Research by Eline Westra and Kinda Haddad
Russia has implied that a member of the US-led Coalition killed six civilians in rural Aleppo province on October 17th – a claim which drew a furious rebuttal from Belgium’s defence minister, who complained of “Russian disinformation.”
The spat comes as a Moscow-declared pause appeared to be respected in Aleppo city itself – with both Russian and Assad regime airstrikes on hold after weeks of ferocious bombardment.
The alleged incident took place in the village of Hassajek according to Russia’s Defence Ministry, which referenced it in in a daily bulletin nominally focused on ‘the reconciliation of opposing sides in the Syrian Arab Republic.’
The controversy that followed shows just how difficult it is to monitor airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria, and in particular in parts of Aleppo where numerous states could theoretically be responsible.
In Moscow’s version of events, “Hassajek village suffered an air strike at 3am on October 18th. Two living houses have been destroyed, 6 people were killed and 4 ones were injured. Aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces and Syrian Air Force did not operate in this region.”
Instead Russia appeared to blame Belgium, one of the smaller partners in the US-led alliance: “Aircraft of the international coalition were performing tasks near Hassajek village at night on October 18. Air situation control systems have detected two F-16 of the Air Force of the Kingdom of Belgium at the specified time and area.”
The Belgian government reacted furiously to the claim. In a tweet, Belgium’s Minister of Defence Steven Vandeput called the allegations “Russian disinformation.” Laurence Mortier, spokeswoman of the Defence Ministry, denied the country’s air force was involved. “We did not fly there yesterday, nor the days before,’ Mortier told Airwars.
België niet betrokken bij burgerdoden Aleppo. Russische desinformatie.
— Steven Vandeput (@svandeput) October 19, 2016
Belgium’s defence minister complains of ‘Russian disinformation’
The Belgian rebuttal is complicated by the country’s status as one of the least transparent member of the 13-member Coalition. Over the past two years Belgium has refused to provide the dates and locations of its strikes in Iraq or Syria, and Mortier said it only released information this week considering the “accusation by Russia.”
Belgium’s near total lack of transparency over its Coalition activities has stymied attempts to assess what if any civilian toll its bombs have caused – and, conversely, makes it difficult to exonerate the country when it is linked to civilian casualty allegations.
Russia’s claims may also have been disingenuous. Local reports were unclear as to whether the reported casualties in Hassajek village were fighters or civilians. The area has recently seen battles involving ISIL, Turkish-backed rebels, and Kurdish forces.
Turkey, while officially a member of the anti-ISIL Coalition, is presently conducting unilateral airstrikes in support of rebels in rural Aleppo – including a faction which has been fighting ISIL around Hassajek.
Confusing matters further, Turkey is also targeting Kurdish factions which are allied with the Coalition. On October 20th, Turkey’s state run news agency reported that Ankara’s jets hit as many as 18 Kurdish militia targets the night before in an area north of Aleppo close to Tuesday’s incident. Turkish reports indicated that as many as 200 people were killed. It was unclear if all those killed were members of armed groups.
Meanwhile Coalition strikes have also continued in the northern Aleppo area – as have air attacks by Russia and the Assad regime.
In addition to Belgium’s denials, a spokesperson for the Coalition told Airwars that “contrary to what Russian media reported, there is no evidence of this incident nor were any Belgian aircraft conducting kinetic operations at the time.” According to official strike reports covering October 17th through 19th, the Coalition launched at least five strikes “near” Mara’a – a town in northern Aleppo governorate.
Airwars has monitored a number of other claimed civilian fatalities from airstrikes in the area recently – but these reports are often clouded in uncertainty.
A ‘humanitarian pause’ announced by Russia in rebel-held eastern Aleppo city October 18th – which it offered as evidence of its own innocence in the Hassajek affair – did not in fact begin until after the incident. Both the Syrian and Russian air forces have been responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths in Aleppo and surrounding areas over the last few months.
The Hassajek accusation is not the first time the Assad regime and its allies have sought to implicate the Coalition. In July, the Syrian government singled out France as being responsible for Coalition strikes near Manbij in Aleppo that left at least 73 civilians dead. France itself declared no strikes in the vicinity.