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Published in Press Stream:
October 28, 2016

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Published in Stream:
October 28, 2016
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Claims Hass School Was Not Hit By Air Strike - Videos Prove It Was
3 years
Stream: October 28, 2016
Publication: Putin in Syria
Russia Indicates They Will Step Up Attacks On Aleppo Rebels As Offensive To Break Regime Siege Begins

This morning Major General Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, claimed that drone footage of the site of Wednesday's attack on a school that left at least 35 dead, could not have been been an air strike.

The attack took place in rebel-held Hass, in the Idlib province. At least 22 of the dead were children.

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Syria conflict: Schoolchildren killed in Idlib air raids - BBC News

At least 26 people, many of them children, have been killed in air strikes on a rebel-held village in north-western Syria, activists say. A school complex was reportedly among several locations targeted in the village of Haas, in Idlib province. It was not immediately clear if the raids were carried out by Syrian government or Russian warplanes.

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Oct 28, 2016 22:07 (GMT)
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Idlib school attack could be deadliest since Syrian war began, says UN

The White House has directly accused either Syria or Russia of being behind airstrikes that destroyed a school complex on Wednesday. Rescue workers at the site in northern Syria described scenes of anguish and fear as fresh details emerged of the attack that levelled much of the area and killed almost 40 people.

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Oct 28, 2016 22:07 (GMT)

Konashenkov told Russian state media today that a Russian military drone had taken photos of the site which, he claimed, showed no sign of any air strike having taken place.

From RT:

“On Thursday, a Russian UAV was directed to the area, to conduct detailed digital photography,” said a statement from Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov. “As can be seen from the photos taken by the drone, there are no signs of damage to the roof of the school, or craters from airstrikes around it.”

“We have analyzed the photo and video ‘evidence’ of the supposed attack. The video published in a range of Western media outlets appears to consist of more than 10 different shots, filmed at different times of the day, and in different resolutions that were edited into a single clip,” continued Konashenkov.

“The photograph published by AFP shows that only one wall of the school is damaged, and all the desks inside the classroom are in place. The outer fence seen through the hole has no traces of damage from bomb fragments. In a genuine airstrike this is physically impossible – the furniture would have been swept away by the blast wave, and there would have been damage marks on the classroom wall and the outer fence.”

This is the AFP photo in question:

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Photo: Omar Haj Kadour / AFP
2016-10-28 23:10:45
Helpfully, the Russian MOD also provided a still from the drone footage, allowing us to verify Bild journalist Julian Röpcke's geolocation of the school:

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2016-10-28 23:15:38

The Russian photo does not give a good enough view of the courtyard of the school building (lowest circle above) to let us determine the level of damage.

Compare with this photo from Bing Maps: 

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2016-10-28 23:31:07

Meanwhile footage from the ground makes it clear that the school did suffer extensive damage (warning graphic):

As for the cause of the damage, we have demonstrable proof that it was an air strike.

Several videos were recorded on Wednesday, from various locations, capturing the moment of the attack. 

Firstly, we have this video from the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office (RFS), uploaded at 9:37 GMT (11:37 local time):

In the video, we can see a powerful explosion, accompanied by the sound of jet engines.

Once again, this video has been geolocated: 

We can further verify this by noting the relative location of this water tower, visible to the right and beyond the blast, and by comparing the view with this geotagged Panoramio photo:
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2016-10-28 23:47:24

At 12:41 GMT, another video was uploaded by RFS, this time, showing what seems like a follow-up attack by a Sukhoi Su-24 bomber:

This video is composed of two segments, with a cut around half-way through.

In the first half of the video, we see the Su-24 maneuvering before disappearing into cloud and releasing several flares (a countermeasure against surface-to-air missiles). During this uninterrupted segment of footage, the camera zooms out and pans down to show the town.

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2016-10-28 23:55:03

After the edit point, we see the same town as the camera zooms in on a plume of smoke. In the time between the two cuts, a bomb has already been dropped on the town. Another bomb can be seen slowly descending before it detonates near the site of the first blast, creating a second, massive plume.

In this still we can see a bomb descending: 

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2016-10-28 23:11:01

Comparing the views of the landscape in the first and second segments of the video makes it clear that they were filmed in the same place. While the clouds in the sky are no longer visible, the shadows on the buildings and satellite dishes make it clear that both segments are filmed at the same time of day. That the camera is zoomed in significantly further in the second shot could also explain why the clouds are no longer in frame.

Segment 1: 

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2016-10-28 23:11:01
Segment 2:
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2016-10-28 23:11:03
The slow descent of the bomb is explained if we look at another video, uploaded by the Kafranbel Media Center at 10:41 GMT:

In this video, we can clearly see that the bomb is descending on a parachute.

We can also verify the location of this footage by looking at two of the buildings. One, to the left, is the large building at the school site. The other, to the right and closer, can also be seen on satellite photos, around 170 metres southeast of the school.

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2016-10-28 23:11:05
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2016-10-28 23:10:55
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2016-10-28 23:11:02

That the bombs descent was slowed by a parachute may give us a clue as to why there was such extensive death and destruction, but not central craters.

One of the Russian-made, parachute-retarded munitions used in the Syrian war is the ODAB-500 PM - a thermobaric bomb.

These weapons spread a mist of fuel on impact, before igniting the mix with the surrounding air used as an oxidizer. The result is an explosion with an extremely powerful blast wave that burns up all available oxygen in an enclosed space. This means that such weapons are best suited to targeting enclosed spaces or built-up areas. They also create relatively little cratering as their blast is dissipated in the open air. 

If such a bomb went off in the open space of the school complex, it would explain the severe lateral damage radius but lack of any central crater.

Judging from the videos available to us, at least three bombs were dropped relatively close to each other, over the course of several minutes.

This is another video which captures the sound of jet engines and plumes from at least strikes:

We can verify that this was filmed from a rooftop around 2.8 kilometres to the west of the school, in Kafranbel:

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2016-10-28 23:11:04

So we can clearly state that the attack on the school was conducted by at least one Sukhoi Su-24 jet, using parachute-retarded bombs. 

The Su-24 is operated by both the Russian and Syrian air forces. Munitions like the ODAB-500 are also used by both parties. Therefore it is hard to say right now whether the attack was conducted by the Russians or the Syrian regime.

But that the attack was deliberate seems certain.

The three bombs we can see in the video do not fall far from each other, indicating they were being directed at a specific target, rather than "area bombing" the rebel-held town.

Furthermore, the school was part of a large educational complex, comprising five school buildings. Such a site would be known to the Syrian regime and the Russians, who draw heavily on regime intelligence sources for targeting. 

This was a deliberate attack on a school, killing children, conducted by either the Russian military or the Syrian regime, which is afforded Moscow's full support.

-- Pierre Vaux