Fact-Checking Russia's Claim that It Didn't Bomb a Hospital in Syria

On 20 October 2015, Russian airstrikes were reported by local groups to have hit the Syrian town of Sarmin in Idlib governorate, killing at least 12 people. According to reports, the building Russia is alleged to have bombed is a field hospital run by the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) and was the ninth such attack Russia has been accused of since their bombing campaign began on 30 September. Now the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has taken to Twitter and released a statement on its website maintaining that the hospital is “absolutely undamaged.” To buttress this claim, the Russian MoD released an aerial photograph of the area, purportedly taken more than a week after the attack, on 31 October 2015:

MoD 1

The magnified portion of the image, which identifies the hospital building along with other distinguishing features, is juxtaposed with a screengrab published by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFERL) claiming to show the rubble of the field hospital after the bombing:

MoD 2

This claim – that RFERL’s screengrab does not show the field hospital – is correct. However, using open sources, it is possible to determine that Russia has once again presented falsely dated imagery in an attempt to conceal the destruction of the actual target of the 20 October attack, namely, a school located approximately 60 meters away.

To start, the Russian MoD correctly identifies the hospital in the enlarged portion of its photograph. The MoD’s analysis of this video, as depicted below alongside the magnified portion, is accurate:

MoD 3

But two airstrikes did hit the area on 20 October, with one striking a school, which, conveniently, is on the very edge of the enlarged area of the MoD’s photo. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify several features of the MoD’s image that do not correspond with the destruction on the ground that day.

This video report, said to have been recorded just 30 minutes after the attack, provides several shots of the aftermath:

3 interesting

Two of the buildings (outlined in red) have clearly been destroyed, and yet, they are still intact on the MoD’s photo. Moreover, only two of the four poles (green) remain standing after the attack, but four shadows are clearly visible in the MoD’s photo:


More obvious is the school’s wall that was destroyed. It appears perfectly unscathed in the Russian MoD imagery:


Here is the wall after the first strike, marked in yellow. Also note the building marked in green (source):


And here is the wall and nearby buildings after the second strike (staggering footage of which can be seen here):


Again, the Russian MoD’s imagery shows these objects to be completely intact, proving that the image was taken not on 31 October as claimed, but before the 20 October attack .

It is possible to narrow down the timeframe of when the image was taken by looking at Google Earth’s satellite imagery. The most recent image of the area was taken on 25 August 2014. Buildings west of the hospital have since been constructed as can be seen in the Russian MoD photo, indicating that it was taken between 25 August 2014 and before the afternoon of 20 October 2015.

GE comparison

Finally, while airstrikes may not have struck the SAMS field hospital directly, it was clearly damaged as images from the ground from locals attest:


In summary, the Russian MoD’s claim that it did not destroy a hospital in Sarmin is accurate, but, regrettably, that’s the extent of Moscow’s truthfulness. The Russian MoD provided falsely dated aerial imagery in an attempt to disguise the destruction of the airstrikes that occurred on 20 October, which were reported to have resulted in the deaths of at least a dozen people.

Written by Nathan Patin with contributions from the Bellingcat Investigation Team and the Conflict Intelligence Team.