by and for citizen investigative journalists

The Syrian Red Crescent Aid Convoy Attack in Syria – two letters and a half answer

October 29, 2016

By Bellingcat

Translations: Русский

On October 5, 2016, RIA Novosti published an article which claimed to be based on an unpublished report written by a “group of independent military experts attached to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG):

  1. The report stated that “Urm al-Kubra is located in the region controlled by al-Nusra”, in an area with a high concentration of militants, and that “al-Nusra militants carried out a large-scale offensive supported by mass artillery fire, tanks and volley fire rocket systems in that very region at that time”. Video published by the Russian MoD showed a vehicle hauling a trailer which is identified by the Russian MoD as a “large-caliber mortar”.
  2. Furthermore, it is stated that the experts analyzed the imagery of the attack and concluded that “’the attack’ was staged”.   The arguments presented for this claim are:
  • That the cabin of one truck was not affected while the cargo was damaged,
  • That edges of the holes in the damaged trucks are covered by rust,
  • That road surface is in perfect condition while “it would have been damaged if it were hit by an airstrike”.
  • Therefore the visible damage contradicts the version that an airstrike is the reason for the destruction of the convoy.

The report was forwarded to “representatives with the United States who ‘expressed their disagreement with the conclusions’”. Because the findings of the report strongly contradict our findings presented in Analysis of Syrian Red Crescent Aid Convoy Attack and Confirmed : Russian Bomb Remains Recovered from Syrian Red Crescent Aid Convoy Attack, as well the findings from the Conflict Investigation Team in their report Airstrikes on UN Aid Convoy in Aleppo: Claims and Reality, we jointly requested additional information from RIA Novosti and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, mainly the full release of the report.

On October 9, 2016, both inquiries were sent to the recipients, four days later we sent a reminder email with the same content and an additional deadline of 48 hours for a reply. Furthermore, we announced that the inquiries will become open letters if there was no sufficient reply. The latter decision was made because of the high political impact of the attack on the convoy and the consequential high importance of the report. Only a full release of the report would allow a thorough analysis of the assessments and claims made in it.

The full text of the inquiry to RIA Novosti:

On October 5, 2016, RIA Novosti reported that [1] “independent military experts attached to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG)” had written a report that concluded that the September 19 attack on a United Nations humanitarian convoy in Aleppo was “a well-prepared hoax.”

Given the importance of the incident and the seriousness of the claims made in the report, we kindly request that you:

  • Release the report to the general public.
  • Identify the “independent military experts attached to the International Syria Support Group” and specify their affiliation and expertise.

RIA Novosti also reported in the same article that “a diplomatic source told RIA Novosti that this report was sent to representatives with the United States who ‘expressed their disagreement with the conclusions.'”

  • Can you confirm that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs forwarded the report to representatives of the US?
  • If the Russian MFA did not send the report to the US, who did?
  • Which agency or department did the US representatives belong to?

The report’s findings are exceedingly controversial and, if true, would be of immense political import. The editorial office of RIA Novosti is surely aware that the conclusions reached contradict the generally accepted account — which is supported by our own findings — of the events on September 19 that led to the destruction of the UN aid convoy. The report’s main conclusion also contradicts the assessment of analysts at the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme, who “determined it was an airstrike.”[2]  

Failing to publish the full report, therefore, can only been seen as an attempt to avoid public assessment of the report’s contents.

[1] https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20161005/1046020958/un-convoy-attack-hoax.html

[2] https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20161005/1046015803/aleppo-convoy-airstrike.html

On October 14, RIA Novosti replied to the inquiry, but refused to answer any of the raised questions:

Dear Bellingcat and Conflict Intelligence Team,

Press-Office: “Like all international media we are not in a position to disclose confidential documents or the source of information, if the source requested that his name be kept off the record. We are confident that our information is accurate and we are ready to prove this in court, should it be necessary.”

Best regards,

Press Office

Rossiya Segodnya

The full text of the inquiry to Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA):

(The letter to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was sent because the RIA Novosti article cites diplomatic sources and it was assessed that the Russian MFA was the likely origin of these comments.)

On October 5, 2016, RIA Novosti reported that [1] “independent military experts attached to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG)” had written a report that concluded that the September 19 attack on a United Nations humanitarian convoy in Aleppo was “a well-prepared hoax.” It was also reported in the same article that “a diplomatic source told RIA Novosti that this report was sent to representatives with the United States who ‘expressed their disagreement with the conclusions.’”

Would the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs kindly confirm or deny that:

  • The Russian MFA forwarded the report to representatives of the US.
  • The Russian MFA shares the conclusions presented in the report.

If the Russian MFA forwarded the report:

  • Will the Russian MFA publish the full report?
  • Was the Russian MFA involved in the creation of the report?
  • Should the contents of the report be interpreted as Russia’s official position on the UN aid convoy attack?

If the Russian MFA did not forward the report:

  • Does the Russian MFA know which diplomatic source is mentioned in the RIA article?
  • Is the Russian MFA is aware of the report?
  • Was the Russian MFA involved in the creation of the report?

The report’s findings are exceedingly controversial and, if true, would be of immense political import. The Russian MFA is surely aware that the conclusions reached contradict the generally accepted account — which is supported by our own findings — of the events on September 19 that led to the destruction of the UN aid convoy. The report’s main conclusion also contradicts the assessment of analysts at the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme, who “determined it was an airstrike.”[2]

Like the report’s authors, the Russian MFA has criticized the generally accepted account of the attack on the UN aid convoy. Please clarify the Russian MFA’s involvement in the creation and dissemination of the report.

[1] https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20161005/1046020958/un-convoy-attack-hoax.html

[2] https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20161005/1046015803/aleppo-convoy-airstrike.html

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to our inquiry.

Criticism of the report

The non-publication of the full report by RIA Novosti is unfortunate because it prohibits a detailed and thorough analysis of the reports’ findings. The lack of a reply from the Russian MFA and the refusal from RIA Novosti to answer our inquiry means that the official Russian position related to this report is still opaque. However, official statements blaming “one of the terrorist groups” suggest that the official position is related to the main finding of the report, namely that there was no air attack. Therefore we assess that the official Russian position is similar to the one stated in the report.

That reports can be published without revealing sources has been proven by Novaya Gazeta, however, most of the apparent credibility of the report findings stems from the provenance of the authors, who are introduced as “independent military experts attached to the International Syria Support Group”. The International Syrian Support Group encompass 20 countries and international organizations: the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States. Without knowing the background of the experts and the exact meaning of “attached”, the expertise of said experts and possible conflicts of interest cannot be independently assessed.

The importance of the full release of the report is highlighted by one of the presented arguments. In the RIA Novosti article it is stated that “[the road] would have been damaged if it were hit by an airstrike.” The argument is obviously largely true: if a (large) bomb from an airstrike had hit the road, there would be some traces indicating this. However, RIA Novosti fails to explain why it must be assumed that there was a direct strike on the road, which is the underlying assumption behind the entire argument.The lack of a major crater on the road does not disprove that there was an airstrike, only that a large bomb did not impact the road. It is unclear if this argument is presented in this way the report itself, or if it is simply poor reporting by RIA Novosti. Furthermore, the RIA Novosti article only presents arguments suggesting that the observed damage was not caused by an airstrike. No arguments are presented which support another theory. Again, without the full release, it is not clear if this is a feature of the report, or of the editorial office.

The claims made in the report are also problematic. The video showing the truck with a trailer beside the convoy was filmed over 5 hours before the attack occurred, and over 6 kilometers away from the place of attack. Therefore, even if the identification of the mortar on the trailer is valid, the Russian Ministry of Defense has failed to present a comprehensible argument about why this video is relevant at all. Furthermore, while it is quite likely that armed groups were in the general area on the day of the attack, no evidence showing any of them close to the place of attack has been presented. The documented surveillance of the area by a Russian military drone apparently does not show such a presence, and if it did the Russian MoD would have been sure to highlight it.

The main claim by the report and Russia that an airstrike did not occur is highly questionable. A video showing the attack clearly documents the presence of air assets in the area as the bombing occurred. In a rare case of openness related to the Russian activities in Syria, a US leak even confirmed the presence of two Russian planes, most likely Su 24’s, above the location at the time of the attack. Furthermore, Bellingcat documented that parts of a Russian manufactured bomb were found at the location, while further evidence showing the use of other Russian-made ordnance was published by the Washington Post. UN experts analyzing satellite imagery also concluded that an air strike was responsible for the destruction of the convoy.

Remains of unguided rockets C-5SB found at the site of the attack on the convoy (photograph from the "Syrian Civil Defense," published by the Washington Post)

Remains of unguided rockets C-5SB found at the site of the attack on the convoy (photograph from the “Syrian Civil Defense,” published by the Washington Post)

It can only be speculated if this legion of evidence from different sources documenting an airstrike on the Syrian Red Crescent Aid Convoy is one of the reasons why the full report has not been published and the “experts” prefer to remain unknown. However, it seems very likely that Russian planes were involved in the airstrike on the convoy. If the US information about the activities of the Russian Air Force in the area on the day are not considered as sufficient, further evidence was provided by the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, who confirmed that the Syrian Air Force cannot be involved “because the attack against the convoy was conducted in the night time and the Syrian Air Force does not perform flights in this time, it has no such capabilities.”

Conclusion

For the reasons stated above, we believe that this report should be released into the public domain as soon as possible. If it does not, we are forced to conclude that this “report” is simply an attempt to whitewash the actions of Russian forces operating in Syria.

Bellingcat