‘Pragmatically ruthless’: Russia’s improbable claim it has killed no civilians in Syria
Despite carrying out tens of thousands of airstrikes in Syria, the Russian government will not acknowledge a single civilian casualty, a claim which human rights groups reject as Moscow’s forces assault the country’s last rebel bastion.
The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS has admitted to 1,291 civilian deaths resulting from approximately 14,559 strikes since beginning operations in Syria and Iraq in 2014, according to Airwars, a nonprofit organization that tracks civilian casualties. In comparison, Russia has reportedly engaged in more than 39,000 airstrikes in Syria between September 2015 and 2018, and has reported exactly zero.
“Airwars has reached out to the Russian defense ministry asking for clarity and engagement on civilian harm claims, and has always been either rebuffed or ignored,” Chris Woods, founder and director of Airwars, told the Washington Examiner.
Airwars estimates Russian actions killed as many as 4,767 civilians between 2015 and 2018. That number, however, could be much higher once the group finishes assessing recent reports. Not only has Russia outright denied responsibility for any civilian casualties, it has harassed Airwars for disputing the claim.
“In response to our first report on Russian civilian harm back in late 2016, the Ministry posted an attack piece on us on their Facebook site,” said Woods.
If Russia has not killed any civilians in its tens of thousands of airstrikes, it would be nothing short of a “technical marvel,” according to J.V. Venable, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot.
“The footage I have seen shows [Russian] Backfire bombers ‘carpet’ bombing populated cities like Aleppo,” Venable, now at the Heritage Foundation, told the Examiner. “While you might think navigation has improved to the point where bombers can drop unguided accurately from … [medium] altitudes, that is nowhere near the case.”
Russia ostensibly intervened in Syria in 2015 to combat terrorist groups, but that objective had the dual purpose of bolstering President Bashar Assad, a key ally.
“If you remember, we started assisting Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, when ISIS militants had almost reached Damascus, and the al-Assad Government was on the verge of collapse,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during an interview in September.
Who constituted a terrorist for the Russian military varied greatly depending on the Assad regime’s circumstances in the early days of the intervention. Accusations of direct attacks on Syrian rebels, hospitals, and civilian structures were often dismissed as legitimate strikes on terrorist positions.
Russia’s airstrikes began to taper off in 2018 as ISIS deteriorated and Assad regained territory, but they have spiked in recent months with Assad’s offensive in Idlib, a province in northwest Syria where fragments of Syrian opposition remain. There was a 30% increase in alleged Russian and Assad regime strikes involving civilian casualties in April, with a total of 59 civilians killed in 26 strikes. It is often difficult for humanitarian groups to distinguish between Syrian and Russian aircraft, providing both governments a convenient degree of plausible deniability.
On May 22, local media reported an air raid in Jisr al-Shughur, a city in Idlib near the Turkish border, which killed a 70-year-old man and injured nine others, including two members of the White Helmets rescue organization. The group reported the attack was a “double tap,” a single strike followed up by another with the intention of killing rescue workers.
The most egregious Russian tactic, according to Airwars, is the targeting of civilian markets. Local Syrian media reported 55 people were killed on March 16 by a Russian strike on a market in Ghouta, just outside the capital of Damascus. At least seven were killed in southern Idlib after Russian forces allegedly bombed a market on May 22. Some of the most recent attacks occurred in the evening as residents were breaking their Ramadan fast.
These tactics have sparked international condemnation but few repercussions.
“Indiscriminate attacks on civilians and public infrastructure such as schools, markets and hospitals is a reckless escalation of the conflict and is unacceptable,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday.
While many observers believe Russia’s tactics are intentional, Mark Galeotti, a fellow with the Royal United Services Institute who specializes in Russia, believes they are more pragmatic than intentionally cruel.
“It is more often the case simply that the Russians will hit whatever they consider the most appropriate target, and if that happens to be a market, or enemies using a market as cover, then so be it,” Galeotti told the Examiner. “I would characterize them as pragmatically ruthless, not willfully murderous.”
Russia has largely seen their intervention in Syria as a success, he added.
“There is some trepidation amongst the military people I talk to, especially those who served in Afghanistan, because they know how things can always go bad, but generally they are pretty satisfied with what was a small footprint/big impact operation.”