On September 30, Russian warplanes launched their first air raids in Syria, striking eight targets around Homs, north of Damascus. In a second day of strikes on October 1, Moscow’s planes hit another five targets, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
The Kremlin insists it’s hitting militants from the so-called Islamic State. But the locations of the aerial strikes imply otherwise—that Russia’s bombing civilians and U.S.-backed rebels instead. Chillingly, video and photographs from Russia’s new air war seem to indicate that the attacks are inaccurate and indiscriminate.
Instead of dropping precision-guided munitions like the U.S.-led coalition does, the Russians are joining the Syrian air force in deploying unguided “dumb” bombs, apparently including deadly cluster munitions, which are much more likely to kill bystanders.
In short, Russia’s making Syria’s brutal air war even worse.
The Kremlin deployed 34 fighter-bombers and a spy plane to Latakia, a regime stronghold in western Syria, beginning around September 21. The warplanes were part of a contingent of Russian troops, vehicles, and missiles Moscow hopes will preserve Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s tattered regime, four years into Syria’s bloody civil war.
“There is no other way to settle the Syrian conflict other than by strengthening the existing legitimate government agencies, support them in their fight against terrorism,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said September 28.
But it was quickly evident that Russian air strikes weren’t bombing many, or any, terrorists, at least not using the U.S. government’s definition of “terrorist.”
The air raids on September 30 and October 1 hit areas outside of ISIS’s control—and instead struck towns occupied by U.S.-backed secular rebels who also threaten Assad’s rule. “I want to be careful about confirming information, but it does appear that [Russian attacks] were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters, using another acronym for ISIS.
The Syrian National Council, a political group allied with anti-Assad rebels, claimed the Russian air strikes killed 36 civilians. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 28 people died, including women and children.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the accusation. “We are not supporting anyone against their own people,” he said. “We fight terrorism.”
But the Kremlin’s methods in Syria are worryingly similar to those of Assad’s own regime, which has relentlessly and indiscriminately bombed cities and towns under rebel control, killing thousands of civilians. The regime’s warplanes lack sensors for accurate targeting and the kind of guided munitions that the U.S. military famously sent streaking through buildings’ air vents during the 1991 Gulf War.
Instead, Syrian jets fire highly inaccurate rockets, lob unguided bombs, and even scatter cluster munitions that can pepper areas the size of football fields with lethal explosives. Worse, when the regime began running out of purpose-made aerial weapons, it began improvising bombs from metal barrels and explosive filler, and rolling them out of the cabins of high-flying helicopters.
These so-called barrel bombs kill more Syrian civilians than ISIS does, according to Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The apparent aim is to kill and terrorize civilians (and destroy civilian structures) so as to drive civilians from opposition-held areas and to send a warning of the misery that attends anyone whose neighborhood is taken by opposition groups,” Roth wrote in August.
Russia possesses plenty of air-to-ground weapons and so does not need to resort to barrel bombs. But its own inaccurate attacks could have the same terrible effect as the Assad regime’s DIY munitions. A video of the initial Russian attacks that the Kremlin released on September 30 appears to depict the small, scattered blasts of a cluster bomb.
More than 100 countries have signed on to an agreement banning the use of cluster bombs. The United States did not sign the agreement but nevertheless began phasing out operational use of cluster munitions in 2003. Russia is one of the few countries to continue producing and deploying cluster bombs on a wide scale.
To be clear, Russian pilots couldn’t be more accurate in their attacks even if they wanted to. While the United States and its allies have invested billions of dollars in precision munitions and the aerial sensors to guide them, Russia has continued to rely on mostly unguided weapons for air-to-ground attacks.
The Center for Analysis of Strategies and Tactics, a Moscow think tank, has criticized the Russian government for its “strange” and “unacceptable” failure to develop satellite-guided bombs and new long-range precision air-to-ground missiles, plus the targeting systems to direct them. “Russian air force bombers and tactical fighters rely on air-to-surface targeting technologies that are 30 years old,” Alexander Mladenov, a Russian aviation expert, pointed out in Combat Aircraft magazine.
In borrowing methods—and targets—from the Syrian regime’s own bloody air war, Russia is likely to kill more civilians, create more refugees, and make an already terrible conflict even worse. “The result of this kind of action will inevitably, simply be to inflame the civil war in Syria,” Carter said.