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
18 Results
sort by:


May 4, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

For two years Kinda Haddad has tracked and assessed for Airwars more than a thousand alleged Coalition and Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria. In recent months, as the battle against ISIL has intensified, reports of civilian deaths around Raqqa caused by the US-led alliance have risen steeply. Yet in contrast to the siege of Aleppo, international media coverage has largely been absent. Here Kinda offers her thoughts on why two bombed cities might be treated so differently.

Researching allegations of civilian casualties made against Coalition and Russian air strikes in Syria in real time – while listening to the radio news as I do in my daily life – has become a vivid exercise in cognitive dissonance.

Claims against Russia are, it seems, often quickly picked up and reported on extensively, and especially so at times when Moscow’s actions are at their harshest and most intense.  In the autumn and winter of 2016 for example, Russia and the regime of Bashar al Assad were doing their utmost to retake Aleppo from the rebels. The two allies put the city under a crippling siege and bombed it without any discernible consideration for the presence of civilians. Indeed, on many occasions both Russia and the regime appeared to purposefully target civilian infrastructure and medical facilities.

That brutal campaign succeeded in gaining control of eastern Aleppo in December 2016.  The cost in civilian lives was enormous, and a great proportion of those killed were women and children.  In less than four months leading up to the fall of Aleppo more than 1,000 civilians were reportedly killed by Russian strikes. In November alone, the Syrian Network for Human rights tied 358 civilian deaths to Russia. During all of 2016, the group estimates that Russian forces killed more than 3,900 civilians.

Whatever one thinks of the regime and of Russia, the fact that the plight of civilians was highlighted is what I would expect from a free media in a free society, as part of their job of ‘speaking truth to power’. And they did so in spades.

There was a considerable degree of attention paid by international media to events on the ground, with Russia’s actions in the news all day, every day. Civilians who had escaped were interviewed extensively and the misery and losses they had endured were highlighted. It was so bad I would often turn the radio off. Despite all the awful material I view daily I still find the recorded sounds of shelling and the voices of people more distressing.

The White Helmets rescue civilians from the rubble following Russian or Assad regime airstrikes on Aleppo, July 8th 2016. (via, Alsharq News)

Crippling assault

A few months on and Airwars is monitoring a very similar situation with the Coalition both in Raqqa province in Syria, and in Mosul city in Iraq – each ISIL strongholds for several years.

As with Aleppo, Mosul is under crippling assault – and like the Russians who work alongside the Syrian army, the Coalition is working alongside Iraqi government  forces, carrying out air and artillery shelling.

Despite repeated statements that the Coalition takes great care to avoid targeting civilians, events on the ground reflect a different version of events. The level of casualties has been shocking, with between 1,308 and 2,435 civilians claimed killed by the Coalition in Mosul in March 2017 alone. There remains a high level of confusion as to what degree the Coalition and Iraqi forces – and ISIL – are causing these deaths. The same happened in Aleppo, where it became very hard for people on the ground to distinguish between Russian and regime warplanes. Artillery in particular – used heavily in Mosul – is difficult to tell apart.

While the Russian campaign has shown a clear pattern of targeting civilians, the Coalition insists that it pursues a much more careful operation.  Yet the level of civilian casualties from both the Coalition and Russian operations are simply too high – and in the case of the Coalition it is not appropriate, or just, to dismiss hundreds of incidents as “mistakes.” Every day – not week – we are seeing several such “mistakes,” with no explanation from the Coalition. This gives the distinct impression that when faced with a military target,  neither side cares much as to whether civilians are present or not.

Raqqa Silence

International media was slow to report on high civilian deaths at first. However recent weeks have seen major field reports and investigations from international and regional news groups – which have helped pressure both the Coalition and Iraqi forces into reducing harm to civilians.

But across the border in Syria’s Raqqa province it’s a very different story – even though many of its cities and towns have been put under siege by the Kurdish SDF, and with Coalition air raids escalating in a way we have not seen since the beginning of the war against ISIL in Syria in September 2014. March saw the worst casualty levels yet with between 320 and 860 civilians likely killed in Coalition strikes in Syria, a sixfold increase on the previous month. Ninety per cent of these deaths were around Raqqa.

Where we used to see a handful of allegations a week we are now monitoring several cases a day. Many of these bear high death tolls. For example up to 17 people, most of them women and children, were reportedly killed as they tried to escape Al Tabaqa on April 24th 2017. Their cars were targeted and everyone in the vehicles perished.

#IntlCoalition forces committed #massacre against children and women in al Tabaqa city in #Raqqa on Apr 24 #SNHR

— Syrian Network (@snhr) April 24, 2017

And there are so many incidents like this every week. Sometimes there is very little information. But other times there is a flood of detail from local outlets and social media, including names and photos of the victims. On those days I check how the incident is being reported internationally, and invariably there is…. radio silence

Unlike the allegations made against Russia at Aleppo, claims of civilians killed by the Coalition around Raqqa seem to attract little to no international media attention. Yet the sources for allegations both against the Russians and the Coalition are often identical -activists on the ground, with access to a network of people in the various locations where civilian casualties are occuring.

As in Aleppo, Coalition strikes are many times occurring right in the middle of city and town centres – Mosul, Raqqa, Al Tabaqa, al Mansoura and so many other urban locations. These are civilian villages, towns and cities occupied by ISIL. Some of the residents may be sympathetic to the terror group but most of them are not. It is not a democracy, not a choice to live under ISIL. These are places full of people who have no other option but to remain.

The Coalition is likely to win the war with a high civilian toll, just as Russia helped win at Aleppo. But in order to win the peace, a new strategy is needed with civilians at its heart. We can see in the opposition areas where Russia is operating how hated Moscow is. Inevitably, the same now appears to be happening in areas where the Coalition is operating, with local monitors routinely claiming ‘massacres’ and ‘war crimes’.

Leaving scores of civilians dead, wounded, lame and traumatised is not a wise long term strategy for winning a war that is avowedly being fought on behalf of those exact same civilians.

▲ A man carries a young girl in the aftermath of an airstrike on Al Haydariya, Aleppo, on April 26th, 2016 (via RFS news).


April 26, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

More civilians are reportedly dying as a result of Russian airstrikes in Syria than at any time since the fall of east Aleppo, the latest Airwars research indicates. Heavy Russian backing for ongoing Assad regime campaigns in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib governorates has led to rebel groups being pushed back and scores of civilians killed. 

For the first three months of 2017, the US-led Coalition was likely responsible for a greater number of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria than Russia’s campaign in support of the Assad regime. That grim metric reflected both a reduction in the number of Russian strikes, and a stepped up and deadlier Coalition campaign around Mosul and Raqqa. However, new analysis by Airwars researchers indicates Russian strikes are once more on the increase, allegedly killing hundreds of additional civilians.

Alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents nearly doubled between February and March, rising from 60 to 114 events. Already in April at least 120 events have been tracked. Due to a backlog of cases it will be some time before Airwars researchers can more fully vet these allegations, though such event tracking has previously proved a helpful guide to the tempo of Russian actions.

Aftermath of a a strike in Salqeen, Idlib on April 4th, 2017. (via SN4HR)

Ceasefire collapse

Several important developments have coincided with this stepped-up air assault. In mid-March, Russia-backed peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana broke down. And on April 4th, more than 90 people were killed in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib by what the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has determined  was an attack that used Sarin. Western countries, including the US, UK and France have all blamed the regime.

What was likely the deadliest Russian strike in recent weeks took place later that same April day in Salqeen, Idlib. The Syrian Network For Human Rights has described the attack as a “massacre.” A subsequent report from Smart News Agency, said that 26 civilians were killed, “including 17 children and five women.”

At least 16 victims were identified, and 11 named by outlets that cited local civil defense officials. Among the named children were Abdul Rahman Mohammed; Satoof Al Kango; Nihad Nemour; Mohammed Nemour; and Mustafa Nemour. Many of the dead were reportedly from the same family. Images showed the rubble of several buildings in what was described as a residential neighbourhood. The Idlib Media Center later posted on Facebook that the death toll had risen to 37, though this could not be confirmed.

Also on April 4th, suspected Russian planes left at least nine civilians dead including children at Sabqa, a city located in Damascus governorate. Pictures following the attack showed rescuers digging amidst the remnants of what were refered to as residential structures.

Four days later on April 8th, troubling reports emerged from Orm al-Jouz in Idlib, where at least 14 civilians were allegedly killed. The Syrian Observatory put the toll higher at 20 people, “including 5 children and 2 women” who perished in suspected Russian strikes. The Syrian Network reported that cluster munitions were used in the attack.

A man stands in the rubble of a suspected Russian strike in Sabqa, April 4th. (via RFS Media Office.)

Brutal campaign

These latest alleged Russian incidents are not isolated cases. In the first three weeks of April, Airwars monitored more than 100 reported civilian casualty events tied to Russian strikes — similar to the pace seen in the first months of 2016, when Russia was accused of killing hundreds on a weekly basis. Most strikes today are in Idlib governorate, though Russia is also bombing near Hama and Damascus. Approximately 60 civilians a week are presently being alleged killed in Russian actions.

Russia’s strikes in Syria, along with those of the regime, have been described by groups like Human Rights Watch as at times amounting to war crimes. In less than eight months, from September 2015 through April 2016, Airwars researchers were able to identify nearly 800 alleged civilian casualty events tied to Russian strikes. Over 4,000 victims were identified and named in local reports and by casualty recorders as a result of alleged Russian incidents. In January 2016 alone, Russia likely killed over 700 non-combatants in Syria. Due to severe resource pressures, Airwars researchers have not been able to fully vet most Russian strikes since then. 

Though Russia has continued to bomb Syria, the number of incidents tied to Moscow has lessened at times, particularly after the regime was able to recapture rebel-held areas in Aleppo city — an operation that was backed by blistering and deadly Russian airstrikes which targeted hospitals and other non-military sites. And as with previous Russian-supported ceasefire efforts, relatively fewer incidents were recorded after the start of talks in Astana in February 2017. As Airwars noted in its analysis for that month, those meetings involving Turkey, Iran and Russia as well as some opposition forces coincided with “relatively lower than expected” number of allegations against Moscow.

Many of the alleged incidents pointing to Russia also blamed the Assad regime, with sources often unable to distinguish the perpetrator. And with t5he collapse of the Astana talks, reported Russian and regime strikes both jumped steeply upwards.

On April 7th the Trump administration launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase – a response it said to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Yet airstrikes by both the regime and Russia have continued, including near Khan Sheikhoun itself. Though chemical weapons have garnered international attention, attacks with regular bombs and missiles continue to claim the greater majority of civilian deaths from airstrikes. 

A home lies in ruins after a suspected Russian strike in Heesh on April 7th. (via Maara-now.)

‘Targeting civilians’

“We believe that this is a despicable strategy from the Russian side, the same strategy that the Syrian regime has been following,” says Fadel Abdul Ghany, head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. “When it fails to respond to America, it retaliates by killing and bombing more civilians, as is the case with the Syrian regime: when it is unable to arrest or kidnap an activist, they arrest or kidnap a loved one.”

In the twelve days after the US struck the regime, the Syrian Network nevertheless recorded 78 civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes, including 21 children and 11 women. Out of 15 attacks, 12 made use of incendiary weapons, and 6 used cluster munitions, said Abdul Ghany.

Genevieve Casagrande, a Syria research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, says the recent strikes follow a pattern of targeting civilians – “part and parcel” of how Russia has operated at times of rebel offensives, in this instance, operations spearheaded by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. A recent analysis published by the Washington Institute similarly painted the April 4th chemical weapons attack as a response to militant advances, including near Hama.

“Russia will tend to target rear areas at moments of opposition offensives as a way to both punish the civilian population in rebel held terrain, deter additional support, as well as hit any opposition reinforcements… and draw some of the opposition forces back into Idlib,” said Casagrande.

    Airwars continues to track all alleged Russian civilian casualty events in Syria – though has temporarily paused deep analysis as a result of unprecedented Coalition activity. Detailed assessments will resume as soon as resources allow.