‘Civilian objects were undamaged’: Russia’s statements on its attacks in Syria unmasked

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Index: MDE 24/3113/2015


Russia’s armed forces formally intervened in the armed conflict in Syria on 30 September on the side of the Syrian government, a long-term ally, launching multiple air strikes. Fixed-wing military aircraft based primarily at the Hmaymim air base in Latakia governorate have since then carried out thousands of sorties across the country and attacked thousands of locations that Russia has described as “terrorist” targets. Russia’s armed forces have also deployed long-range bombers from Russia, sea-launched cruise missiles and, according to military analysts, combat helicopters, tanks, artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems.

The Russian authorities have claimed that their armed forces are only striking “terrorist” targets and have not publicly acknowledged that they have caused any civilian deaths and injuries and have dismissed some such claims as part of an “information war”. However, according to Syrian human rights organizations, Russian attacks in Syria have actually killed hundreds of civilians not directly participating in hostilities and destroyed or damaged hospitals and dozens of homes and other civilian objects.

Between September and December 2015, Amnesty International researched remotely more than 25 attacks that took place in five governorates (Homs, Hama, Idleb, Latakia and Aleppo) between 30 September and 29 November and, according to witnesses, human rights defenders and a review of video clips and other images, killed at least 200 civilians and around a dozen fighters. In doing so, it interviewed by phone or over the internet 16 witnesses to attacks and their aftermath, including two doctors, and spoke to more than a dozen human rights defenders and representatives of medical organizations supporting work in the areas of the attacks. It obtained and reviewed audiovisual imagery relating to all these attacks or their aftermath, and commissioned advice from weapons experts on munitions visible in them. It also reviewed statements published by the Russian Ministry of Defence and relevant articles in Russian and other media. Amnesty International sent a memorandum with its preliminary findings to the Russian authorities on 9 November 2015 and requested meetings with them, but has received no substantive response to date.

In this briefing, Amnesty International sets out its findings with respect to six attacks. In five of the attacks, suspected Russian air strikes targeted residential areas, killing 119 civilians. The sixth attack concerns air strikes in the immediate vicinity of a hospital in which 13 civilians were killed.

On the morning of 29 November 2015, for example, the public market in the centre of Ariha, Idleb governorate, was bustling with people buying and selling vegetables and fruit and other goods when it was struck with three missiles. Forty-nine civilians were killed and many others injured. One witness told Amnesty International that he spoke with a woman crying beside a line of dead bodies. Her husband and three children had just been killed and the body parts of her children were in bags. According to further testimony and audiovisual material, as well as the research of Syrian human rights defenders, there were no military targets in the vicinity.

Amnesty International’s research indicates serious failures to respect international humanitarian law. In some attacks, the Russian armed forces appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military objective and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians. In others, they seem to have attacked military objectives and civilian objects without distinction, or caused disproportionate harm to civilians when striking military targets. Such attacks may constitute war crimes.

There is also evidence that they unlawfully used unguided bombs in densely populated areas and inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions.

In the first week of October, for example, SPBE series cluster munitions – which weapons experts consider Syria’s armed forces incapable of delivering – were deployed near Kafr Halab, Aleppo governorate, and near Maasran, Idleb governorate, during operations in both areas by Russian armed forces.

Amnesty International is calling on the Russian authorities to:

  • Fully comply with the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law in the planning and execution of any air strikes by ensuring that civilians and civilian objects, including homes and medical facilities, are not targeted; and end indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks;

  • Take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and damage to civilian objects, including giving advance effective warnings of impending attacks when possible to civilians likely to be affected; ensure that targets are in fact military objectives; and, particularly in the case of medical facilities, adhere strictly to the presumption of civilian character in case of doubt;

  • Ensure that the cases detailed in this briefing, and any others where there is credible information that violations of international humanitarian law have taken place, are independently and impartially investigated, make public the findings of the investigations, and bring those suspected of criminal responsibility to trial in proceedings that adhere to international standards.

Russia’s attacks are taking place in the context of increased international military intervention in Syria. Amnesty International is also researching and documenting its concerns relating to air strikes by the US-led coalition in Syria.