Human Rights Watch stumbles in pinning “war crimes” on Russia

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November 3, 2015 – 

RusVesna – 

Translated for Fort Russ by J. Arnoldski

“Human Rights on the Syrian front of the infowar against Russia”

Moving to the public sphere, the methods of waging information war have now become significantly easier. As practice shows, anyone who so desires can establish some kind of “monitoring center” or make an “analysis” on the same the level as the main directorate of the defense intelligence of Ukraine. 

And a message on a social network, even without any kind of evidence, can have extremely large consequences!

Nevertheless, massive structures with an impressive staff of employees and a budget accumulated over years of long “quasi-authority” work are still functioning as before. However, in attempting to see through what these structures are actually reporting and what the foundation of their statements is, it quickly becomes clear that they can be believed to the same extent as “online activists.” 

On October 25, numerous media reports referring to Human Rights Watch accused Russia of war crimes, namely air strikes on peaceful villages which led to mass deaths of women and children. Media are operating with excerpts from the HRW report and giving the impression that news reports aren’t even citing the total results and evidence because of the volume and shocking format [of the report]. 

However, upon analyzing the original report of HRW, it is easy to notice that there isn’t any kind of evidence or proof in favor of the charges at all. 

(All publications based on the HRW report from October 25, with the full text, can be found on the website of the organization.)

The report has a very interesting name: “Russia/Syria: Allegedly unlawful Russian airstrikes. Death of entire family in Homs.” Everyone can decide themselves what exactly is alleged: the fact of the airstrikes in general, that it was Russia, or even their illegality. 

All of these variations are equally probable based on what is said in the report itself. 

“At least two airstrikes in the northern part of Homs province on October 15, 2015, which local residents believe to have been Russian, could be violations of the laws and customs of war,” Human Rights Watch stated. “According to residents, as a result of strikes a total of 59 civilians, including 33 children, were killed. Among the dead was the commander of the local armed formation of the opposition. Russia should carry out an investigation of these attacks.

“The largest number of victims was claimed by an airstrike on a home in the village of Gantu, in which the Asaph family lived. According to information from emergency personnel and local activists, the strike led to the death of 46 people, including 32 children and 12 women. The victims were civilians, and almost all of them were relatives of the commander of the formation associated with the oppositional Free Syrian Army (FSA). Witnesses claim that the commander himself was not home at the moment – he was in position somewhere. As a result of the second strike on the neighboring town of Ter-Maala around a bakery, as witnesses state, at least 13 civilians were killed along with the local commander of the FSA, who previously served in the Syrian army but took the side of anti-government forces. It remains unclear if he was the target of the strike, since neither Russia nor the Syrian government publish information on specific strikes.” 

Do any such “local activists,” any witnesses, if we are to believe HRW, exist in nature and is there any photo/video witness evidence? “Who are these people?” These questions remain unanswered. It’s not even clear which commander was allegedly killed, what he commanded, and what his name is.

The authors attributed the airstrikes to the Air Forces of the Russian Federation on the basis that “the sound of the aircraft differed from Syrian ones, and they flew at a significantly higher altitude.” 

For example, the Su-24, which is part of the Russian groupings, also exists in the composition of the Syrian Air Force. In order to reliably distinguish the sound of one jet at altitude from another, it’s necessary to be sufficiently competent as an aviation observer. Distinguishing the Syrian MiG-23 with assault modifications from the Su-24 is not so easy. The concept of a “significantly higher altitude” is also certainly a very relative term. 

Su-24

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MiG-23

In the following paragraph, HRW states: “In a report on October 15 from the positions of government forces to the north of Homs province, a local journalist from the pro-government radio station Sham FM talked about “joint strikes by Russian and Syrian aircraft” around 06:00 on the positions of armed groups in Gantu, Ter-Maala, and other points of oppositional enclave.”

Even conceding the specification of the source for traditional vagueness, the question arises: if such took place at all, how can one reliably distinguish whether it was a Syrian or a Russian plan that struck in the joint operation?

“The character of the wounds, shock, and burns of the victims in videos and photos from Gantu, the consistent, uniform pattern of destruction, and the small number of shrapnel wounds on the dead indicate the possible use of volume-detonating ammunition (“vacuum bombs”). More powerful in comparison to conventional high-explosive munitions, volume-detonating ammunition causes considerable damage over a large area and therefore could have indiscriminate effects in populated areas,” HRW pseudo-scientifically reports. Seeing as how HRW does not bring forth any videos or photos, on the basis of what organizations did the HRW come to such a conclusion as the dramatic statement about the mass use of volume-detonating bombs in densely populated neighborhoods?

“As regards the strike on Ter-Maala, on October 15 the Syrian state news agency SANA reported the beginning of an offensive of government soldiers in the rural area of the northern province of Homs, which was preceded by “pinpointed air strikes” and artillery fire. The agency accused those connected with Al-Qaeda and al-Nusra of the “massacre’ in Ter-Maala and “emphasized” that Russian and Syrian militaries “don’t shoot civilians.” However, it is obvious from the statements of local residents and video footage that civilians in Ter-Maala died as a result of air strikes.”

That is, HRW, “obvious” according to “the statements of local residents,” who have the same value as “a statement of townsmen on the attack of alien-cannibals during the passing of an asteroid,” of which there is no video footage. 

“It is unclear what the purpose of the strike was. Even if the target of the attack was Rowad al-Aqsa who previously served in the Syrian army, then, as it appears, it was committed with the use of indiscriminate weapons or resulted in disproportionate civilian losses and civilian damage. Indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks are serious violations of the laws and customs of war, and Russia has obligations to investigate such cases. Victims of violations of humanitarian rights and their families should be provided with adequate compensation.” 

Nothing is clear, not even the HRW has any sense of clarity, but Russia must investigate this fog and pay compensation to God knows who. I wonder if the authors of this report realize that this logic can be turned against them – any statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry that Russia “has paid local residents one billion rubles each” should be viewed by default with the same degree of trustworthiness. 

“In Moscow, they talk about targeted attacks, but evidence and footage from the area indicate that many civilians are killed. Russia must take all necessary measures to protect the population from its air force’s strikes,” the HRW quotes someone with the name Nadim Auri without specifying who this person is or what evidence he has.

Here’s a question: does this Nadim Auri exist in nature? Ask out loud.

Not bringing forth any confirmation, even formal evidence, the HRW prefers to operate in the epistolary genre with the same degree of specificity. 

“One of the rescuers” identified “one of the victims” as a man “who previously served in the Syrian government army” in a video of the effects of the strike on YouTube, and then it’s reported that the head of the FSA in Ter-Maala was killed. HRW says that in the Lebanese newspaper close to Hezbollah, “Al-Ahad,” it was reported that as a result of a strike on that day on Ter-Maala, the head of the local headquarters, Rowad Al-Aqsa, a.k.a. Abu Akhmed, who previously served in the Syrian army, was killed. 

Obviously, such a narrative can at best be perceived as an artistic fiction…

Afterwards, when the Ministry of Defense of Russia and the Kremlin denied the allegations of HRW, the deputy head of the Russian branch of HRW, Tatyana Lakshina, demanded evidence.

“We are well aware that today the Kremlin responded to our statement, insisting that the death of these civilians is in no way associated with the Russian strike, but, in turn, we would like to know on what this conclusion is based, and whether or not there was any investigation,” Lakshina said.

It’s not clear on what the very conclusion of the HRW itself is based. 

Thus, the wholehearted blaming of Russia for war crimes is based on – let’s call things by their names – allegations. “Some kind of activist,” “some footage,” “likely,” “most likely,” “it could be,” and the other vocabulary of Human Rights Watch along with nothing more than unsubstantiated statements – this is precisely what is offered among the arguments of the organization which employs more than two hundred employees and has a budget of around a million dollars.

It’s simply impossible to verify the majority of these claims. Although, of course, you can simply take them and believe that Russia is deliberately bombing residential neighborhoods with “vacuum bombs” and destroying civilians by the tens and hundreds. Because the sources of the HRW, “activists” and “local residents,” can’t lie…

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