Following bombardments in Daraa province, Russian soldiers appeared, demanding rebels to surrender
The beginning of June marked the first bombardment of south Syria since the summer of 2017. On June 24, Russian warplanes struck rebel-held areas in Daraa province and supported the Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) offensive to retake the strategic zone. Following the aerial attacks by the Russian Air Force and SAA ground operations, posts on social media appeared allegedly recording Russian troops moving into Daraa province.
@DFRLab took a closer look at the evolving situation in Daraa province and investigated the available open source evidence of Russian soldiers’ presence in the area.
Calls for Rebel Surrender
According to The New Arab media outlet, on June 29, Russia gave the Syrian rebels in Daraa province 12 hours to lay down their arms before the bombing of the area resumed. The Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria announced a 12-hour ceasefire for Daraa to allow negotiations of the surrender of southern rebels to take place. The truce that began at midnight Friday, June 29 failed shortly thereafter. On June 30, photos of bombs dropping on the city of Daraa were began circulating on the internet once more.
On July 1, reports appeared of a Russian military delegation arrived in the city of Daraa the same day to resume ceasefire talks with the rebel groups. Talks between the two sides broke down the following Saturday.
Russia reportedly set a number of conditions for an agreement with opposition groups, including laying down their weapons, trying those involved in alleged war crimes, and banning anyone in Syria’s south to travel to the country’s north. Shortly after the collapse of negotiations, airstrikes intensified on rebel-held parts of Daraa province bordering Jordan.
@DFRLab analyzed the available open source data to find any evidence of the negotiations.
Confirming Russian Presence in Daraa
One of the first videos of Russian forces in Daraa province was posted on July 1, allegedly taken in the town of Dael. A large group of civilians came to greet the arriving troops.
S. #Syria: #Russia|n forces have a significant presence in #Daraa province & unusually well documented (linked to surrender deals). Video from town of Dael. https://t.co/YUlVpYEVT3 pic.twitter.com/5JJFPg1q3A
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) July 1, 2018
The first vehicle of the convoy riding into the town was a multipurpose infantry mobility vehicle — the GAZ Tigr. The markings on the vehicle военная полиция (military police) suggested that this was a Russian Military Police convoy.
Because the crowd and vehicles obscured the surroundings in the video, this geolocation cannot be fully verified, but details from the footage did match satellite imagery from Dael. The recorded location is most likely the northern entrance to the city of Dael. Buildings and trees alongside the road seem to support this claim.
Another picture surfaced on the social media on the same day. The picture portrayed a BTR-82 similar to the one in the video, next to a building with distinct features and a dual-carriageway road with a concrete divider down the middle. A very similar building was located further down the same road leading into Dael.
The distance between these two locations was less than a kilometer, further suggesting that the BTR-82 in the photo and the video was the same one.
Furthermore, the town of Dael is only 15 kilometers away from Daraa, where the ceasefire talks with the rebels took place.
More civilian videos of Russian soldiers allegedly travelling through Daraa appeared, but due to a lack of geolocation details in the video they were not confirmed.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) June 29, 2018
The Russian flag painted on the side of the BTR-82 coincided in all pictures and videos, suggesting that the vehicle was likely from the same convoy.
Surrender of FSA in Busra Al Sham
Finally, a video also appeared on Twitter claiming to have recorded Free Syrian Army troops surrendering heavy weaponry in Busra Al Sham (Bosra).
— Abdo Jabassini (@Syrianzo) July 1, 2018
Russian soldiers and a Russian Military Police GAZ Tigr can be seen in the video, but the poor video quality and lack of geolocation data did not allow to confirm the location to be near Busra Al Sham, or whether troops in the video belonged to the FSA.
On the other hand, reports of FSA troops surrendering weapons in Busra Al Sham appeared on July 2. A picture posted on July 1 claimed to show a Russian military convoy in the vicinity of this town. The picture lacked clear geolocation details, but a possible location of the photo lay a couple kilometers outside of Busra Al Sham.
These reports continue to be debated, as, according to Liveuamap data from July 2, 2018, the area of Busra Al Sham was still under rebel control.
Since June 19, the Assad regime has pressed a deadly bombardment campaign in southern Syria in a bid to retake the strategic area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. As reports and the open source data showed, Russia played a significant role in the fighting in Daraa province. Not only did Russia support the SAA with aerial bombings on rebel-controlled towns, it also played a key role in mediating the ceasefire talks.
Reports suggest that an agreement was struck on July 6, as the rebels agreed to reconcile with the Syrian government in the eastern part of the province. The Russian Reconciliation Center is to enter these rebel-held areas and begin collecting the heavy and medium weapons from the (FSA) fighters. Retaking the whole of Daraa province would be a symbolic victory for the regime, as it was considered the cradle of the anti-Assad uprising seven years ago that spiraled into civil war. Judging by the SAA’s progress in the region, this symbolic victory is likely imminent.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor Russian military developments and operations in Syria.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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