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A Reckless Disregard
for Civilian Lives
Database indicates over 1,000 civilians credibly reported
killed in first three months of Russia’s air campaign in Syria
Fires blaze as rescuers aid a man at the site of an alleged Russian strike on Bdama, Idlib on December 22nd (via White Helmets)
A Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives: Russian airstrikes in Syria to December 31st Page 1
At 80,000 words, the Airwars database of 330 alleged casualty events to December 31st 2015 offers a comprehensive overview of Russia’s recent reported actions.
Despite Moscow’s continuing assertions that no civilians have been killed in its ongoing Syrian air war, there are credible indications from open source reporting that to December 31st only, between 1,098 and 1,450 non-combatants died in 192 separate Russian events.
Those killed are not anonymous statistics. Airwars lists the names of 1,326 civilians allegedly killed by Russia, in 330 separate overall claimed incidents to December 31st.
There has been significant over-reporting of Russian actions, with 31% of alleged events (104 incidents) contested: that is, where the identity of the belligerent is unknown. In most such cases it appears likely that civilians did die – though it remains unclear whether Russia, the Assad regime or on occasion the Coalition was responsible.
Russia and the Coalition report carrying out a similar number of armed sorties. Yet civilian fatalities from Russian strikes were six times higher. There were 76 reported civilian casualty events allegedly involving Coalition aircraft across both Iraq and Syria between September 30th and December 31st. We assess the likely impact of these events to be 120civilians killed by the Coalition in Iraq, and 58-67 civilians killed in Syria.
Airwars has identified eleven contested events where both the Coalition and Russia are accused of killing civilians. The Coalition may indeed have been responsible for some of these incidents, with confirmed strikes in the near vicinity on the dates in question. Other claims appear to be propaganda from the Assad regime or Russia.
Protests by the US and allies at high civilian casualties from Russian airstrikes have been undermined by the Coalition’s own unwillingness to admit such casualties. No civilian deaths have been conceded by any Coalition partner since Russia’s air campaign began on September 30th 2015. Overall, despite more than 11,000 Coalition airstrikes and credible estimates of over 1,000 civilians killed, only 21 such deaths have so far been admitted.
The newly published Airwars database indicates that Russia has systematically targeted civilian neighbourhoods and civilian infrastructure - including water plants, wells, marketplaces, bakeries, food depots and aid convoys.
A Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives: Russian airstrikes in Syria to December 31st Page 2
Summary findings on Russian airstrikes:
September 30th to December 31st 2015 Between September 30th and December 31st 2015, a total of 330 reported civilian casualty incidents allegedly involving Russian aircraft have been identified by our researchers.
Claims are drawn from Syrian monitoring groups which include the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Violations Documentation Center; Raqaa is Being Slaughtered Silently and the White Helmets. Reports are also assessed from media and social media sites; militant and rebel groups; and local and international NGOs and news organisations.
These have been cross checked where possible against official Russian military releases.
An overall total of between 1,826 and 2,426 civilian non-combatant deaths have been alleged from these 330 events, although as we explain below this overstates likely civilian deaths from Russian strikes.
Moscow has so far denied killing any civilians in its continuing air campaign in Syria. Despite these claims, it is our provisional view at Airwars that to December 31st only, between 1,098 and 1,450 civilian non-combatants are likely to have been killed in 192 Syrian incidents where there is fair reporting publicly available of an event – and where Russian strikes appear to have taken place in the near vicinity on that date.
Indeed, more civilians appear to have been killed by Russia in the three months to December 31st than from all credibly-reported Coalition civilian fatality events since August 2014.
Total Civilian Casualty Claims for Syria, September 30th to December 31st 2015
As well as inflicting excessive civilian casualties, Russia is credibly reported to have extensively targeted civilian infrastructure in Syria – with water treatment plants, bakeries, food distribution depots and aid convoys all struck (see page 7.) Civilian areas were also systematically targeted across rebel-held territories, often on consecutive days.
More than 1,700 civilians are also credibly reported injured in the 192 events we assess as likely having involved Russian aircraft – a reasonable indicator of the low-precision munitions presently favoured by Moscow. Minimum civilian injuries from Russian airstrikes are 55 per cent higher than likely fatalities. In contrast, the 185 likely minimum non-combatant injuries in this period from Coalition strikes are only three per cent higher than likely deaths.
A Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives: Russian airstrikes in Syria to December 31st Page 3 A significant proportion (31%) of the 330 incidents allegedly involving Russia is contested – where it remains unclear whether Russia or other parties were responsible. Between 589 and 831 civilians reportedly died in these 104 contested events. The question here is not whether civilians died – the public record almost always indicates that they did – but only whether Russia, the Assad regime or on occasion the Coalition was responsible Within this Contested category, eleven claimed incidents may have involved Coalition rather than Russian aircraft according to reports – an indicator of the chaotic situation in Syria today. Between 52 and 65 civilians died in these alleged events. While a few do appear to have involved the Coalition, other claims suggest propaganda efforts by the Syrian regime and by Russia to implicate the US and its allies in unpopular actions.
A further 49 likely civilian deaths are attributed to 26 alleged Russian airstrikes which are presently weakly reported or single-sourced. Finally, a small number of alleged events (eight, or 2.4%) have in our view been disproven, ie are highly unlikely to have involved Russian aircraft, or did not occur.
For reference we also include the latest known Russian airstrike civilian fatality estimates from the
leading Syrian casualty recorders, to mid-March 2016:
Estimated civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes to March 14th 2016
A Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives: Russian airstrikes in Syria to December 31st Page 4 Russian strikes and reporting The Russian Ministry of Defence publishes reports (in both Russian and English) of its military actions in Syria. These show that to December 25th, Moscow carried out 5,240 combat sorties. This compares with 4,913 Coalition armed sorties across Iraq and Syria in the same period. However, understanding where Russia bombs has proved challenging.
The Coalition’s own daily reports list strikes by vicinity - helpful when determining whether its aircraft may have been involved in alleged events. While also initially published daily, Russian summaries have become more sporadic. When reports are issued they often cover lengthy periods, and only briefly summarise Moscow’s actions. Between December 18th and 23rd for example, Russia says only that it conducted “302 combat sorties engaging 1093 objects in the Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Homs and Deir ez-Zor provinces.” No town or city locations are given.
Airwars plotting of likely civilian fatalities from Russian airstrikes
There are also challenges with some locations Russia claims to have struck. Geolocational analysis of published strike videos by Bellingcat has identified occasions when Moscow reports attacking one location, only for analysis to show the real target was elsewhere.1 There are also occasions where Russia has not reported carrying out airstrikes in a governorate on a given day – even though its aircraft were filmed in action in that area. As a result of this poor reporting, Airwars is less able to determine from the official record whether Russian aircraft participated in any particular event.
New Airwars mapping of likely civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes to December 31 st also supports the assertion that while Moscow did indeed strike Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Dayr ez Zawr and Al Bukamal, its primary targets were rebel groups and territories in the west of the country which threatened Bashar al Assad’s regime.
‘Geolocation and Analysis of Russian Ministry of Defence Syria Airstrike Videos’, Bellingcat, at https://bellingcat.checkdesk.org/en/story/736 A Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives: Russian airstrikes in Syria to December 31st Page 5 Mass casualty events In at least 192 of the events we have assessed to December 31st, Russian strikes most likely killed civilians. Between them, these events reportedly killed at least 1,098 civilian non-combatants - at least 392 of whom were women and children.
Often these civilians were killed in ones and twos – most likely ‘collateral damage’ as a result of rebels or other objects being targeted. On November 5th 2015 for example, Abd al-Kareem al-Alawi and another unnamed civilian died when Russian aircraft reportedly struck the town of Qaryatain in Homs governorate.
Remains of an ambulance following alleged strikes by Russia at Al Bukamal November 5th (originally published by Daesh-linked Al A’Amaq Agency) Yet on the same day, as many as 71 civilians died and 100 more were injured when Russian warplanes allegedly launched two airstrikes on a market in Al Bukamal in Dayr ez Zawr. Among the many named dead were at least nine children. A disturbing video records a secondary strike on the market, as onlookers rushed to aid victims of a first attack.2 In 93 days of Russian airstrikes to December 31st, there were sixteen of these alleged Russian mass casualty events in which 20 or more civilians reportedly died. One of these events was the work of the Assad regime alone, and another five are contested – where it remains unclear whether Assad or Russia was responsible.
Public reporting does indicate that Russia carried out ten of these mass casualty attacks including Al Bukamal – which between them likely killed from 308 to 407 civilians. The frequency of these events actually increased as Moscow’s campaign progressed, indicating that the public outcry against Russian-inflicted civilian fatalities in Syria had little effect.
2 th ‘Al Bukamal – the moment Russian aircraft target civilians in a second raid’, published November 10 2015, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZ9sgtVQKiQ A Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives: Russian airstrikes in Syria to December 31st Page 6 The deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure A media official at Moscow’s Embassy in London has unequivocally insisted to Airwars that “The Russian military did not target civilian objects or objects of civilian infrastructure in Syria.”3 In contrast, Coalition leaders have accused Russia of just that. Britain’s Defence Secretary has claimed “there is mounting evidence that [the Russians] are deliberately now targeting food shops, mosques, bakeries and driving the population out of its towns and villages north towards the Turkish border.”4 And NATO’s Supreme Commander in Europe has accused Moscow of “weaponising migration” through its deliberate use of imprecise weapons.5 So who is right? An assessment by Airwars of all 330 alleged civilian casualty events to December 31st overwhelmingly indicates a systematic campaign – by both Russia and the Assad regime – which targeted not only civilian neighbourhoods but also the vital infrastructure which maintained them.
In November alone, bakeries were targeted in airstrikes at Al Atarib, Qaryatain, Benin and Saraqib. A water treatment plant at Al Khafsa was destroyed, while water wells at Maarat al Numan and Ghareya were bombed. Food trucks were targeted at Al Dana and Azaz, and medical facilities credibly reported hit at Sakik, Raqaa and al Bukamal.
This systematic targeting of bakeries, water wells, sewage treatment plants, food convoys, medical facilities and aid warehouses may indeed have amounted to a deliberate effort by both the Assad regime and by Russia to drive civilians out of rebel-held areas of Syria.
A Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives: Russian airstrikes in Syria to December 31st Page 7 The US-led Coalition and Russia The US-led Coalition began its own air war in Syria on September 23rd 2014. Prior to Russia’s intervention the alliance had conducted 2,570 strikes against Daesh in Syria – 36 per cent of the overall total.6 The term ‘Coalition’ had however become misleading. Key allies Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had effectively quit by mid-2015 in order to engage the Houthis in Yemen – leaving the US almost alone in carrying out Syrian actions.7 Official CJTFOIR data shows that the United States carried out 99.2% of ‘Coalition’ strikes in Syria in August. Russia’s military engagement in Syria therefore initially impacted mainly on the Pentagon.8 Three weeks into its air campaign Moscow signed a ‘deconfliction of operations’ Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Coalition, the details of which remain secret. With Syria’s skies increasingly crowded with international aircraft, that MOU was vital if accidents were to be avoided.
However the agreement brought little clarity for affected civilians on the ground. Four locations in particular (Raqaa, Al Bab, Palmyra and Al Bukamal) have been targeted by both Russian and Coalition airstrikes – sometimes on the same day.
Determining which party is responsible for alleged civilian casualties remains a significant challenge.