Putin in Syria: At Least 12 Killed In Yesterdays Russian Strike On Sarmin Hospital

October 22, 2015
Still from footage of yesterday's attack released by Idlib Civil Defence

LIVE UPDATES: At least 12 people are reported to have been killed in yesterday’s Russian air strikes on a medical facility in Sarmin in northern Idlib.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

How Far Will Russia Go To Support One Man?

Michael Weiss, on the visit of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to Moscow earlier this week:

“Assad’s public visit to Moscow to stroke Putin’s ego is not surprising given Moscow’s efforts to prop up the Syrian regime,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “That said, it is interesting that Assad visited Moscow first—instead of Tehran—and that he left Syria in the midst of the regime’s largest counteroffensive in months.”

U.S. intelligence officials have previously assessed that the Assad regime is getting significant backing from Iranian ground forces, and that the support continues to grow, but that it’s not necessarily translating into victories. They think that while some tactical swings along the frontline might favor Assad’s regime in the near term, many provincial capitals occupied by his army remain under threat.

That may help explain Assad’s decision to be seen publicly aligning with Putin, who has supplied essential air cover to forces on the ground. The official characterized Assad’s Moscow visit as a publicity stunt that doesn’t bode well for the dictator’s future. “It only reinforces the notion that Assad has lost control of his country, and is now firmly under Putin’s thumb,” the official said.

Read it here:

Assad Comes to Daddy in Moscow

Syria's embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad made a surprise visit to the Kremlin. No reporters in Russia's state-controlled press were informed of his arrival on Tuesday night; it was only when Assad had already departed home for Syria that Russian leader Vladimir Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, informed journalists of the talks.

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Oct 23, 2015 01:26 (GMT)

Rebels Reportedly On The Offensive In Hama & Latakia, Civilians Shelled By Regime In Response
As we’ve been reporting since Russian airstrikes began, the first focus of Russia’s air mission in Syria was northern Hama province. The Assad offensive in this area, despite being supported by Russian air power, resulted in a decisive defeat for the Assad regime and its allies, Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran. Now Jaish al Fatah, the Islamist rebel group and one of the largest groups in northwestern Syria, has announced that it is going on the offensive against regime positions in Hama.
There are already signs that the rebels are making advances:
This video reportedly shows Liwa Sakur al Jabel, a rebel group which has received anti-tank weapons and other support from the CIA, knocking out a regime gun, possible an artillery piece or mortar, with a TOW missile in Khirbat al Naqus, west of Ma’arrat al Nouman in the hills that guard the approach to Latakia (map):

A related video, this reportedly shows the same unit firing on an Assad position near Mansoura, just to the east. It’s possible they’re firing from two different angles on the same position. According to the LCC, the village of Mansoura was captured today by the rebels after heavy fighting:

The LCC also reports heavy shelling of residential neighborhoods across Hama and northern Homs. It is an established tactic of the Syrian Arab Army, the regime, to punish civilians for rebel victories, an attempt to destroy rebel supply lines and divide the populace against the anti-Assad forces.

Yet another (truly frightening) angle shows yesterday’s massive strikes against civilians and rescue workers in Salma which, as we’ve been reporting, left at least 12 dead.

James Miller
Defeat of Kremlin ‘Peace Party’ in Syria a Good Thing for Ukraine, Piontkovsky Says

Defeat of Kremlin 'Peace Party' in Syria a Good Thing for Ukraine, Piontkovsky Says

Staunton, October 22 – Vladimir Putin has decided to listen to Russia's hawks and intensify his confrontation with the West, a clear defeat for the so-called "peace party" in Moscow but quite possibly a good thing for Ukraine, according to Russian commentator Andrey Piontkovsky.

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Oct 23, 2015 00:15 (GMT)

TOS-1 Buratino Thermobaric Weapons Used Against Rebels In Latakia
On October 9, we reported on photos posted to a pro-regime Facebook group showing a Russian TOS-1 Buratino thermobaric missile launcher in Syria.

The original post claimed that the photos were taken in the Hama province. 

Today, photos were posted by a Facebook page for the Latakia National Defence Forces – pro-regime militia – purporting to show these weapons in use in the hills of the province.



A video was soon uploaded to YouTube on a pro-regime account:

The footage appears to have been filmed in the same area that the photos were taken in. 

Some reports claim that the area struck was rebel-held Jabal al-Akrad, where Captain Basil Zimo, commander of the First Coastal Division of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was killed by a Russian air strike on October 19.

Reports from the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) describe intense fighting between regime and rebel fighters in this area today, especially near Kafr Dilba, Jubb al-Ahmar and Salma.

According to the LCC, Russian jets conducted more than 20 air strikes on the area this morning, accompanied by artillery and rocket shelling.

The photos and video of the purported TOS-1 usage certainly resemble known footage of such weapons in use: 

The TOS-1 Buratino is capable of inflicting devastating destruction by use of thermobaric missiles, which spread a mist of fuel on impact, before igniting the mix with the surrounding air used as an oxidiser. The result is an explosion with an extremely powerful blast wave that burns up all available oxygen in an enclosed space.

— Pierre Vaux

Russia’s Official Line On Syria: Fighting Terrorism Is About “Preserving Government Institutions”

Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has given a briefing today which has been tweeted out by the MFA’s Twitter account. The tweets provide a fairly concise overview of Russia’s official positions in the light of the visit of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to Moscow two nights ago.

A major theme — Russia is not alone, but is instead allied with many countries, including Belarus and BRICS (the association of emerging economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China,  and South Africa).

Interestingly, Russia’s influence within Belarus and BRICS is often debated, and falls far short of the Kremlin’s propaganda, as does the economic prowess of BRICS which has been lagging of late with major economic struggles in Brazil and China, to say nothing of Russia’s economy, and with political instability in Brazil.

Zakharova then moved on to issues which more directly relate to Syria, speaking about chemical weapons and ultimately the fight against “terrorism.”

The goal here is to remind the world about the role that Russia played in the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. However, the revelation of new, and previously undisclosed, chemical weapons sites in Syria suggests that either Russia failed to rein in Assad, or both Putin and Assad lied about the extent of Syria’s chemical weapons:
Furthermore, new uses of sarin gas, to say nothing of the fairly routine use of chlorine gas by the Assad regime, stands as proof that Russia and Syria have broken their promises on the removal of chemical weapons:
Then Zakharova gets to the heart of the briefing — Syria:
And here we have the formulation of Russia’s official line on Syria — since Russia has likely killed more civilians than anti-Assad rebels, and Assad certainly has, we can discount that statement as spin.* The Russian goal is to preserve government institutions. Anyone who wants to remove government institutions by force is a “terrorist.” Moderate rebels given TWO anti-tank missiles by the CIA in order to destroy government tanks and bases, therefore, appear to be the biggest threat to Assad’s institutions, the reason why Russia is pounding those rebel groups.

Assad’s visit to Moscow, therefore, does not suggest that Moscow is changing its position, but simply doubling down on it’s previous position that Assad has to be part of the solution for Syria (something we debate in our latest podcast):

*Counting casualties in the Syrian crisis is a complex and effectively impossible task at this rate. Many sources often quoted by the media are highly unreliable. On the other hand, groups which have highly scientific and consistent methods for counting casualties have had problems keeping up with the sheer number of dead, as a result of stringent standards in a chaotic situation, lack of access to certain areas, and from losing staff members to the violence themselves. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) has perhaps the best methodology, but their tally is likely far behind the extremely high numbers of deaths. Still, using their numbers, civilians are nearly three times as likely to be killed as combatants.

James Miller

At Least 12 Killed In Yesterdays Russian Strike On Sarmin Hospital

The death toll from Russia’s air strikes on medical workers in the town of Sarmin, northern Idlib, yesterday has risen to at least 12.

The Guardian reports, citing Dr Mohamed Tennari, director of Sarmin hospital, that the medical facility appeared to have been directly targeted by two air strikes at around 13:00 local time.

At least three of the dead were believed to be medical staff.

“Until now, 12 people have been killed,” said Dr Tennari, adding that another 20 had been injured. Among the dead were two hospital staff, who he named as physiotherapist Hassan Taj al Deen and a security guard Khaldoun Abu Din, both in their 20s.

In mid-March Sarmin hospital was the lead treatment centre in the aftermath of a massive chlorine attack. At the time Syrian regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs filled with chlorine, which left six dead and 50 injured and prompted further claims that Damascus had continued to use banned chemicals as instruments of war. Last month the hospital treated between 5,000-7,000 patients and undertook 100 surgeries, Tennari said.

“I think it was Russian,” he said. “When we were targeted by the Syrian regime airstrikes, it was different from this time.”

AFP reports that the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), which helps to operate the Sarmin facility, confirmed the timing of the air strike, adding that one of their nurses had been killed.

As we reported yesterday, a video released by Idlib Civil Defence shows a blast strike rescuers in Sarmin as they are already responding to an earlier air strike.

The Russian Ministry of Defence released aerial footage yesterday of one of the air strikes on the town.

The MOD claimed that a Sukhoi Su-34 jet had dropped a KAB-500 guided bomb on a meeting of “terrorist leaders” in the town.

The attack on the Sarmin hospital is not a unique event.

AFP reports that SAMS has announced that a Russian bomber struck a field hospital they operated in Hama on the same day, “causing severe damage to the facility” and wounding staff.

The Guardian continues: 

The head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations, Zedoun al-Zoubi, said Sarmin was one of three medical facilities targeted in the past week. The other two allegedly hit al-Harb and al-Eis clinics in Aleppo province. This month, a field clinic in Kfar Zeita in Idlib and another in Latamneh were also reportedly hit.

“In the last three four weeks the airstrikes have become very accurate, very precise and very intense,” he said. “(In the past) four weeks we know the situation has become really horrible and the number of displaced people are far more than before and we are talking about people who are used to war.”

Two days ago, al-Zoubi, in tears, described the humanitarian situation in Aleppo as on the verge of collapse.

— Pierre Vaux