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Russia and Syria conducted dozens of illegal ‘double tap’ strikes, report says

Syria Civil Defense workers, or White Helmets, search for victims after a reported Russian airstrike on Maarat al-Numan in Syria's northwest on July 22, 2019. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

The Russia and Syrian governments have carried out dozens of “double tap” airstrikes on civilians and humanitarian workers in Syria since 2013, according to findings by a Syria-focused rights group, pointing to a pattern of illegal attacks that appears to have continued into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The report, published Thursday by the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), a U.S.-based human rights group, identifies 58 double-tap attacks targeting residential areas outside government-held territory between 2013 and 2021. In such attacks, Russia and Syria shell or launch an airstrike targeting a spot where paramedics and civilians are gathered to help the victims of an initial strike.

Syrian and Russian forces conducted the strikes “as part of a larger strategy to punish and regain control of opposition-held areas” during Syria’s more than decade-long civil war, the report alleges.

“Double-tap airstrikes represent the ‘shock and awe’ policy of the Syrian government meant to ruthlessly suppress opposition sentiment and terrorize civilians,” Mohammad Al Abdallah, the SJAC’s executive director, said in a news release. The attacks amount to war crimes, he said.

Researchers used open-source intelligence, including videos and satellite imagery, to verify each strike. Many of the documented double taps occurred in Idlib, a rebel-held province in northwestern Syria, and Rif Damashq, a region encompassing the capital, Damascus, that saw fierce fighting for years.

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The attacks represent a “pattern of the Syrian government violating international humanitarian law,” said Nessma Bashi, the report’s lead author. In addition to deliberate attacks on civilians, international law prohibits attacks on medical personnel, hospitals and humanitarian workers — as well as violence that aims to “spread terror among the civilian population.”

The report reconstructs five incidents that highlight the civilian toll of double-tap strikes.

In 2013, civilians working to rescue survivors and unearth bodies from a destroyed housing complex in a suburb of Damascus were hit by another strike. “The civilians rescuing survivors had no time to run,” the report says. “A headless body was carried out from a bombed-out structure.”

Syrian and Russian aircraft repeatedly targeted Syria Civil Defense workers, also known as the White Helmets, in double-tap attacks in the Damascus suburb of Douma in March 2018, the report alleges. The volunteer group, which operates in opposition-held areas, became famous for providing emergency medical care after attacks, digging through rubble to rescue people.

In some cases cited in the report, Bashi said, double-tap attacks killed White Helmets responders as their cameras rolled, capturing evidence of the second strike.

Ismail Alabdullah, an Idlib-based media coordinator for the White Helmets, said he witnessed “tens of double strikes” in Aleppo. Two of his colleagues were killed by a double-tap strike as they responded to an attack in central Aleppo during the brutal siege of that city in 2016, he said.

“I was lucky — I’m still alive now,” he told The Washington Post.

Watchdog groups and journalists have documented double-tap strikes allegedly carried out by Syrian and Russian forces, including one that partly destroyed a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders in Homs in 2015. U.N. investigators accused Russia in 2020 of carrying out a double-tap attack on a market in Syria in July 2019 that killed at least 43 civilians. But the SJAC says its report provides “the most comprehensive study of double tap incidents” in the conflict to date.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces began carrying out double-tap strikes in the early years of the war, according to the report. The attacks intensified after Russia entered the conflict officially in 2015. Laser-guided weapons, such as the Russian-made Krasnopol, wreaked more-widespread destruction.

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Russia has deployed this tactic, honed in Syria, in its war in Ukraine, according to reports from international investigators and journalists on the ground. In a March attack in Kharkiv, a Russian missile allegedly hit a regional administration building. A second strike occurred a few minutes later, after rescuers had arrived, according to an April report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Five civilians were killed in another double-tap strike in Kharkiv the following month, as a Red Cross team tried to administer first aid, the Australian Broadcast Corporation reported.

“Syria was kind of the testing ground for this approach,” Bashi said. “What Ukraine has shown is that double taps are being conducted on a regular basis.”

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It’s one of several examples of Moscow pulling from its Syria playbook in Ukraine. In April, Russia tapped Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, a veteran of Moscow’s military operations in Syria, to oversee its operations in Ukraine.

The report’s authors hope their findings will aid efforts to hold Syria and Russia accountable. The SJAC, which collects and analyzes documentation of violations committed by all parties in the Syria conflict, plans to release additional reports in coming months on rights abuses allegedly carried out by other actors in the war, Bashi said.

Accountability has so far proved largely elusive. Syria is not party to the Rome Statute, the governing treaty of the International Criminal Court, which means the court has limited jurisdiction in Syria. Russia, which withdrew from the ICC treaty in 2016, has obstructed efforts by the U.N. Security Council to refer the Syria conflict to the court.

Still, human rights lawyers have launched a fresh effort to bring war crimes cases involving Syrian officials to the ICC. National courts in Europe, meanwhile, are being used to pursue such cases against Assad’s government, through the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Syrians seeking justice see the war in Ukraine as a double-edged sword, Bashi said. “A lot of Syrians were concerned that the media attention and the money was going to be flooded to Ukraine and everyone else was going to be neglected because of this,” she said.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also breathed new life into the field of international law and efforts to investigate and prosecute war crimes.

“I would hope this would pull more attention to the importance of accountability efforts across the board,” Bashi said. “Certainly we know there are specific members of the Russian military who were involved in Syria and are now key players in Ukraine. If it is the case that those people are held accountable for crimes they commit in Ukraine, we will consider that a win for Syrians.”