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Russian Military’s ‘Syrian Trophy Train’ Hauls Distortions

RUSSIA -- Russian officers stand near the train with "Syrian turning point" exhibition organized by Russian Defence Ministry on a open goods truck at Kazansky railway station in Moscow on February 23, 2019


Russian state-owned news agency

“The train consists of 18 railway cars that are displaying over 500 trophies from Syria that include the armor and engineering vehicles, artillery guns, armored vehicles, bladed weapons and firearms, improvised implosive devices and terrorists’ gear and outfits.”

The train’s exhibits contain distortions.

Editor's note: Two Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) organizations are actively investigating the so-called "trophy train" -- the Conflict Intelligence Team established by a group of investigative bloggers who monitor the Kremlin's military and Bellingcat, the independent collaborative of researchers and journalists which operates in 20 countries. This fact check features their work:

In late February, Russia’s Defense Ministry launched a Russia-wide tour for its so-called “trophy train,” an 18-car train hauling vehicles and equipment captured from “terrorists” in Syria. Some of the vehicles were indeed used by terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS), which captured large quantities of American-made military equipment during its 2014 offensive in Iraq, including Humvees like the ones on display on the train.

Syrian Trophy Train-- The vehicle with the black paintjob is a U.S. made Humvee
Syrian Trophy Train-- The vehicle with the black paintjob is a U.S. made Humvee

Upon closer examination, however, open source intelligence investigators noticed certain distortions and in some case, fabrications, in the traveling exhibition. In April, a group of independent bloggers in Russia known as the Conflict Intelligence Team evaluated some of the train’s exhibits and found that many of them could not be properly sourced, and were in some cases “blatant propaganda.”

According to CIT, some of the weapons can be identified from their specific modifications as well as insignia. One example is a Humvee captured from Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, which is readily identifiable by its still-intact insignia and black paint job. Other vehicles are unique, such as the so-called “Eagle head” improvised armored vehicle captured from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) by IS, and subsequently captured from IS by Syrian government forces.

Curiously, the information display attached to that exhibit claims the vehicle was assembled in Turkey. Given that Turkey views the YPG as an arm of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara has designated a terrorist group, and that Turkish authorities closed the border with the Kurdish-controlled regions of Syria, it is unlikely that the YPG would assemble a large armored vehicle in Turkey and drive it across the fortified border.

The CIT team found two clear fabrications. One is a T-55 tank, which the exhibit claims was delivered to the rebels from Georgia, a country with an ongoing border dispute with Russia and its local proxies. Based on the tank’s modifications, the CIT team determined that it was most likely sold to the Syrian government by Ukraine in the 1990s. It was most likely captured by rebels, then recaptured by Syrian government forces.

T-55 tank
T-55 tank

Lastly, the CIT calls a collection of equipment described by the Russian exhibit as a “militant chemical lab” the “most blatant example of deliberate disinformation.” Experts from Bellingcat and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) determined that the equipment could not be used to manufacture chemical weapons, and was more likely used for making explosives.

This is not the first time Russia’s Defense Ministry has falsely labeled “trophies” from Syria. Last year, published a fact-check showing how the ministry mislabeled a French-made ANPILAS rocket launcher, claiming it was a much more advanced American FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank guided missile.