“When I’m sitting here and we hear a plane, which is a lot now, I know from the sound. If the plane is above us—you can tell if it’s above you, because that’s when it’s the loudest—and if it’s a Russian plane, then it doesn’t attack where we are. It attacks two or three kilometers away.”
Rami Jarrah is telling me how he distinguishes which government is now bombing civilians in Syria’s Aleppo City. It’s a question that used to answer itself—but no more, given the presence of Syrian, Russian, and coalition aircraft in the skies. Syrian jets, he says, once flew so low that you could actually see the pilots in the cockpits; Russian fixed-wing aircraft fly at much higher altitudes such that they look like crosses or plus-signs in the clouds. They fire from far away, the better to evade the bullets of the Dushka (the name means “sweetie” in Russian), a Soviet-era antiaircraft machine gun, which is typically all anti-Assad rebels have to deter helicopters and attack jets, sometimes successfully.
Jarrah lives in the war-ravaged provincial capital of Syria’s industrial province, documenting the gruesomeness of multisided civil war for his open source newsgathering service ANA Press. Born in Cyprus and educated in London, he first became famous in 2011 as an English-speaking eyewitness on Western TV channels to what was then still a peaceful protest movement against a Ba’athist dictatorship. He used to call himself Alexander Page, a pseudonym he doesn’t need anymore because what good is a pseudonym against one of Putin’s jets?
In the last five years, he has moved in and out of Syria. He returned to what had once been the country’s largest city and took an apartment there, very close to the frontline between the pro-Assad forces and anti-Assad rebels. “Two hundred meters from where I am right now are regime soldiers.” For that reason, he adds, Aleppo’s children are now being educated in apartments on the front-lines, because their open air schools have been bombed by Russia. In these makeshift academies, the primary fear is “elephant bombs,” the regime’s “locally made” ground-to-ground missiles (so called because they sound like the an elephant’s trunk blow when they’re launched) which can hit 60 or 70 times a day.
Jarrah returned to Aleppo two months ago because he wanted to see for himself what the Russian intervention was really like. Were his fellow countrymen lying about the scale of devastation now being unleashed, with civilian death tolls starting to exceed those of the regime? Moscow has insisted, after all, that it was going after the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS and other “terrorists”—not fruit carts, bakeries, and hospitals. The Russian Defense Ministry has yet to claim responsibility for any civilian casualties and often denies striking in civilian-heavy locations which evidence suggests they have struck. But the claims of Russian collateral damage, Jarrah tells me, are “absolutely true. Russia is killing civilians and waging an information war. I want every single person on this planet to know that, whether they admit it or not.”
Other observers of the conflict agree. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 570 civilians have been killed from Russian airstrikes between Sept. 30, the first day those airstrikes began, and Dec. 1. Human Rights Watch has documented Russia’s use of cluster bombs, violating United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, which Moscow helped to pass, calling for an end to “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas.” And in a 28-page report released Wednesday, Amnesty International claimed to have examined six separate Russian airstrikes—and confirmed the deaths of 132 non-combatants. “Some Russian air strikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians,” according to Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
In response, Russia’s Defense Ministry has demanded to know the identities of the NGO’s on-the-ground sources, or else, it has threatened, the ministry will attempt to out them itself.
Kenan Rahmani, a Syrian-American activist, spent the better part of November in Idlib, Syria’s northwest province, which is also under constant Russian bombardment. In the town of Maarat al-Noman, he says “they bombed half a kilometer from where I was, killing three children in a school. The residents in Maarat al-Noman had gotten used to the barrel bombs,” he says, referring to metal canisters filled with shrapnel and explosives dropped from Syrian helicopters. “But these were more limited in their scale of destruction. The Russians destroy more buildings and raise the stakes for Syrians to stay alive inside. But it’s the same form of collective punishment. If you want to live in opposition areas, these are the consequences.”
The sorties in Aleppo have been especially bad in the last 10 days. Whereas earlier in the month, the city would sustain three to four airstrikes a day, now it’s taking up to 20, round the clock, with a dozen or so at night. That’s another signature of Russia’s air war. Assad’s planes used to only attack during daylight hours; Putin’s attack round the clock.
The Russian jets don’t just come around just once, drop their payloads, and leave. According to Jarrah, they sometimes return multiple times to the same location, often hitting first responders from the so-called Civil Defense or White Helmets, who are pulling victims from the rubble of the previous sortie. These include women and children, as captured in ANA Press’s video footage.
On Dec. 15, Russian warplanes bombed Mash’had market in an area called Saif al-Dawla, a central marketplace in Aleppo. (ANA Press published footage of the aftermath, viewable here.) “Ten meters to the right and the missile would have landed inside the market, killing 200 or 300 people,” Jarrah says. “The attacks are not that precise.”
At first, he was puzzled why the Russians would risk killing so many people. Then he remembered the kill logic of the Assad regime in the early days of the revolution.
“Shoot one person in a protest,” Jarrah says, “and he runs away. Then the next day, more come. Then you have to shoot five people to make the same point. The Russians want to kill a lot of people at once so they don’t have to kill even more later. The marketplace, it’s like the veins of the city. If you open the veins, you bleed the city.”
But so far, there has been no conspicuous hemorrhage of civilians from Aleppo because the inhabitants don’t want to leave. Jarrah says that this isn’t because they’re patriots or defiant in the face of a brutal onslaught. It’s because most of them are already internally displaced; refugees from other cities and towns and villages of Syria who have come to occupy abandoned apartments and set up stalls using the resources that had never before been available to them. Jarrah reckons that, apart from Aleppo’s historic Old City, where longtime residents still remain, in the “modern” districts, only about 20 percent of the current population is native. “The rest are Syria’s poorest. If they leave, they’ll have nowhere else to go.”