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Russia’s airstrike rules of engagement reviewed

On 30 September 2015, the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-kosmicheskie Sily – VKS) launched a major air campaign over the skies of Syria. Since then, Russian airstrikes have, according to different estimates, reportedly killed between 1,392 and 15,407 civilians in Syria in more than 39,000 airstrikes conducted, including 2,401 alleged civilian casualty incidents.[1]

Many thousands more have been injured and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, as bombardments have destroyed homes and livelihoods, and civilians have fled their homes. UNHCR reported in July 2018 that 270,000 people in southern Syria had been displaced by a two-week escalation in fighting alone that erupted after a Russian-backed army offensive to recapture rebel-held southern Syria.[2]

Russia’s intervention in Syria marks the most intensive use of Russian air power since the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979.[3] As of August 2017, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence (MOD), Russia had carried out around 28,000 sorties in Syria, with 90,000 air strikes.[4] Though, Airwars report in September 2018, that ‘Russia recently declared conducting 39,000 airstrikes in Syria since 2015’;[5] it is unclear why there is such a disparity in reported figures.

The lethal efficiency of Russia’s modernised air force in Syria is evident. During nine years of military operations in Afghanistan, the Soviets reportedly carried out almost a million sorties, losing 107 aircraft and 324 helicopters. But, as of September 2018, the Russians in Syria have reportedly lost just eight aircraft and seven helicopters.[6]

In recent years, most of Russia’s airstrikes have been over populated areas, placing the lives of civilians in those areas at greatest risk. Due to the wide-area impact of explosive weapons, it is extremely difficult to limit the harm of such airpower.

In light of this, this paper seeks to analyse the measures and policies adopted by the Russian Aerospace Forces to protect civilians from explosive weapons, and to consider what more can or should be done in this regard.

Russia, International Humanitarian Law and Treaty Obligations

What international measures are in place to limit Russian harm?

In conducting airstrikes in Syria, Russia is bound by international humanitarian law (IHL), which requires it to protect civilians and civilian objects and to restrict the means and methods of warfare employed.

IHL is governed by the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, which regulate the way in which a party to an armed conflict may conduct hostilities.  These are fundamentally designed to minimise civilian suffering. IHL requires parties to an armed conflict to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and between civilian objects and military targets. It states that parties must refrain from targeting civilians and must take all feasible precautions in choosing weapons and methods of warfare to avoid incidental or excessive loss of civilian life, injury or damage that would outweigh the military advantage foreseen. Under it, indiscriminate attacks are prohibited.

The 1977 additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions place the protection of civilians at their core. Russia has signed and ratified Additional Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions. Russia is also a party to other major IHL treaties, including the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the 1980 Conventional Weapons Convention and its five protocols, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, and the 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.[7]

Rules of Engagement

Despite such legal promises, in practise it is hard to establish whether Russia adheres to the letter of the law.

When it comes to Russia’s Rules of Engagement (RoE), or the specific operating practices and policies regulating the military’s use of force, there is limited information available in the public domain. This is frequently the case with state militaries. Russia does not disclose details as to the measures and protocols in place to protect civilians and civilian objects from harm, and in 2009 specifically refrained from disclosing these to the European Court of Human Rights concerning the aerial bombing of civilians in Chechnya.[8]

In theory, Russian law and military doctrine are based on IHL, and Russia has repeatedly acknowledged its legal obligations to protect civilians.

Notably, in 2001, the Ministry of Defence issued a Manual of International Humanitarian Law, for which the Legal Services of the Armed Forces reviewed other states’ IHL manuals.[9] The manual contains numerous provisions providing for the protection of civilians.[10]

For example, the manual stated that:

“The commander and staff while organising and conducting combat operations, firmly securing combat mission accomplishment, shall ensure respect of international humanitarian law, taking every possible precaution to avoid or if it is not possible, to minimize losses among the civilian population and damage to civilian property.”[11] (§ 16, 29)

“No attack shall be launched if it may be expected to cause incidental losses or damage which would be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. It shall be cancelled or stopped as soon as it becomes obvious that collateral losses and damage will be excessive.”[12] (§ 30)

“To the greatest possible extent … precautions shall be taken to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects against the effects of combat operations.”[13] (§ 54)

“To the greatest possible extent … the military command shall avoid deploying military objectives in densely populated areas or in their vicinity.”[14] (§ 54)

“It is prohibited to attack as a single military objective (target) a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives (targets) located in a built-up area or place containing a concentration of protected persons and objects, and launch any indiscriminate attacks.”[15] (§ 21, 54)

Further to such statements, members of the Russian Armed Forces are seemingly trained and instructed in IHL. In 2001, the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov issued an order on measures to ensure respect for international humanitarian law by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, stating that the various commanders of the Russian Armed Forces should ensure:[16]

“Training in international humanitarian law for the personnel of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, in accordance with the Constitution, the legislation of the Russian Federation, requirements of the military regulations of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the legal acts of the Defence Minister of the Russian Federation relating to the respect of international humanitarian law; strict observance by the personnel of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation of the combat regulations and combat support regulations requirements, while strictly respecting international humanitarian law; that the issuing of orders, directives and other service documents needed for the conduct of classes, exercises and events envisaged by the combat training plans is done while taking into consideration international humanitarian law rules” [17]

In public statements relating to Russia’s intervention in Syria, the MOD has made clear its awareness of IHL prohibitions on launching indiscriminate attacks, attacks in densely populated areas, and targeting civilians and civilian objects.

For example, in August 2016, the Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Sergei Rudskoy, stated that “it is to be stressed that [the] Russian party does everything possible in order to prevent victims among civilians and does not assign targets located in towns”.[18]

In September 2017, MOD Representative Major-General Igor Konashenkov further elucidated that “Russian air force planes do not strike residential districts in populated areas in order to avoid casualties. Targets are terrorist bases, armoured vehicles and ammunition stories which are always identified by drones and always confirmed by other channels beforehand.”[19]

Russia has clearly articulated the requirement to protect civilians.

How Russia implements such doctrine in practice, however, is less clear.

Explosive Weapons Usage

Until the Syria campaign began in 2015, Russia had not conducted airstrikes in combat since the Georgian war in 2008.  Since that time, the Russian Aerospace Forces have undergone significant modernisation.

Accordingly, the Syria campaign has seen Russia use a mix of unguided and precision-guided munitions (PGMs), though the latter appear to have been used more sparingly. Syria was the first time that Russia used its new smart munition technology, including the GLONASS system, Russia’s rival to GPS. However, despite this advent in precision-guided technology, upwards of 80% of the munitions released by Russia in Syria are believed to be unguided munitions, or ‘dumb’ bombs.[20] As analysts have noted: “when dropped from medium altitudes against geographic coordinates — frequently through cloud cover — such weapons are grossly inaccurate.”[21]

Although new and upgraded aircraft, such as Su-34s, carry guided air-to-ground weaponry, including KAB-500S bombs, the bulk of sorties have been flown by Su-24 and Su-25 jets, which are mostly armed with unguided munitions. Those aircraft were deployed during the Soviet period, [22] as well during both the Chechen wars and in Georgia in 2008.[23] According to Gustav Gressel, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “the Su-25 never carries smart munitions, only cluster-bombs, freefall bombs, and unguided rockets. Su-24 rarely carry them. The Tu-160 and Tu-95 carry cruise-missiles, but the Tu-22M3 was only filmed dropping “dump” freefall bombs.”[24]

One analyst has commented that “nearly all of the ordnance deployed in Syria dates from the 1980s, and thus frequently fails to detonate.”[25]

The most widely used munitions have been free-fall bombs of the OFAB-250-270 250kg variety, and 500kg FAB-500M-62s.[26] Both are high-explosive fragmentation bombs designed to decimate infantry and damage lightly armoured material.[27]  Russia has also been reported to have used concrete-piercing BETAB-500 unguided “bunker buster” bombs on multiple occasions – most notably in Aleppo.[28] Designed to penetrate underground, when used in urban areas the bomb has caused entire buildings to collapse on top of their occupants.

During an emergency session of the UN Security Council in 2016, diplomats lambasted Russia for using bombs “more suited to destroying military installations”, which they said had destroyed homes, decimated bomb shelters, crippled, maimed and killed dozens.[29]

In addition, Russia has also fired Kalibr ship-launched long-range cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea, as well as Kh-101/Kh-555 air-launched cruise missiles. Neither can change target once fired. Self-propelled howitzers capable of firing 152mm bombs and 220mm multiple rocket launchers have also been deployed.[30]

Russia has claimed it does not use certain weapons, such as cluster bombs and incendiary munitions, though this has been disputed by many international and local monitors.[31]

Russia relies on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), ground-based intelligence and Syrian intelligence to designate targets. While few details are known about Russian targeting practices, Russia has said that it has a ‘multilevel system’ in place.[32] According to their MOD officials, targets are designated using data received from space and radio reconnaissance, communications interception, and photos taken by UAVs, as well as human intelligence; and each strike is preceded by a long and thorough preparation.[33]

Russia claims that it crosschecks target coordinates through multiple channels, although such claims are hard to prove. One defence analyst, Michael Kofman, summed up Russia’s targeting approach as “close enough”.[34]

The majority of Russian air strikes appear to be pre-planned operations that form strategic bombardments. In December 2015, for example, the Russian MOD stated that 47 out of 189 strikes “against facilities of illegal armed groupings” had been newly detected during the duty mission.[35]

Although the Russian military does not reveal much about its command structure in Syria, defence analyst Tim Ripley has pieced together snapshots from open-source analysis of news, public media briefings and social media imagery. In a report for Jane’s Defence, he noted that the “military has…established an extensive command-and-control (C2) presence across Syria to link up the Russian contingent with its Syrian counterparts.” This includes a co-ordination and advisory network with the Syrian military, as well as an organisation termed the Coordination Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides (CCROS), which is based at Khmeimim airbase and headed by a lieutenant-general. In addition to coordinating humanitarian aid and support, the organisation reportedly plays a significant role in intelligence gathering and combat operations.

According to Ripley, air controllers “routinely communicate with the reconciliation centre before authorising air strikes to check on the political affiliation of communities down range.”[36]

Impact of Rules on Russian Military Action

A lack of publicly available information means it is not clear to what extent Russia has adhered to its own Rules of Engagement while carrying out airstrikes. However, there have been numerous credible reports of Russia breaching its obligations under international humanitarian law, including accusations of war crimes being committed by Russian forces in Syria.

Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as local monitors, have accused Russia of using internationally banned weapons; striking in densely populated areas; and deliberately and indiscriminately attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities.[37]

In March 2018, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that a November 2017 airstrike by a “Russian fixed-wing aircraft” with unguided weapons hit a market in Atareb, west of Aleppo, killing at least 84 people and injuring 150. The commission stated that the attack “may amount to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death and injury to civilians”. [38]  Commission member Hanny Megally stated that “this is the first incident where we have been able to nail it down to a particular Russian plane and be able to investigate on the ground what took place”.[39]

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Russia deliberately attacked a well-known Syrian hospital in Aleppo between 28 September and 14 October 2016. During that period, the organisation said that aircraft attacked the al-Sakhour Medical Center on at least four separate occasions, sometimes with multiple munitions. Photographs, video footage, and satellite imagery corroborated witness accounts of the attacks received by phone. HRW said that the fact that the attacks were repeated was “strong evidence that the hospital was deliberately targeted”. The hospital went out of service because of the extensive damage from the strikes.[40]

Over the course of two weeks in November 2017, the Russia-Syrian joint military operation was reported by the Syrian Civil Defense and Syrian Observatory of Human Rights to have conducted more than 400 airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta. The local media monitors reported that more than half the towns in the besieged and densely populated enclave were struck at least once during this period. The civilian structures hit included homes, a makeshift school, and a public market.[41]

Human Rights Watch said it recorded three indiscriminate aerial attacks in the besieged enclave during that time, one of which involved the use of widely banned and inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions. HRW reported that the three attacks caused the death of at least 23 civilians and wounded many others.”[42]

Regarding the cost to civilian lives, the offensives against Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta stand out in terms of the number of deaths recorded. Speaking of the Russian and Syrian regime’s assault on Eastern Aleppo between September and October 2016, one local journalist said to Human Rights Watch: “Those were bloody days. It was a bloody month. Each day, Russian and Syrian airstrikes killed tens of people. It was the most terrible month since the beginning of the war.” [43]

After declaring an end to aerial attacks on 18 October, Russian and Syrian forces resumed aerial bombardment of Eastern Aleppo on 17 November. In that month, the UK-based casualty recording group Airwars found that there had been over 1,000 reported civilian casualties in 215 events involving Russian aircraft, the highest figures for any month up to that point.[44]

That assault led the US, UK and French ambassadors to the UN to walk out of a meeting of the Security Council in protest. Matthew Rycroft, then UK ambassador to the UN, said that “Incendiary munitions, indiscriminate in their reach, are being dropped on to civilian areas so that, yet again, Aleppo is burning. And to cap it all, water supplies, so vital to millions, are now being targeted, depriving water to those most in need. In short, it is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.”[45]

The horror of Aleppo, however, would be soon eclipsed. The Russian-Syrian campaign to retake Eastern Ghouta, which was launched in February 2017 and continued into March, was to take far more civilian lives. On 27 March 2017, the UN reported that an unprecedented number – 1,700 – people had been killed in the battle for Eastern Ghouta, with thousands more injured in the previous month. This was in spite of the UN Security Council Resolution of 24 February that requested a 30-day ceasefire in Syria.[46] While distinguishing between Russian and Syrian government air strikes is not always possible, Airwars’ monitoring of local reports indicated that the majority of these casualties were caused by Russian air strikes.[47]

Although Russia says it takes all necessary precautions to avoid civilian harm,[48] evidence suggests much more could be done. Unlike US-led Coalition forces operating over Iraq and Syria, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen, Russia does not have a civilian casualty monitoring cell, nor does it engage with NGOs documenting civilian casualties.

Russia’s approach to civilian protection

Moreover, analysis of past Russian operations involving the use of lethal force indicates a consistent and striking disregard for civilian lives. The siege and assault of Grozny, the bombing of civilians in Chechnya, the gassing of the hostages at Moscow’s Dubrovka theatre, and the use of tank cannons, flame throwers and grenade-launchers at a school in Beslan where over 1,000 children and adults were being held hostage all indicate a reckless approach to what military commentators often term ‘collateral damage’. In several cases set before it, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has found serious shortcomings in the planning, control and investigation of such operations, violating the right to life of civilians.[49]

In 2005, for example, the ECHR found that Russia had violated the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights in two ground-breaking cases concerning the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Chechnya (Isayeva v Russia; and Isayeva, Yusupova and Bazayeva v Russia). In both cases, the Court found that the aerial bomb attacks were not “planned and executed with the requisite care for the lives of the civilian population”, a conclusion drawn in part from the Russian Government’s failure to disclose details related to how the operation had been planned or what assessment of the perceived threats and constraints had been made:

“At the outset it has to be stated that the Court’s ability to make an assessment of how the operation was planned and executed is hampered by the lack of information before it. The Government did not disclose most of the documents related to the military action. No plan of the operation, no copies of orders, records, log-book entries or evaluation of the results of the military operation have been submitted and, in particular, no information has been submitted to explain what was done to assess and prevent possible harm to civilians…. in the event of deployment of heavy combat weapons.” (Isayeva § 182)

In Tagayeva and Others v Russia, which concerned the Beslan school siege, the Court found that Russia had failed to plan and control the operation with the aim of minimising the risk to civilians, and held that “the use of such explosive and indiscriminate weapons, with the attendant risk for human life, cannot be regarded as absolutely necessary in the circumstances”. [50] (§ 609)

As Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies commented, the Russians “haven’t put a lot of thought into how to avoid civilian casualties and they are willing to accept, I would argue, collateral damage. Looking at how they fight historically, it is about encircling and bombarding – and when you encircle and bombard, civilians will get killed. There is a view that destroying the enemy is your first priority.”[51]

This view was echoed by Justin Bronk, an air combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), who said that the Russian and Syrian government forces’ strategy was to depopulate rebel-held areas to stop insurgents from re-infiltrating any civilian population that remained. To this end, he said they use weapons designed to inflict physical damage and terrify the population into leaving.[52]

UN sources spoken to by the Guardian newspaper also believed that the Russian use of unguided munitions could be a tactic aimed at terrorising the civilian population, who might in turn put pressure on opposition groups to surrender. Other sources from the UN were of the view that Russia may be using inaccurate munitions in an attempt to evade war crimes investigators and obfuscate blame; they commented that Russia and Syria had made a concerted effort to align their air weaponry, which made it more difficult to identify those responsible for strikes.[53]

There is also the issue of cost. Deploying precision-guided munitions is highly expensive, and if preventing collateral damage is not a priority, then it is not hard to see why Russia would spare itself such expense. According to Michael Kofman, in Russia’s eyes, “many of the putative targets do not merit the use of expensive guided munitions.”[54]

Russian Transparency

In October 2015, at the start of their air campaign, the Russian MOD published detailed daily information describing the strikes they had carried out, including locations and targets. However, as time went on, the reports became infrequent and vague.

The Russian MOD began to issue reports covering longer time periods, and these usually referred only to the provinces in which the strikes were conducted, not specific sites. The targets were predominantly referred to only as objects, terrorists, militants or insurgents, rather than being named by the specific group to which they purportedly belonged.

This recourse to vagueness and opacity has been criticised by some as an attempt by the Russians to avoid being accused of launching strikes on opposition groups, rather than ISIS, or to deny Russian aircraft have been present in areas where civilian fatalities have been incurred. While Russia claimed from the start of the campaign that its airstrikes in Syria were targeted at and directly hitting Islamic state militants, during the first week of strikes, observers reported that the vast majority of Russian strikes had taken place in areas where ISIS was not present and had targeted moderate Syrian opposition groups instead.[55]

When allegations of civilian casualties at the hands of Russian aircraft have emerged, the MOD has responded either with vehement denial, or with silence.  In the wake of a report by Amnesty International that accused the Russian Air Force of using cluster munitions and unguided bombs in populated residential areas, the MOD issued a scathing response, decrying the allegations as staining manipulations intended to distract the world’s public from the tragedies caused by US-led actions in Aleppo, Kunduz, Fallujah and elsewhere.[56] The tactic seems to be one of highlighting civilian casualties at the hands of the coalition, drawing attention away from any deficiencies in Russian operations’ planning or control.

Since the beginning of its intervention, Russia has failed to acknowledge a single civilian casualty. It should be noted that Russia is not alone in this; many of the Coalition partners have conceded few, if any, any civilian casualties. But when confronted with evidence of its role in civilian deaths, Russia has gone further. They not only deny such reports but go further claiming they are little more than clichés, fakes, and lies.[57]

Propaganda and False Facts

In some instances, Russia – or its shills – has published alternative narratives and information that many NGOs, watchdogs and monitors have later declared to be false. The online collective Bellingcat and other investigative monitoring organisations have published numerous exposés detailing untruths published by the Russian MOD.[58]

In one instance, RT, the pro-Russian TV network, broadcast footage that appeared to show cluster bombs being loaded onto Russian jets at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria. The canisters in question were identified by weapons analysts through codes that were visible on their sides, RBK-500 ZAB 2.5S, which revealed them to be Russian cluster munitions. Russia has denied using cluster munitions, widely condemned for their indiscriminate nature, and says it does not have them in its airbases in Syria.[59] The RT video was later edited to remove the part showing the bombs being attached to the aircraft, which was claimed to have been done for the safety of the pilot whose back of the head is seen in the segment.

In another instance, the Russian MOD published satellite imagery of a hospital before and after an airstrike to prove that it had not sustained any damage, contrary to reports that the hospital had been significantly damaged by Russian aircraft, with CCTV footage even capturing the moment of the strike. Bellingcat analysed the official imagery and found that, contrary to Russian assertions that no changes could be seen in the hospital, it did indeed reveal that the hospital had been badly damaged – with the damages being more clearly visible on Google Earth.[60]

In a third instance, the Russian MOD presented satellite imagery of a mosque to contradict claims that their planes had destroyed it in a strike. However, Bellingcat showed that they had simply presented imagery of a different mosque on the other side of the town, not the one that was destroyed.[61]

Conclusion: Russian Media Scrutiny and Debate on Civilian Protection in Airstrikes

Despite the significant attention devoted to Russian actions in Syria and the consequent civilian harm by the Western media and human rights organisations, there has been relatively little scrutiny on the part of the Russian public of their government’s Syria campaign.

As some observers have noted, there may be several reasons for this lack of public interest.[62]  First and foremost, media reporting on the situation in Syria is done by state-controlled outlets, and as such, civilian harm is only mentioned in the context of coalition-forces or ISIS. While the former are presented as ‘barbarians’; in carrying out air strikes Russia presents itself as a protector of civilians. In February 2016, President Putin made a speech in which he praised the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) for “protecting civilians from violence and barbarism” in Syria.[63]

Secondly, there is little understanding of the Syrian context by the Russian population at large; it is a conflict perceived by many to be distant and of little relevance. Unlike the war in Ukraine, which provoked large-scale rallies and anti-war sentiment, there seems to be little empathy among Russians for Syrians caught up in war. The continuing erosion of civil liberties within Russia also means that oppositional voices in Russian society focus much of their time and energy tackling domestic issues, rather than those abroad. At a time of a sluggish Russian economy, public scrutiny of Russian defence forces is likely deemed as low-priority for most Russian citizens, especially given that Russian nationalism has blossomed under Putin’s leadership

Thirdly, the threat of Islamic extremism, particularly by members of ISIS, is real and acutely perceived by the Russian public. Islamist violence stemming from the Chechen wars has generated a fear of Islamic terrorism and migration in Russia, which helps Russians accept the official line that the war in Syria is an anti-terror operation being waged against ISIS. The fact that there is an absence of information regarding the complex situation in Syria means that many Russians find it hard to differentiate between the different groups fighting against the Assad government – terrorism is allowed to be conflated with insurgency.  Suicide bombings in the motherland have added to this belief that a hard fist is needed to crush the Islamist threat.

Even Yulia Latynina, a fierce Kremlin critic and columnist for the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, went as far as to say that, when it came to who was bombing who in Aleppo, Putin and Assad were actually much closer to the truth than the West; for Latynina, the notion that there is a moderate opposition in Syria is a lie, and Russia and Syria were simply bombing Islamist terrorists.[64]

Such reporting may reflect the seemingly ambivalent, if not supportive, attitude of much of the Russian public – including critics of the Kremlin – towards their government’s policy in Syria, despite the harm suffered by the civilian population.

Indeed, polling conducted by a Russian sociological research organisation has shown a significant degree of support for Russia’s intervention in Syria. A March 2016 survey by the Levada Centre found that 68% of participants approved of Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes in Syria, as opposed to 16% who did not.[65] In October that year, 52% of participants still had a positive attitude towards Russian airstrikes, compared to 22% who did not.[66] Moreover, in October 2017, President Putin’s foreign policy was the second most frequently cited reason by Russians for liking their president.[67]

To some extent, Russians seem to have accepted the government narrative that Russia only carries out precision air attacks and therefore does not cause significant civilian harm.

This lack of scrutiny – and with it an implicit populist support for Russian actions – lends the Russian government free reign to pursue its political goals in Syria, whatever the civilian cost.

The aforementioned indicates not just a failure on the part of the Russian Aerospace Forces to protect civilians and civilian objects, but a complete disregard for civilian lives – there is no evidence to suggest that Russia has implemented a policy that either deters air or artillery strikes on zones where civilians are present in great and concentrated numbers, or has clear methods of assessing whether civilians are present before (and after) an airstrike has taken place.

The widespread use of unguided munitions and indiscriminate weapons, particularly in populated areas, suggests a callous approach to collateral damage that may well reflect a Russian strategy of pursuing a political goal in Syria at all costs.

The lack of transparency and absence of information provided by the Russian government regarding civilian casualties in Syria or specific measures taken to protect the civilian population makes scrutiny of, and accountability for, Russian actions impossible. Moreover, the denial and, in some instances, attempts to cover-up Russian-caused civilian casualties or damage to civilian objects shows a complete failure to investigate or address harm, meaning those responsible are not brought to justice and victims cannot find redress.

A final point must also address the international community and the frameworks that countries supposedly abide by: in the face of such blatant violations of International Humanitarian Law, normative humanitarian principles and the tenets of the UN Charter itself, is the international system capable of regulating the way war is carried out? Fundamentally, does the international system have the means, will and capacity to protect civilians caught in the middle?


[1] Locally reported civilian deaths from Russian military actions in Syria, as of 14 March 2019. Data is taken from Airwars’ monitoring of Syrian casualty reports, although these figures should be read with caution as they have not been verified or assessed by Airwars and may overstate civilian casualties from Russian strikes. AOAV’s monitoring of English-language media recorded 1,392 civilian deaths and 894 from Russian airstrikes up to 09 March 2019, in 135 reported events. However, due to the chaotic skies above Syria, many airstrikes go recorded with the perpetrator unknown – the number recorded by AOAV should be considered a minimum – the true number of civilian casualties from Russian airstrikes in Syria is likely to be far higher.

[2] Reuters, “Number of displaced in southern Syria climbs to 270,000: U.N.” July 2, 2018,

[3] Douglas Barrie and Howard Gethin, “Russian Weapons in the Syrian Conflict,” NATO Defense College, May 2018

[4] Russian Ministry of Defence (MOD), “Results of operation of the Russian Armed Forces in the Syrian Arab Republic were discussed at the Army 2017 Forum,” August 25, 2017,

[5] Samuel Oakford, “Russia’s three years of war in Syria brings victory close for regime”, Airwars, September 10, 2018,

[6] TASS, “Russia lost 112 servicemen over three years of counter-terror operation in Syria – MP” September 30, 2018. Available at:

[7] International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) IHL Databases, “Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries – Russian Federation”, accessed July 3, 2018,


[9] Bakhtiyar Tuzmukhamedov, “The implementation of international humanitarian law in the Russian Federation,“ International Review of the Red Cross Volume 85 Issue 850 (2003): 385-396,

[10] Nastavlenie po mezhdunarodnomu gumanitarnomu pravu dlya Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossiiskoi Federatsii (Manual of International Humanitarian Law for the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation), August 8, 2001

[11]  Translation by ICRC, IHL Database, Customary IHL, Russian Federation, “Practice Relating to Rule 15. The Principle of Precautions in Attack,”

[12] Translation by ICRC, “Practice Relating to Rule 19. Control during the Execution of Attacks,”

[13] Translation by ICRC, “Practice Relating to Rule 22. The Principle of Precautions against the Effects of Attacks,”

[14] Translation by ICRC, “Practice Relating to Rule 23. Location of Military Objectives outside Densely Populated Areas,”

[15] Translation by ICRC, “Practice Relating to Rule 13. Area Bombardment,”

[16] Prikaz Ministra oborony Rossiiskoi Federatsii “O merakh po sobliudeniu norm mezhdunarodnogo prava v Vooruzhennykh Silakh Rossiiskoi Federatsii” No 360 ot 8 avgusta 2001 (Order by the Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation No 360, “On Measures to Ensure Respect for International Humanitarian Law by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”, August 8, 2001)

[17] Translation by ICRC, “Practice Relating to Rule 142. Instruction in International Humanitarian Law within Armed Forces,”

[18] Russian MOD, “Speech of the Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces lieutenant-general Sergei Rudskoy before representatives of mass media,” August 1, 2016,

[19] Pravda-TV, “Novosti Sirii, Segodnya 28 sentyabrya 2017”, September 28, 2017,

[20] According to experts who have studied the air campaign. Phonecall with Justin Bronk, RUSI, June 28, 2018.

[21] Tom Cooper, “Here’s the Key to Understanding the Russian Air Force’s Actions in Syria,” War is Boring, June 6, 2016,

[22] Margarita Antidze and Jack Stubbs, “Before Syria, Russia struggled to land air strikes on target,” Reuters, October 26, 2015,

[23] Piotr Butowski, Russia’s Warplanes Volume 1 (Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2015), 47-48

[24] Gustav Gressel, “Lessons from Russia’s intervention in Syria,” European Council on Foreign Relations, February 5, 2016,

[25] Cooper, “Here’s the Key to Understanding the Russian Air Force’s Actions in Syria”

[26] Piotr Butowski, Russia’s Warplanes Volume 2 (Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016)

[27] Piotr Butowski, Russia’s Air-launched Weapons (Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2017)

[28] Kareem Shaheen, “Russia suspected of using ‘dumb’ bombs to shift blame for Syria war crimes,” Guardian, March 6, 2018,

[29] Paul McLeary, “Here’s the Bomb Russia Is Using to Flatten Aleppo,” Foreign Policy, September 26, 2016,

[30] Defense World, “Russia Deploys Howitzers And Rocket Launchers In Syria,” December 1, 2015,

[31] Amnesty International, “Civilian Objects Were Not Undamaged: Russia’s Statements On its Attacks in Syria Unmasked,” December 2015,

[32] Russian MOD, “Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces told about the results of operation held by Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria,” December 15, 2015,

[33] Russian MOD, “Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Andrei Kartapolov told about the results of usage of cruise missiles against militants in Syria,” October 8, 2015,

[34] Michael Kofman, “Russia’s Arsenal in Syria: What Do We Know?” War on the Rocks, October 18, 2015,

[35] Russian MOD, “Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces told about the results of operation held by Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria,” December 15, 2015,

[36] Tim Ripley, “Russia learns military lessons in Syria,” IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review,  accessed July 9, 2018,

[37] See, for example, Amnesty International, “Syria: Russia’s shameful failure to acknowledge civilian killings,” December 23, 2015,

[38] UN CoI on Syria, Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, March 6, 2018

[39] Stephanie Nebehay, “Russia and U.S. air strikes caused mass civilian deaths in Syria – U.N.” Reuters, March 6, 2018,

[40] Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Russia/Syria: War Crimes in Month of Bombing Aleppo,” December 1, 2016,

[41] Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Syria/Russia: Airstrikes, Siege Killing Civilians,” December 22, 2017,

[42] HRW, “Syria/Russia: Airstrikes, Siege Killing Civilians”

[43] HRW, “Russia/Syria: War Crimes in Month of Bombing Aleppo”

[44] Alex Hopkins, “Russian military actions and civilian casualties,” Airwars, December 19, 2016,

[45] Julian Borger and Kareem Shaheen, “Russia accused of war crimes in Syria at UN security council session,” Guardian, September 26, 2016,

[46] UN OCHA, “Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock: Statement to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria,” March 27, 2018, available at

[47] Samuel Oakford, “Civilian casualties from alleged Russian airstrikes reach record levels,” Airwars, March 2, 2018,

[48] Russian MOD, “Speech of the Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces lieutenant-general Sergei Rudskoy before representatives of mass media,” August 1, 2016,

[49] See, for example, Finogenov v Russia, Application Nos. 18299/03 and 27311/03, European Court of Human Rights, December 20, 2011; Tagayeva and Others v Russia, Application Nos. 26562/07, 14755/08, 49339/08, 49380/08, 51313/08, 21294/11 and 37096/11, European Court of Human Rights, April 13, 2017; Isayeva v Russia, Application No. 57950/00, European Court of Human Rights, February 24, 2005; and Isayeva, Yusupova and Bazayeva v Russia, Application Nos. 57947/00, 57948/00 and 57949/00,  European Court of Human Rights, February 24, 2005.

[50] Tagayeva and Others v Russia, Application Nos. 26562/07, 14755/08, 49339/08, 49380/08, 51313/08, 21294/11 and 37096/11, European Court of Human Rights, April 13, 2017.

[51] Olga Oliker, speaking to CNN, December 23, 2015,

[52] Phonecall with Justin Bronk, June 28, 2018.

[53] Shaheen, “Russia suspected of using ‘dumb’ bombs to shift blame for Syria war crimes”

[54] Michael Kofman, “Russia’s Arsenal in Syria: What Do We Know?” War on the Rocks, October 18, 2015,

[55] See, for example, Jack Stubbs, “Four-fifths of Russia’s Syria strikes don’t target Islamic State: Reuters analysis,” Reuters, October 21, 2015,; Guardian, “’More than 90%’ of Russian airstrikes in Syria have not targeted Isis, US says,” October 7, 2015,;  Eliot Higgins, “The Truth Behind the Russian Embassy to the Netherlands’ “Russia’s Strength is in Truth” Branding Proposal,” Bellingcat, February 10, 2018,

[56] Russian MOD, “Russian Defence Ministry commented on briefing of Amnesty International and summed up results of operation carried out by the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria on December 18-23,” December 23, 2015,

[57] Ibid.

[58] Eliot Higgins, “The Truth Behind the Russian Embassy to the Netherlands’ “Russia’s Strength is in Truth” Branding Proposal,” Bellingcat, February 10, 2018,

[59] Russian MOD, “Russian Defence Ministry commented on briefing of Amnesty International and summed up results of operation carried out by the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria on December 18-23,” December 23, 2015,

[60] Higgins, “The Truth Behind the Russian Embassy to the Netherlands’ “Russia’s Strength is in Truth” Branding Proposal”

[61] Higgins

[62] OpenDemocracy, “Why are Russians indifferent to the Syrian conflict?“ July 20, 2017,

[63] Kremlin,,“Torzhestvenniy vecher, posvyashchyonniy Dnyu zashchitnika Otechestva,” February 20, 2016,

[64] Yulia Latynina, “Piar-fantom siriiskoi oppozitsii: Kogo na samom dele bombit Moskva i kto v rezul’tate okazhetsya benefitsiarom, a kto – luzerom,” Novaya gazeta, October 11, 2016,

[65] Levada Centre, “Syria,” June 10, 2016,

[66] Levada Centre, “Siriiskii Konflikt,” October 31, 2016,

[67] Levada Centre, “Vladimir Putin”, November 20, 2017,