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Interview: U.K.-Based Monitor Contrasts Russian, U.S. Air Campaigns In Syria

  • Mark Krutov

"You can't bomb in cities and towns from the air and not kill civilians. It's simply impossible," Airwars director Chris Woods says.

"You can't bomb in cities and towns from the air and not kill civilians. It's simply impossible," Airwars director Chris Woods says.

MOSCOW -- The unrelenting bombing of rebel-held Aleppo by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian ally, Vladimir Putin, has drawn international condemnation and even calls from Washington and Paris for a war crimes investigation.

RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to Chris Woods, director of Airwars, a London-based group monitoring international air strikes against the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, to get a better idea how Russia's air campaign in Syria compares with the one being conducted by a U.S.-led coalition.

RFE/RL: Can we compare the number of civilian casualties in Syria inflicted by Russian air strikes to those by U.S.-led coalition air strikes?

Chris Woods: There are many challenges in comparing the Russian and coalition campaigns in Syria. Partly because those countries report their conflict in slightly different ways, so we have different data sets, different tempos of air strikes. But there is, I suppose, some comparable data that we can look at that does indicate that the U.S.-led coalition and Russia appear to be fighting their wars in Syria in very different ways, and in ways which have quite significant implications for civilians on the ground.

RFE/RL: What are the differences?

Woods: When we look at the numbers for Syria, we think it's likely, based on Airwars' monitoring of reports of civilian casualties, that the U.S.-led coalition has probably killed about 900 civilians across the last 26 months since September of 2014. In just the last year, monitors suggest that Russian air strikes have killed in the region of 3,600 civilians, or more, in just the first year of Russian bombing. So the scale of civilian casualties from Russian air strikes is significantly greater than those we've seen from the coalition, even when you account for the higher tempo of Russian strikes in Syria compared to coalition action.

RFE/RL: What accounts for this difference?

Woods: We would assume that there are probably three reasons for the difference in numbers. One is the tempo. Russia carries out far more strikes than the Americans in Syria and, relatively speaking, one would expect that to lead to more casualties, including civilian casualties.

The second reason, and probably the most significant reason, is the munitions Russia is primarily using in Syria. Russia is still in the early stages of adopting so-called "smart bombs" -- that is, laser- and GPS-guided munitions -- which the coalition uses almost exclusively. The advantage of those bombs and missiles is they are fairly good at getting relatively precisely to where they are needed, which means that you need fewer munitions and fewer explosives to achieve the same effect. So, civilians generally are less harmed when precision munitions are used.

But as we understand it, more than 90 percent, perhaps an even higher proportion of Russian munitions, are still unguided bombs and missiles. Russian pilots appear to be good at getting those bombs to go to the areas they are needed to go. But the reality is that, in order to achieve the same effect, you need more bombs with more explosives to destroy your target. We've seen that repeatedly -- that military targets are hit by Russia but civilian casualties in the vicinity -- so-called collateral damage -- can be quite significant. We think that's the single biggest thing driving the high number of civilian casualties from Russia.

But there is another factor and this factor comes and goes depending on the stage of the campaign. There have been periods in Syria where Russia has very heavily targeted civilian infrastructure and civilian-occupied areas, and that has led to very significant civilian casualties at particular times. Of course, that is what has been causing such international upset, particularly on the question of Aleppo right now. This deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure and civilian communities is very different as a tactic from what we've seen from the coalition, and does lead to these significant spikes in civilian deaths.

RFE/RL: Russian officials say they are targeting terrorists who are located in densely populated areas. Has the U.S.-led coalition faced the same challenge?

Woods: Absolutely. Mosul is bombed every single day by the coalition even though that city has a population of 1 million civilians, we think, under occupation by the so-called Islamic State. More air strikes have been carried out by the coalition in Mosul than anywhere else in their war. And more civilian deaths have credibly been reported in Mosul than anywhere else. At a minimum, we think that more than 500 civilians have been killed by the coalition in Mosul over the past two years.

You can't bomb in cities and towns from the air and not kill civilians. It's simply impossible. We know from extensive modeling of previous conflicts that civilians are at extreme risk from air strikes in these wars and it's the time when civilians are most likely to die in a conflict. It's when towns and cities are bombed in this way. Now, the coalition can somewhat reduce that risk for civilians by using precision strikes and lower-yield bombs, but both parties -- Russia and the coalition -- have without a doubt inflicted significant civilian casualties as they have tried to dislodge militant terrorist or rebel forces from particular cities or towns.

RFE/RL: How does information presented by parties in the conflict about their air strikes compare?

Woods: In the early stages of the war in Syria, Russia was very good at daily reports and saying roughly where it was bombing. Unfortunately, those reports have become much more intermittent now and we tend to only hear once a month from Russia, and it will tell us that it has bombed in a particular governorate, an area of Syria, but frankly, with thousands of air strikes going into Syria every month now from the U.S., Russia, the Assad regime, and others, it is not enough information to really understand from the official perspective when Russia is bombing. We would certainly welcome Russia returning to that early reporting when it tells us every day where and when it bombs.

It's important because in such a complicated war with so many foreign powers involved we think that civilians have a right to know who is bombing them and when things go wrong and civilians die they have a right know who has killed and injured their loved ones. With Russia's reporting right now, it's simply not possible to distinguish whether it was a Russian strike.

What I would say is that Russia is not alone in that. More than half the members of the U.S.-led coalition are very poor in their reporting, worse than Russia, certainly, in refusing to tell us where or when they bomb in Iraq and Syria. We don't think that's acceptable at all.

RFE/RL: Can you distinguish between Russian bombing and bombing conducted by Syrian aviation?

Woods: The reporting situation in Syria is getting more and more confused. We've tracked over the last years more than 14 nations external to Syria that have carried out air strikes in the country. It's incredibly difficult at times to distinguish who was responsible for what actions. The reports out of Aleppo are often confused. Most reports now can no longer distinguish between Russian and Assad regime air strikes, although sometimes assumptions are made based on the munitions that are dropped and the way that these locations are bombed.

But I think it's fair to say, and I don't think Russia has denied, that it is heavily involved in the air campaign in Aleppo right now. Perhaps it's blamed for too many of those strikes. But I think it is entirely fair to say that Russia is involved in a very targeted campaign primarily on civilian occupied neighborhoods of Aleppo that is killing a substantial number of civilians, probably the highest number of civilians Russia has killed during its entire campaign. And I think it's absolutely right that international organizations -- the UN, the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent], and others -- have called Russia out on this.

RFE/RL: What can be done to reduce the number of civilian casualties from coalition, Russian, and other air strikes?

Woods: If the air strikes are going to continue, we have to see both the coalition and Russia foregrounding the reduction of harm to civilians on the battlefield. And crucially, in Russia's case, we think there's a significant public-interest need to switch as quickly as it is able from these dumb munitions dropped from high altitudes to more precise and guided munitions which we think will have a significant impact in terms of reducing civilian casualties.

RFE/RL: How serious are Western calls for war crimes investigations against Russia?

Woods: We are in a situation where four of the five permanent members of the Security Council are bombing Syria right now. When there is talk of a red line, I think the question always comes back to: Whose red line are we talking about? I do not see the international community as being capable of getting a grip on Syria right now with so many of the permanent five directly implicated in the conflict and frankly in the civilian casualties that are occurring in Syria. We leave red lines to others. Our red line at Airwars is: please, please, reduce the risk to civilians and reduce the number of air strikes on these occupied towns and cities.

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