Russia or the Syrian regime?
by TOM COOPER
A series of air strikes lasting more than three hours hit and largely destroyed a warehouse operated by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Urum Al Kubra, an insurgent-held town about 12 kilometers west of Aleppo, on the evening of Sept. 19, 2016.
The warehouse was in the process of receiving a shipment of non-food items — clothes and pediatric nutrients — delivered by a convoy of 31 trucks operated by the U.N. Refugee Agency and the World Food Program.
Of 31 vehicles, 18 were totally destroyed in this attack. The warehouse and most of the shipment was heavily damaged and more than 20 civilians were killed, including the head of the SARC, Omar Barakat.
Who was responsible?
The convoy in question consisted of clearly marked vehicles. Entering Syria from Turkey, it never passed through any of areas controlled by troops loyal to the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, but it was given permission to continue by the authorities of that regime.
It is known to have been tracked by a Russian reconnaissance drone for most of Sept. 19. In other words, the regime in Damascus and the Russian military authorities in Syria were well-informed about the convoy’s load, purpose and destination.
Taking place hard on the heels of another failed ceasefire in Syria and just two days after a U.S. air strike that killed up to 100 troops loyal to Assad in the southern outskirts of Dayr Az Zawr city, the air strike on Urum Al Kubra prompted fierce accusations and counter-accusations.
Initially, the United Nations reacted with outrage, citing flagrant violations of international humanitarian law — even declarations that the attack was deliberate and a war crime.
As so often in the course of this war, the United Nations subsequently softened its statements. U.S. officials, for their part, put the blame clearly on Russia and Assad’s regime, stressing that these are the only entities that could be responsible — and pointing out that two Russian air force Sukhoi Su-24 fighter-bombers were airborne over Aleppo at the time of the attack.
Some American sources have implied that the convoy strike was too sophisticated for the Syrian air force to have pulled off.
Moscow reacted in usual fashion — that is, changing its version of the story several times. Early Russian statements claimed the convoy had not been struck by air-dropped ordnance, insisting that there was no sign of craters and damage consistent with aerial bomb blasts.
Drones had tracked a pick-up truck towing a heavy mortar next to the convoy, making it a legitimate target, another Russian statement claimed. A U.S. Predator drone was circling Umr Al Kubra at the time of attack, another insinuated.
Curiously, Damascus remained silent about the entire affair. This is even more surprising considering that a number of Syrians loyal to Assad’s regime celebrated the destruction of a “Nusra convoy” on social media only hours after the attack. It didn’t take long until well-positioned sources within the Assad regime began bragging about “revenge” for the deaths in Dayr Az Zawr.
In the Assadist ideology, Al Qaeda is a creation of a U.S.-Israeli-Saudi conspiracy that aims to destroy “progressive” governments such as that in Damascus. Correspondingly, the Syrian Arab Army is fighting U.S.-supported jihadists.
Because the SARC is operating in the areas controlled by such elements, and is supported by the United States, it’s cooperating with jihadists. Therefore the SARC is a legitimate target. That’s the Syrian regime’s way of thinking, at least.
For that reason it seems likely that Syrian aircraft, rather than Russian ones, attacked the air convoy.
Bear in mind — Russia supplies, advises and trains Assad’s troops, but it does not control them.
Indeed, Moscow and Damascus are often at odds. The Syrian regime and its main allies in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps want to “liberate” Aleppo, if not the whole of Syria, while the Kremlin would be content to negotiate an end to the war that underscores Russia’s own position as a global power.
Consider that while the IRGC was rushing reinforcements to Aleppo, Russia negotiated a fragile and short-lived ceasefire with the United States. The air strike on the SARC convoy was counterproductive for Russia, but perfectly in line with Assad’s aims and ideology.
Nevertheless, the Russians are responsible, too. Not only because they have trained Assadist pilots and sold additional Sukhoi Su-24s to Damascus, but because officials in Moscow have been helping to cover up attacks on civilians.