Russia plays by ‘Damascus rules’ in Syrian air blitz
BEIRUT - Russian warplanes bombed a school in Ain Jara in northern Syria’s Aleppo province on January 11th, killing 25 people, including an entire class of 14 students and their teacher, said the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, a Britain-based group that monitors the war through an extensive network of activists.
On January 9th, 21 civilians were killed when Russian jets fired four missiles into a judicial complex run by the rebel al-Nusra Front, al- Qaeda’s Syrian branch, in Maarat al-Numan in north-western Idlib province. The observatory said 29 militants and seven detainees also died.
Moscow, a staunch ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, has come under growing international censure for the rising civilian death toll in the high-intensity Russian air campaign against rebel forces that began on September 30th.
“The Russians… have far less concern for civilian casualties than US forces,” observed the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor. “This means the Islamic State can no longer count on things like schools, hospitals and mosques to provide them with safety from air strikes.”
Doctors Without Borders reported in December that Russia had stepped up attacks on medical facilities and aid convoy assembly areas in the north and bombed a vegetable market in Arihah, in northern Idlib province, an attack that killed more than 35 people.
Russia seems to be playing by what one might call “Damascus rules” — a modern-day spin on the regime’s ferocious February 1982 slaughter of at least 20,000 people in Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, in crushing a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. “Hama rules” — meaning no rules at all — became synonymous with indiscriminate shelling and mass murder.
Markets have been a frequent target of Syrian air raids using notoriously destructive barrel bombs, largely as a means of terrifying civilian populations of rebel-held urban areas.
On December 23rd, Amnesty International declared that Russian air strikes may be considered war crimes after the British-based human rights organisation investigated the deaths of about 200 civilians killed in their homes, medical facilities and other public spaces between September and November 2015.
Moscow dismisses allegations of indiscriminate bombings as “absurd”. But Philip Luther of Amnesty International said the Russians “have directly attacked civilians… by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities. Such attacks may amount to war crimes.”
The Syrian Observatory reported on December 30th that Russian forces had carried out more than 5,000 air strikes since September 30th that have killed more than 2,300 people, including 800 civilians, 180 of them children, along with some 1,600 rebels.
By comparison, US forces and their allies have flown some 7,500 air strikes in Syria and Iraq since August 2014. In many of these operations, no weapons were fired, in part because of the prospect of inflicting civilian casualties.
In June 2015, US Air Force Lieutenant-General John Hesterman, US commander of the air campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS), said the offensive was “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare”.
But there have been repeated allegations of civilian casualties inflicted by coalition attacks. The independent monitoring group Airwars reported in November that public information suggested that between 682 and 977 civilians had been killed in US, Australian, Canadian, French and Dutch raids since August 2014.
Russia’s high-intensity air strikes using bombers and helicopter gunships are often indiscriminate because they employ “dumb bombs” rather than the precision-guided munitions used by the United States and its allies against ISIS.
But the Russians show little compunction about hitting civilian areas because ISIS and other groups seek to protect their forces and operational bases by installing them in civilian zones. The Americans restrict attacks on such targets, even with their much-vaunted, precision-guided weapons.
While it is clear that the number of civilians the coalition has killed is considerably less than the Russian toll, military analysts say the Russians have probably been more effective from a military standpoint. There is no doubt Russian intervention saved the Assad regime from collapse.
The intensity of their air strikes has had a significant impact on ISIS in northern Syria, including the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic caliphate the jihadists proclaimed in June 2014. Syrian regime forces supported by Russian air power have been steadily advancing on all fronts in recent weeks.
ISIS is by no means on the floor but the Russian air strikes are relentless and if ground forces keep closing in the jihadists will be in deep trouble.
Worse may be to come. In recent weeks, Moscow doubled its air strength in Syria to around 50 combat jets and has also committed 25 long-range Tu-22, Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers, flying from southern Russia, to the Syrian campaign.
This has been augmented even further by cruise missiles fired from warships in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Caspian sea 1,500km to the north-east.
Added to this growing weight of firepower, the French, nominally Western allies who have deployed their only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, in the eastern Mediterranean, have been increasingly collaborating with the Russian air campaign as they seek revenge for the November 13th slaughter in Paris by ISIS.
In one of the most stinging criticisms of Russia’s air campaign, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond alleged on January 15th after meeting Syrian civil defence workers during a visit to Adana in southern Turkey that Russia is violating all the norms of war in Syria.
He accused the Russians of deliberately targeting rescue workers, schools and hospitals, often launching second strikes solely to pound rescue operations. “If you go back for a second strike, you know what you’re doing,” Hammond observed.
He said the Syrians he spoke to in Adana, where they were undergoing training, noted that Russian air raids were distinct from those of the Syria Air Force because the Russians always attack with multiple aircraft — Syrian raids are usually just one or possibly two aircraft because of losses from nearly five years of combat — and invariably return to their targets 15-20 minutes after the initial strike to deliberately hit rescue teams.
The Syrian rescue teams say they can tell when they are hit by Russian aircraft because they attack from higher altitudes than the Syrians, which makes precision bombing extremely difficult.
“Rescue workers are no longer marking their vehicles because they believe they’re being targeted deliberately,” Hammond said. “They also told me that hospitals around Aleppo and Idlib (provinces) have had Red Cross symbols removed because they’re becoming a target for the Russians.”
In recent weeks, the air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq by a US-led coalition has concentrated on hammering the oilfields captured by ISIS. But until mid-November, US planners had avoided attacks on such targets because they did not want to destroy important economic infrastructure that would be needed to rebuild war-battered Syria and Iraq once ISIS was crushed.
“The war will end,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner observed in September 2014. “We don’t want to completely and utterly destroy these facilities to where they’re irreparable.”
The Russians were less considerate. “We’ll level everything there,” declared Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the Defence Committee of the upper house of Russia’s parliament.
Moscow’s indifference to civilian casualties has been evident in other ways. Amid the allegations of systematically hitting civilians, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared the outcry to Washington’s bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan on October 3rd that killed 30 people and for which US President Barack Obama apologised and the Pentagon admitted to “human and technical errors”.
“So the hospital was accidentally hit,” Lavrov said. “It doesn’t matter, nothing to write home about.”