A December 1 New York Times investigation found that Russian aircraft were responsible for an August strike in the last anti-government held area in Syria. Two months ago, my colleague and I investigated the same attack, finding that it amounted to an apparent war crime.
On the evening of August 16, an aircraft bombed a displacement compound run by a Syrian aid organization just outside Hass, a town in Idlib governorate. The attack killed 20 people, mostly women and children and injured 52, according to the head of the displacement center, and took the center out of commission.
Human Rights Watch spoke to 24 witnesses and reviewed open source and satellite imagery relating to the attack. We found that there was no apparent military target in the vicinity, and only Syrian-Russian aircraft were operating in that area. The displacement center had been attacked previously. Under international law, deliberate or reckless attacks against civilians and civilian objects committed with criminal intent are war crimes. This seemed to fit the bill.
The NYT investigation agreed with our findings but adds a crucial piece to the puzzle. Relying on a cache of recordings from Russian pilots operating in Syria, the Times investigative team said that Russian aircraft were in the area at the time of the strike. The substance of a time-stamped Russian pilot recording, which human rights watch also listened to in the video, showed that the aircraft had executed an attack that same minute.
Russia is jointly responsible for any violations as part of its military alliance with Syria. However, the existence of evidence that may directly link Russian pilots to war crimes opens the door for prosecution and individual liability.
Until today, Idlib continues to suffer from indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian-Russian military alliance – using the excuse that they are combatting terrorism to indiscriminately bomb an area with over three million civilians trapped next to the closed Turkish border. To urgently save those civilians from a tragic fate, governments need to make clear that Russia will be held accountable for its unlawful disregard for civilian life in Syria.