Russian Airstrikes 'Targeted Civilian Infrastructure' in Syria and Killed More Than 1,000 People

At times during mid-October onwards, new analysis shows that barely two days passed without a school, a mosque, a bakery, or an aid convoy being bombed.
March 29, 2016, 6:05pm
A bomb with a Russian inscription reads 'For our people,' attached to a war plane. Photo via EPA

The opening phase of Russia's bombing campaign in Syria killed at least 1,096 civilians and targeted almost every type of infrastructure needed for survival by those caught in the crosshairs, according to new analysis.

Researchers from Airwars, a non-profit group monitoring the casualties from airstrikes in Syria, said on Tuesday that they had identified 330 incidents between September 30 and December 31, 2015 alone in which Russian aircraft were reported to have been culpable.

The group said at least 192 of these claims appeared to be correct, causing a death toll of between 1,096 and 1,448 civilians, most of whom it was able to name.

Although Western politicians and human rights groups have often accused Moscow of causing a high civilian death toll with its bombing raids, beginning at the end of September as part of a self-declared "war against terrorism," this is the first systematic look at all the publicly-available information.

At times during mid-October onwards, the data shows that barely two days passed without a school, a mosque, a bakery, or an aid convoy being bombed.

Civilian neighborhoods are also shown to have been systematically targeted across rebel areas, often on consecutive days.

'What's clear from numerous credible field reports from Syria is that civilian infrastructure was heavily and systematically targeted," said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars. "These were not random or accidental events."

Related: Russia Has 'Withdrawn' From Syria, But Actually, It Hasn't

On Tuesday October 20, the targets included a school and a field hospital in the northwestern town of Sarmin where at least 14 people were killed.

The following day, it was a school in the central town of Rasim al-Hammam, emptied out to provide shelter for civilians fleeing war — here, the dead were a woman and two children.

And just 24 hours later, it was the turn of a general hospital, this time in Islamic State-held Raqqa. At least seven civilians were killed, some of them reportedly in their beds.

Woods claimed that the practice of targeting civilian infrastructure appears to have been intended to "shatter local economies; to prevent civilians from feeding themselves; and to strike fear into communities."

In the case of Sarmin's hospital, doctors who had already withstood chemical weapons and barrel bomb attacks said they came closer to buckling that day than at point during the six-year war. Mohammed Tennari, the hospital's director, described a sense of mortal danger as he worked, "as if a clock is ticking and the ground must still explode."

"It was bad enough when the attacks were outside the hospital and the casualties flooded in through the doors," he said. "But this time they came for us."

According to the data, November 17 was one of the worst days on record for infrastructure attacks. That night, two major bakeries hundreds of miles apart were targeted and destroyed in nighttime air raids, as was a cotton factory in Hayyan, Aleppo, which acted as a major employer to those left in the region. Multiple civilian neighborhoods across western Syria were also bombed.

Beginning at the end of September, Russia's air campaign turned the tide of war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's favor, weakening rebel forces across several key fronts and forcing their Western backers to accommodate a solution to the conflict that involves the regime.

Related: Syrian Regime Forces Have Ended the Islamic State's Reign of Terror in Palmyra

The mission also forced the Kremlin's return as an important world player, following the international isolation that followed its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

Moscow has so far denied killing any civilians. But the casualty reports assessed by Airwars were drawn from Syrian monitoring groups, social media, rebel group statements, and local and international NGOs. They were also cross-checked where possible against official Russian military releases.

In almost 90 of the 330 incidents investigated by Airwars, it remained unclear whether Russia or other parties — usually the regime — were responsible. Between 430 and 627 civilians died in these 90 contested events.

"The question here is not whether civilians died — the public record almost always shows that they did — but only whether Russia or its client the Assad regime was responsible," said the group on Tuesday.

Follow Louisa Loveluck on Twitter: @leloveluck