Russian claims to have mostly bombed Islamic State targets during its Syrian campaign were wildly out of step with reality, according to a report using aerial surveillance, crowd sourcing and other open source techniques.
The report says the almost six months of Russian airstrikes up until the 27 February ceasefire caused only peripheral damage to Isis.
When Russia decided to send its air force into action in September last year, theKremlin chief of staff, Sergey Ivanov, said: “The operation’s military goal is exclusively air support of the Syrian armed forces in their fight against the IS.”
But the report by the Washington-based Atlantic Council describes such claims by Vladimir Putin and the Russian defence ministry as “inaccurate on a grand scale”.Its analysis of video footage of targets released by the Russian defence ministry between 30 September and 17 November last year repeatedlyfound them to have been outside Isis-controlled territory.
The report was compiled before Syrian forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad backed by Russian air power retook Palmyra from Isis in March.
It argues that the main focus of Russian intervention in Syria before the ceasefire was to bolster the Assad government by pushing back rebel groups while claiming to be working alongside the US-led international coalition against Isis. This has previously been claimed by US officials, but the Atlantic Council report is the most forensic analysis to date of where Russian bombs fell.
The report also disputes Russian defence ministry claims it did not hit any civilian sites during its campaign, pinpointing attacks on a mosque, a hospital and a water treatment plant. The Atlantic Council team used a combination of aerial photographs published by the defence ministry and crowdsourcing to establish locations and check the veracity of the Russian claims.
Damon Wilson, the Atlantic Council’s executive vice-president of programmes and strategy, writing in a foreword to the report, said: “We have used the power of digital forensics to expose the details of Russia’s aerial and ground attacks in Syria using information entirely from open sources, available to be viewed and verified by anyone.”
The report, Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin at War in Syria is by Maksymilian Czuperski, John Herbst, Eliot Higgins, Frederick Hof and Ben Nimmo. Higgins is head of Bellingcat, the UK-based website that specialises in analysis of open source material such as aerial photographs and in crowdsourcing,
He has been denounced by the Russian government for his work in challenging Moscow over its denials that it had troops in Ukraine.
The report says that between 30 September and 12 October 2015, the Russian defence ministry published videos of 43 airstrikes. Bellingcat, aided by crowdsourcing, identified the exact location of 36 of them and overlaid them on to the defence ministry’s own map identifying which groups controlled what parts of the country.
“The result revealed inaccuracy on a grand scale: Russian officials described 30 of these videos as airstrikes on Isis positions but in only one example was the area struck in fact under the control of Isis, even according to the Russian MoD’s [ministry of defence] own map,” the report says.
In the period 13 October to 17 November, the defence ministry released videos showing 34 airstrikes. But Moscow – possibly stung by criticism from the US and elsewhere protesting that it was hitting anti-Assad rebels rather than the Isis targets it was claiming – changed the way it described targets, referring to “militants” and “terrorists”, labels Moscow applies to rebels opposed to Assad, rather than just Isis. Only a tiny percentage were in Isis territory, the report says.
Among various disputed incidents in the report, the Russian defence ministry on 30 October denied it had hit a mosque on 1 October in the town of Jisr al-Shughur, in Idlib. Western media said that it had hit a mosque, destroying a minaret and killing two, but Moscow said the claim was a hoax. The Russian defence ministry presented aerial imagery dated after the alleged attack appearing to show the mosque undamaged.
The Atlantic Council report points to what it says are a number of inaccuracies. The ministry described the mosque as “Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab mosque” but the report says this is a conflation of the names of two separate buildings.
“The mosque highlighted in their aerial imagery was the Al Farooq mosque, whereas the name of the mosque that was bombed was the Omar Bin Al Khattab mosque,” the report says. “From examining videos and photographs posted online by local activists and taken after the mosque bombing, it is possible to show that the Omar Bin Al Khattab mosque was situated in the north of the town, not in the location claimed by the Russian MoD.”
In another press conference on 31 October, the defence ministry denied bombing a hospital in the town of Sarmin, in Idlib, and included an aerial image it said had been created on the day of the press conference showing the building undamaged.
“However, an analysis of videos and photographs taken by local activists after the airstrikes showed a small group of buildings, walls and poles that had been demolished or otherwise severely damaged in the attack,” the report says.
“On the Russian aerial image, purportedly taken after the attack occurred, these structures are clearly intact. This could only be the case if the aerial image was taken before the airstrikes.”
After Russia confirmed on 17 November that a Russian airliner brought down over Egypt had been a terrorist act, one claimed by Isis, Russia did appear to show more interest in attacks on Isis-controlled areas, claiming it was targeting one of its biggest sources of revenue, oil refineries. But the report says that two of the videos claiming to show raids on oil refineries were in fact a water treatment plant and grain silos.
On 2 December, the defence ministry released a video of what it claimed to be an “airstrike against oil refinery near Khafsa Kabir’ but, the report says, turned out to be water treatment facility producing an average of 18m litres of drinking water a day.
The defence ministry published a video on 4 December claiming a strike on a large Isis depot in Idlib governorate. The report said the precise location in the video was near al-Duvair, an area not known to have been under Isis control at the time. The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation said it was in fact a bakery.
The report also concludes that, in spite of Russian denials to the contrary, it “appears to have used banned cluster munitions during its Syrian campaign. The use of such indiscriminate weapons in civilian areas would constitute a war crime”.
It says multiple images from journalists and reporters at Russia’s airbase in Syria show Russian aircraft armed with cluster munitions.