During a two-day period early this week, the United States reported that coalition aircraft had conducted 23 strikes in Syria, destroying about three dozen Islamic State vehicles, buildings and tactical units.
During the same two days, Russia said its aircraft had hit 472 “terrorist objectives” in Syria, including an Islamic State oil depot, an “oil production plant” and 80 tanker trucks.
The numbers were fairly typical of descriptions separately released nearly every day by the U.S.-led coalition and the Russian Defense Ministry. In the eight weeks since Russia began air operations in Syria, its military claims to have flown many more missions than the United States, and destroyed thousands of targets.
Russia’s efforts, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said in Moscow Wednesday, have been “100 times greater than what is being done by the United States of America and their allies against terrorism.”
Beneath public presidential statements and diplomatic exchanges, the U.S. and Russian militaries have lobbed a steady stream of verbal brickbats at each other since Russian operations in Syria began on Sept. 30. They have repeatedly criticized each other’s tactics, munitions and goals.
More important, charges of outright lying about what each side is doing illustrate the difficulties of Russia and the United States ever cooperating in operations against the Islamic State. That objective seems even further away this week after the shootdown of a Russian aircraft by coalition-member Turkey.
The U.S. military says that Russia has consistently exaggerated both its activities and successes in Syria, and that the vast majority of its attacks have not even been aimed at the Islamic State but have targeted coalition-backed opponents of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In response, Russia has charged the United States with sour grapes, and said the Americans are lying about what Russian planes are hitting. “These statements are . . . made without presenting any proofs, with no specific facts, and citing unspecified sources,” the Defense Ministry said this week, and Russia can back up all its reported operations with “objective control data.”
Most recently, the U.S.-led coalition command ridiculed a Russian claim to have destroyed 500 Islamic State oil tankers in one operation, just after the Americans said U.S. planes had wiped out 116 tanker trucks.
“We didn’t go through the effort . . . to do a detailed battle damage assessment” of the Russian strikes, Col. Steve Warren, the Baghdad-based coalition spokesman, said Wednesday. After looking at a Russian-released video, he said, “unless the Russians are counting, you know, flattened tires and chipped paint, it’s simply impossible that they were able to destroy 500 trucks, particularly using the imprecise and, you know, dumb bombs, dumb munitions that they used.”
“My guess is it’s probably on an order of magnitude of an exaggeration,” Warren said. “Under 100, I would posit.”
On Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry upped the ante, saying that over a five-day period, Russian aircraft had “destroyed over 1,000 petrol tank vehicles, which carried out transportation of crude oil to the plants controlled” by the Islamic State.
The United States has also claimed that Russia has caused numerous civilian casualties with unguided munitions: gravity bombs dropped from the sky. Warren said that tallies by unnamed human rights groups of “upwards of 1,000 civilian casualties . . . including over 100 kids” are “probably fairly accurate.”
“This is sloppy military work,” Warren said. “This is the reckless and irresponsible, imprecise and frankly uncaring approach to operations in Syria that the Russians have taken on.”
In a report issued late last week, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented 403 civilians, including 166 women and children, killed in Russian airstrikes, more than the 381 fighters from both rebel and terrorist forces it said had been killed.
The U.S. military has acknowledged two instances where airstrikes against the Islamic State resulted in civilian deaths.
Striking oil tankers, most of which are driven by civilians, is a particular problem, Warren said, but “our assessment is that we have not caused a single civilian casualty.”
To avoid them in the operation that destroyed the 116 vehicles, he said, U.S. F-15s dropped leaflets over the trucks, which are usually lined up beside Islamic State oil installations, warning drivers that “we’re about to blow them up” and telling them to run away.
Thirty minutes later, the U.S. jets “flew right over, near ground level, to scare the crap out of them,” Warren said. “Just for good measure, they then did strafing runs off to the side” of the trucks, “as an attention-getter . . . just in case one or two really stubborn guys” didn’t get the message.
“We saw them flash their lights at one another, jump out of the trucks and run away. That whole process took about 45 minutes, then we blew them up.” The Russians, he said, provided no such warning.
The two militaries carefully study each other’s released videos and counter each other’s charges in detail.
In response to American charges that Russian warplanes were again striking opposition forces in northwestern Syria, a Defense Ministry statement Monday said that “most terrorist units in these areas have left their positions without permission despite their leaders’ threats. They discarded their Islamic State (and other terrorist groups) clothes and insignia to blend in with the local population.”
“In connection with a large-scale operation on simultaneous destruction of terrorists’ infrastructure all over the territory of Syria,” the statement said, “the so-called fake ‘human rights observatories’ and other propaganda organizations were expected to issue another batch of stovepiping in the Western media.”
Western media, it said, appeared to have become more “careful in their statements” following terrorist attacks in Paris, Egypt and Mali, the statement said.
“On the other hand, statements by certain alleged military experts (such as the official representative of the U.S. Armed Forces Central Command, who has made a statement saying that ‘most Russian airstrikes are aimed against moderate Syrian opposition’) remain the same.”