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What Russia’s Own Videos and Maps Reveal About Who They Are Bombing In Syria

October 26, 2015

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Translations: Русский

Bellingcat began geolocating and independently verifying videos published by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) after initial reports from the ground indicated that Russian airstrikes destroyed positions held by the Free Syrian Army and other groups rather than the Islamic State (or ISIS). Bellingcat has geolocated, verified, and visualized each airstrike published by the Russian MoD on its official YouTube channel as of 25 October. The outcome of our work is unequivocal: the overwhelming majority of Russian airstrikes have targeted positions held by non-ISIS rebel groups posing a more immediate threat to the Syrian regime and its head, Bashar al-Assad. In contrast, ISIS strongholds have rarely been attacked: out of 60 strikes recorded on video, only one has been confirmed to be both at the location indicated by the MoD and against ISIS; 14 other strikes said to target ISIS were, indeed, geolocated to the claimed locations, but none of those areas are known to be under ISIS control.

The Russian Federation launched an air campaign on 30 September 2015, allegedly targeting Islamic State (or ISIS) positions in Syria. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has been releasing selected videos on its YouTube channel ever since. Bellingcat began geolocating and independently verifying videos published by the Russian MoD after initial reports from the ground indicated that Russian airstrikes have instead destroyed positions held by the Free Syrian Army and other groups rather than ISIS.

Bellingcat has geolocated, verified, and visualised each airstrike published by the Russian MoD on its official YouTube channel as of 25 October. The outcome of our work is unequivocal: the overwhelming majority of Russian airstrikes have targeted positions held by non-ISIS rebel groups posing a more immediate threat to the Syrian regime and its head, Bashar al-Assad. In contrast, ISIS strongholds have rarely been attacked. The methodology and results of the investigation are laid out below.

Geolocating Russian Airstrikes in Syria

We noticed that, for many videos, the Russian MoD adds a description in Russian before the video of the strike itself begins. A longer, more in-depth description is also appended to each upload, along with the title of the video. For the verification process, each video was uploaded to Bellingcat’s Checkdesk verification project. We Google-translated the description and pasted the original one in Russian alongside to keep track of the information in an independently managed online space.

Once this preliminary step is completed, the verification process is turned “on” which enables crowdsourced public discussion and proof-gathering. For each video, a series of details are collected and verified; these are:

  • the claimed location;
  • the claimed target;
  • the presence of ISIS in the area;
  • the claimed date of the strike;
  • and the date of upload. The exact upload time was determined using Amnesty International’s YouTube DataViewer.

From these details and crowdsourced geolocation efforts, the actual target of the strike was established and an error was defined. The latter describes either a mismatch between the claimed and the actual location of the attack or the absence/presence of ISIS in the bombed area or mention of ISIS in title/description of the video.

An example geolocated airstrike (details here)

An example geolocated airstrike (details here)

For each of the videos we then sought to answer the following questions: Did the Russian airstrike target the location it claims it did? And is there any proven ISIS presence in the bombed area?

Russian Targets in Syria

Our investigation shows the following:

  • Only nine of the 60 videos could not be geolocated and verified
  • In all cases except one where the claimed location was the actual location, ISIS presence in that area was not identified
  • In the cases where the claimed location mismatched the actual location, no ISIS presence exists in the area that was targeted
  • The claimed targets carry varying labels: most often, the MoD names them “ISIS,” but “terrorists” or “militants” frequently occur as well
  • From 12 October onward (date of video upload), the targets in the description have changed: “ISIS” has been replaced by “terrorists” and “militants”
RuAF strikes in Syria with targets identified as mentioned in the video description

Two observations emerge from the available data. The first one is that, for the period 30 September – 11 October, a higher number of videos were released compared to the period 12 October – 21 October. The second observation is that gaps in the video releases exist. This is the reason why the some days are not specified in the above charts.

The trend showcased in these bar charts is, however, clear: the initial airstrike videos presented a narrative where the target was ISIS; this appears to have evolved in the past two weeks which saw videos being released as targeting unspecified “militants”.

  • In some cases, the Russian MoD provided no information on the claimed location of the strike. For this and other reasons, nine strikes could not be geolocated
  • A substantial proportion of the strikes appears to have targeted locations in Hama, Idlib and Latakia governorates where ISIS has no presence. These two provinces are controlled by various opposition forces fighting against al-Assad’s regime.
RuAF strikes in Syria as shown to target provinces

Our investigation highlights that the overwhelming majority of locations hit by Russian airstrikes is outside of areas known to be under ISIS control. The chart above shows that only one attack has been confirmed to target locations close to Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of the Islamic State. A number of videos have been marked as “unknown” as it has not been possible to geolocate the location shown in the videos.

Not Really Targeting ISIS: A Confirmation by the Defense Ministry

Russian officials themselves have provided clear proof regarding the actual targets. A detailed and richly illustrated map circulated in the RuNet indicates that the majority of Russian airstrikes have targeted Idlib and Hama governorates, labeled by the MoD as “areas controlled by other [i.e., non-ISIS] illegal armed groups.” The map first appeared in a high-resolution JPG format on the VK wall of the “Russian Federation Armed Forces” account, timestamped at 18 October 2015, 10:16 AM. The caption indicates that the map was presented on 17 October at a briefing about the situation in Syria.

The person who provided the briefing is the commander of the main operating unit at the Russian Air Force headquarters, Colonel General Andrey Kartapolov. Kartapolov has been pictured by the MoD on its Twitter account holding the seemingly identical map as a paper printout to showcase the locations of the “394 combat sorties”:

The tweet is timestamped 16 October 15:33. The post on MoD’s Facebook account, timestamped 22 October 17:40, also shows Kartapolov providing a briefing about the most recent strikes against the backdrop of what looks to be the same map. A better view of the colonel general in front of the map and a source for MoD’s social media images can be found at the MoD’s website. It has been possible to mark all the geolocated airstrike videos on the map, showing where the airstrikes hit according to the Russian MoD’s own map and videos:

Russian bombing

Based upon the evidence provided by the Russian Defence Ministry itself, it is clear that the bulk of the airstrikes undertaken by the Russian Air Force have consistently targeted areas where non-ISIS, anti-regime armed groups operate.

All data along with additional visualisations is available at the dedicated web page

Written by Alexandra Raine

With the assistance of Eliot Higgins, Aric Toler, Veli-Pekka Kivimaka, Timmi Allen, and Nathan Patin.

Thanks to all of those who contributed on Bellingcat’s Checkdesk.

Bellingcat Investigation Team

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  1. SeaCat

    Up to now no any position gived to Russian forces where is location non-ISIS terrorrists/opposition forces. Up to this moment they can bombing any self-opinion positions(like u.s. do) of terroristic places received form local citizens/Asad army and drons.
    All this fake ivestigations non legitimated on this moment. No any evidences of bombing hospitals etc. Only old vides re-uploaded for today dates… as FAKE of russian bombing.
    And last – this bellingcat group created/supported by u.s. govement orgazizations any more questions? What they be do here… of course you not found here how U.S. bombing civil places, noobs.

    • boggled

      SeaCat, you and everyone can click the little box on the top called SEARCH, and find out there are articles about Kunduz.
      Shows you are liar, again and again.
      How is the live at Leningrad or Stalingrad or 55 Savushkina Street?
      You are acting just like them.

      Fare thee well

      • Taavi Teder

        Unfortunately that can’t help. Bellingcat has developed a reputation for not verifying it’s sources. Now that they have that reputation it will be difficult to shake it. Time after time they posted unverified photos and videos about MH17. None of these photos or videos could ever be verified or dated.
        So it is of no value to point to further Bellingcat material and expect people to believe it.

        • Rick

          Bellingcat must be a real threat if these trolls keep coming in here to dole out their rhetoric. Keep up the good work Bellingcat. Truth wins in the end

          • Randy Dread

            Truth hopefully does win in the end.

            Looks like the Assad launched Sarin story is currently falling apart.

        • boggled

          Bellingcat has a reputation of protecting its sources so a FSB, GRU, or RNS representative does not come knocking on someone’s door in the middle of the night.

          Source material is given to the relevant authorities.
          And yes, Bellingcat goes through a rigorous testing process of validity before they post something.

          They do not have to be given to you or I.
          So far, all authorities that have made statements have stood behind the evidence and said it is factual.

          It is part of a Tribunal and much bigger investigation, so too keep from ruining these investigations, the evidence sources and data remains hidden until trial.

          Many of the videos were posted online for all to see and many did.

          It is unfortunate you are such a conspiracy theorist, maybe Assange or the FSB have a position for you that pays better then being Kremlin defender with lies on a comment board.

          Bellingcat goes through a lot more vigorous testing process then lets see, you have the LieNews broadcast and others that claimed the ‘rebels’ down an AN26, then when it was known to be an civilian passenger plane, they change story and Kremlin defenders say source is not official source of DNR.

          If not an official source, then why did LieNews and others post it?

          Fare thee well

          • Randy Dread

            But bellingcat is supposed to be open sourced, isn’t it, not secret sources?

            if they’re citing secret sources then they are just acting like actual journalists do.

            but without signing up to journalistic codes of ethics and regulatory bodies.

          • boggled

            Randy interesting point.

            Some quirks to it though.
            IF it was an official investigation, there would be a level of witness protection involved.
            Since BC is not official and has no legal backing behind it, it is more of a Private Investigator and searches through the internet for information for articles their journalists dream up as projects.
            Since there is a large OFFICIAL investigation behind MH17, BC can do its research and if other investigators have not already investigated and gave those various witnesses and evidence a certain level of protection officially, BC can use it.
            THEN after they release their article, they can turn over to authorities the source and allow them to decide what level of protection should be given evidence.
            IF authorities say you can release name and image, BC might do that, they might not depending on the factors they weigh on the matter personally.

            They are trying to act with some sort of ethics I believe.

            And really, you are one to discuss about journalistic ethics with some of your source material.

            I am curious how you would feel Randy if you posted on your own blog some strange NEW info and evidence and Srebrenica that put Strelkov or some Turkish diplomat in the hotseat.

            You yourself do not get many visitors on your blog but when BC uses your public information you posted, would you prefer they kept your name out of it or would you rather a Strelkov, Serb or Turkish mobster visit you in the middle of the night?

            They do due diligence to their sources while maintaining an investigation and informing the public.
            It is a fine line to walk, but I think the do it well.

            I do not see them really sighting secret sources in most of their reporting, they just withhold certain parts of the evidence they collect that is part of the official investigation that may have made the request to withhold that information.
            Most of their reporting is very open and transparent and can be followed and recreated by any junior investigator.

            Not really sure about your statement about ‘secret anonymous sources’.
            That is more a tactic of Parry and Hersh then BC.

            Fare thee well

  2. scott richardson

    I could care less who they are bombing. Atleast they are doing something. And, if they aren’t bombing the Saudi Arabian and US backed ISIS, they are either bombing the Turkish backed Al Nusra, or the US backed Al Queda.
    The US government and the CIA have backed Sunni’s since the 1970s when Iran told them to piss off. Hezbolah is about the only Shite group that was considered a terrorist group and they formed to protect shia muslims from Kadaufi. Almost every terrorist group is Sunni. Almost every country in the middle east is Sunni. Syria is led by Shites so we interfere to help Saudi. Screw them.

  3. stranger

    There is a Russian idiom “to break through an open door”… The RF officially declared target has never been to fight ISIS only, but to return control to the government (Assad or whoever), get a hypothetical balance between the secular (in the Islamic Middle East!) government, with the majority of Sunnis, minority of Shias (Allawates), Kurds and various other religion and national groups, with Israel not the least, ultimately to cease this war. We can speculate if it is possible or if any other targets are pursued.

    Russia from the very beginning has proposed to unite everybody’s efforts: Syrian government (still legitimate), Iran, current Iraq and the West. What was the West’s answer? “No any collaboration with Russia. We will be waging the war by the hands of good certified rebels to execute Assad, and only then we will think how to deal with ISIS to push all this squeezed toothpaste back to the tube.” As the result RF is in the company only with Syria, Iran and Iraq, while ‘the West’ is watching from aside waiting and hoping Russia will stuck and finally fail.

    The RF operation was supposed to include only air support with land advances only by Syrian, Iran and Iraq armies. Currently there is no state in Syria de facto, it is torn apart and not controlled entirely by anybody. To be able to advance, Syrian army needs at least to relieve the pressure from the other sides. They claim at least that they are ready to negotiate with rebels, those who are willing to collaborate.

    Assad is a butcher, but who is better there? Can the good certified rebels (currently a minority) really build a democracy, or a kind of Islamic state, may be it is better to start from Saudi Arabia?

    It is possible that the strategy will change, if the good certified rebels will agree to any collaboration perhaps united against ISIS. But finally anyway the multiple fighting sides will have to either defeat each others or agree.

    I don’t understand why Russia has engaged into this deadly problem. and why it is actually doing all dirty work for the ‘West’ without any hope for appreciation. But it is transparent. It would be better to unite everybody instead of playing in geopolitics.

    • stranger

      Who is who in Syria:
      A bit on US side, but very interesting. Especially touchable is training of special rebels targeted only against ISIS, but not Assad. And also the claim that Russia attacks only anti-Assad rebels, without specifying that all armed groups are actually against Assad and all fighting each other, including Al Nusra (Al Queda).

      If there are any ‘good’ rebels in this mess, they are far not the majority and have no chances against all the others. If all countries supporting rebel proxies agreed, say against ISIS, that would cease the war very soon.

      I wonder if there are any reliable evidences that the chemical weapon was applied by Assad, and it was not a provocation by rebels? So that it is not like that test-tube with the white powder demonstrated in UN before the invasion to Iraq with the following confession that nothing was actually found.

    • boggled

      Interesting post of yours stranger, I would like to state a couple opinions.

      as far as RF and ASSad wanting to collaborate with rebel militias, maybe with their supposed ‘better’ contacts and intelligence they should have discussed this with them before bombing them and their families with dumb bombs?

      you state – Can the good certified rebels (currently a minority) really build a democracy, or a kind of Islamic state, may be it is better to start from Saudi Arabia?
      Saud’s are making changes, but how many we shall see, always been bad blood between them and the Persians.
      Neither nation would I claim is a democracy or has human rights and peace high on their national agenda.
      I would tell you this, I would prefer to visit SA before I would Iran.
      Syria had the basics there of good government, but ASSad with his fake elections and other money laundering and other organized crime, it was time for him and his family to relinquish power.

      As far as why RF engaged in the dispute, multiple items.
      Attack ISIL on other shores to prevent having to face it at home.
      To show effectiveness of military to the world.
      To distract RF population away from the hatred of the failed novarossiya project and the deaths there.
      To distract from MH17 DSB report.
      To give real life training to conscripts as opposed to simulated postering along RF borders with other countries.
      To give release for the more violent members of RF’s military so they do not start revolution in Moscow.
      Along the same lines, to send also generals and troops that question the Kremlin’s orders to fight in Ukraine.
      To prop up ASSad and keep their stake in the game of a warm water seaport and potentially an airbase outside of Russia.
      To gain allegiances with Iran who they see might be moving toward democracy.

      All of these are guesses and all of them may be right or none of them, but those would be a few logical arguments to make for the reason.

      Fare thee well

    • Mad Dog

      Stranger said: Syrian government (still legitimate)

      Thanks for the laugh! Went well with my morning coffee.

        • Mad Dog

          No, not legit at all. Never elected, just passed down from father to son. You just have to look at the election figures to understand.

  4. Reyter

    I don’t think the Russians have made any secret of targeting predominately the West’s Al Qaida allies. FFS does any independent journalism exist apart from Wikileaks? Must you be so obvious about being a lackey of imperialism?

  5. Sean Lamb

    The idea there are “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists” is incredibly naive.

    What we do know is that any territory that is secured from Assad turns into ISIS controlled. The “good terrorists” are confined to the front lines. The thought occurs that a significant proportion of the “good terrorists” may have discovered the Catholic doctrine of Equivocation and learned to camouflage their ideology in order to extract arms and dollars from Uncle Sam

    I seem to recall the Libyan rebels were in favor of Marriage Equality – when they were lobbying for a Nato bombing campaign. And we all know how wonderfully that turned out. Benghazi is Gay Paradise right now.

    Basically the US shouldn’t be fueling a civil war. Not in Syria and not anywhere.

    • Randy Dread

      The Libyan rebels were all democrats when we were supporting them, of course.

      Never mind that they looked like jihadis.

      • Rick

        Randy Clown is here!!!. Spreading your lies around here. You get shamed off one message board and then you come to another.. Such a waste of energy you are randy. You do have to make a living I guess..

          • Maksym Ponomarenko

            Randy, you when people like Rick start calling you names that they can’t refute what you say.

          • boggled

            Arguing with Randy is like arguing with a brainwashed cult member.
            You can lead them to water, but you cannot force them to drink.
            And Randy, like you, likes to refuse drink the water truth and evidence.
            Therefore continue to live a life of denial and conspiracy theories that never play out.

            Fare thee well

  6. Remouchamps

    I am preparing an assessment about the possible deployment of Russian ground forces in Syria. A part of those auxilliary force will come from the in january of this year created new organisation “The Russian Foreign Legion” In oder to assess that Russia does not have the sufficient manpower to continue to deploy regular grond forces in Syria, I would like to know what units were deployed in Ukraine in 2014 and from which MD they were coming from. Can you help me?

    • stranger

      When you have the answer to this question, please let FSB, SBU and CIA know – they are still unaware!

    • boggled

      to sources I would recommend to begin at.

      They would lead you one your search.
      Bellingcat’s own check desk has articles.
      And the search box might give you some results as well. (Russian Troops) might be one search.

      This one is a little more detailed of patches or badges noticed and troops they represent that were seen in Eastern Ukraine.

      I guess that part of the problem is patches are traded and sold at various places.
      So almost anyone can simulate another, although there are laws against this and stiff penalties for military troops that engage in fraud.
      Still these were seen and many people were face recognition to their patch and it confirmed it.
      Good luck on your project.

      Although the size of the Russian military would suggest they can maintain a long conflict and still defend the country by the amount of training drills that were done during 2014.
      I think the main trouble will come at the cost to the RF economy and not the amount of available troops.

      Fare thee well

    • John Zenwirt

      And wherever you’re from, you don’t like it.

      The Russians don’t have large numbers of smart bombs, or a way of aiming them, so most of what they drop are dumb bombs that can land anywhere…

      • boggled

        Has exposed that Russians are better at having cruise missiles fall in Iran?
        Exposed that Russian Federation is better at attacking schools, hospitals and targeting civilians?
        Exposed that RF can use cluster munitions in Syria while ASSad drops more barrel bombs and uses chemical agents?
        That Russia can destroy a civilian airliner and still cause enough confusion who did it?
        That RF sponsored propaganda media has brainwashed many?

        That it can cause a crisis with the FSB encouraging IG agents and even helping them to Syria, cause a mass refuge crisis and then call for ASSad elections after most of the civilians that would not vote for him have fled for their lives to Europe?

        About the most they have exposed is a Western preference for Appeasement and Democracy instead of confrontation.

        The RF actions have shown the teeth of the Kremlin and they like confrontations.

        Fare thee well

    • Randy Dread

      Bellingcat is a creature of the US which supports and arms Al Quaida/Al Nusra.

      Hence this bizarre article which tells us only who Russia is not bombing, not who they are bombing.

      • AN

        I don’t believe BC is a creature, I think these are sincere people. They just sincerely see Putin (and Russia) as the ultimate evil, that’s an axiom for them. Hence this bizzarre logic.

    • boggled

      MoD proclaimed all these 60 air strikes were against ISIL or ISIS.
      That is what this report is about.
      That and the actual locations they bombings hit as opposed to what the MoD reported they hit.

      That is just a small slice of the overall airstrikes, but it establishes a precedent and exposes the lying the MoD has done relating to these airstrikes.
      That is all.

      A lot of work I think you would agree to analyze these 60 airstrikes.
      If you would like an analysis on Al Nusra or someone else, maybe you should consider funding or sponsoring an investigation.
      Bellingcat is good at what they do.

      Fare thee well

      • Rick

        The trolls like Randy Clown don’t really care how comprehensive the evidence is. They are paid to simply contradicting everything said. Bellingcat has got the attention of these trolls. Obviously Bellingcat is scaring them. That is why the Kremlin is putting so many resources towards it. The truth prevails in the end. It will show Putin the murderer. Like Assad the murderer. Partners in crime. Keep up the good work Bellingcat

  7. boggled

    Kind of interesting, you won’t find any mention of ASSad or the Kremlin in this MSF/DoctorsWithoutBorders articles…

    Even this personal account was not allowed to blame the government of ASSad, just that living in Syria was bad and the refugee had to leave after a (barrel) bomb explode near him and murdered three children.

    But if you will look at their other articles about attacks they are quick to mention USA – led, Saudi – led, Israeli led, etc.
    USA, CANADA, Australia are trying to weaken trade rules ….
    They went on a full frontal press attack on the USA (who admitted to firing, but has not released its specific reason for doing so) with almost 20 articles putting tons of pressure on the USA.

    They are not afraid to call out names of the democracies that is where most of their funding and training comes from in various alleged unjustified attacks.

    But when it comes to dictatorships and horrendous war crimes — no names allowed in the articles.
    As an American who has been on Doctor’s Without Borders missions and seen all the good they do…
    22 different hospitals and various outreach medical centers have been destroyed since Russian Federation began its bombing campaign and protection of ASSad.
    And not one article calling them out for it.

    This political ideology of their leadership and their press corp disgusts me and shames those who are out on those missions risking their lives and those that do donate to this worthy cause.
    Shameful leadership MSF and DWB.

    Fare thee well


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