Wreckage Confirms Russian Incendiary Cluster Bombs Used Near Homs Town Of Rastan

October 18, 2016

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

Moscow’s Promise to Stop Bombing Aleppo For 8 Hours Is Not Enough – In Fact It Could Be A Trap

The Russian government has said that its air force, and the Syrian military, will not bomb Aleppo during an eight hour window on Thursday, October 20. ABC News reports:

The two militaries will observe a “humanitarian pause” between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Oct. 20 to allow civilians and militants safe passage out of the city, Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of Russia’s general staff said in Moscow. Militants, the wounded and sick would be allowed to evacuate to the neighboring rebel-held province of Idlib.

U.N. humanitarian officials have pleaded with combatants to observe weekly 48-hour cease-fires to allow humanitarian relief into the city’s besieged eastern districts, but Russian and Syrian forces have only escalated their aerial and ground assault on the rebel-held areas in recent weeks. The airstrikes have claimed hundreds of lives, wounded many, flattened apartment buildings and laid waste to the already crippled medical sector.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that the eight-hour pause was a unilateral halt to fighting. A 48-hour or 72-hour cease-fire “will require some sort of mutual arrangement,” he said.

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Russia Sets Brief Cease-Fire for Aleppo as Strikes Kill 36

Russian and Syrian forces will halt hostilities for eight hours in the eastern districts of Aleppo, Russia's military announced on Monday, a day on which opposition activists said their airstrikes killed at least 36 people, including several children, in and around the divided city. The two…

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Oct 18, 2016 20:27 (GMT)

Diplomats reiterated the concern today that eight hours is not enough of a ceasefire for civilians to evacuate, nor is it a large enough window to commit to sending aid groups into affected areas. Gareth Bayley, the UK Special Representative for Syria, Tweeted out his concerns:

Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, said that Syria’s rebels could also take advantage of the situation. Churkin stated that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the Al-Qaeda affiliate formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, could leave the city, and moderate rebel groups could disassociate with the terrorist group, thus removing Russia’s incentive for bombing the city.

The Russian state-operated propaganda outlet RT reports

“If they [‘moderate’ opposition] distance themselves, then we will offer Jabhat Al-Nusra two options to choose from: either they leave the city, and Steffan de Mistura, [UN special envoy for Syria], as you know, came out with a proposal regarding this some time ago, which has not been accepted by Jabhat Al-Nusra yet, or we will have to defeat them,” Churkin said, as cited by TASS. 

The diplomat was referring to de Mistura’s earlier proposal to personally accompany some 900 Al-Nusra fighters that are estimated to still retain positions in the rebel-held eastern Aleppo, on their way out from the city to other parts of Syria.

If that scenario is implemented, it will mean the end of bloodshed in Aleppo on condition that all other armed groups representing “moderate” opposition enter into ceasefire agreements with the Syrian government following Al-Nusra’s exit, Churkin said. 

The United States has responded by saying that they welcome any pause to the fighting in Syria, but that the proposed ceasefire is too short: “too little, too late.” AP reports:

A U.S. State Department spokesman says an eight-hour pause in attacks by Russian and Syrian forces on rebel-held eastern districts of Aleppo “would be a good thing,” but he cautions that “it’s a bit too little, too late.”

Spokesman Mark Toner, speaking to reporters in Washington, said the people of Aleppo “have been subjected to near constant bombardment and air strikes” that has killed many civilians and leveled much of the city’s civilian infrastructure. He said the goal is “to starve out and to drive out the opposition and civilians who’ve held on there for so long.”

Another empty promise?

The problem with the eight-hour ceasefire is twofold. First, the pause in fighting is too short to effectively withdraw out of the city, nor is it long enough to get aid into the city. Any movement in or out of the city would have to be delayed from the start of the ceasefire in order to be confident that the ceasefire was holding. Furthermore, any action would then have to conclude before the end of the ceasefire out of fear that civilians or air workers in transit could get caught in the hostilities which tend to follow such breaks in fighting.

But there is a larger problem — Russia has a terrible track record in following through on such deals, and the Assad regime’s track record is even worse. As we’ve recently examined, many experts feel that such ceasefires offer little more than a trap: 

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Russia Offers 'Humanitarian Corridors' Out Of Besieged Aleppo. History Warns Of A Trap

The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced the creation of 4 corridors out of the city his air force has spent months pulverizing.

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Oct 19, 2016 00:26 (GMT)

If the ceasefire does not provide adequate time to evacuate, why have one at all? One reasons may be to perpetuate the Kremlin’s myth that it is fighting terrorism and trying to avoid inflicting civilian casualties.

Simply put, Russia will restart its bombing campaign no matter what happens. No matter what Al-Qaeda does, Russia will say that it is principally targeting terrorists. It won’t be true. Civilians will be killed, and aid workers, but Russia will blame the victims and claim that they had an opportunity to flee but they did not take it. 

We have seen Russia and Assad repeat this pattern time and time again since the start of this conflict in 2011. There is no reason to believe that this is the ceasefire where Russia and Syria begin to protect civilian life.

James Miller

Wreckage Confirms Russian Incendiary Cluster Bombs Used Near Homs Town Of Rastan

The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of Russian and Ukrainian investigative bloggers, has released a report detailing the use of incendiary cluster munitions by the Russian Air Force in the rebel-held town of Rastan.

The CIT used footage from opposition media activists and the local branch of Syrian Civil Defense (known as the White Helmets), showing attacks on the night from October 1-2:

Such videos have become grimly frequent sights over the last few weeks, as Russia has intensified strikes on rebel-held areas with incendiary weapons, most notably in the Aleppo area:

But the CIT also demonstrate how photos published by the White Helmets can identify the specific munitions used in the attack.

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2016-10-17 21:25:13

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2016-10-17 21:25:12

The end casing in the photo above resembles that of an RBK-500 ZAB-25SM incendiary cluster munition dispenser.

These same weapons were spotted loaded onto Russian Sukhoi Su-34 bombers at the Hmeemeem airbase in Latakia in footage shot by RT in June this year:

The RBK-500 ZAB-25SM dispenser carries three different types of incendiary submunition: the externally similar ZAB-2.5M1 and 2, and the smaller ZAB-2.5S.

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2016-10-17 21:35:12

The CIT has already reported on the remains of the smaller ZAB-2.5S submunitions being found after an attack on an olive oil factory near Maarat al-Numan in November last year.

But the White Helmets’ photos from October 2 also show the ZAB-2.5M variant submunitions, in addition to the S types.

The M1 variant notably has circular perforations at one end – visible in the new images from Rastan: 

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2016-10-17 21:39:38

Rastan, to the north of Homs, has long suffered terrible destruction at the hands of the Syrian regime and then the Russian Air Force, coming under intense bombardment on a regular basis since the very beginning of the Russian air campaign.,

This video from October last year shows air strikes on a densely populated area of the town:

The CIT reports that they were told by the Homs White Helmets and a local media center that the attack took place on a highway just south of the town, on the highway to Talbiseh, another rebel-held town in this small pocket.

Due to the low quality of the airstrike aftermath videos as well as the fact that they were filmed at night, we were unable to confirm this information.

According to open source data, RBK-500 ZAB-2,5SM hit area is from 20,000 to 80,000 square meters. Assuming the impact area is either round or has a shape close to it, simple math yields a radius of such circle from 80 to 160 meters. An overlay of these radii over a satellite map yields the following picture:

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2016-10-17 21:48:19

The radius clearly covers several houses with gardens. However, we cannot verify if they are still inhabited. If that is the case, then the UN convention on “inhumane” weapons would forbid the use of incendiary munitions in this area. The legal aspect of this issue is covered in more depth in a Human Rights Watch dispatch on incendiary bomb use in Syria.

While it is uncertain whether the UN convention would apply to this particular attack on Rastan, the use of incendiary weapons in densely populated areas of Aleppo would certainly qualify as inhumane:

— Pierre Vaux