top of page

U.N. Panel Says Russia Bombed Syrian Civilian Targets, a War Crime

The panel condemned tactics they said the Syrian government and Russia were still using in the northwest province of Idlib.


A Times investigation used cockpit recordings to show for the first time how Russian pilots attacked civilians in Syria this summer, killing dozens.CreditCredit...Macro Media Center. Click on image to view video of Russian bombing attack on Syrian civilians, a war crime.

GENEVA — United Nations investigators said on Monday that Russia had committed war crimes in Syria by carrying out indiscriminate airstrikes on civilian targets in 2019, condemning tactics they said the Syrian government and its allies were still using in the northwest province of Idlib.

The investigators also said that Syrian rebels allied with Turkey had carried out war crimes during the invasion of Kurdish areas in northern Syria, and that Al Qaeda-linked rebels had inflicted scores of civilian casualties in rocket attacks on government-held areas.

Their accusations were made in the latest report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the Geneva-based panel that has been monitoring the nearly decade-old conflict in Syria.

The investigators said Russian aircraft had carried out a “double tap” attack on a market last July 22, killing at least 43 civilians, and an airstrike on a camp for displaced civilians in August that killed at least 20 people.

In both airstrikes, “the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas,” the three-person panel said, citing eyewitness accounts, video footage and intercepted communications with pilots conducting the strikes.

The findings of the commission, which will present its report to the United Nations Human Rights Council next week, provided an authoritative and independent assessment of Russian conduct in the Syria conflict that corroborated reporting by human rights groups and media, including The New York Times.

There was no immediate Russian response to the commission’s findings. Russia has repeatedly denied accusations that its forces have indiscriminately attacked civilians.

The report focused on events between July and January but members of the panel made clear they believe pro-government forces have continued to commit war crimes in the offensive underway in northwestern Syria, which has driven nearly a million people from homes toward the Turkish border of Idlib.

The panel said the offensive had been punctuated by intensive bombardment inflicting “unprecedented levels of suffering and pain.”

Besides attacks on civilian targets, which are protected under international law, the commission also observed a “crime of intentionally terrorizing the population” in order to force civilians to move.

“We are seeing that picture emerging very clearly, for example, in Idlib,” Hanny Megally, a member of the panel, told reporters in Geneva.

The commission said Turkey should investigate whether it was responsible for an airstrike in October on a convoy of vehicles carrying around 400 people days after a Turkish military assault on Kurdish areas of northern Syria. The attack killed 11 people and wounded 74, and although Turkey has denied any involvement, human rights groups attributed the strike to Turkish aircraft.

The commission said it was continuing to investigate the incident.

It said it believed a Syrian rebel force allied with Turkey, the Syrian National Army, had committed the war crimes of murder and pillage, citing the killings of the Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf and her driver, who were dragged from their vehicle and executed.

Turkish commanders could bear criminal responsibility for those deaths if the fighters responsible were found to have been under their effective command and control, the panel said.

Copyright 2020 The New York Times Company




‘Sent Candy’: Cockpit Tapes Show Russian Pilots Bombing Syrian Civilians

A Times investigation used cockpit recordings to show for the first time how Russian pilots attacked civilians in Syria this summer, killing dozens.

It’s the morning of July 22, 2019. A neighborhood in the Syrian city of Maaret al Numan has just been hit by an airstrike. Rescuers are rushing to the scene when warnings of another attack come over the radio. As the camera tilts upward, it captures a small speck in the sky. This is a Russian plane, and it’s about to strike the city again. For years, Russia has been suspected of recklessly bombing civilians in Syria as they try to break the remaining pockets of resistance to President Assad. They’ve strongly denied it, and proving their role has been all but impossible. But now we have evidence. [Sirens blaring] Earlier Times investigations established that the Russian air force repeatedly bombed hospitals in Syria, and this latest investigation traces how Russian pilots also launched some of the deadliest attacks on civilians in 2019. [Shouting and sirens] At the core of our investigations are intercepted cockpit recordings of Russian pilots and air controllers. Combined with video and photo data and warplane sightings, these recordings provide a critical missing link that show how, in two recent airstrikes, Russian pilots killed dozens of civilians. First, we’ll take a look at this settlement for displaced people in Syria’s last rebel-held area. It’s called Qaryat al Rahma, or “Village of Mercy.” This isolated complex was located near the city of Hass, around 8 miles from the nearest front line, and was home to over 100 families uprooted by years of war. One resident told us that families use the evening time to sit outside and cool off. Near sunset on Aug. 16, he heard planes flying overhead. It was a devastating strike. And here’s how the evidence shows that Russia was responsible. This photo, taken by a local journalist immediately after impact, is a crucial piece of the puzzle. We know it was taken in Hass because the features match earlier drone footage of the town. The buildings and pylons are all the same. And shrouded in smoke is the settlement for displaced people. We know because these windows and the mast on the roof also match the drone footage of the camp. Using the picture’s file data, we verified it was taken at 7:17 p.m. on Aug. 16, pinpointing the exact time of the attack. What was happening in the skies around this time? Five minutes before the strike, observers spotted and logged a Russian warplane over a nearby town. And at precisely 7:17, we hear a Russian pilot, with a call sign 464, launch an attack. The weapon landed in the middle of a courtyard where families had gathered. The blast leveled buildings, and the scene is carnage. [Shouting] The dead include a pregnant woman, her husband and their 2-year-old child. In all, 19 residents of the camp are killed, and 13 more are wounded. Another deadly attack this summer occurred just 4 miles away in Maarat al Numan — a densely populated city in the heart of opposition-controlled territory. On Monday morning, July 22, the city was hit repeatedly by airstrikes. The attack sparked so much outrage that Russia was forced to respond. They denied involvement. But the combined evidence of witness videos, flight logs and cockpit recordings contradict this and show how Russian Pilot 17 killed over 20 people in just half an hour. We’ve retraced what happened minute by minute. It’s 8:31 a.m. Pilot 17 receives a target, and four minutes later he launches a weapon, calling it “candy,” and prepares a second attack. The strike levels an entire building in a busy commercial area in the city. Local journalist Mohamed Sharawi films his rush to the scene. As the dust clears, he joins first responders who try to reach victims through the rear of an adjacent building. Above them, the Russian pilot is preparing to launch again, in two minutes, at 44 minutes past the hour. Mohammad and the others take cover, as flight spotters warn of another attack. He looks up and films a Russian fighter jet overhead. The pilot launches his weapon. Then the explosion. [Explosion] It’s what’s known as a double tap. It hits almost exactly the same location and kills a rescue worker. At 8:54, Pilot 17 confirms his third strike in the city, hitting a building around 800 yards away. [Explosion] Minutes later, he calculates his fourth and final round — and strikes another building on the outskirts of the town. [Explosion] The number killed is estimated at between 23 and 42 people, including two children — making it one of the worst attacks on a civilian area this year. The Russians are by no means alone in this. Combined with Syrian attacks, the U.N. says, over 1,000 civilians in northwest Syria have been killed or injured since April — hundreds of them children. So why is Russia attacking civilians? Experts tell us it’s the same reason they’re bombing hospitals. It’s all part of a strategy to break the will of the people, force them to flee, and to help the Syrian government retake the last opposition stronghold. And after more than eight years of war and very little in the way of consequences, Russia shows no signs of slowing down.

A Times investigation used cockpit recordings to show for the first time how Russian pilots attacked civilians in Syria this summer, killing dozens. Credit...Macro Media Center

Follow Genocide Watch for more updates:

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey YouTube Icon
bottom of page