Does Russia’s Bombing Campaign in Syria Violate Laws of War?

October 26, 2015 Updated: October 26, 2015

A Russian rocket slammed into a home in central Syria, killing dozens of civilians last week. According to human rights activists, the attack, and many more, may have violated the laws of war.

Russian jets have bombed nearly 100 Syrian targets in 24 hours, the highest one-day tally since Moscow started its bombing campaign to support the Syrian army a month ago, Russia’s defense ministry said on Monday, Oct. 26.

But there appears to be a big downside in Moscow’s air war against what it describes as “terrorists”—civilian casualties, and more than 100,000 Syrians who have been displaced.

The airstrikes have killed at least 446 people, more than a third of them civilians, since the bombing started at the end of September, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist organization that has been criticized by Moscow in the past. Previous reports from the Observatory on civilian casualties have been dismissed as “fake” by Russia.

Moscow insists its intervention in Syria is aimed at fighting terrorists, including ISIS, but some analysts say the strikes appear to mainly target moderate rebels fighting against the Syrian army. Bombings that leave civilians dead could open the possibility of a criminal probe into suspected war crimes carried out at the behest of Russian authorities.

A humanitarian organization said nine of its hospitals were struck by Russian planes.

A humanitarian organization said nine of its hospitals were struck by Russian planes. An airstrike last Tuesday, Oct. 20, hit a Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) field hospital in northern Idlib Province, which killed 12 people, including a doctor and a hospital guard. SAMS is a medical nonprofit that operates dozens of medical facilities in rebel-controlled areas. Earlier this month, the Physicians for Human Rights, a New York-based humanitarian nonprofit, said targeting medical facilities constitutes a war crime.

Airstrikes on Civilians in Central Syria?

Meanwhile, at least two airstrikes on Oct. 15 in northern Homs that left nearly 60 civilians—including 33 children—dead may have violated the laws of war, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report on Oct. 25. HRW said Russia should investigate the attacks.

Local residents said they believe the airstrikes were carried out by Russian planes because they sounded different from the noise made by Syrian air force planes, and the planes fly at a much higher altitude, the rights organization said. Russian news agency Interfax reported that Russia’s air force assisted Syrian armed forces during attacks in Homs on Oct. 15.

The laws of war require each party in the conflict to give an advance warning of attacks that might affect a civilian population.

In Ghantou Village, 46 members of the Assaf family were killed when a missile struck a building where they had taken shelter.

“The whole family was hiding in a shelter built in the basement of the house,” said Abu Mohamed, a local man who helped in the aftermath, according to HRW. “People were trying to dig the rest of the family out, but all you could see were limbs and rubble.”

The laws of war require each party in the conflict to give an advance warning of attacks that might affect a civilian population, HRW notes.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said HRW’s report is fabricated.

“We know about the large number of reports, hoaxes, and deliberate lies about the consequences or the bombing operation that the Russian troops are conducting. We heard plenty of them in the past few weeks. This, I believe, is one of them,” Dmitry Peskov said of HRW’s allegations, according to state-run media.

Thousands Fleeing Russian Airstrikes

On Monday, the Norwegian Refugee Council, an organization that tracks refugees in Syria, said that at least 100,000 people have fled in the past month. It is expected that many will move on to the northern Aleppo and Idlib countryside.

“This is the direct result of the warring parties’ intensification of military attacks. Innocent women, children, and elderly Syrians are being killed or forced to flee yet again because of the fighting. Our staff and partners fear that many more thousands will be displaced and we will be unable to meet the enormous needs,” NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland said in a news release.