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Published in Stream:
Syria: December 23, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Amnesty International 'Unmasks' Russian Claims That It's Not Killing Civilians In Syria
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Amnesty International has written a scathing rebuke of Russia's claims that it is not killing civilians in Syria. According to the report, not only have civilians been killed by Russian airstrikes in large numbers, but Russia appears to have deliberately targeted residential neighborhoods and even medical facilities where military targets were absent. Furthermore, Russia is also using cluster munitions and unguided bombs in areas where civilians live with blatant disregard for human life.

Amnesty reports:

The report focuses on six attacks in Homs, Idleb and Aleppo between September and November 2015 which killed at least 200 civilians and around a dozen fighters. The briefing includes evidence suggesting that Russian authorities may have lied to cover up civilian damage to a mosque from one air strike and a field hospital in another. It also documents evidence suggesting Russia’s use of internationally banned cluster munitions and of unguided bombs in populated residential areas.

“Some Russian air strikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians. Such attacks may amount to war crimes,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“It is crucial that suspected violations are independently and impartially investigated.”

The Russian authorities have claimed that their armed forces are only striking “terrorist” targets. After some attacks, they have responded to reports of civilian deaths, by denying they killed civilians; after others, they have simply stayed silent.

Amnesty International interviewed eyewitnesses and survivors of attacks as well as examining video evidence and images showing the aftermath of attacks, aided by analysis by weapons experts. The attacks were identified as suspected Russian air strikes by cross-referencing details of each attack with statements from the Russian Ministry of Defence announcing “terrorist” targets struck, or from details about the nature of the attack in witness testimony.

The organization’s research into these strikes indicate that there were no military targets or fighters in the immediate vicinity of the areas that were struck. This suggests that the attacks may have violated international humanitarian law and may, in some circumstances, constitute war crimes.

We will be analyzing the full Amnesty report later today, but it matches claims made by multiple international NGOs, Western governments, independent think tanks, eyewitness testimony received from Syria by The Interpreter, and our own assessment of videos posted by both Syrians on the ground and the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Russia, of course, is denying these new claims through its government spokespersons and also through state-controlled propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik:

Sputnik reports:

The Amnesty International report on civilian deaths caused by Russian airstrikes in Syria consists of "fakes and cliches", the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said Wednesday.
"We have studied the report — again, there was nothing precise and new published there. The same cliches and fakes that we have often disproved earlier. The report if full of such expressions as "presumably Russian airstrikes", "possible international law violations" and so on. Sheer assumptions without any proof."


Russian aircraft in Syria do not use cluster munitions and such weapons are not stored at the Hmeymim airbase, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said.

"As for cluster munitions allegations. The Russian aviation are not using them."

The ministry cast doubts on the authenticity of the airphotos used by the human rights watchdog and called on Amnesty International to name the sources of the information it had used in the report.

Claims that Russia is using cluster munitions in Syria are not new. In fact, Human Rights Watch, which has been cataloging weapons used in the Syrian conflict since the outbreak of fighting more than four years ago, documented Russia's use of new, advanced cluster munitions in October, either by dropping them with their own planes or by supplying the powerful, and indiscriminate weapons to the Assad regime. Al Jazeera reports:

The New York-based group said that photographs it obtained showed that the cluster munitions were dropped on Kafr Halab, a village southwest of Syria's second city of Aleppo, on October 4.


A video posted on October 7 by activists that was reportedly taken in the town of Kafr Zeita, northwest of Hama, shows smoke trails of ground-fired rockets launched from the direction of Jabal Zayn al-Abidin and multiple subsequent explosions of submunitions in the town.

Photographs and a video posted online by local activists in October, with title text that says they were taken at Masaran village in Idlib, shows at least one unexploded AO-2.5RT submunition and the remnants of an RBK-500 canister, which can contain up to 108 submunitions.

Reuters published a photograph taken in Masaran that shows a first responder handling unexploded AO-2.5RT submunitions that local activists told the news agency were used in an attack by the Russian air force on October 7.

A report just published three days ago by Human Rights Watch (HRW) contains even more details:

The military offensive that the Russian and Syrian government forces opened against armed groups opposed to the government on September 30, 2015, has included extensive use of cluster munitions – inherently indiscriminate and internationally banned weapons.

The use violates United Nations resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, which demanded that all parties involved in Syria end “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas,” Human Rights Watch said. It also contradicts a statement issued by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates on November 9, 2015, in which it insisted that the Syrian Arab Armed Forces do not and will not use indiscriminate weapons.

“Syria’s promises on indiscriminate weapons ring hollow when cluster munitions keep hitting civilians in many parts of the country,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director. “The UN Security Council should get serious about its commitment to protect Syria’s civilians by publicly demanding that all sides stop the use of cluster munitions.”

Human Rights Watch documented that cluster munitions were used on at least 20 occasions since Syria and Russia began their joint offensive on September 30. Human Rights Watch collected detailed information about attacks in nine locations that have killed at least 35 civilians, including five women and 17 children, and injured dozens. Two attacks hit camps for the displaced. For the other attacks, Human Rights Watch obtained visual confirmation of the cluster munition used and a second source confirmed the attack. The cluster munitions used in Syria recently that Human Rights Watch was able to confirm were manufactured in the former Soviet Union or Russia.

If the Syrian government and the Russian government are both denying using cluster munitions, and the Russian government has complained that the US is not bombing these locations (Russia says ISIS, which the US is bombing, is located in many locations in western Syria where there is in fact no ISIS presence) then who is dropping Russian-made cluster bombs on the Syrian people?

It's also interesting that the Russian government has called on Amnesty International to publish its sources, since much of this war is documented by civilians who have been hunted by the Assad regime for simply posting videos such as these online.

-- James Miller