 injured. To date Russia has yet to publicly accept responsibility for the death of a single civilian during the campaign.

Russian and Syrian regime pilots often fly the same Russian airframes, use the same munitions and tactics, and also fly joint patrols. For this reason, local communities can find it extremely challenging to attribute civilian harm directly to one party or another.

In those events where only Russia is implicated Airwars believes the likely civilian fatality toll to be between 4,300 and 6,400. Between 10,000 and 17,100 further deaths are alleged from contested events – where Russia is only one of the belligerents blamed for an attack, primarily alongside the regime.

This briefing focuses on Russia’s engagement in Syria in order to help civil society, journalists, researchers and humanitarian practitioners understand patterns of civilian harm resulting from Russian actions, which can also help inform understanding of Moscow’s ongoing attacks in Ukraine. Airwars continues to document recorded civilian harm resulting from the actions of all other foreign belligerents in Syria – such as Turkish military engagement and US led coalition activities.

Our findings on Russia in Syria present aggregated results from our newly updated civilian harm archive. Each incident of civilian harm presents a unique data point but we encourage all those engaging with these findings to also review our open access archive, where each incident can be reviewed in its entirety: click here.

While we consider all events in our archive as active – meaning they will be updated as new information comes to light – the data presented here reflects can be considered up to date as of March 24th 2022.

More details on our methodology and casualty counting standards can be found here.

Scale of civilian harm

Russia first intervened directly in Syria in September 2015, five years into the country’s civil war, in support of the Syrian regime. In the first three years of the conflict, more than 45,000 airstrikes were declared by Russian forces. While the initial alliance between Russian and the Syrian regime declared they were targeting the Islamic State, the two actors have increasingly focused on clearing rebel-held areas – with the final rebel stronghold in Idlib appearing to be Russian’s primary target today.

Over the course of Russian involvement in the conflict, overall up to 24,743 civilians have been locally alleged killed by Russian actions; including those incidents with contested attribution to the Syrian regime. This includes up to 5,318 children, 2,953 women and 4,208 men where the gender and ages of victims are known.

Our data includes all allegations where one or more local sources pointed to Russian forces as being responsible for civilian casualties – including those events where additional sources blamed the Syrian regime (or in a small number of events, other actors such as the US-led Coalition or Turkey). In total these contested incidents account for 60% of the civilian fatalities linked to Moscow’s actions in Syria in our archive. Until Russia and the Syrian regime are transparent about their actions in Syria, it is highly likely that we will not be able to identify the specific perpetrator of each contested event. That said, the likelihood that civilians were harmed in such attacks is often high.

Each data point represents the number of alleged civilian fatalities in a single civilian harm incident.

Civilians have been reported killed by Russian forces in both large-scale civilian harm incidents and more consistently in smaller-scale harm events that are rarely covered by international media. Most civilian harm incidents involve allegations where between one and 10 civilians are reported killed, although several mass casualty incidents have also been attributed to Russian actions.

As widely documented by conflict monitors, civilian casualties are more likely to occur when actors target populated areas, especially when using explosive weapons with wide area effects. Airwars data shows that there are at least 299 civilian harm incidents in Syria where local sources have alleged that ‘vacuum’ missiles have been used by Russian forces: a particularly deadly explosive that can suck the oxygen from the air and cause a blast wave so massive it can destroy even reinforced infrastructure. These incidents account for up to 1,480 alleged civilian fatalities.

Location of incidents referencing use of vacuum missiles during the Battle of Aleppo – 2016.

In the campaign to capture Aleppo in 2016, Russian forces were alleged to have used these weapons 23 times on the densely populated city, according to Airwars monitoring of hyperlocal sources.

While vacuum missiles are not banned under international law, their deliberate use on civilian neighbourhoods is prohibited. Russian forces have also been accused of using prohibited ‘cluster’ bombs – munitions that have a large and inaccurate blast radius, and are likely to cause significant harm beyond the intended target.

In 567 civilian harm incidents recorded in the Airwars archive, local sources reported that cluster munitions have been used – accounting for up to 3,640 civilian deaths, and 7,040 civilian injuries.

Civilian targets – attacks on residential neighbourhoods and civilian infrastructure

Within the first three months of Russian attacks in Syria in late 2015, Airwars found that local reports of civilian harm were already indicating a clear trend of systematic attacks on civilian neighbourhoods and vital infrastructure.

Local communities and civil society organisations, such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights, have continued to report on and document this major trend. On February 27th 2022, less than a week after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, local activists described “massive destruction” on a marketplace in the town of Afes in Idlib province; up to two people were killed and another four injured in the action attributed both to Russian forces and the Syrian regime.

This is one of 204 unique incidents in the Airwars archive where Russian forces were locally blamed for civilian harm in an attack on a marketplace; in total these incidents account for up to 3,051 civilian fatalities.

While it is not unusual for belligerents monitored by Airwars to harm civilians in attacks which strike marketplaces, our data indicates that Russian forces are likely to do so at a far higher rate than most. Our monitoring of alleged civilian harm resulting from US-led Coalition actions in Syria, for example, finds that despite similarly intensive campaigns conducted predominantly by airstrikes, US-led Coalition actions led to claimed civilian harm events in marketplaces on forty occasions. Of those events, Airwars presently assesses that 23 incidents did likely result from Coalition bombings. The alliance itself has also publicly conceded civilian deaths and injuries in six of those marketplace attacks – a clear contrast with Moscow’s ongoing refusal to concede any harm from its seven-year campaign.

Russian forces in Syria, along with the Syrian regime, have also been accused of repeatedly attacking medical facilities, hospitals, and clinics throughout Syria with explosive munitions. Overall, our research identified 229 incidents where civilian harm reportedly occurred in medical facilities following alleged Russian and/or Syrian regime actions. In many incidents, local sources reported “total destruction” of facilities – without any possibility of reconstruction.

#حلبطيران النظام و روسيا يدمر مشفى بغداد في قرية عويجل بشكل كامل بعد قصفه بصاروخين ارتجاجيين وهو المشفى الثالث الذي يتم تدميره خلال يومين pic.twitter.com/H2523kXUz2

— شدا الحرية (@tv_shada) November 15, 2016

Other civilian spaces have also been hit during Russia’s campaign; in at least 180 civilian harm incidents recorded by Airwars, fatalities and injuries occured in schools. Educational facilities have frequently been the site of reported Russian incidents, including universities, where at least two attacks struck campuses, including the University of Ebla. On January 21st 2018, one civilian was reported to have been killed when Russian “heavy aerial bombardment” struck the university. On the same day there were 15 additional raids on the area which further damaged the University buildings.

Local reporting also reveals at least 53 cases where civilians were reported killed by Russian strikes on factories and water sanitation stations. In 2016 alone, eight attacks on factories and twelve attacks on water stations were reported; most of these were part of a major regime-led campaign to gain control of Aleppo city. In one incident on September 23rd 2016, up to 250,000 people in eastern Aleppo were reported to have temporarily lost access to water completely, when an air raid on the neighbourhood of Bab al Nayrab hit a water pumping station.

As Russian forces and their Syrian regime allies have closed in on the final rebel-held enclave in Idlib, critical civilian infrastructure continues to come under attack. From September 2021 until January of this year, civilian harm incidents have been reported resulting from attacks on poultry farms at least twice a month. Overall, despite the lower tempo of the conflict in 2021, it was also the year that saw the most attacks on farming facilities.

“Oh God, by the size of the beauty of your paradise, show me the beauty of the next in my life and fulfil for me what I wish, and comfort my heart.” – Jude Yasser Shara’s, aged 21, last Facebook post minutes before artillery shelling killed her in Idlib City on September 7th 2021. Jude was reported to have recently gradauated from an undergraduate degree in Psychology and was he head of Al Seraj al Munir Kindergarten (Image shared via Idlib Media Centre).

Targeting humanitarian response

In 12 cases identified in our datasets, civilians were harmed in incidents where Russia was accused of targeting humanitarian response efforts – often in conjunction with the Syrian regime.

In four incidents, local sources reported civilian harm after attacks on food convoys. In the first of these cases, on November 25th 2015, eight civilians were reported killed, including a child, when Russian planes hit a series of trucks close to the Turkish border. Russia accepted responsibility for the attack, but did not accept responsibility for the civilian casualties – and denied that the trucks were part of a humanitarian convoy.

Potential implications of Russia’s actions in Syria for Ukraine

Airwars has actively monitored, assessed and preserved all community-reported civilian harm claims from Russian actions in Syria since September 2015 – resulting in a major public database that presently runs to 650,000 words.

Our detailed findings are clear. Civilian harm from Russia’s actions in Syria has been both extensive and continuous. Civilian neighbourhoods are routinely targeted by both air and artillery strikes, often with no suggestion of the presence of armed rebels. Marketplaces, hospitals, schools, critical infrastructure, and first responders, are also routinely struck. Indeed the frequency of such attacks compared to those of other actors in Syria, leads Airwars to conclude that Russia deliberately and routinely targets both civilians and civilian infrastructure, as part of a broader strategy to drive civilians from rebel-held areas.

Many of the profoundly concerning and potentially unlawful Russian actions in Syria – which Airwars and others have extensively documented – are now reportedly being witnessed at scale across Ukraine, with multiple towns and cities under direct attack. Indeed, with the addition of tens of thousands of Russian ground forces and weapon systems never deployed in Syria – such as guided missile strikes and MRLS salvoes – the potential exists for far greater civilian harm in Ukraine than that extensively documented for Syria.

Moscow’s extensive ongoing attacks on urban centres – where millions of Ukrainians remain trapped – is particularly concerning. According to United Nations monitors, the great majority of civilian deaths and injuries result from the use of wide area effect explosive weapons on urban areas. Upcoming UN-brokered talks in Geneva to restrict the urban use of such weapons offer a clear opportunity for other nations to distance themselves from Russia’s outrageous actions.

▲ Locals trying to rescue injured civilians from the rubble not long after aerial and missile bombardments in Douma and nearby locations around Damascus, reportedly killing between 42 and 70 civilians on Sepember 13th 2015. (Image via SNN)

Published

February 22, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

As tensions mount over risks to civilians from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Airwars examines lessons from Moscow's seven year Syria war.

On February 21st Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would recognise the independence of two separatist regions inside Ukraine, with Russian troops reportedly moving there – steps widely seen as edging towards a full conflict. If Russia does, as has been predicted, invade part or all of Ukraine in the coming days, there are reasons to believe it will be a particularly bloody conflict for civilians – as well as an opaque one.

Russian actions in Syria, which Airwars has tracked since they began in 2015, suggests the country’s military does little to mitigate civilian harm. And should any conflict intensify in Ukraine, local and international civilian harm monitoring is likely to be deeply challenged, an Airwars assessment has found.

Russia in Syria: bleak record on civilian harm

Moscow’s record in Syria offers insights into what to expect from any Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Since the first of tens of thousands of airstrikes in support of President Bashar Al-Assad’s government in September 2015, Airwars has recorded 4,621 incidents in which Russia is alleged to have caused civilian deaths or injuries.

From these, Airwars currently estimates that a minimum of at least 4,172 civilians have been killed by Russia alone – with at least 16,000 additional claimed civilian deaths occurring in events contested between both Russian and Syrian regime actions.

Overall, Russia has been linked to as many as 23,400 alleged civilian deaths in Syria. And more than 41,000 civilians have also allegedly been injured.

Russian involvement in Syria has been characterised by a heavy reliance on unguided munitions, including cluster bombs and thermobaric missiles. Videos uploaded by the Russian Ministry of Defence in the early years of the conflict demonstrated the low levels of accuracy achieved when using unguided munitions.

Moscow has also faced persistent and well-substantiated allegations that it deliberately targets health workers and medical facilities throughout Syria. Amnesty International has called this a “strategy of war” to push back rebels. Markets, civilian-only neighbourhoods and even refugee camps have also reportedly been targeted by Russian strikes.

More recently, Russia has been criticised for targeting civilian infrastructure, such as poultry farms and water treatment facilities in Idlib, which is the last opposition-held region in Syria. Rights groups say this may amount to war crimes. And Human Rights Watch has already raised concerns about the shelling of residential areas in Ukraine by Russian-backed groups, a tactic Russia has been repeatedly accused of pursuing in Syria.

Denial of casualties

Russia is far from the only foreign power that has killed civilians in Syria’s decade-long war – in fact four of the five permanent United Nations Security Council members continue to bomb the country.

Yet while there are deep flaws in the civilian harm policies applied by the United States, Britain, France and others, they do at least have known policies.

To date, Russia has not publicly accepted responsibility for a single civilian death during six and a half years of war in Syria. It is currently unclear if Russia has any comprehensive mechanisms in place for either preventing civilian harm from its air and artillery strikes, or for accounting for civilian casualties. Extensive reports of Moscow’s deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure and hospitals suggests the opposite.

As #Putin maneuvers into position for serious hostilities in #Ukraine, let's bear in mind the recent record of the Russian military. As a baseline is one factoid:

– Russian 'actions' in #Syria since 2015 have killed 23,000+ civilians.https://t.co/JsrTI8kJKK pic.twitter.com/rL5duc9XqL

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 22, 2022

Airwars has tried multiple times to engage with Russian authorities on civilian harm concerns, with no success. In 2018 President Putin was asked by Fox News about civilians killed by Russian airstrikes.  “You know, when there [is] warfare going on — and this is the worst thing that can happen [for] humankind – [victims] are inevitable, and there will always be a question of who’s to blame. I think it is the terrorist groups who are to blame who destabilized the situation in the country,” he noted.

Ukraine casualties: a challenge to track

Should war again come to Ukraine, a comprehensive review by Airwars suggests that ensuing civilian casualties risk being poorly documented.

A relatively low level conflict began in 2014, when Russia seized the Crimea Peninsula, and pro-Russian separatists later took over parts of the eastern Donbas region – areas internationally recognised as being within Ukraine’s borders.

Since then, even while fighting has continued at a low intensity, the quality of data about civilians killed and injured on both sides has remained poor. While the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights releases regular reports on human rights in Ukraine, it is not a comprehensive dataset. Estimates of civilian casualties are fragmented, and also do not focus on civilian harm resulting from both sides. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) also documents and reports periodically on casualties. Its most recent report covers the period from February 1st – July 31st 2021.

Every Casualty Counts has also published a helpful update on Ukraine resources – including Summary versions in both Ukrainian and Russian of its important Standards for Casualty Recording.

Currently, official Ukrainian government sources only provide data on military casualties. Unfortunately, Ukrainian media and international organisations often then rely on UN and OSCE data in their reporting on civilian harm.

The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union – a network of 28 human rights NGOs in Ukraine – has been identifying and recording information on all casualties of the hybrid armed conflict in Ukraine since January 2014. This includes both Russian and Ukrainian military personnel and civilians. The data is available online in database and map format, at The Memorial Map.

The civilian death toll of the conflict since 2014 remains somewhat opaque. International media reports suggest that at least 10,000 people may have died to date, with some estimates as high as 50,000. Yet the latest OHCHR report counted only 3,092 civilian deaths up until July 31st 2021.

Overall casualty tolls include widespread reports of ongoing civilian harm in the Russian-backed separatist regions, resulting from Ukrainian actions. These have come via Donetsk Public Republic (DPR) Ombudsman on Human Rights reports; and Luhansk Public Republic (LPR) Ministry of Foreign Affairs updates. The latest aggregated data from DPR/LPR official sources was reported in November 2021 with estimates of nearly 9,000 civilians killed within DRP/LPR territory since April 2014.

Urban casualties

With dire predictions that tens of thousands of civilians could be killed in a full-scale conflict between Russia and Ukraine – particularly with its likely focus on urban areas – this would quickly overwhelm the capacities of casualty monitors at the United Nations and OSCE, as well as within Donbas, Airwars believes.

Other recent city battles – such as Mosul, Raqqa, Gaza and Tripoli – have seen sometimes extreme civilian casualties, even where some belligerents attempted to reduce harm.

John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at West Point’s Modern War Institute, said he was concerned about large numbers of civilians potentially being killed in urban environments.

“Basically any possible Russian invasion route that has been discussed goes through heavily populated areas,” Spencer told Airwars.

“Hitting any target, no matter how important, in heavily populated neighbourhoods is likely to result in civilian harm”

Updated on February 23rd to include additional civilian harm monitoring sources.

▲ Russian and Belarus forces hold a joint live fire exercise, February 2022 (via Russian Ministry of Defence)

Published

September 30, 2021

Written by

Airwars Syria team

Airwars has tracked up to 23,000 civilian deaths from Russian military actions since 2015 - with Moscow yet to concede a single casualty.

To mark the sixth anniversary of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Airwars is highlighting just five of the countless civilian harm events that characterise Russian involvement in the conflict.

Overall since 2015, we have identified 4,615 incidents where Russia is alleged to have caused civilian deaths or injuries. This September alone, we estimate that ten civilians have been killed by alleged Russian strikes – including five children. This brings the total estimate since 2015 to a minimum of 14,216 civilians killed only in incidents Airwars has deemed fair, confirmed or contested.

This figure is a conservative estimate. As many as 23,936 civilians overall are locally alleged to have been killed by Russian actions – among the worst tolls of any belligerent or conflict monitored by Airwars. However, many of these reported deaths are contested between Russia and the Syrian regime it supports, making clear attribution frequently challenging. Airwars is continuing to carry out deep research into events that took place between late 2019 and 2020, with the updated civilian harm data expected to be released early next year.

Our Syrian team members have selected five major incidents from our archives that show how Russia has waged war in Syria – and the ongoing cost of its operations on civilian life.

We focus on civilian harm caused by high-intensity vacuum missiles; the staggering numbers of children credibly reported harmed; the challenges of naming all victims during such a high intensity conflict; and finally, the use of targeted attacks on healthcare workers and first responders.

Focusing on the civilian harm caused by Russia alone does not reflect the full picture of large-scale death and destruction over the past ten years of conflict in Syria. Airwars continues to monitor all foreign interventions in the Syrian conflict; for example, our monitoring of US led coalition activities can be found here, while our monitoring of Turkish military engagement can be found here.

Syrian monitoring groups – such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; and the Violations Documentation Center – also continue to track the devastating civilian harm caused by the ongoing civil war, most of it resulting from the actions of the Assad regime.

Case 1 – Vacuum missiles

Vacuum or ‘thermobaric’ missiles are a particularly deadly weapon, allegedly used by both Russian and Syrian Regime forces throughout the conflict. Russian forces were first accused of using vacuum missiles in Syria on the first day of airstrikes, on September 30th 2015, in an attack that reportedly killed 18 civilians in Talbiseh. A doctor working at the hospital receiving casualties described the impact of the missile as causing “cases of suffocation as a result of dust and smoke”, killing civilians with “enormous pressure or shrapnel that pierced their bodies and tore some of them into pieces”.

Absolute confirmation of the use of a particular weapon in Syria remains a major challenge. Of the 4,615 civilian harm events categorised by Airwars as likely being Russian (including contested events such as Russian and/or regime attacks), we identified 244 incidents where local sources mentioned that ‘vacuum missiles’ had been used in the attack. These strikes were found to have caused at least 875 deaths.

While we may not know for sure if vacuum missiles were used in each of these events, we have chosen to highlight one case that offers some insight into the level of destruction caused by high explosive weapons, and the complexity of such events.

April 17th-18th 2017: Ma’arat Hurma

This incident took place in April 2017, where nine children and their grandmother were likely killed in repeated airstrikes on Ma’arat Hurma, Idlib. The site was reportedly hit multiple times, with buildings almost completely raised to the ground and victims buried under many layers of rubble. In the final high-intensity strike, an ambulance being used to tend to the initial victims, was left burning.

Media outlet RFS observed that “the raids were highly explosive and caused extensive destruction to civilian homes. Six houses and more than 25 shops were destroyed and other material damage occurred in the places where rockets fell”.

Our assessment identifies the victims likely killed in the attack – all members of the Al Nabo family, with the youngest child just two years old. Images posted to social media show the buildings razed to the ground, while a video posted by first responders, the White Helmets, show the bodies of small children being carried through the rubble.

Read the full assessment on our website here.

The moment missiles hit Ma’arat Hurma. 

Case 2 – Children killed and injured

At least 4,831 children have been reported killed by alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria since 2015. In 2016, one of the deadliest years for civilian casualties in Syria, an average of 169 children were killed each month by alleged Russian actions.

While ceasefire agreements in 2020 saw a downturn in Russian strikes, this temporary relief for Syrians has likely now come to an end, as we’ve seen the resumption of weekly, and sometimes daily, Russian airstrikes in different parts of Syria. In September 2021 alone, children account for half of all deaths caused by alleged Russian strikes and almost half of all injuries. This includes one child reported injured earlier this week, in alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes on the town of Majdlaya.

Taking the most conservative estimates – the minimum number of reported civilians killed – children could account for 34% of all casualties in Syria resulting from alleged Russian strikes. The indiscriminate nature of Russian airstrikes has resulted in the deaths of entire families of children, including babies just a few months old.

August 19th & 20th 2021: Balshoun and Kansafra

Two civilian casualty events took place over 48 hours in August 2021, where alleged Russian airstrikes in Idlib hit two families. At least eight children were killed and another injured.

On August 19th, four children were killed and another injured by alleged Russian or regime strikes on Balshoun. Three of the children were killed alongside their mother and their young cousin – all members of the Ajaj family.

One of the children killed was 8-year old Hamza Khaled Habib, cousin of the Ajaj family. In an event that reflects the scale of civilian harm in Syria, Hamza was being raised by his uncle, as his own father had already been killed in a previous airstrike. The Syrian Civil Defense (also known as the White Helmets) posted a video capturing Mr Mohamed Ajaj mourning for his wife, children and young nephew, all killed in this attack.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

Only a day later at Kansafra, another Idlib town, another family was almost entirely killed, including at least four children – aged three, six, nine and twelve years old, members of the Al Omar family. A reporter with AFP saw the father crying over the bodies of three of his children in a cemetery. The reporter observed that the fourth child had to be buried in a hurry, because bombing had begun again in the area.

Only one of the Al Omar children survived the attack, the youngest, who the mother managed to rescue just moments before the strike.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

The bottle belonging to one of the children killed in alleged Russian strikes on Kansafra town, Idlib – August 2021 (Image posted on Twitter by @thawrat111)

Case 3 – The unnamed

Of all civilians alleged harmed by Russian airstrikes – estimated by Airwars at as many as 23,936 killed and 41,452 injured – we have found full or partial names for just 8,472 individuals.

This means that 87% of all civilians reported harmed in Russian strikes cannot be identified using current available datasets. While on-going deeper research being conducted by Airwars might be able to address at least some of these events, it is highly likely that we may not know the identity of many thousands of victims until Syria’s conflict ends, and a substantial truth and reconciliation process can begin.

This is due to a number of reasons, not least that the use of high-intensity weapons by Russian and other forces in Syria cause significant destruction, and often make immediate identification of casualties impossible. Syria also houses the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, estimated by UNHCR at 6.2 million, including 2.3 million children. Local sources in many cases may not recognise victims, especially those recently arrived with little documentation.

March 22nd 2019: Kafriya and Al Fou’a

On March 22nd 2019 in Kafriya and Al Fou’a in Idlib, an incident that was referred to by several sources as a “massacre”, killed up to 28 civilians and injured as many as 30 others. A doctor named Abu Mohammed was quoted by Smart News as identifying more than 15 raids on the towns of Kufriya and al-Fuha and he noted that many civilians had moderate injuries, “mostly children and women”. The use of cluster bombs and high explosive missiles was pointed out in various sources and could be one of the reasons for the difficulty identifying victims.

Despite Airwars’ researchers finding 28 unique sources reporting on the incident, we were only able to identify one individual who was killed – Ali Wahid Qalla, a 50 year old man displaced from Eastern Ghouta. The identity of dozens of others, including children, remains unknown.

Read our assessment in full on our website.

ارتفاع حصيلة شهداء المجزرة التي ارتكبتها الطائرات الروسية في بلدة #كفريا شمال إدلب إلى 20 مدنياً بينهم 4 أطفال وأكثر من 30 جريحاً من بينهم حالات حرجة و 13 طفل.هؤلاء اصبحوا مجرد ارقام عند الاعلام المنافق pic.twitter.com/hRFOay4PvZ

— عبد الغفور الدياب (@abuhuzaifa_) March 23, 2019

‘The death toll from the massacre committed by Russian planes in the town of #كفريا North Idlib killed 20 civilians, including 4 children, and more than 30 wounded, including critical cases, and 13 children. These have become just numbers for the hypocritical media’

Case 4 – Attacks on healthcare workers and rescuers

In March 2020, WHO’s Regional Emergency Director in the Eastern Mediterranean, Richard Brennan, called out the international community for ignoring attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria: “What is troubling, is that we’ve come to a point where attacks on health — something the international community shouldn’t tolerate – are now taken for granted; something we have become accustomed to”.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provide on-going monitoring of attacks on healthcare centres, noting that such operations are against International Humanitarian Law and constitute war crimes. According to PHR, 244 attacks on medical facilities have been carried out by either the Syria Regime or Russian forces. One such attack was investigated by the New York Times, which showed how Russian airstrikes hit four hospitals in just 12 hours in May 2019.

As PHR notes: “When these attacks on health care become as prolonged and widespread as they have in Syria, the consequences reach far beyond the individuals and facilities lost – the attacks reverberate across the civilian community, inciting fear that seeking medical treatment or going to a hospital will result in death, injury, kidnapping, torture, or imprisonment, both for the patient and the medical provider.”

One type of event Airwars researchers often report on during monitoring of Russian strikes in Syria, are so-called double-tap strikes – where first responders are hit in a second airstrike after an initial attack has caused casualties.

These first responders are most often the White Helmets, officially known as the Syrian Civil Defense, who report that 252 of their volunteers have been killed since the start of the conflict and over 500 volunteers injured. White Helmets continue to risk their lives and are often the only response teams available in remote or poorly resourced areas.

June 26th 2019, Khan Sheikoun

An event that took place in June 2019 is one such example, where an alleged Russian strike killed two White Helmets volunteers in Khan Sheikoun, Idlib, who were tending to the victims of an earlier strike. The two volunteers, Ali Al Qadour and Omar Kayyal, had been in an ambulance treating victims of an initial strike in the east of Khan Sheikhoun; another five of their colleagues were also wounded.

The Syrian Civil Defense published a statement that said “a thorough examination of the evidence, such as eyewitness accounts and the identification of munitions used in the attack on white helmets, has proved conclusively that the aircraft that committed the crime of targeting and killing our volunteers belong to the Russian Air Force, which used surveillance aircraft”.

The assessment is available in full on our website.

The burial of a White Helmets volunteer, following a reported Russian airstrike in June 2019 (Image via Idlib Media Centre)

 

▲ A street in Ariha city raised to the ground by alleged Russian aistrikes in February 2020, including the almost complete destruction of Shami Hospital. Image via Halab Today.

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).