Syrian civilian deaths from Russian air strikes hit record levels in March, monitor says

Reports of civilian casualties increased after Russia started its bombardment of eastern Ghouta, Airwars says

Smoke rises from buildings following air strikes on Zamalka, one of the few remaining rebel-held pockets in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus on March 21, 2018.  / AFP PHOTO / AMER ALMOHIBANY
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The number of civilians killed in Russian air strikes in Syria reached record levels in March, with as many as 1,229 killed because of Moscow's bombardments, according to a monitoring group.

Between 712 and 1,229 civilians were allegedly killed by Russian air strikes in March, according to Airwars, the UK-based non-profit organisation that tracks reports of civilians deaths in Iraq and Syria caused by air strikes.

March was the deadliest month for civilian casualties attributed to Russia since it entered the Syrian conflict in September 2015, Airwars said in a monthly report. The group monitors casualties in  conflict zones via a range of sources.

The monitor tracked 250 civilian casualties in March attributed to Russia and centred around the area of eastern Ghouta, the besieged enclave where Russia launched a bombing campaign in late February in a bid to wrestle the remaining rebels in the area into submission.


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Earlier in February, the Syrian government launched a campaign to retake eastern Ghouta. The area that borders Damascus, the Syrian capital, once contained an estimated 400,000 civilians. But the civilian population has suffered under a government siege since 2013.

The monitor started to receive civilian casualty reports from the enclave only after the Russian air force started its bombardment in late February.

Its eventual capture by the Syrian military in mid-April was viewed as a major victory for the government of President Bashar Al Assad.

But the civilian cost of the victory was high. The United Nations reported on March 27 that 1,700 people had been killed in the battle for eastern Ghouta, with thousands more injured in the previous month. This was in spite of the UN Security Council Resolution on February 24 that requested a 30-day ceasefire in Syria.

While distinguishing between Russian and Syrian government air strikes is not always possible, Airwars believes it likely that the majority of these casualties were caused by Russian air strikes.

"It has become very difficult for people to distinguish between aircraft when they are under heavy bombardment," Airwars director Chris Woods told The National. "But the regime was several weeks into the Ghouta campaign before the Russians engaged and we didn't receive reports from on the ground of civilian deaths caused by Russian aircraft until then."

Airwars assesses reports of civilian casualties by comparing local media reports, social media posts, YouTube videos and reports from Syrian state media and Russian authorities.

“What is certain is that Russia and the Assad government were responsible for a very high number of civilian deaths from air strikes primarily from the eastern Ghouta area based on hundreds and hundreds of reports from the ground,” Mr Woods said.

After recapturing Ghouta, the Syrian army has now turned its attention to Yarmouk, another militant-held enclave on the outskirts of Damascus. Residents there have described how heavy bombardment is also causing heavy civilian casualties.

“This is about the heavy bombing of the populated centres of cities,” Mr Woods said. “Every time we see a belligerent attack a city — whether it be Russia in Syria or the international coalition in Iraq — we are seeing high levels of civilian harm. That is one of the tragedies of Syria at the moment.”