On 19th September 2016 an attack took place on a joint UN-Red Crescent convoy transporting humanitarian supplies near Aleppo in Syria.
The attack provoked a huge media storm, with the US issuing statements attributing the attack to the Russian and Syrian air forces, and with senior US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, and General Dunford, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, all holding Russia responsible.
Thus Ashton Carter, US Defence Secretary, said the following
The Russians are responsible for this strike whether they conducted it or not.
(bold italics added)
And here is what General Dunford said
I don’t have the facts. There is no doubt in my mind that the Russians are responsible
(bold italics added)
At the time of the attack I pointed out that this rush to condemn the Russians was made before any investigation of the incident had taken place, before any attempt had been made to secure the place where the attack happened, and in the absence of any inspection of the area. Here are some of the things I said
Since the attack is being called by some a war crime, it would seem a basic step first to secure and inspect what in that case would be a crime scene before drawing any inferences and making any accusations. Almost a week after the attack not only has that not been done, but no one seems to be in any hurry to do it.
With the crime scene not secured, the possibility of contamination or outright manipulation of the evidence is very real, especially given the strong incentive to do so of the Jihadi fighters who are in physical control of it. After all that is what many claim the Jihadi fighters did to the scene of the chemical attack on Ghouta in August 2013.
I was also openly skeptical about the chances of any inquiry into the incident being set up
Sadly I must also say that I do not think that how the convoy came to be attacked or by whom will ever be known. Quite simply those who are in a position to find out the truth are not interested in doing so.
On the last point it turns out I was wrong, because on 21st October 2016 – more than a month after the attack on the convoy had taken place and with minimal publicity – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon did set up a Board of Inquiry.
That Board of Inquiry has now reported, though its report too is being barely reported. Ban Ki-moon has however provided a summary of its report, and it can be found here.
In brief, the reason the Inquiry and its report are receiving minimal publicity is because its results satisfy do not satisfy certain powerful governments.
It says the convoy was destroyed as the result of an air attack. It completely exonerates the US and the other Western powers. It also completely exonerates the Jihadis of staging the incident. However it also indirectly but nonetheless clearly exonerates the Russians.
Whilst it puts the blame for the attack – though only indirectly – on the Syrians, it makes it clear that it believes they attacked the convoy unintentionally and in error.
It also confirms that Western governments pressured the Board of Inquiry to try to get it to implicate the Russians in the attack on the convoy, which however the Inquiry refused to do.
The Board of Inquiry’s findings are open to challenge. This is because of the delay in setting up the inquiry and the failure to secure the crime scene. As a result the Board of Inquiry was unable to carry out a physical inspection of the crime scene. Here is what the report says about this
The Board was not allowed to visit the scene of the incident in Urem al-Kubra, the [Syrian] Government stating that it was unable to ensure the safety of the Board, given the ongoing military operations at that location. In this regard, the Board noted that 11 weeks had already elapsed by then since the date of the incident, by which time damaged vehicles had been removed and some destroyed structures had been repaired or rebuilt. Subsequent actions had therefore adversely affected the integrity of the site of the incident and consequently the availability of physical evidence. A visit to the site might therefore not have yielded commensurate results. The Board accordingly developed alternative methods of evidence collection.
All this is true but it is also deeply regrettable. As I said in my article of 26th September 2016 (see above) securing the crime scene immediately following the attack ought to have been the immediate priority. Realistically that would have required cooperation by all the Great Powers (including the US, Russia, Syria and Turkey) and probably a Resolution of the UN Security Council. The way the Western powers politicised the incident and sought to make political capital out of it made all that impossible, which is why an inspection of the crime scene has never happened.
Unfortunately without a proper inspection of the crime scene the Inquiry report is incomplete, and its findings open to challenge.
The Board of Inquiry has set out how in the absence of an inspection of the crime scene it undertook its investigation
The Board was not allowed to visit the scene of the incident in Urem al-Kubra, the Government stating that it was unable to ensure the safety of the Board, given the ongoing military operations at that location. In this regard, the Board noted that 11 weeks had already elapsed by then since the date of the incident, by which time damaged vehicles had been removed and some destroyed structures had been repaired or rebuilt. Subsequent actions had therefore adversely affected the integrity of the site of the incident and consequently the availability of physical evidence. A visit to the site might therefore not have yielded commensurate results. The Board accordingly developed alternative methods of evidence collection.
The Board was only able to travel to the Syrian Arab Republic from 5 to 9 December 2016, as the issuance of visas by the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic was only confirmed on 28 November 2016. The Board travelled to Damascus, where the Board met with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, including the High Relief Committee, SARC Damascus and the United Nations Country Team. At the Russian Embassy in Damascus, the Board also met military officers from the Russian Military airbase in Hmeimim. In West Aleppo City, the Board met the Governor of Aleppo, members of the local relief committee and the Commanding General of the Russian Reconciliation Centre, Hmeimem. The Board also interviewed primary witnesses in West Aleppo.
The Board also met with the members of the High Negotiations Committee for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (HNC) and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SOC). Furthermore, the Board met with representatives of armed opposition groups. It interviewed primary witnesses (eye witnesses) in Gaziantep and Reyhanli.
The Board also collaborated with UNITAR-UNOSAT, which provided technical capabilities to analyse satellite imagery and ground photography.
The Board used the following materials and methods to arrive at its findings: (i) satellite images; (ii) over 370 photographs and videos; (iii) interviews conducted by the Board of a total of 16 persons who were either eye witnesses to the incident or who were in the vicinity of Urem al-Kubra on the evening of 19 September 2016; (iv) interviews conducted by the Board of a total of 19 secondary witnesses, including United Nations personnel and representatives of armed opposition groups; (v) information from Member States, including information on their air assets; (vi) air tracks shared with it by the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic; (vii) an oral briefing by the Syrian Government regarding their national investigation into the incident, which was still on-going, together with copies of autopsy reports; (viii) information from the SARC.; (ix) documents from the United Nations Country Team for Syria; and (x) open-source information.
The Board declined to accept physical evidence, such as munitions remnants that were alleged to be from the site of the incident, as the chain of custody for these items could not be established.
This speaks of a proper and thorough investigation, with the opinions of all parties carefully sought and all the right questions asked. However it cannot fully make up for the failure to examine the crime scene.
What however are the Inquiry’s conclusions, and on what are they based?
Firstly, they are wholly based on the Inquiry’s finding that the convoy was destroyed as the result of an air attack rather than a ground attack. Here is what the report says about this
The Board found that, between 19:15 and 19:45 hours local time on 19 September 2016, the SARC compound was subject to an attack from the air, using multiple types of munitions deployed from more than one aircraft and aircraft type. The munitions used included non-precision unitary bombs and/or smaller blast-incendiary air-to-ground weapons, which could have been missiles, rockets or sub-munition bomblets.
In reaching this conclusion, the Board considered and rejected the possibilities that the incident was caused by direct fire or ground assault, whether by Syrian Government forces or by armed opposition groups, or by ground-delivered improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or by indirect fire, whether by Syrian Government forces or by armed opposition groups. It also considered and rejected the possibility that it was a staged or hoax event.
A total of eight possible major impact points within and near the compound were identified by the Board, with further multiple smaller impacts to the northwest. The southwestern, southern and eastern walls of the compound were damaged and buildings collapsed. Extensive damage was also done to a wall on the opposite side of Highway 60.
Since the Board of Inquiry was unable to inspect the crime scene, it arrived at this conclusion that the convoy was attacked from the air by relying on the following evidence
The primary evidence for this conclusion came from an analysis of satellite and ground imagery, videos and eyewitness statements. Corroboration came from information provided by Member States and other witness interviews, as well as open-source research conducted by the Board.
(bold italics added)
When reviewing investigations of this sort I long ago realised that eyewitness evidence is unsafe. Probably the Inquiry relied mostly on the “satellite and ground imagery” and the “corroboration provided by Member States”.
Unfortunately this immediately begs the questions: whose “satellite and ground imagery”, and which Member States?
On the question of the analysis of the “satellite and ground imagery”, we know this was provided by UNITAR-UNOSAT because the Board of Inquiry report tells us so (see above), but as to who provided the “satellite and ground imagery”, that is an entirely different matter, and that is something which the report is careful not to tell us.
As for which Member States provided the “corroboration”which supported the air attack conclusion, the Member States listed in the report are
France, Iran (Islamic Republic of), the Russian Federation, the Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Only evidence provided by Syria and Russia is mentioned in the report, none of which however appears to “corroborate” the air attack conclusion. Almost certainly the “corroboration” comea from the four NATO powers (“France, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America”) since it most unlikely Iran would have done so, or would have had the information to do so.
None of this however means that the air attack conclusion is wrong. However since “satellite and ground imagery” is always subject to interpretation, and since the “corroboration” almost certainly comes from the same NATO powers that in the immediate aftermath of the attack and before the Board of Inquiry was set up were already accusing Syria and Russia of responsibility for the attack, it is inevitable that some people are already taking issue with the Board of Inquiry’s findings, and are calling its report a whitewash.
I do not go that far. On the contrary, I think the Board of Inquiry’s findings are almost certainly correct, and that the convoy was indeed destroyed by an attack from the air.
I also think that the Board of Inquiry is almost certainly correct in pointing to the Syrian air force as the perpetrator of the attack, even if the nature of its remit prevents it from saying so.
As the Board of Inquiry correctly says, since no one is accusing the US and the Western powers of carrying out the attack they can be safely excluded, as for different reasons can the Russians (see below). Since the Board of Inquiry says the convoy was destroyed as a result of an air attack, and as the Jihadis do not have an air force, by elimination that means it must have been the Syrian air force which carried out the attack.
However, before discussing this further, it is essential to read carefully what the Board of Inquiry’s conclusions actually are
The area immediately around the SARC compound had been hit on at least two occasions between 26 June 2016 and 1 September 2016, with two separate groups of buildings, located between 55m and 140m away, having been attacked, most likely from the air. The Board considered that the location of the SARC compound, on the outskirts of a populated area, in an industrial zone and astride one of the two primary roads leading to southwestern Aleppo, made it a realistic possibility that the buildings around it were used by armed opposition groups prior to the date of the incident. Therefore the Board considered that it had most likely been attacked by pro-Government forces.
The Board noted that aircraft operating as part of the forces of the International Coalition Forces and aircraft of the Russian Federation and of the SAAF all had the capabilities needed to carry out an attack of the kind that had occurred on 19 September 2016, including at night. Armed opposition groups did not have the capability to carry out air attacks.
The Board further noted that no party had alleged the involvement of International Coalition Forces aircraft and, as such, their involvement was highly unlikely.
The Board stated that it had received reports that information existed to the effect that the SAAF was highly likely to have perpetrated the attack, and even that the attack was carried out by three Syrian Mi-17 model helicopters, followed by three unnamed fixed-wing aircraft, with a single Russian aircraft also suspected of being involved. However, the Board did not have access to raw data to support these assertions and, in their absence, it was unable to draw a definitive conclusion. Moreover, the Governments of both the Russian Federation and Syrian Arab Republic denied all allegations of their involvement in the incident.
The Board noted in this connection that there were technical issues pertaining to a hypothesis of the incident being a result of a joint Syrian Arab Air Force/Russian Federation strike. The Board had been informed that that the Russian Federation did not conduct joint strikes. A high degree of interoperability and co-ordination would also be required for two air forces to operate in the same airspace, targeting the same location.
(bold italics added)
These are very carefully chosen words, which show the intense behind-the-scenes pressure from the Western powers on the Board of Inquiry.
Firstly, the first paragraph all but confirms that the convoy was attacked in error.
It seems the convoy was attacked because it was inside a compound located astride two main roads, one of which was one of the two main routes used by the Jihadis to send supplies and fighters to the battlefields near Aleppo. It was also located next to buildings which were almost certainly occupied by the Jihadis and used by them for their own purposes.
That one of the two roads next to the compound in which the convoy was located was a major supply route used by the Jihadis sending supplies and reinforcements to Aleppo is confirmed in an earlier part of the report
The SARC compound, the incident site, is located approximately 1.5 km east of the town of Urem al-Kubra. It consists of mixed light industry and dwellings. The compound is located alongside Highway 60 — the primary Aleppo-to-Idlib road. Highway 60 was one of the two primary lines of communication — the other being the M5 highway, which runs South to Hama and Homs — that could be used by armed opposition groups to move military materiel, equipment and personnel to frontline areas in Aleppo.
Jihadi military convoys moving down Highway 60 and Jihadi fighters based in the buildings immediately adjoining the compound where the convoy was located, are legitimate military targets. Almost certainly the Syrian aircraft which attacked the convoy mistook it for part of the military traffic the Jihadis were sending down Highway 60 to reinforce the fighters in Aleppo.
Whilst the report is careful to say that the UN and Red Crescent had kept the Syrian and Russian authorities fully informed of the convoy’s movements, it seems this information was not passed on to the Syrian air force pilots who carried out the attack on what they clearly assumed was a legitimate military target located inside a Jihadi base. Such tragedies are unfortunately all too common in war. That there was a communications breakdown which meant that the Syrian authorities failed to pass on to the Syrian air force information about the whereabouts of the convoy is strongly hinted in the report in the following paragraph
The Board noted that it could not gain a full understanding of the coordination measures employed by the Syrian authorities and that it was not evident from the answers that it had received to its questions that the Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) was informed of the convoy.
There is however unfortunately possibly more to it than that.
Recently I speculated that some of the attacks on hospitals in eastern Aleppo had happened because the Jihadis had intentionally located hospitals next to military sites, which were legitimate military targets for air attack. Here is what I wrote about this
I will here set out my own view, which is that though certain hospitals were indeed bombed in eastern Aleppo, this was either done unintentionally, or was the result of the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis deliberately positioning hospitals and medical facilities close to their ammunition depots, firing positions, and assembly areas, putting them intentionally in the line of fire, so as to cause attacks on them, which could be exploited for their propaganda value.
Unfortunately the report at least leaves open the possibility that this was what was done to the convoy.
The report shows that it was the Jihadis who ‘escorted’ the convoy in the days before it was attacked, and that they were even pilfering its supplies along the way. It is possible that it was the Jihadis who positioned the convoy inside a compound near what was apparently a Jihadi military base.
If this is correct then the Jihadis placed the convoy in danger, either because they hoped to use it to give cover to their adjoining military base and to the military traffic they were sending down Highway 60, or because they hoped to milk a possible attack on the convoy for propaganda purposes by intentionally locating it somewhere where it was likely to be attacked, or possibly because they also made a mistake.
In any case, if – as is overwhelmingly likely and as the Board of Inquiry clearly believes – the Syrian air force attacked the convoy in error because it was either intentionally or negligently placed next to a military target, and because as a result of a communications failure the Syrian pilots who carried out the attack believed it was a legitimate target, then there was no war crime, and no grounds to allege one.
It is however in what the report says about alleged Russian involvement in the attack that the report becomes most interesting.
In the days immediately following the attack two US government officials were prowling around the offices of Western news media agencies, anonymously making claims that the convoy was destroyed as a result of a Russian air strike, and talking of the supposed presence of two Russian SU24 aircraft in the area at the time of the attack. Here is what I had to say about this at the time
Instead of the US publicly identifying who they say attacked the convoy, two US officials are doing so anonymously, in comments to the BBC and Reuters, spreading a story of two Russian SU24 fighter bombers supposedly being seen in the air (by whom?) in the area of the convoy. These same two unnamed US officials are also claiming that the attack on the convoy was revenge for the US air strike on the Syrian troops defending Deir Ezzor.
Given the choice between straightforward public and categorical statements of denial from the Syrians and the Russians, and elliptical semi-secret off-the-record insinuations of Russian guilt from the US, the Western media without hesitation preferred the elliptical semi-secret off-the-record insinuations of Russian guilt from the US. As a result it was reporting all of yesterday as fact that it was the Russian air force which attacked the convoy.
This is the reverse of what responsible journalism would do. It should hardly need saying that a straightforward public denial ought always to carry more weight than elliptical semi-secret off-the-record insinuations of guilt.
(bold italics added)
In its carefully chosen words the Board of Inquiry has not only trashed the claims of the two US officials, effectively saying they were untrue, but has exposed the pressure it came under from the US.
Firstly, the Board of Inquiry says that it was told by some party, which it fails to name but which can only have been the US, that a “single Russian aircraft was also suspected of being involved”. However the Board of Inquiry pointedly refused to accept this claim, pointing out that it had not been given “access to raw data to support these assertions”.
In other words the Board of Inquiry is implicitly saying that in the absence of evidence it is not prepared to accept the US’s word on this issue.
Having made this point, the Board of Inquiry then went on in its report to go much further, making it crystal clear, albeit indirectly, that it believes US claims of Russian involvement in the attack are untrue.
Not only does the report say that the Russian and Syrian air forces do not conduct joint air strikes (a fact which as an observer of the Syrian conflict I had already noticed) but it also says there is insufficient interoperability between the Russian and Syrian air forces to make such a thing possible (“to operate in the same airspace, targeting the same location.”)
Whilst evidence for this second assertion must have come from the Syrians and the Russians, the highly professional individuals who made up the Board of Inquiry (the chief of whom is an Indian general) are undoubtedly competent enough to verify it. That they did so is shown by the way the report reports this assertion as true.
The Board of Inquiry’s very limited remit means that it was under no duty to disclose that it had rejected information about Russian involvement provided by the US. Nonetheless it chose to do so – a sure sign of the pressure it came under from the US, and the anger this caused amongst some of its members. In the process it has exonerated the Russians of involvement in the attack and exposed US claims of Russian involvement, which circulated so widely and so publicly in the days following the attack, as untrue.
As a result of the Board of Inquiry’s work it is now possible to arrive at a reasonable conclusion of what happened to the convoy.
The convoy was almost certainly attacked in error by the Syrian air force because the Jihadis, whether intentionally or not, placed it next to their own military facilities, which were not only a legitimate target for attack, but which the Syrian air force actually had attacked on 1st September 2016 ie. just a few weeks before.
Since the attack was almost certainly an error, no war crime was committed.
All claims of Russian involvement in the attack are untrue.
Not only is the US unable to provide information to support this claim, but the Syrians and the Russians have provided technical information which proves it to be untrue.
All in all, this is a careful and good report, which has cast a clear light over this incident. Whilst in the absence of an inspection of the crime scene its conclusions are open to challenge, everything suggests the Board of Inquiry went about its work properly and responsibly. Overall there is no strong reason to doubt its conclusions, and for my part I accept them.
This marks a refreshing change from the way certain other Inquiries involving Russia have gone about their business. The one headed by Professor McLaren, the one into the Litvinenko murder, and the two into the MH17 shoot-down, are cases in point.
It shows what can be achieved when an Inquiry carries out its work impartially and responsibly, refusing to be pressured or led by the nose into accepting wild assertions as facts, whilst taking care to listen to all the parties.