Conflicting reports about Russian withdrawal from Afrin remain inconclusive
On January 19, initial media reports appeared that the Turkish military attacked Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria. Operation “Olive Branch” began in the areas surrounding the city of Afrin, where Russian troops were present. A few hours later, reports appeared that Russia withdrew their troops from the area. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied any Russian troops withdrew from previously held positions the same day.
The situation of the Russian troops near Afrin remains unclear. @DFRLab took a look at the open source data to verify any evidence of Russians leaving Afrin.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov denied that the Russian forces were being withdrawn from Afrin on January 19. Despite these claims and on January 20, a variety of local Syrian and Middle-Eastern media outlets published that Russian troops were withdrawing. On January 25, Russian news agency TASS announced that Russian military police forces remained active in the city of Tall Rifat, controlling the flow of refugees.
A video circulated on January 21, with footage that allegedly featured Russian troops withdrawing from Afrin city. Two BTR-80 armored personnel carriers flying Russian flags appeared in a low-quality video, driving through a Syrian city.
The lack of details in the video made it nearly impossible to geolocate the exact position of these vehicles, but the background resembled the city of Afrin. The logo at the bottom left corner of the video suggested this video clip was made by Orient News — a Syrian media group — but the video was not published on the official Orient News YouTube channel. The video first appeared on a few VKontakte (VK or ВКонтакте) accounts, which sparked discussions amongst internet users, but none seemed to question the authenticity of the video itself. The video was uploaded on 14:46 UTC on YouTube. A reverse image search of the video frames did not yield matching videos from the past.
The first BTR-80 that appeared in the video had the service number (№730) painted on the side. A BTR-80 with the same service number appeared in a RIA Novosti (РИА Новости) video posted on March 21, 2017.
The news report from March 21 claimed that Russian forces featured in the video were in the vicinity of Afrin sent to prevent hostilities.
Only two BTR-80s appear in both videos, suggesting that this is most likely the same Russian unit sent to Afrin.
Nonetheless, the lack of geolocation details in the January 21 video made it difficult to confirm the location as Afrin. Also, despite the reverse image. which suggested the January 21 footage was not included in a previous video, the date that the video was recorded remains unclear. Whether these BTR-80s were patrolling or withdrawing also can not be confirmed from this short snippet.
The current situation of Russian troops in the city of Afrin remains unclear, as do media reports with regard to the situation. Even though Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov denied that Russian troops were withdrawn, local Middle-Eastern media outlets insist otherwise. Currently, no solid open source evidence verified Russian troops on the move. The January 21 video claimed the withdrawal of the troops surfaced only in a few posts and the evidence is not enough to prove — or disprove — the facts.
@DFRLab will continue monitoring Russia’s military actions and developments in Syria.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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