Live Updates: The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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
As Syrian rebels launched a major offensive this morning to break the regime’s siege of Aleppo, the Russian, Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers held a press conference in Moscow.
Russia’s Sergei Lavrov made it clear that Russia had every intention of intensifying attacks against Syrian rebel fighters, by equating them with “terrorists” who, in his words, “must be finished off.”
The Russian foreign minister said:
“Our Western colleagues are mainly focused on unfounded accusations or distorting facts and thereby, for all intents and purposes, are providing cover for terrorists, but terrorists must be wiped out. And if our Western partners are only taking part in the anti-terrorist struggle through words, then we are all the same fully determined to bring this matter to a close in practice.”
Lavrov continued, claiming that the fact that other rebel groups had not disassociated themselves from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, in Aleppo meant that they were viable targets. JFS are currently participating in the Aleppo offensive alongside other groups including Ahrar al-Sham and various Free Syrian Army-affiliates.
“I will give one example: At the very beginning of this year, at one of the meetings of the International Syria Support Group, and this was more than 20 countries at the level of foreign ministers, John Kerry said publicly, into a microphone: ‘If the moderate opposition do not want to be associated with terrorists, those moderate opposition groups must leave the territory controlled by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and join up with the cessation of hostilities.’ John Kerry finished his statement with the following words: ‘If someone from the moderate opposition groups doesn’t dissociate themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra, they will be a legitimate target, just as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are a legitimate target.’
I think that, given the complete lack of evidence that the moderate opposition in eastern Aleppo intends to dissociate themselves from al-Nusra, the time has come for this logic, laid out by John Kerry, to acquire some practical form.”
It is uncertain whether Kerry really did give this ultimatum. Lavrov appears to be referring to the meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) during the Munich Security Conference in February this year.
While Kerry did call on opposition fighters to dissociate themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra, there is no public record of such a threat that they would otherwise be viewed as “legitimate targets.” No such comments were made during the press conference Kerry held with Lavrov and the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
John Kerry did in fact make a similar remark, not at the beginning of this year, but last month, at a press conference in Washington:
QUESTION: Can you clarify something just super quick, Mr. Secretary? You said that it’s not advisable to the opposition to be playing with Nusrah; it’s a losing proposition because of their allies that are supporting them, but also because they know that you’re looking to take – the opposition understands that you’re looking to take on terror groups. Are you suggesting that if these marbleization doesn’t – if they don’t separate themselves, that they could get caught in the crossfire?
SECRETARY KERRY: We’ve made it very, very clear. And no, we’re going to be very careful in dealing with Nusrah in ways that the joint implementation group will allow us to do. But if they join with Nusrah in offensive action and attacks, then they’ve made a choice to be with Nusrah and then they clearly run the risk.
Given the proven combat efficacy of JFS and the existential threat posed by the regime’s siege, rebel groups in the Aleppo area are naturally disinclined to turn away support from such a large and capable fighting force at this time, regardless of any ideological differences.
Of course Russia and the Assad regime have continuously branded all opposition groups they target as “terrorists.”
Lavrov’s Syrian counterpart, Wallid Muallem, also reiterated the regime’s commitment that they would not “reduce [their] efforts in the fight against terrorism and to liberate Aleppo from terrorists.”
Meanwhile Lavrov claimed that there was “no difference” between the efforts of the Iraqi government, supported by the international coalition, to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIS, and the regime’s attempt to capture eastern Aleppo.
This, combined with today’s offensive by rebel fighters, clearly indicates that the relative lull in attacks on eastern Aleppo seen over the last few days is due to end.
On the ground, a huge operation is under way, with rebel forces moving on regime-held areas of southwestern and southeastern Aleppo.
Amongst the groups taking part in the offensive are JFS, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Fateh, Jabhat al-Shamiyah, the Turkish-backed Faylaq al-Sham and the FSA-aligned Fastaqem Union.