#PutinAtWar: Russia’s Involvement in Eastern Ghouta

Russian military involvement exacerbating the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta, Syria

(Source: YouTube / Ghouta GMC)

Scores of people have been killed and hundreds injured in Eastern Ghouta during military operations over the last month. Amnesty International announced that the relentless bombing of the rebel-controlled area near Damascus was carried out by Syrian Regime forces and backed by Russia. The attacks started on February 19 and are ongoing.

On February 21, the Russian military announced that talks to try to peacefully resolve the situation had broken down as rebels had ignored calls to cease resistance. On the same day, Kremlin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any Russia’s involvement in the Eastern Ghouta atrocities.

On February 24, United Nations’ Security Council released a Resolution 2401 demanding the cease of hostilities for humanitarian aid, but the truce was short-lived. Civilians on the ground documented these events with great detail providing a chance to investigate the claims of Russia’s neutrality.

Russia’s Position

The relentless bombardments on Eastern Ghouta led to at least 1180 civilian casualties at the time of this report, and the number rises every day. The situation has been called Aleppo 2.0 by some media outlets including RT, as a reference to the siege of Aleppo by the Syrian regime and their backers and the ensuing humanitarian crisis for civilians in that city.

Russians were quick to deny the allegations of their involvement in these attacks on February 21. The Kremlin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov categorically denied accusations that Russian troops were involved in the deaths of civilians in Eastern Ghouta.

http://tass.ru/politika/4978441

The video posted by Ghouta GMC (Ghouta Media Center) media outlet, claimed the location depicted was the town of Zamalka (Zmalka) in Eastern Ghouta. Geolocation data analysis confirmed the location was, in fact, most likely Zamalka.

Geolocation comparison. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: YouTube / Ghouta GMC).

Furthermore, video also captured the aircraft responsible for dropping the ordnance — a Russian Sukhoi Su-34 (NATO reporting name: Fullback). The Syrian Air Force does not possess this type of plane, but Russia reportedly deployed Su-34 to Syria as early as September 2015. The aircraft has also been captured via satellite imagery over Khmeimim Airbase.

Comparison of SU-34 aircraft. Left: (Source: YouTube / Ghouta GMC); Top Right: (Source: ausairpower); Bottom Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

The video was posted on February 21, 2018 at 20:47 (UTC). Reverse image search of the video suggested that the video was not posted before this time and is most likely genuine. The video claimed to be taken on February 21, the same day when Kremlin denied taking any part in Eastern Ghouta’s military operations.

On February 22, alleged incendiary attacks were reported from Eastern Ghouta. The video posted on the Syrian civilian search and rescue group the White Helmets’ YouTube channel was taken in the dark and lacked geolocation data; therefore, no verification details were available. Nonetheless, reports of possible incendiary weapons from Russian aircraft remain a constant throughout the conflict, including in the past month. Reverse image search suggested that this video was not previously posted elsewhere.

UN Resolution 2401

On February 24, United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC) demanded a 30-day cessation of hostilities in Syria to enable Humanitarian aid deliveries and passed Resolution 2401. Only days after the UN Resolution 2401 passed unanimously in the UNSC, new attacks were captured on video footages. A good example was a bombardment of town of Douma (Duma) in Eastern Ghouta, which occurred on February 26.

Alleged Grad attack in Douma. Left: (Source: Youtube / وكالة كُميت); Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

It was alleged that around 100 munitions hit the town within one minute, including artillery shells and Grad rockets. Video footage, including this video, was prevalent on social media, but the footage was not enough to determine the responsible military with absolute confidence. On March 1, the United States denounced failure to implement ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta during a UNSC meeting.

Conclusion

Casualties of the attack already count 1180 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and continue to increase daily. Currently, the evidence for the full scope of Russia’s involvement in this attack is limited. However, the open source evidence strongly suggested that Russia carried out military operations on February 21 despite public denials. The atrocities carried out by the Syrian Arab Army and their Russian partners in Eastern Ghouta are immense, and the attacks, despite UNSC resolutions, have not ceased.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor Russian military operations and developments in Eastern Ghouta and the rest of Syria.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.