Civilian deaths from Russia air strikes are rising, activists claim
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for an investigation into the Sept. 30 strikes on Talbiseh as a potential violation of international law
On Dec. 24, 2012, a group of civilians congregated at a local bakery in Talbiseh, a Syrian town in Homs province.
As they waited to collect bread, a bomb detonated, killing 14. Syrian state news blamed an “armed terrorist group.” Locals blamed regime warplanes.
Last month, on Sept. 30, another bomb fell in Talbiseh, killing 17. This time, opposition activists blamed Russian warplanes.
“Russian planes fly at higher altitude, and appear suddenly without warning,” said Firas al-Said, a citizen journalist based in Talbiseh. “With regime planes, you can hear them coming.”
Videos recently uploaded to social media by the Talbiseh Media Center show locals bemoaning the presence of Russian planes above Homs province.
Other, more graphic clips show charred, lifeless bodies, civilians carrying stretchers attempting to locate survivors among piles of rubble, and medics treating agonized victims in makeshift field units.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for an investigation into the Sept. 30 air strikes on Talbiseh as a potential violation of international law.
However, humanitarian groups say compiling evidence will take time due to the lack of international monitoring groups on the ground.
“Local activists have relentlessly reported violations of international humanitarian laws,” in Syria, said Diana Semaan, a campaigner at Amnesty International.
“Based on videos and information from activists on the ground, the air strikes have killed civilians. However, we don’t yet have concrete information.”
Elliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat - a platform for citizen investigative journalism - said the group is compiling all airstrike videos made available by Russia’s Ministry of Defense.
They will then be correlated with videos recorded by activists on the ground, to verify claims of civilian casualties from Russian air strikes.
“There were certainly air strikes on Talbiseh on Sept. 30,” said Higgins, one of the first journalists to identify the Syrian air force’s use of barrel bombs in Aug. 2012.
However, “I’ve seen no images showing Russian jets clearly. I couldn’t confirm which air force is responsible.”
Said says Russian air strikes also caused civilian casualties in Talbiseh on Oct. 4 and Oct. 15. Similar reports have emerged from the towns of Za’faraneh and Rastan in Homs province, and elsewhere in Aleppo province.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) says 127 civilians have been killed by Russian air strikes to date.
President Vladimir Putin says the focus of Moscow’s intervention in Syria is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
However, most Russian airstrikes have targeted rebel groups opposed to both ISIS and the Syrian regime.
The Institute for the Study of War says there is no ISIS presence in Homs. Analysts say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is focused on Homs in order to secure control of Syria’s main north-south highway (M5), linking the area with Damascus to the south, Aleppo to the north, and majority Alawite cities such as Tartus - where Russia maintains a navy base - on the Mediterranean.
In recent weeks, Homs has witnessed a buildup of pro-Assad forces on the ground. Leaflets dropped by Syrian planes in the area, and in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, offer safe passage to civilians through army checkpoints, and an amnesty to fighters who give up their arms.
“I think the target of the [Sept. 30] attack was random, but has a purpose,” said Said. “They targeted a civilian area to pressure rebels to withdraw.”
In Feb. 2014, Russia backed a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling for an end to indiscriminate aerial bombardment in Syria.
However, it has also vetoed UNSC votes calling for the referral of the Syrian regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC). If “Russia continues to block the UNSC, justice for victims will never be achieved,” said Semaan.
Shortly after the Russian intervention began, Samantha Power - the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations - called on Moscow to “immediately cease” attacks on Syrian opposition groups and civilians, and focus on ISIS.
However, U.S. rhetoric has been hamstrung by Washington’s acceptance of culpability for recent events in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
In Syria and Iraq, the U.S. government has not completely avoided accusations that coalition air strikes have caused civilian deaths.
In Talbiseh, a local Civil Defense Unit (CDU) volunteer, speaking via Skype, said with Russian planes in the sky, and pro-Assad forces advancing on the ground, it was becoming difficult to obtain needed medical supplies.
“There are injuries every day. People have to be evacuated to medical points under shelling. Most injured return home immediately after first aid due to a lack of space and equipment,” the volunteer, told Al Arabiya News on condition of anonymity.
Another CDU volunteer was named among the 17 civilians killed in the Sept. 30 attack. Said said people in Talbiseh felt abandoned by the international community.
Yesterday, Washington and Moscow signed a memorandum of understanding over safety procedures for aircraft flying over Syria.
The Pentagon denies that the memorandum constitutes “cooperation or support” for Russian policy in Syria.
“The United States and its allies are letting Russia prop up Assad even though he’s the main cause of the Syrian tragedy,” said Said, adding that his laptop battery was dying. Without mains electricity, he said he was charging his electrical equipment using a car battery. “Right now, we don’t even have time for mourning.”
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