#PutinAtWar: Russian Military Police Presence in Manbij

News reports revealed Russian military police presence near Manbij, Syria

(Source: hewar news/archive, top left; ANFNews/archive, top right; Google Maps, bottom)

Recently surfaced videos revealed Russian military police (MP) convoys near the town of Manbij in northern Syria.

Russian MP vehicles started patrolling in the area of Manbij on January 7, 2019, as a result of an agreement reached between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Military Council of Manbij on December 25, 2018. Manbij, a part of the Kurdish-controlled area in Syria’s North, was willingly ceded to the SAA out of fear that the Turkish military, which is operating in the area, would go on the offensive against the local Kurds. On January 8, 2019, videos of these patrols in action were released in both Russian and Kurdish.

Two recently surfaced video reports allowed @DFRLab to confirm Russian MPs presence in the area and geolocate their exact area of operation.

Convoy Activity

On January 8, 2019, an article covering Russian MP convoy activity appeared on Russian news media outlet TVZvezda.ru. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, from January 7, 2019, the military police organized patrols in the security zone to the North-East of Aleppo. According to the report, some patrols were conducted not only independently, while others were joint patrols with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG forces).

According to the December 25 agreement allowing for the Russian MP presence in the area, the Military Council of Manbij, which had controlled the area, agreed to a transfer control to the SAA. The agreement was reached as the Kurdish forces operating in the area feared a potential Turkish military attack and chose to reach out to the Assad regime. Kurdish outreach to the Assad regime occurred directly after U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, where the United States has maintained a foothold and operations in the northeast. SAA invited the Russian military to patrol the area, and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced that regular patrols would be carried out in the area starting January 7.

Online articles and video footage gave a better look into the locations where Russian MP operated.

The two videos that surfaced on January 8 and 9 showed small Russian MP convoys moving in unidentified locations in Syria. In both of the videos, Russian-made GAZ Tigr multipurpose infantry-mobility vehicles can be seen. In one video, a GAZ Tigr can be seen with a KAMAZ 4310 military truck and in the second with an Albab Military Council vehicle. To confirm or deny the claims made by the Russian MoD, the locations in the videos were geolocated.

The first video uploaded by TVZvezda.ru featured a reporter explaining the mission of the Russian MPs.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpCiBzD-1Jw

The video recorded two GAZ Tigr infantry vehicles and one KAMAZ 4310 military truck patrolling in an unspecified area, which according to the reporter was in the vicinity of Manbij.

Geolocation of the military convoy in the video. The probable military encampment in the video suggested that this video was taken in the town on Arima. (Source: TVZvezda.ru/archive, top; Google Maps, bottom)

A walled compound visible in the video closely resembled a military encampment in the town on Arima, providing an initial indication as to where it was filmed. Identifying a two-way street next to the possible military encampment allowed for the confirmation of the precise location.

Geolocation of the military convoy in the video. The probable military encampment in the video suggested that this video was taken in the town on Arima. (Source: TVZvezda.ru/archive, top; Google Maps, bottom)

The second video was published on YouTube on January 9 and had the watermark of the Hawar News Agency, an online Kurdish news service. Another photo of the same convoy was found on the ANF News, a Kurdish People‘s Party affiliated news, media website.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8HhFVPI-KU

The video contained footage of the convoy passing through a small town. Footage from the video combined with the image from ANF News allowed this convoy to be geolocated. The line of tall trees and a wall, next to a distinctly shaped building, allowed for the confirmation of the location to be a small town northwest of Arima.

Geolocation of the Hawar News video report that appeared on YouTube on January 9. (Source: ANFNews/archive, top left; hewar news/archive, top right; Google Maps, bottom)

Even though the locations of these two convoys were very close (pinpointed in the map below), it is likely that these videos were not of the same convoy. In both convoys, two GAZ Tigr armored vehicles were seen, but the third vehicle differed. This observation suggested that, in the first video, Russian MPs conducted an individual patrol, while in the Hawar News video, the convoy cooperated with the Albab Military Council.

Conclusion

After Kurdish fighters, fearing Turkish military attacks, willingly stepped out of Manbij, Syria, the SAA invited Russian MPs to patrol the newly acquired area. This agreement was likely influenced by the decision of American withdrawal from Syria, which U.S. President Donald Trump’s announced in late 2018. The vacuum of power was soon filled by Russia.

Following a possible sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, the Kurdish positions in northern Syria will likely face new threats from both SAA and the Turkish forces operating in the area. As this case shows, the Kurdish preference is to give the territory to the Russia-supported Assad regime rather than to the Turkish forces.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor significant Russian operations, exercises, and military developments.


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

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