The claim that Russia is using sophisticated techniques and weaponry to ensure that there are no civilian casualties in Syria is misleading on two levels. Yes, Russia is using surveillance drones and some precision weaponry including cruise missiles and bunker-busting bombs in order to conduct some of their strikes. But Russia has also been documented as having used indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and, allegedly, thermobaric bombs. Footage broadcast by Russian media confirms the use of incendiary weapons, , and while the presence and use of thermobaric weapons has been established, it is more difficult to determine whether Russia or Syria have used them.
Furthermore, there is evidence that Russia has used its more sophisticated weapons to deliberately target civilians, civilian infrastructure, aid groups, hospitals, first responders, and other targets that would be banned by the Geneva Convention. In some cases, as we will see, video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense proves that Russia did indeed surveille targets with drones or other aircraft before striking them.
In other words, the principal allegation against Russia is not that they are careless with their strikes, but that they intended to hit illegitimate targets.
Since Russia's air campaign in Syria began in September 2015, multiple government, non-government, and journalistic entities have criticized Russia's actions. At multiple points in time, analyses of Russia's bombing campaign have demonstrated that the Russian air force has not primarily targeted the extremist group Islamic State (IS). Instead, the majority of its strikes have hit areas where IS is not present. Furthermore, many of them have hit civilian targets. As early as January 2016, Russian attempts to explain or dismiss allegations of potential war crimes as “cliches and fake” were judged unconvincing by Amnesty International.
In one example, the Russian Ministry of Defense released several videos which reportedly showed the bombing of oil producing facilities controlled by IS. Analysis of those videos, however, showed that the structures destroyed by Russia's precision airstrikes were not oil facilities but water treatment plants and grain silos, most of which were not even in territory that IS controls.
In September 2016, an aid convoy belonging to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) was destroyed in an air strike, along with the SARC warehouse and medical clinic where the aid convoy was parked. Videos of the aftermath of the bombing clearly show the crushed tail fin of a Russian-made OFAB 250-270 high explosive fragmentation bomb among the ruins to the SARC warehouse. Eyewitnesses say that the area was attacked multiple times by aircraft, including by fire that likely came from Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships. Furthermore, video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense proves that there was a Russian drone surveilling the convoy over a long period of time before it was destroyed. The Russian government's official response to the bombing of the convoy then changed multiple times. All the evidence collectively suggests that the Russian military was fully aware that their target was an aid convoy.
Since the start of the Russian air campaign, many hospitals in rebel-controlled territory have been destroyed, and evidence suggests that some of these attacks were deliberate. Crater analysis and pictures of bomb fragments appear to confirm this, though the evidence has yet to be examined in any kind of official inquiry. In fact, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) no longer publicizes the location of hospitals in Syria because they are convinced that the sheer amount of air strikes against their facilities is not a coincidence. It is their belief that they are being deliberately targeted by the Russian and Syrian air forces.
As a result, many of the hospitals have moved figuratively, and often literally, underground. In the last month several hospitals have reportedly been hit by bunker-busting bombs, suggesting that the facilities were being struck by highly precise Russian weaponry in order to ensure the destruction of the underground medical facilities. MSF reports that there have been at least 30 attacks against hospitals in Aleppo since the siege of the city began in July, and the last four hospitals in the rebel-controlled area of the city were destroyed on the same day on November 18.
Russia has certainly also targeted Syrian rebels – which might be considered legitimate military targets. Most of those fighters are not affiliated with Islamic State, and many Syrian rebels are not extremists, though some may be affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Russia has demonstrated that they are capable of using precision weaponry to conduct attacks against military targets. Unfortunately, the evidence is also clear – Russia has misused this modern military capability to deliberately target Syrian non-military targets.