Amnesty: Russian Strikes Have Indiscriminately Targeted Civilians in Syria

A new report from Amnesty International found that Russia appears to have repeatedly targeted civilians in Syria.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 11.38.59 AM
Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 11.38.59 AM

Almost immediately after Russia launched its aggressive airstrike campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, activists and moderate Syrian opposition accused Moscow of targeting civilians -- at times killing dozens at once.

The Kremlin, which joined the fight in Syria to bolster President Bashar al-Assad, has repeatedly denied these allegations, calling them “fabricated stories” that are part of an “information war.”

But a new Amnesty International report released Wednesday concluded Russian forces appear to have repeatedly targeted residential areas in attacks that have struck civilian homes, a busy market, and a mosque. The 28-page report also claimed Russian authorities may have knowingly lied to cover up their roles in these deadly strikes.

Almost immediately after Russia launched its aggressive airstrike campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, activists and moderate Syrian opposition accused Moscow of targeting civilians — at times killing dozens at once.

The Kremlin, which joined the fight in Syria to bolster President Bashar al-Assad, has repeatedly denied these allegations, calling them “fabricated stories” that are part of an “information war.”

But a new Amnesty International report released Wednesday concluded Russian forces appear to have repeatedly targeted residential areas in attacks that have struck civilian homes, a busy market, and a mosque. The 28-page report also claimed Russian authorities may have knowingly lied to cover up their roles in these deadly strikes.

Philip Luther, director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program, said some of the attacks “may amount to war crimes.”

“Some Russian airstrikes 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,” he said.

It is extremely difficult to distinguish between Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes, making it nearly impossible to pin responsibility on either for specific attacks that kill civilians.

Amnesty, an advocacy group that documents human rights violations around the world, wrote Wednesday’s report after conducting extensive interviews with civilian witnesses to the strikes. The group was advised by military experts, analyzed video footage of the attacks, and also matched the dates Russia claimed its airstrikes took place against days when civilians were bombarded from above.

The attacks described in Wednesday’s report took place in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Latakia, and Aleppo between Sept. 30 and Nov. 29. According to Amnesty, attacks researched for the report were carried out away from military targets, making the reported civilian casualties even more alarming.  

Mohammed Qurabi al-Ghazal, a Syrian activist who was near the target of a Nov. 29 attack, told Amnesty that opposition observers warned a Syrian warplane had taken off from a base in Hmaymim just 10 seconds before a crowded marketplace was struck from above. More than 40 civilians are thought to have been killed in the attack, which Ghazal said took place in an area where armed groups were not present.

“There were bodies everywhere, decapitated and mutilated,” he said. “As I went to an open square, I saw a horrific scene. I have seen horrific sights since the beginning of the war, but this was unlike anything before.”

Amnesty, which asked Russian authorities to respond to the report, recommends that Moscow not only intensify any measures to prevent civilian casualties but also launch impartial investigations into cases that may have violated international law. Amnesty also said it is investigating strikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria.

But the Kremlin doesn’t seem too concerned by Amnesty’s latest accusations, in part because it is deflecting similar criticisms regularly. Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch accused the Russian military of using cluster munitions — weapons which are internationally banned.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry slammed the Amnesty report as inaccurate, saying it lacks any basis.

“We examined this report,” Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said in a briefing. “Once again there was nothing concrete or new that was published, only cliches and fakes that we have already repeatedly exposed.”

Photo credit: Amnesty International via CNES/Astrium

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.