A recently surfaced video suggested that Russian military police arrested Assad’s regime militia for looting in Damascus
As Syrian Arab Army (SAA) took full control of the Damascus area by May 21, civilians started returning to the Yarmouk district and surrounding areas. This period of change and turmoil was followed by kidnappings, looting and robbery. Not only did these crimes happen in full view of Assad forces, but in some instances the forces themselves perpetrated them. @DFRLab looked closer at the open source data to see what happened in the parts of Damascus that recently came under control of Assad.
Arrestors and Arrestees
As Assad forces liberated parts of Damascus from ISIS, new challenges have befallen the local population. As civilians returned to their homes, this opportunity was not missed by looters. Everything became permissible to steal, from mobile phones to robbing houses, stores, and cars. The stolen goods were disposed of and benefited from through various networks that reach into neighboring countries. The looting became even more vicious when the National Defense Forces (NDF) fighting for the Assad regime allegedly joined the looting themselves.
On May 26, a video appeared of alleged Russian military police arresting local looters in Syria. Some tweets claimed that the arrested soldiers were NDF soldiers. Reverse image search suggested that the video was not posted before and was likely genuine.
The video featured a squad of Russian military police officers and three camouflaged men held to the ground. A truck full of looted goods was surrounded by cheering locals. A few higher resolution photos of the incident appeared on Twitter, giving more details about the soldiers and the militants.
The insignia on the right arm of the Russian soldiers confirmed that they were from a military police unit. The soldiers’ armbands contained a Russian flag patch, signs: MP, ВП and ВОЕННАЯ ПОЛИЦИЯ (Rus. Military police) used exclusively by the military police units.
The arrested militants had no visible insignia or weapons to determine their unit. Nonetheless, their uniform camouflage pattern coincided with the one used by SAA. Some tweets claimed these militants to be members of Shahiba (an Alawite militant group, ultra-loyal to Assad), nonetheless most sources claimed that they were members of National Defense Forces — a pro-Assad militia, formed as a part-time volunteer reserve component of the Syrian Armed Forces).
Confirming the Location
The posts containing the video also did not share consensus on the alleged location where the video was taken. A few newly liberated areas were mentioned, including the Yarmouk Camp, the town of Babbila, and south of Damascus in general. @DFRLab geolocated the footage to check which claim was true.
We surveyed the suggested areas and confirmed that the location was one of the crossroads in the town of Babbila, southern Damascus. The video provided a wider view of the location, while the photos provided a different angle and clear details. As the video suggested, the incident took place in an open area, with a distinct curved building on one side and a fenced area with tall buildings on the other. A small market kiosk was also visible nearby on the corner.
Meanwhile, the photos provided a different angle, showing a wide two-way street with a verge in between. A small market structure and a chain of tall buildings were also distinct to this crossroad.
On the day this video was published (May 26), the area of Babilla was already liberated, according to the Syria Live Map. The map portrayed the SAA controlled area in red, while the rebel controlled area in green. The whole area of Damascus was already marked in red on May 26, 2018, suggesting that Russian military police were able to operate in the area of Babbila and NDF troops to loot freely without the threat of opposing forces.
On the same day, an unverified picture appeared on Twitter, of an alleged Syrian Security Forces (SSF) operation to arrest a group of looters. The post claimed that SSF stormed several illegal markets for looted goods, arrested dozens of suspects and returned the goods to their rightful owners.
Syrian security forces also stormed several Souqs that sells stolen furniture and electronics in Damascus city, dozens arrested, and everything was confiscated to be returned to their owners pic.twitter.com/23Dz30QLDX
— Within Syria (@WithinSyriaBlog) May 26, 2018
A large pile of arrested goods was visible in the picture, but it contained no geolocation details to confirm the location or the claims.
Nonetheless, the most important detail in this incident was that the Russian soldiers of a military police unit had the authority to arrest pro-Assad militants in the vicinity of Damascus. This showed that the Russian military police in Syria hold a special status and is not limited to controlling the Russian soldiers, but also to be actively involved in maintaining law and order within the Syrian population, including Assad’s regime militias. It remains unclear whether the active involvement of Russian military police was a one-time Russian initiative or a term agreed to by Assad to restore order in newly recovered territories.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor military operations and developments in 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.