Chris Woods of Airwars: “Russia is killing civilians at a far, far faster rate than the coalition”

During the first month of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s air intervention in Syria last October, Russian airstrikes killed almost as many civilians as the US-led coalition killed in Syria in more than a year, estimates Airwars, a London-based non-profit organization tracking the international air campaign against the Islamic State.

“There’s every indication that Russia is killing civilians at a far, far faster rate than the coalition–even accounting for the significantly greater number of airstrikes Russia is carrying out,” Chris Woods, Airwars director and author of Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, tells Open Syria.

Why Russia is killing more civilians in Syria boils down to brutally mundane arithmetic: Russian pilots drop more unguided bombs, fly more sorties, and place a lower value on civilian lives compared with the US-led coalition in Syria, says Woods.

“Russia is conducting mostly dumb-bomb airstrikes,” Woods says. Moscow today “is where the United States was 20 years ago, when it was only beginning to adopt precision weapons.”

Q: Is Russia killing civilians at a rate higher than the coalition?

There’s every indication that Russia is killing civilians at a far, far faster rate than the coalition. To be absolutely clear, we use the identical methodology when assessing coalition strikes as we do assessing Russian strikes. And the difference is remarkable.

To give you an idea of the numbers, in the month of October 2015 alone, Russia is likely responsible for 65 separate airstrikes involving multiple reported civilian deaths. Between 345 and 501 men, women and children died in these 65 strikes, with a very high level of accompanying civilian injuries–between 520 and 586.

For comparison, between 420 and 572 civilians died in approximately 80 separate strikes involving the US-led coalition in Syria between August 2014 and January 2016.

Q: Why are so many civilians dying in Russian airstrikes?

The primary reason is that Russia is conducting mostly dumb-bomb airstrikes–it is using smart weapons to a degree, but really Russia is today where the United States was 20 years ago, when it was only beginning to adopt precision weapons.

If you think back to the first Gulf War in 1990, for example, or even the various Balkan conflicts, we often saw quite catastrophic civilian fatalities from US and allied airstrikes, because at the time a lot of the weapons they were using were the same kind of dumb bombs that Russia is using today. 

In Syria today, the coalition is using an almost exclusive suite of precision weapons, meaning bombs and missiles get to where they need to go more accurately, so pilots do not need as many explosive munitions to achieve the same effect. With dumb bombs, Russian pilots need a greater munition load to achieve the same effect. And that can lead to devastating civilian causalities. So the kill box, bluntly, is much larger.

Another reason is Russia’s far higher operational tempo. Russia reports, for example, carrying out 1,391 combat sorties to the end of October, and claims it engaged 1,623 terrorist objects; a clearly large dataset, as compared to the coalition.

But even accounting for the significantly greater number of airstrikes Russia is carrying out, we are seeing a fairly devastating number of civilian casualties measured against what we’ve come to expect from Western air forces. 

Q: To what degree is Russia sensitive to civilian casualties?

The value that Russia has chosen to set on civilian life is a crucial factor influencing civilian casualty rates in Syria, and it is a variable. Civilian lives do not have a constant value on the battlefield, a reality as true for the coalition as it is for the Russians.

More clearly, the variable value that military institutions place on civilian lives is called the non-combatant value, or NCV.

The United States, for example, set the NCV in Iraq in 2003 at 30: You could kill 30 civilians in any event before you had to go to a higher-up for permission. That dropped to six during the surge [Bush’s 2007 troop increase in Iraq], one in Afghanistan, and the British have their NCV set at the moment at zero.

In Syria, Russia’s NCV appears to be set much higher than the coalition’s value. But a recent report in Stars and Stripes [a news organization affiliated with the United States military] stated that the coalition is in fact set to increase the risk to civilians in both Syria and Iraq in its pursuit of high-value targets, or HVT.

In other words, to put it bluntly, the coalition is now prepared to kill more civilians in pursuit of HVT, as is Russia.

Although we think that the coalition can make a good case that it is doing its to protect the lives of innocents, it needs to be more transparent about civilian killings before pointing its finger at the Russians.

Q: Is the US-led coalition doing enough to limit civilian fatalities?

The coalition is going to extraordinary and unprecedented lengths to limit civilian fatalities. But it is majorly understating it’s own civilian casualties. It needs to be more transparent about its civilian killings–before it starts pointing its finger at the Russians.

Both parties for example stand accused of having targeted civilian infrastructure. We often see the coalition say, ‘today we’ve destroyed an ISIL bridge in Raqqa’ –what the coalition actually mean is that today it destroyed a civilian bridge in occupied Raqqa [emphasis added]. And those heavy strikes do often kill civilians.

Now clearly, Russia is bombing targets that the coalition would not. Russia frequently strikes civilian areas, and there are three well-documented, videoed cases demonstrating Russia even struck civil-defense rescue teams on the ground.

We would nevertheless urge the coalition–as a way of distinguishing itself from the Assad regime and from Russia–to be much more transparent about when civilian deaths do unfortunately occur.

Q: How does Putin’s air campaign compare to al-Assad’s?

Russia measured against the Assad regime is a devil’s bargain: If Russia convinced the Assad regime to stop barrel-bomb strikes, for example, and to instead rely upon the Russian air force, then we should see a significant drop overall in civilian fatalities.

It is horrible accounting, but in the perverse logic of the metrics of death in war, the civilian population may be better off with the Russians bombing than al-Assad.

Q: Can you briefly review your methodology and data?

I would first like to state that the data is provisional, and only up to the end of October 2015. Our researchers are currently reviewing another 80 alleged incidents of civilian deaths in Russian airstrikes for the month of November.

Again, we use the identical methodology when assessing coalition strikes as we do assessing Russian strikes.

Although we do not have researchers on the ground in Syria, we are drawing upon a wide a set as possible of open information sources documenting airstrikes–rather wider than organizations like the Syrian Network for Human Rights or the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for example–and we note contradicting claims wherever possible.

When we do publish our dataset, it will be public, organic, and it will change according to our understanding. We also intent to go through the front door with the Russians, and present them with allegations of reported civilian deaths.

Joseph Adams

Joseph was a 2013-2014 Boren Fellow in Arabic based in Amman, Jordan and is the founder of Open Syria. He holds BA and MS degrees in political science from UCLA and MIT, and is an MA degree candidate in Arabic at Middlebury College.