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Were Russian Combat Robots Used in Syria?

January 15, 2016

By Aric Toler

According to Sputnik and multiple Russian-language blogs, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) recently deployed ten Russian combat robots in a battle in the Latakia province, leading to “about 70” dead rebel fighters and no dead SAA soldiers in fighting. Per the reports, these ten robots included six “Platform-M” systems and four “Argo” robots, which were controlled from a Russian command post. This news — if true — would warrant significant coverage, as it would mark the first successful use of combat robots in actual warfare, bringing about a significant number of casualties of enemy combatants.

So, did it happen?

The Sources

1-14-2016 10-27-41 AM

In such a spectacular story, the first practice should be to examine the sources of the claims. The original source for the “combat robot” story is from Aleksandr Popov on the Russian social network Maxpark.com on December 20, 2015 (archive). On Maxpark, the post garnered over 30,000 views. Popov is a prolific writer on Maxpark–a site not known for its journalistic integrity–but does not seem to have any inside connections with the Syrian or Russian armies, judging by his past posts. Popov’s post (which will be detailed in the following section) was reposted seemingly verbatim (archive) on December 24 on the popular Russian LiveJournal account Beriozka_Rus. Finally, the post was rewritten and cleaned up (archive) for the Kremlin-funded news site Sputnik on December 25. In this final iteration of the post, the core information–number of dead, locations, type and number of robots used–are unchanged from Popov’s original claim.

The Location and Time

Each version of this post (Maxpark, LiveJournal, and Sputnik) describes the battle taking place in the province (Governorate) of Latakia at Height 754.5, with the Maxpark/LiveJournal version also indicating that the battle took place at the Syriatel Tower. Both of these locations are just north of Ateera, with the Syriatel Tower located at 35.8535679, 36.0403007 and Height 754.5 just west of the tower, near the area 35.8529244, 36.0291374.

The killing of 70 rebel fighters and the successful use of cutting-edge Russian military equipment would surely be a significant, PR-worthy event for Assad’s cause. One would think that if such an event occurred, it would not be difficult to find some report of it in the Syrian media. When searching for military clashes near the Syriatel Tower and Height 754.5 in December, we find reports in social media (archive), Iranian media,  Russian media, and Syrian media that the SAA has took control of various points in the Latakia province, including the Syriatel Tower and Height 754.5. This military offensive took place just a few days before the Maxpark post on the supposed use of Russian combat robots.

A Syrian news broadcast from December 19 shows the SAA offensive at the Syriatel Tower. In the broadcast, there are no mentions of Russia, Russian cooperation, combat robots, or anything else that would indicate that the Maxpark or Sputnik stories are accurate:

Matching the tower and landscape seen in this video with the geographic and structural features of the Syriatel Tower in Google Earth and Wikimapia demonstrates that this is indeed the correct location:

syriatel syriatel_earth

In this video broadcast, there are no visible combat robots, and no mention or sight of 70 dead rebels. Syrian media reports describe specific maneuvers from the SAA, such as dismantling mines in a tunnel, but again, there are no indications of Russian cooperation or the use of ten combat robots. In fact, as one Russian-language blog pointed out, some reports of the offensive indicate that there was Hezbollah cooperation with the SAA in the attack on the Syriatel Tower, with no mention of Russian support. Some reports indicate that twenty “radical Islamists” died, or over 25 “Takfiri terrorists,” but there are no mentions of numbers even half as large as the 70 dead cited by Maxpark and Sputnik.

The Robots

The combat robots in questioned have been long hyped by the Russian defense sector, best summarized by Robert Beckhusen at War Is Boring. A successful deployment of these robots would be a tremendous boon to the reputation of the Russian military, so it would be in their best interests to take an significant number of photographs and videos of the robots in action in Syria. After all, as the Sputnik article describes, there were reconnaissance drones “deployed to monitor the situation on the battlefield” during the battles near the Syriatel Tower. So, what sort of juicy footage do we have from the world’s first successful deployments of combat robots, resulting in scores of deaths of enemy combatants? As it turns out, none.

All of the photographs posted in the Maxpark story from Aleksandr Popov are from times and locations other than the December battles in the Latakia Governorate.

For example, a photograph that comes before a description of the 70 killed soldiers and the attacks near Syriatel tower is actually from a scene of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. This video was published on December 18, 2015, making it a relatively new source that could not be easily traced back (thanks to user vybralimya for this finding).

1-14-2016 10-16-24 AM

A screenshot for the Maxpark post, which implies that this photograph is from the battle in the Latakia Governorate

1-14-2016 10-16-52 AM

A screen capture from a news broadcast posted on December 18, 2015 concerning fighting between Saudi Arabia and Yemen

The various photographs of the robots being deployed are not from the actual operation, but from training exercises.

1-14-2016 10-19-43 AM 1-14-2016 10-19-32 AM

And so on. While some of these photographs were likely used by Popov to serve as context for the reader, some–such as the screenshot from the Saudi video–were clearly meant to represent events in Syria. Therefore, we can say that there is no photographic or video evidence of combat robots in the December battles near the Syriatel Tower, as the posted images are incorrect, and media reports from the battle do not show or describe any combat robots.

Conclusions

Syria almost certainly did not use Russian combat robots in military activity of mid-December in the Latakia Governorate. The Sputnik article is careful to not use the misattributed photographs of the Maxpark post, but the core information used in the report is still almost the exact same as that of the blog post from five days earlier. It is possible that Sputnik has inside knowledge that combat robots were used and 70 militants were killed in Syria, but there is no available open source information–local media reports, videos from the scene, social media reports, etc.–that contradicts the more likely conclusion that Sputnik simply rephrased and reposted a crude, fake blog entry from a Russian social network.

Aric Toler

Aric Toler has written with Bellingcat since 2015 and currently leads the Eurasia/Eastern Europe team. Along with his research into topics in the former Soviet Union, he organizes and leads Bellingcat's Russian-language workshops for journalists and researchers. He graduated with an MA in Slavic Languages & Literatures from the University of Kansas in 2013, focusing on Russian literature and intellectual history. After graduation, he worked for two years as an intelligence specialist in the private sector. If you have any questions, or have a story idea related to eastern Europe or Eurasia, you can contact him at arictoler@bellingcat.com

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43 Comments

  1. Ukukrman

    Considering how many Russian troops that have lost their lives in Ukraine (or not if you believe Putin) then I’m surprised Russia would waste an expensive piece of hardware in a battle situation when cheap soldiers will do….

    after all the presence of soldiers is something that you can actually deny or at worst….say they are on vacation !!!

    But then again this conflict zone in the middle east is a great theatre for real live kill testing of new tech toys….something which all sides are taking advantage of

    My Raytheon stocks are doing nicely thank you 🙂

    Reply
    • Uncle John

      @Ukukrman,
      The problem with ‘the Russian troops’ is pretty much the same: nobody presented any photo/video materials proving their very existance, although there must be plenty. On the other hand, there are photos of thousands of dead Ukrainian soldiers who came to Donbass hoping for an easy victory.

      Reply
        • Randy Dread

          The researchers on this website believe wikipedia and google are comprehensive and reliable sources when it comes to weapons and military actions.

          Reply
          • Andrea

            And that in ukraine there should have not been TOS-1 BURATINOs (never exported to ukraine)….
            ….but somehow OSCE saw one in DNR territory….

      • Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable

        Are you joking? The proof of Russian army activity in the Ukraine is comprehensive and incontrovertible. At this point, people who claim that the Russians have not been involved militarily in the Ukrainian civil war have about as much credibility as flat-eathers, moon-landing-hoaxers, and holocaust deniers.

        Reply
        • Russian

          in pictures of Crimea. the actions of Russian special forces units are not one Ukrainian soldier was killed at the time. later in the Donbas new Ukrainian government (which came illegally as a result of the overthrow of the president is elected by the people and not the United States or Russia) has decided to suppress the pro-Russian separatists (as you call them) and there really is against the Ukrainian army acted former soldiers of the Russian army. discuss the pictures of thousands of dead Russian soldiers ridiculous. No of thousands of dead, but there is a huge loss at the Ukrainian Army and thousands of civilians killed in the fighting and shelling by the Ukrainian army as well. the vast majority of the population of Donetsk and Lugansk not support the new Ukrainian power is the root of the problems!

          Reply
          • CFL68

            Russia launched a successful surprise attack. Congrats! Ukraine was totally unprepared and it chain of command was in turmoil and did not know how to respond.

            There was no suppression of ‘pro-russian’ separatists until the Russian leaders of the ‘rebellion’ started attacking and killing Ukrainians. Girkin was one of Putin’s paramilitary leaders in Crimean takeover. His unit stormed Simferopol admin building and other targets. He then went north to east Ukraine and started making war against Ukraine. Only AFTER this was ATO announced. Dude you can spread Putin’s lies and change your story 100 times. It was Russia that decided to make war in Ukraine. I don’t know anything about thousands of dead Russian soldiers and don’t really care. This is a pathetic straw man argument. All that matters is that the Russian chain of command is behind the so-called rebellion, and provided the leadership, core fighting cadres, equipment, weapons, supplies, and financing. Sure the rebels include locals who PutinTV convinced that Ukrainians are baby crucifying mass grave filling language banning fascists. Heck I’d fight too if that is what I believed. Yet its more Russian B/S and Russia is guilty of fomenting and making war in Ukraine. Continue with the noise and blather and denials.

            As for what the majority wants in east Ukraine, its hard to know in the middle of a war. All opinion polling supported unified Ukraine, with some greater degree of autonomy. Census supports this as will with ethnic Russians being a minority of whom only a fraction (i.e. a fraction of a fraction) supporting rebellion.

            This is all a cynical exercise by Putin to destabilize and punish a sputnik for leaving orbit. Putin sent warlords and fighters to Ukraine to make war. This is why thousands are dead and this is Russia’s shame. Russia will never reengage with west until it compensates for these crimes.

          • CFL68

            Casualties were low – but for you to say none were killed is just another lie to add to the list. Russian character: Russians steal. Russians lie.

            “The officer, Stanislav Karachevsky, who was married and had two children, was killed with an AK-74 on the fifth floor of the dormitory where he lived, he said…

            The first reported death occurred in Simferopol when an unknown gunman shot and killed a Ukrainian serviceman while he was manning a tower overlooking a vehicle pool at the base.”

            http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-military-idUSBREA360GB20140407

          • CFL68

            Putin denied Russian troops were involved in take-over of Crimea. Then he didn’t. He denied Russian soldiers were in east Ukraine. Then he didn’t. You apparently didn’t get the memo. All the lies and denial do is show lack of integrity and conviction. Not surprising since Russian aggression against Ukraine is a crime and a shame on Russia. If Russia had a credible and just cause it would not contort itself with ridiculous denials. Russian generals describing the floating debris field from mh17 as a hovering stealth su25 was quite a show!

            Thousands of Russian soldiers have fought in Ukraine killing Ukrainians. The leaders of the rebellion were Russians from Russia. Borodai admits ~50,000 Russians have fought in Ukraine. Russian soldiers have been captured during actual assaults. Mountains of weapons and ammo. Who is arming them? Who is paying them?

            Russia has really degraded itself and its development trajectory will be stunted for a couple decades at least. Alas for friends and family there…

      • thenonconformer

        I take anything written by a Ukrainan with a grain of salt as they are known to be liars, theives, thugs, gansters who rfor decades snow too efuse to work and want more social aid from others, the US, RU, from Russia Included As Ukraine’s own internal has worsened due to their own acts , rather media and political misinformation and hype is being poured on Russia and Vladimir Putin as the false source of their own problems too. Journalists and pundits must scour the Internet and thesauruses to come up with fiendish new epithets to describe both. Matthew 7:3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? 5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. Psychologists also do tell us that people (and countries) in their false denials of self project off on others what they don’t want to face in themselves, take a brain dead ostrich approach. https://putin1hero.wordpress.com/2016/01/16/a-big-difference-between-real-journalism-and-and-the-western-lies-about-russia/

        Reply
        • Joel Harding

          @noncomformer, written like an overworked, deadline driven Russian troll. I’m shocked you quoted the bible and not Lenin.

          Reply
  2. batlang molatole

    Americans will deny everything that shows somebody is superior than them. But that doesent change anything. They have been defeated in all their wars from Iraq .Afghanistan Libya you name it. I was shocked when they flew their panes to scare north Korea where else they have failed in all battles they still have the believe they can scare somebody. Time is up.

    Reply
      • DonNeedNoStinkinUserName

        Lets break this down shall we. WW2 I’ll give you that you won the Pacific theatre – but you were fighting a country that had been at war from the 1930 ‘s You guys came in fresh in 42 But I’ll let ya have that as a victory. The European theatre The only reason you got ashore & made any inroads into France was because the German Army had all it’s best divisions & equipment fighting the Russians. France was garrisoned by basically boys, old men & Eastern front invalids. (I said basically) When the US army finally captured Berlin – Oh That’s right – they never got there as the Russians did the hard yards, something the average American knows virtually nothing about. Did you know Russia lost 13% of their population in WW2 ??. Next war – Korea – nah didn’t win that . . .in fact a state of war still actually exists on the Korean Peninsular. Vietnam -nah – DEFINITELY didn’t win that one !!. What’s next ?? Grenada??? (Lets not mention the “rescue mission” for the Iran embassy hostages eh ??) Grenada wow . . .that was a stunning victory – the might of the US military against a few dorks with AK’s . . hardly counts. Afghanistan The term cluster fuck seems to sum that up pretty well. Ditto Iraq, a country brought to it’s knees by years of sanctions (half a million DEAD CHILDREN due to the sanctions but the US Gov reckoned that was “acceptable” !!) attacked with the latest in hi-tec war fighting whiz bangs against a few ailing T54 & 72’s , AK’s & RPG’s. And I know you declared victory and left but you HAD NO CHOICE but to leave. The Iraqi’s wouldn’t sign the “The-US-can-kill-whoever-they-want-and-there-won’t-be-any-repercussions” agreement. So the question you asked about the cool aid actually has to be asked about you doesn’t it ??

        Reply
    • Largebrneyes

      Since these vehicles are dependent upon cameras and sensors for remote operators to direct maneuvers and fire control, one gallon of paint attached to a small explosive completely disables the multi-million ruble vehicle….enjoy the superiority.

      Reply
    • Maple

      America is a broken country, you can hear problems within the country,and many of their own citizens have no loyalty towards their own,country; even to an extend of willing to kill their own citizens. Thus, how is it possible to win a war, should US were to go to war with another country, and especially Russia or China.

      Reply
      • amir

        Even if what u said was true it don’t change the fact many of those americans with no loayalty are of the racist red neck kind who don’t like Obama cause he’s black. They r a miniscule part of the US population not large enough to matter. And all it takes for americans to unite as one is some outside group or nation to F with it.

        Reply
  3. Randy Dread

    Andrea – January 16th, 2016
    And that in ukraine there should have not been TOS-1 BURATINOs (never exported to ukraine)….
    ….but somehow OSCE saw one in DNR territory….

    Those were a Soviet vehicle and Ukraine was Soviet.

    We have no idea if any were left in Ukraine or not.

    Reply
  4. Max

    Hello from Russia!
    I have no idea there were robots or was not robots. But I can tell you that in our (Russian) news and the main military groups about this kind of references would not be. What about this one newspaper wrote, it does not make it news. I think that the robots were not. Otherwise, the news would be from the Ministry of Defense, as well as cruise missiles.
    Although the robots it is not rocket .. I personally do not think that it deserves a special mention. Robots are used for a long time. Now, if the fighting in Syria Armata, then yes. It would have been all over the news.

    And by the way, here is full of Ukrainian Troll. However as well as on other sites. “Information Troops of Ukraine” were created OFFICIALLY 1.5 years ago.
    Their task is writing lies on the western forums on the Russian forums and forums militia. They write literally false, all that may discredit Russia. You just know nothing about Ukraine. For example, in the bars they arrange a “show” (not real of course). As if to catch the Russian military and the manner of ISIS cut off his head.
    I hope you can recognize the lies and yourself will decide where the truth lies. When we entered the war in Syria, from the first day flew fake video, which supposedly Russian shelling of civilians. Although how quickly it turned out, these videos were filmed before Russia’s entry into the war.

    Best regards from Russia.

    Reply
    • Joel Harding

      Information troops of Ukraine were started in December 2014, not 18 months ago. Please know your basic facts.

      Reply
  5. IvanHangoverov

    I also think it was fake.
    Former militia Donbass correspondent of “Russian Spring” “Timur” a long time in Syria but he does not tell anything about it.
    But “Timur” writes regular reports about all battles in Syria.
    There are a huge quantity of information about Syria, but this Information is absent:
    http://rusvesna.su/tags/siriya

    Reply
  6. Max

    One more thing. Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Anton Gerashchenko in October, posted a message on Facebook. “That’s the message text:

    In the evenings, when I have time, I re-read the PM.
    One message from Facebook-Freund decided to share with all the Facebook-public.
    “Anton, Russian propaganda channels and growing. Army in pursuit of the PR and the glorification of” the forces of Russian weapons “in Syria, in almost every reportage in full shine closeup of technicians from Russia, who put bombs on planes and missiles.
    These morons! Still their names with addresses and telephone numbers published. Although I think that their faces will be enough, that would igilovtsy and their counterparts in Russia, which many in the Caucasus, could then find them and take revenge on the canons of “Sharia”.
    I think that in this scenario the eggs and head of the technicians in the future can not survive. ”
    In connection with the above stated, I invite all those who have information about Russian citizens taking part in the undeclared war of Russia against the Syrian people to report all known to you data on the website of “The Peacemaker”, where it will set up a separate section “Crimes Putin in Syria and the Middle East. ”

    Page for facebook.
    https://www.facebook.com/anton.gerashchenko.7/posts/928575253895989

    Reply
    • stranger

      Yeah, Ukrainian officials demonstrate how they respect human rights in the new democratic state. Before that Gerashenko called Ukrainians to publish to the website “peacemaker” personal information of people suspected in separatism or pro-russian sentiments, w/o court or trial in order to ‘revenge’ them. Syria is just a new section of his site. Is it even possible in Europe?
      Ukrainian historian Oles Buzina (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oles_Buzina) and another Ukrainian journalist were murdered after their personal information was published at this web site. When Buzina had been killed the twitter of the “peacemaker” was excited: “Agent ‘404’ has distinguished himself again. For the successful performance of today’s assignment he is awarded a short-term vacation”. With many more other political assassinations in Ukraine.

      Zero Hedge: “I guess the main question is not ‘How did we get here?’, but ‘How do we get out?’.”
      http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-04-22/when-did-we-all-become-murderers

      Reply
  7. dibass

    No doubt the US is headed for a bad end. Big trouble is in their way. They have so many enemies, Muslims, Russia, China, North Korea, etc. Some of these enemies are nuclear armed. More people hate America every day, however, the US continue to pursue this policy of global destabilization. They create mayhem and destruction in a place, then try to convince the world they can restore peace. They turned the Middle East into what it is today.
    One day they will pay for this.

    Reply
    • Joel Harding

      This is about Syria, Russians and robots. You must be a paid Russian troll, you use every chance to wrongly blame the US. You’re laughable but diminutive.

      Reply
    • Mad Dog

      Wow Dibass, you sure have it all wrong. The people who are mad at the US are the same people the world would be better without. Not all Muslims hate the US, just those with fantasies about virgins waiting for them in heaven. Not all Russians hate the US, only those who believe the propaganda foisted on them by Putler, definitely not all Chinese hate the US, only those who believe the CCP is the greatest thing to happen to mankind since the invention of chocolate bubble gum and for sure, most of the thousands of North Koreans who are able to get out of that brutal country do not hate the US. But none of that is under discussion here, so what do you have to say about robots in warfare and the seemingly false reports of their use in Syria (a case of Russian global destabilization perhaps).

      Reply

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