First Responders, Double Tap? An Open Source Survey of a Russian Airstrike in Idlib
On 28 Sep 2017 the Russian Ministry of Defence released footage of an airstrike in Idlib province (MoD video 1). Titled “Elimination of concentration of insurgents in Idlib province” and lasting 11 seconds, it showed an airstrike on the entrance of what appeared to be a tunnel. It did not state on what date the video was taken.
This strike was geolocated to 35.79779 36.79669, in the centre of the Ebla Citadel. This Citadel is an ancient historical site, the capital of an empire which existed over 4,300 years ago. Although not an UNESCO world heritage site, it is on the “Tentative List” for membership.
Satellite imagery appears to show that some kind of building work has been happening at this site, with spoil heaps and banks being built up around this position, including trenches for protecting vehicles. This kind of construction appears consistent with the Russian MoD claim that this was a militant base.
An opposition Twitter account claimed that that “air raids” had hit the town of “Tel Mardĭkh” on 23 Sep 2017. Later that day the same account stated that 14 fighters, mostly Sham Legion, had been killed and 50 injured to differing degrees around Tel Mardĭkh.
The official Sham Legion Twitter account claimed that retaliatory attacks were launched on 24 Sep 2017 in response to what it referred to as the “Massacre of Mardikh”.On the 23 Sep 2017 the White Helmets (WH), a civil defence organisation, posted a video they claimed was filmed on the same day, in which they rescued people who had been targeted by an airstrike in Tal Mardikh. Analysis of this video shows that it was also taken at Ebla Citadel, at the same location portrayed in MoD video 1.
The WH video shows young men dressed in camouflage uniform being rescued from the rubble of what appears to be a tunnel system and evacuated to ambulances.
The damage portrayed in the WH video also appears consistent with the airstrike depicted by MoD video 1. The Russian strike appears to have hit just above the entrance to the tunnel, above a diamond-shaped roof section. The WH video shows that this roof has collapsed and that there is severe damage in the vicinity of where the Russian bomb hit.
A car is also seen in the same position in both the WH and MoD videos.
Comparison of shadows indicates the two videos appear to have been taken at slightly different times, with MoD video 1 filmed at around 0800 AM and the WH video filmed at around 0845 AM Syrian time. Due to the quality of both videos, these times should be regarded as approximate only.
Summary of Strike One
In summary: an undated Russian MoD video shows a strike on an alleged militant base in Idlib. The Sham Legion reported that it had sustained losses from Russian airstrikes on that day in the same area. WH footage from the same time and place appears to show the aftermath of Russian airstrike, as well as fighting age males in uniform being pulled from the rubble. Comparing these various different sources, it appears that on the morning of 23 Sep 2017 at around 0800 am, a Russian airstrike targeted a militant base at Ebla Citadel. Shortly after this event the White Helmets then arrived on scene to rescue the casualties.
The WH footage also shows what appears to be a second air-strike occur while the rescue effort is still on-going.
This second strike appears to hit in the same general location as the first, near the entrance to the tunnel. The WH claimed that this airstrike wounded several of their members, destroyed one of their cars and also their search and rescue equipment. It is not possible to confirm from the WH footage whether any first responders were directly under this strike, or if a WH car carrying equipment was indeed destroyed. However, the WH later posted images on their Facebook page claiming to show the vehicle that was destroyed in this strike.
A van which appears to be the same type can be seen undamaged in both the WH video and a Facebook image showing scenes before the second strike occurred. This can be geolocated to a position close to the site of the first strike.
The Russian MoD released another video of an airstrike at this location on 25 Sep 2017 (MoD video 2). It can be confirmed that this is not the same strike that impacts during the WH video.
Comparison of MoD video 2 with the WH video shows that they were not taken at the same time. A small van shown in the WH video near the entrance to the tunnel is clearly not present in MoD video 2, meaning it cannot be the same strike.
It is certainly a possibility that this strike happened on the same day as the other two strikes, as a crater shown in the WH video appears to align with where the bomb seems to land in MoD video 2.
From these various different sources of evidence, we can be reasonably confident about certain aspects of this event. On 23 September at around 0800 am an airstrike took place targeting a Sham Legion base which had been dug into the side of the Ebla Citadel. The White Helmets arrived at the scene and began rescuing and treating casualties from this initial strike.
A short time later, at around 0845, there was another strike on the same area which was captured on camera by the WH. This probably destroyed at least one WH truck, potentially destroyed search-and-rescue equipment, and allegedly injured several rescue workers. Due to lack of media from either the WH, Russian MoD or a third party, it is not possible to assess exactly where this strike landed, or what it was specifically targeting.
A third strike which targeted this base was also recorded and released by the Russian MoD, but without any information about the date it took place. We can be sure that it targeted the same location, but that it is not the same strike that was caught in the WH video. A large crater depicted in the WH video appears to align with the location where the bomb landed in MoD video 2, and casualties are seen being pulled from this crater in the WH video. This indicates that this strike may also have taken place on the 23 Sep 2017.