Report makes wild allegations of war crimes without substantiating evidence
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
Amnesty International has just released a report accusing the Russian authorities of “shamefully concealing” large numbers of civilian deaths caused by Russian air strikes in Syria.
The report also says the Russians might be committing war crimes in Syria.
The Russians have responded to the report by saying it is littered with cliches.
Having read the report, I can say it provides no evidence a court could use.
As Amnesty says, its report was researched “remotely”.
That means there was no field work. No investigators visited the six places where Amnesty says the attacks by the Russians discussed in the report took place.
The report is based entirely on reports of alleged eye witnesses and video evidence provided to Amnesty by third parties.
This in itself is worrying. Given that Syria is in a state of civil war with a long history of evidence being manipulated by both sides - especially by the rebels - in pursuit of their objectives, this is a fragile reed upon which to build a report like this.
As it happens, detailed examination of the six incidents shows there is no conclusive evidence linking the Russians to any of them.
An attack on Talbisseh on 30th September 2015 is said to have been the result of “suspected Russian air strikes on Karama Street”. Use of certain munitions is attributed to the Russians because “Syrian government forces are not considered capable of delivering them” (“considered” by whom and what if that assumption is wrong?). An attack on Darat Izzah is attributed to a “suspected Russian sea-launched cruise missile”. Civilian deaths on Nuqeyr “purportedly involved cluster munitions”. An attack on Al-Ghantu involved “suspected Russian air strikes”. Two missiles that attacked Sermin were “fired by suspected Russian warplanes”.
Lastly, the report discusses an attack on Ariha without mentioning the Russians or providing any evidence they were involved at all.
Given the myriad number of air forces now operating in Syria, it is impossible to see how Amnesty can be sure that any of these incidents - if they even happened - involved the Russians.
Amnesty tries to get round this by saying the volume of noise of some of the attacks, and comparisons with post-attack reports provided by the Russians, indirectly confirms their involvement.
To say this is unconvincing would be an understatement.
As any investigator knows, relying on what a witness claims to have seen is problematic enough. Drawing deductions from the volume of sound a witness claims to have heard is hopeless.
As for the coincidence of some of the incidents to the post-attack reports the Russians have provided, that is interesting but hardly conclusive. It would after all be an obvious step for someone trying to fabricate evidence of atrocities by the Russians to try to match incidents to attacks the Russians have admitted being involved in.
In a particularly farfetched piece of reasoning, Amnesty tries to use a Russian denial of the destruction of the Omar Bin Al-Khattab mosque in Jisr Al-Sughour in order to "prove" its claim the Russians did actually destroy the Omar Bin Al-Khattab mosque.
The argument is that because the Russians denied they destroyed the mosque, but supported their denial by showing a picture of a different mosque, that somehow “proves” they destroyed the mosque.
That is a classic example of a non sequitur (“it does not follow”).
To see how bad this reasoning is, just consider what Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa programme, has said about this incident:
“By presenting satellite imagery of an intact mosque and claiming it showed another that had been destroyed, the Russian authorities appear to have used sleight of hand to try to avoid reproach and avert scrutiny of their actions in Syria. Such conduct does not cultivate confidence in their willingness to investigate reported violations in good faith. Russia’s Ministry of Defence must be more transparent and disclose targets of their attacks in order to facilitate assessment of whether they are complying with their obligations under international humanitarian law.”
If there is a “sleight of hand” it is in this argument.
Firstly, it is a huge - and unwarranted - leap to say it proves bad faith because the Russians provided a photograph of the wrong mosque.
It is equally possible there was simply a mistake. That would be very likely if the Russians were confused about which mosque they were supposed to have destroyed - because they didn’t in fact destroy any mosque.
More fundamentally, what this argument does is try to prove a positive - that the Russians destroyed the Omar Bin Al-Khattab mosque - out of a negative - that the Russians showed a satellite image of the wrong mosque.
This is flawed reasoning by any measure, and it proves nothing. It does not prove that the mosque - if it was destroyed - was destroyed by the Russians. It could equally well have been destroyed by someone else. In a conflict like the one in Syria there is no shortage of others who might have done it.
The entire report is in fact riddled with this sort of bad reasoning. Besides its repeated use of the word “suspected” (“suspected” by whom?) exposes it for what it actually is - a tissue of guesses and suppositions.
The real concern must however be about the provenance of the information - such as it is - upon which the report is based.
When discussing the attack on Maasran the report says it arrived at its conclusions based on “images and reports sent to it by Syrian human rights activists and also documented by military and security organisations”.
Though Amnesty claims to have spoken to some of the alleged witnesses, it is likely most of the information in the report - and all the video evidence which Amnesty claims to have seen - comes from these sources.
This begs the obvious question of who these “Syrian human rights activists” and “military and security organisations” are, and how much reliance can be placed on them?
What criteria does Amnesty use to determine whether someone reporting out of Syria is a “human rights activist”?
The expression “human rights activist” implies someone whose primary concern is for human rights and who is therefore in some way detached from the political struggle.
Anyone who has followed the Syrian conflict with any care knows that no such people exist. Individuals and organisations who report about Syria claiming to be “human rights activists” - such as the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights - turn out invariably to be anti-Assad activists and members of the Syrian opposition. As such they cannot be assumed to be unbiased or impartial reporters of what is going on.
A reporter does not have to be impartial to be objective and accurate. Gleb Bazov and Colonel Cassad who report about the Ukrainian war from a militia perspective are neither unbiased nor impartial and make no pretence to be. However experience has shown them to be extremely reliable and accurate.
The same unfortunately is not true of the Syrian conflict. This has been proved countless times (see for example here my discussion about the Ghouta chemical attack of August 2013) whilst the fact that the people Amnesty is in contact with claim to be “human rights activists” as opposed to “opposition supporters” - which is what they really are - is in itself good reason to doubt what they say.
Far more disturbing than this reliance on “Syrian human rights activists” is however the reference to “military and security organisations”.
Who are these “military and security organisations”? Are they perhaps the intelligence agencies of the Western powers? If so, should Amnesty be getting its information from such a source?
It is comments like this that explain the concern of many people like me, who have strong historic links to Amnesty, and who are left wondering whether it bears any resemblance to the organisation they once knew?
I have dissected Amnesty’s report on the Russian campaign in Syria to expose its obvious flaws.
Doing so in a sense is however hardly necessary. There is no need to get lost in the detail.
The reality - as everyone knows - is that it is hardly conceivable Amnesty would ever publish a report about the Russian military campaign in Syria that gave it a clean bill of health.
The report in fact brings together two of Amnesty’s perennial villains - the Russian government and the Syrian government - and given what Amnesty routinely says about each of them, nothing different from the report Amnesty has just published could have been expected.
Ever since the start of the Syrian conflict Amnesty has campaigned against the Syrian government, calling for Western military intervention in Syria to “protect civilians”, for the establishment of “safe havens” and “no-fly zones” (as to what all that means see my discussion here) and has tried to orchestrate public campaigns against Russia’s support or perceived support for the Syrian government.
To expect Amnesty not to find fault with a Russian military intervention in Syria that is defeating all those objectives would be naive.
This is quite apart from the fact that Amnesty has a long history of hostility to the Russian government.
It has backed groups like Pussy Riot. It named people like the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky - an individual the European Court of Human Rights says is guilty of massive tax evasion - “prisoners of conscience”.
Amnesty's reporting of the Ukrainian conflict has also leaned heavily in favour of the Ukrainian government and against the east Ukrainian militia and Russia.
It has for example laid heavy stress on individual human rights violations it claims were committed by the militia whilst all but ignoring the Ukrainian army’s indiscriminate shelling of cities and its attempts to besiege them.
Amnesty has also vigorously supported the claims of Western governments that the Russian army is intervening on the militia’s side in the Ukrainian war - to the point of publishing actually inconclusive satellite pictures to prove it - as if it was itself an intelligence agency.
The report on the Russian campaign in Syria has to be read in this context.
It is not an impartial fact-based study carried out after careful field work on the ground. Rather it is simply part of the ongoing campaign in the West to turn Western public opinion against Russia’s military campaign in Syria.
That this is so is shown by the claim in the report that the Russians are deliberately targeting civilians and are therefore committing war crimes - an incendiary allegation Amnesty has also made against President Assad.
In the case of the Russians it makes no sense. Why would the Russians deliberately target civilians - something that can only provoke them to join the rebels - at the same time as they have been working hard to get a political process started to end the Syrian war? Surely the one contradicts - and completely undermines - the other?
None of this is to say that no civilians have died in Syria as a result of Russian air strikes. Some have certainly died and it would be absurd to pretend otherwise. However to claim there is a deliberate policy of targeting civilians defies logic, and finds no support in anything the Russians have said or done, or which appears in the report whose flaws I have dissected.
As it happens the report does give an account of one incident which might - if true - show how civilians might have been killed during a Russian air strike without the Russians intending it.
This is the attack on Al-Ghantu, in which several members of a single extended family sheltering in the basement of what the report calls a civilian building are alleged to have been killed as a result of a Russian air strike.
The report says the family “were related to a commander of a local armed group who was away at the time of the attack”.
Amnesty does not identify the man in question or the group he leads. One wonders why?
Regardless, this account sounds very like an attempt to kill a rebel commander which missed him but which killed instead members of his family.
The Russians have claimed on several occasions that they have killed rebel commanders in air strikes. It is entirely plausible that they target rebel commanders intentionally, and that this was an attempt to kill one.
If so then it obviously was not intended to kill civilians since the intended target was not the civilians but the rebel commander.
The Russians might have been guilty of recklessness about whether civilians were in the basement when they attacked it in the belief the rebel commander was there. Or they might have mistaken the basement for a bunker or command post. Or they might have thought only the commander and his guards were there.
In any of these cases the killing of the civilians would not have been deliberate. It would have been - in the horrible language of modern war - not intentional but “collateral”.
Some might argue - as I do - that trying to assassinate someone far from the battlefield in this way is wrong. However the point is that it is precisely what the Western powers do all the time - with barely any complaint from Amnesty.
To take one example amongst legions: during the 2011 Libyan campaign the Western military made what were obvious attempts to kill Gaddafi. The fact Gaddafi was being intentionally targeted was not even denied, though the Russian government complained about it.
One such attempt involved an air strike on a residential villa. It missed Gaddafi - who was not there - but killed one of his infant children and three of his grandchildren. Here is what I wrote about it.
At the time I called this an “ongoing descent into barbarism”.
If Amnesty condemned it I never heard about it, and I have found no record of it. If Amnesty did condemn it, they certainly don’t draw attention to it. Certainly they have not accused the Danish government - whose aircraft carried out the strike - of committing war crimes.
Why then does Amnesty find the attack on Al-Ghantu so much more objectionable?
The short answer - there is no other - is that it is because the attack on Gaddafi’s villa - like scores of other attacks on civilian facilities in any number of countries before and since - were carried out by the Western powers, whilst the attack on Al-Ghantu was - allegedly though not definitely - carried out by the Russians.
It is impossible to avoid the feeling that for the authors of the Amnesty report it is that - not the deaths of civilians - that is in the end what matters.
Amnesty International was once a universally respected organisation, greatly admired for its courage and integrity. Its founding purpose was to campaign for political prisoners - people imprisoned not for their crimes but for their beliefs - regardless of their political views or of the political views of those who had imprisoned them.
As someone who has supported Amnesty’s campaigns in the past, it pains me to see it departing so far from its founding purpose by taking sides in conflicts so openly and in such a brazenly political way.
I hope and believe there are still people in Amnesty who realise the folly of this, and who will fight back against it before it is too late.
As for the report about Russia's military campaign in Syria that Amnesty has just published, it falls so far below its old standards that it has to be treated more as a piece of anti-Russian propaganda than as a serious critique of the Russian military campaign.
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