#BreakingSyria: Car Bomb Targets the Salvation Government

A car bomb explodes outside the Salvation Government in Idlib, killing one and wounding 16

Left: (Source: Twitter / (Source: Twitter / @SMMSyria); Middle: (Source: GoogleMaps).

The recent fall of rebel-held areas in Syria’s south is shifting the focus of the Assad regime’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to the north. On August 2, a video appeared on social media and depicted the aftermath of a car bomb attack in Idlib. According to the Special Monitoring Mission to Syria (SMM), who were among the first to release footage from the site, at least one person was killed and another 16 were wounded.

Various sources claimed that the attack was aimed at the Salvation Government, an alternative government of the Syrian Opposition. As no major news outlets picked up this incident, @DFRLab took a closer look into the incident.

The video that appeared on SMM’s official Twitter page claimed to depict the damaged area in the city of Idlib soon after the attack.

The video was soon followed by a few photographs from the scene, which provided more details about the actual location. All the video and photo data used in this article was verified using reverse image search to confirm that the videos were not posted before. The videos appeared to be authentic, and the location of the event was verified using geolocation techniques.

The car bomb attack took place in central Idlib. As the remains of a cargo vehicle that allegedly caused the explosion were clearly seen in two of the posted images, it was possible to determine the exact location of the explosion. A large building on the northern side of the street was clearly visible, its distinct pattern of windows allowed to determine its exact location when cross-referenced with satellite imagery.

Geolocation #1. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Twitter / @SMMSyria).

Another video provided a view of the western end of the street with distinguishable buildings at the back of the street. This image helped to confirm the location to be on the same street as in the previous photos.

Geolocation #2. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Twitter / @SMMSyria).

The building next to the remains of the car was marked as a building of the Central Bank of Syria on WikiMapia. Nonetheless, some sources claimed that this building, at the time of the attack, was used as the military court of Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham rebel group. The Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) is a civil authority formed in Idlib province in early November 2017, and backed by the hardline rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS). A leading faction in HTS is Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

Planet satellite imagery services provide daily images from all over the world. These daily images allow to verify the location and date of attacks like these, as explosions leave debris and other marks that are often visible on the satellite imagery. In this case, comparing imagery from August 2 and August 3 revealed a significant change around the building, leading us to the conclusion that the attack was real and took place in between these days.

Planet.com satellite image comparison between August 2 and August 3. (Source: Planet.com)

A comparison of the geolocated satellite image and daily satellite images verified that the event took place in the time and manner reported by SMM.

Comparison of the geolocated area with satellite imagery from August 3, 2017. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Planet.com).

At the time of the attack, downtown Idlib was still deep in rebel held territory, rendering this attack highly unlikely to be caused by SAA infiltrators. Various reports suggested that ISIS militants are currently still active in the area. Despite the fact that no group took the blame for the attack, involvement of Daesh (ISIS) fighters was probable.

Idlib area on August 7, 2018, according to Syria LiveUAMap data. Legend: Green — rebel forces, Red — SAA, Yellow — Kurdish forces. (Source: Syria LiveUAMap).

Conclusions

As the SAA has taken back most of the rebel-held territory in Syria, the northern province of Idlib became the main rebel stronghold. Syrian and Russian Air Force raids on the Idlib area have already started, signaling that a large-scale ground attack will soon follow.

The August 2 car bomb attack in Idlib portrayed the uneasy situation inside of Idlib, as the rebels face not only increasing pressure from SAA and forces aligned with Assad’s regime, but also lone attacks inside their controlled territory. Currently no group took the blame for the attack, but active ISIS militant presence in the area suggests their likely involvement.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor military developments and operations 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.