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The Civilian Cost of Russia's Actions in Syria, in Numbers

March 24, 2022
Ramy Mohamed
4 min read

Earlier this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met his counterpart in Syria, as well as President Bashar al-Assad. Officials in the two countries were united in their stated support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It came in the full knowledge that Syrian civilians have died in their thousands in the past 5.5 years as a direct consequence of Russia’s military intervention in that country. This article by IranWire’s Arabic team takes in the known scope of Russian raids in Syria since September 2015.

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Ali, a 16-year-old mobile coffee seller, recounted to IranWire how his parents were killed in late 2016 in a Russian air raid. The incident took place during a military campaign launched by the Assad regime, supported by the Russian Air Force, to control the eastern neighbourhoods of the city of Aleppo in northern Syria.

Ali told us he was orphaned in a bombardment targeting the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo. He was displaced with his grandparents, ending up at a camp on the Syrian-Turkish border. They never left.

On September 30, 2015, the Federation Council – the upper house of the Russian legislature – formally approved President Vladimir Putin’s “request” to deploy the Russian Air Force outside the country’s borders. The first raids targeted members of a Syrian opposition faction in the countryside of Hama, killing 30 of the faction’s members, according to Al-Jazeera.

Top Russian official Sergei Ivanov insisted at the time that it was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who had requested military assistance from Russia. But on the same day, he announced the formation of a so-called “Russia-Syria-Iran-Iraq” alliance, later referred to as the 4+1 (the +1 was Lebanese Hezbollah), which was described as a military coalition to confront Islamic State.

Whatever the official pretext, from the moment Russia began its air strikes in Syria, the scales of power on Syrian soil began to tip in favor of the incumbent regime. Today, Assad’s government controls more than 63 percent of the country, from 22 percent in 2015.

A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights published on September 30 of last year found the Russian military intervention led directly to the deaths of at least 6,910 civilians, including 2,030 children and 974 women.

The network’s general data analysis further showed that the first year after the Russian intervention saw the highest death toll, accounting for 52 percent of the total number of casualties up until that point. Of these 42 percent were recorded in Aleppo, and 38 percent in Idlib.

 

Russian Strikes in Syria, as Recorded by the White Helmets

Figures collected by the volunteer aid organization Syria Civil Defence (the White Helmets) and analyzed by IranWire show that Russia launched a known 5,586 separate attacks on Syrian soil from September 30, 2015 to September 20, 2021. These raids claimed the lives of at least 4,018.

Idlib bore the brunt of the Russia-led assaults (3,279) followed by Aleppo and its countryside (1,167), Hama (515) and the Damascus countryside (255). In 2019 the scale of Russian operations appeared to increase drastically, with 1,567 attacks recorded in that 12-month period alone.

White Helmets deputy director Munir Mustafa told IranWire: “The process of documenting the attacks is conducted according to internationally-adopted procedures. Observation teams accurately record the time and place of each attack, the weapons used, and casualties.” The volunteers still use GoPro cameras on their helmets to record each incident they are called to.

Based on their data, 68 percent of the Russian attacks (3,805 attacks) targeted city centers, residential zones and vital facilities, 16 percent (885) targeted agricultural land, six percent (330) destroyed local shops, and in 70 cases, hospitals and medical centers were the apparent target. Tens of others hit markets, schools, camps set up for displaced people, mosques, places of worship and bakeries.

Each air raid is detected by civilian observatories that observe the aircraft from the moment they take off until their return to the airbase.

Separately, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 1,231 attacks on vital civilian infrastructure, including 222 schools, 207 medical facilities, and 60 markets, of which Idlib governorate again bore the brunt. The first year of Russia’s military intervention accounted for 452 of these attacks.

Director Fadel Abdul Ghany told IranWire: “Russia is deliberately targeting vital and civilian facilities in areas outside the Syrian regime’s control, in order shake up stability in those areas and make them dependent on the regime.”

He added that already-besieged areas, such as eastern Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, were also targeted in order to force the residents of those areas to surrender. “These attacks posed a threat to the livelihoods of hundreds of families who were left in besieged areas with restricted cross-border humanitarian aid.”

In September 2021, the International Rescue Committee published a statement expressing concern over an increase in airstrikes in northwest Syria at a time when the country was still grappling with a fresh wave of Covid-19. Syria country director Tanya Evans said: “In the past week the IRC has had to suspend its operations three times as a result of hostilities. The organisation is concerned that a significant increase in fighting and population displacement will create conditions that could make this second wave even more deadly than the first.”

 

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The Civilian Cost of Russia's Actions in Syria, in Numbers