‘We’ve gotten used to air strikes’: A Syrian documents Russian attacks in Idlib

Our Observer, with his 3-year-old daughter, "celebrates" New Year's Eve 2021 in front of the ruins of their home, destroyed by Russian strikes in 2020.
Our Observer, with his 3-year-old daughter, "celebrates" New Year's Eve 2021 in front of the ruins of their home, destroyed by Russian strikes in 2020. © Our Observer Muhammad M.

Since 2013, Russian forces, alongside Syrian regime forces, have been intensively bombing civilian areas in northwestern Syria. Despite several ceasefire agreements signed between 2013 and 2021, the Russian military has still been dropping illegal munitions and has carried out thousands of air strikes targeting civilian areas. Our Observer, who lives near Idlib in northwestern Syria, told us about his everyday life, punctuated by bombing.

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A report released on July 20, 2022 by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), a Washington-based NGO with European and US analysts working with Syrians on the ground, revealed that Russia has conducted dozens of deliberate air strikes targeting civilians and aid workers in northwestern Syria since 2013.

Russia has been waging similar military tactics – using lethal and illegal munitions – in its war in Ukraine since March 2022. 

Using open-source video and satellite evidence, the report documents 58 "double-tap strikes". Double-tap strikes are carried out in two stages: a ground-to-ground missile is launched into a given area, causing damage, general panic, possible injuries and the mobilisation of rescue teams. When the population concentrates in the crisis area, a second strike, this time from the air, detonates in the same location, killing hundreds of civilians and rescue workers. 

Russian forces have typically carried out these strikes outside of areas under the control of the Syrian regime. The last strike was on July 22, killing seven people, including five children, and wounding 13 civilians in Idlib province.

Extract from the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre report analysing amateur videos of Russian double-tap strikes on Al-Kamooneh near Idlib on May 5, 2022. The bombing first targeted a camp for internally displaced persons, then a school, then a White Helmets truck, killing a total of 45 people and wounding dozens. The open source analysis is consistent with testimonies provided by aid workers.
Extract from the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre report analysing amateur videos of Russian double-tap strikes on Al-Kamooneh near Idlib on May 5, 2022. The bombing first targeted a camp for internally displaced persons, then a school, then a White Helmets truck, killing a total of 45 people and wounding dozens. The open source analysis is consistent with testimonies provided by aid workers. @ Syria Justice and Accountability Centre

 

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Mohammed Abdullah, executive director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre: 

Targeting civilians and humanitarians is at the heart of Russia's strategy in Syria: Bombing schools, field hospitals, and cutting off electricity and running water are ways to push the population over the edge. 

 

A civilian killed by a Russian raid on the town of Al-Bara in the early morning hours of June 21, 2021.
A civilian killed by a Russian raid on the town of Al-Bara in the early morning hours of June 21, 2021. Photo published by our Observer on Twitter

 

Russian strikes are much more destructive than those of the regime because Russian planes are equipped with missiles with a wider impact, in addition to reaching more precise targets. They are also the only ones able to carry out night raids thanks to their cameras and thermal sensors, as we have seen in Aleppo, Idlib or Douma.

In 2018, nearly a million Syrians were displaced in Idlib province, driven to flee from other areas hit by double-tap strikes. Just over 1.6 million people living in Idlib today, or half of the province's population, are internally displaced, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In total, the country has nearly 6.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2022, the highest number in the world. 

>> Watch on The Observers: Syria: TikTok videos show the daily challenges of living in Idlib refugee camp

'On one side there are closed Turkish borders, on the other, strikes by the Syrian regime and Russia'

Our Observer, Muhammad M. (not his real name), 27, is a direct witness to these strikes. He lives in the small town of Al-Bara, about 30 kilometres south of the provincial capital city of Idlib. Since 2020, he has turned to Twitter to document the daily life in the region of Jabal Zawiya, where life is punctuated by Russian air strikes. He told us there are sometimes up to a dozen raids per day.

 

Screenshots from a video posted by our Observer Muhammad M. on Twitter on July 12, 2022: "The bombing has not stopped, Russian fighter jets conducted 15 air strikes on the Idlib countryside," he wrote.
Screenshots from a video posted by our Observer Muhammad M. on Twitter on July 12, 2022: "The bombing has not stopped, Russian fighter jets conducted 15 air strikes on the Idlib countryside," he wrote. © Muhammad M.

 

On the morning of August 9, Russian and Syrian "double-tap" strikes dropped a hundred missiles in the villages of my town, without causing any casualties. 

Al-Bara was severely bombed by double-tap strikes on July 20, with many civilians injured. Almost the whole city was destroyed.

 

 

Injuries from a Russian raid on the night of July 20 in a field hospital in Al-Bara.
Injuries from a Russian raid on the night of July 20 in a field hospital in Al-Bara. Muhammad M.

 

The air strikes have never really stopped in the villages of southern Idlib, especially around Jabal Zawiya. The missiles strike day and night, at random times.

 

A Russian raid on Al-Jadida village in Idlib on July 22 killed seven civilians, including five children.

 

We have nowhere to go: On one side there are closed Turkish borders, on the other, strikes by the Syrian regime and Russia. People have no solution. We have no choice: either to live in the camp of displaced people under a tent, or to live in villages that are likely to be bombed at any moment.

Our house was destroyed by a Russian bombing about two years ago. Today, I live with my family in an abandoned house. We live in the only room left in the house, which was burned to the ground.

 

"A Russian missile was dropped on my town the evening of August 3, but it hasn't exploded yet," says Muhammad, who took this picture on the morning of August 4.
"A Russian missile was dropped on my town the evening of August 3, but it hasn't exploded yet," says Muhammad, who took this picture on the morning of August 4. Muhammad M.

 

I am a few kilometres from the contact zone, where Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces and pro-regime militias are rampaging and bombing the surrounding areas.

Muhammad M. has a 3-year-old daughter, who often appears alongside him in the images he sent to our team, but he asked us not to show her face. 

 

On the left, Muhammad and his daughter, still a baby, in front of their house destroyed by air strikes in 2020. On the right, the house in 2022.
On the left, Muhammad and his daughter, still a baby, in front of their house destroyed by air strikes in 2020. On the right, the house in 2022. Muhammad M.

 

 

In an 18-second video shot last month in his hometown of Al-Bara, Muhammad stands facing the camera with his daughter in his arms and his back to the natural landscape. 

We hear a shot ring out, then a bang in the distance. Muhammad tells his daughter "look at the camera", to distract her from the explosion. But the little girl watches unfazed, as the explosion created a big cloud of smoke.

My daughter no longer reacts to detonations or strikes, even though I try to mentally shield her from the effects they might have. On the day she was born, the hospital was bombed, but fortunately she and her mother were unharmed. Unfortunately, we've gotten used to air strikes over the years, there is a general apathy. 

 

 

 

 

Humanitarian aid is not at all sufficient, as Idlib is receiving too many displaced populations in addition to those already in the area. There are several camps around the Bab Al Hawa border crossing [Editor's note: a border crossing between Syria and Turkey through which a humanitarian corridor was established by the UN in 2021], which are totally neglected, with extreme weather in winter and summer, without enough provisions or medicine. 

In July 2022, Russia vetoed a UN proposition to extend humanitarian aid at Bab Al Hawa to support camps and destroyed cities where disease is rampant. After negotiations on Russia's terms, they agreed that humanitarian aid through Bab Al Hawa would be extended for only six months.

'No evidence is presented to justify strikes'

In a report published in late 2021, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) denounced at least 16 Russian UN Security Council vetoes accommodating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, including the veto on the Bab Al Hawa humanitarian corridor and the chemical weapons used by the regime against its citizens.

In parallel, the report states that in 2021 alone, Russia conducted no less than 145 air strikes and 400 attacks targeting villages and farmland in the Idlib countryside and its surroundings. 

Fadel Abdulghany, founder of the SNHR, explained:

The Syrian regime benefits from Russian military aid but also from its legal protection, in the eyes of the UN, to bomb without accountability, with impunity.

Of course sometimes extremist leaders infiltrate cities, but in this case the Syrian regime and the Russian army must present proof of the existence of terrorist elements before carrying out strikes.

 

 

This video shot on July 24 in Suqaylabiyya City (Hama Governorate) shows the moment of a drone strike "of unknown origin" according to the local press. It targeted a group of civilians celebrating an inaugural mass at an Orthodox church, killing two and wounding several others.

 

 

It is a question of respecting the principle of fairness in the light of international law, and the ratio between the means employed and the persons or entities targeted: For example, if a strike kills two Islamic State men but also 20 civilians, the ratio is not respected. But no evidence is presented to justify strikes, the regime just prefers written reports without any data, no pictures of tanks or weapons for example.