Hit and Miss

Fact checking Russia’s latest videos of its “massive strikes” in Syria

Nov 17, 2016 · 4 min read

With Russia’s announcement of a “major operation to launch massive strikes on Daesh and al-Nusra Front targets in the Idlib and Homs provinces” of Syria, the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) has once again published a slew of video footage showing its apparent success.

However, analysis of some of the videos shows that the MoD’s targeting, and its reporting, are far from precise.

One such video, released as part of sequences by the MoD, shows a “Kalibr” cruise missile strike on what was described as a militant “headquarters”:

Comparison with open source satellite imagery reveals that the location in question is at 35.9788744N, 37.3158574E, near Zeraa, south-east of Aleppo, in Syria. This geolocation was first completed by Twitter user @ArtWendeley, and confirmed by the DFRLab team as correct. According to online tool Wikimapia, it formerly served as an army base:

The first picture in the MoD’s sequence shows the compound. Close to the center of the picture, a long, low building is marked with a red spot. It has a square construction jutting out from the roof on the left-hand end, and two craters in the open space beneath.

The next shots show the moment of the strike. Here, the building is marked by a targeting cross, indicating that it is the center of the observing drone’s attention (but not necessarily that the drone is directing the targeting of the missile). The square structure on the left-hand end and the two craters beneath are visible. However, not all of the building is visible. It is positioned at the very top of the screen, and the actual point of impact is not shown: only the flames can be seen.

The MoD was not the only agency to release a video of this strike: It was also published by Russian propaganda channel RT’s video arm, Ruptly.

In the Ruptly video, the building is located in the center of the shot. It is identifiably the same building, with the same targeting cross, the same layout of windows, the same square structure at the left-hand end and the same craters nearby. However, this video shows that the strike was not on the building, but behind it.

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Animation of 0:18–19 from Ruptly TV video “Syria: Drone shows Russian missile strikes on IS as new offensive begins

A further video posted from the ground in the aftermath of the strike appears to show its exact location, with a crater in the ground, but no significant structures:

In other words, the strike did not hit the building marked with the targeter’s cross. It did not hit any significant structures or assets which might have been placed behind the building, such as vehicles or weapon systems. According to the Ruptly video — but not the MoD’s edition — it struck into empty space.

The Ruptly video also shows a second feature lacking in the MoD footage: a follow-up strike on the same location, twelve seconds after the MoD video cut off. The targeting cross remains on the long, low central building; however, the second strike actually hits what appears to be a small shed behind it:

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Animation of 00:31–33 from Ruptly TV video “Syria: Drone shows Russian missile strikes on IS as new offensive begins

This structure also appears on the Wikimapia image:

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Screenshot from Wikimapia

It is unclear what purpose this shed serves. However, it is a small structure, apparently ill-suited for use as a military headquarters. The MoD’s red spot and the targeting cross from the MoD video would appear to indicate that the desired main point of impact for the Kalibr attack was the compound’s main building. Moreover, the MoD’s own video implies that the main building was the target.

If so, the “precision strike” by the Kalibr missile leaves something to be desired. According to Google Maps, the small building is 50m away from the main building:

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That is a significant error for what is meant to be a precision munition. The MoD’s apparent attempt to gloss over is, at least, a significant omission.

Once again, the Russian government’s attempts to prove the pinpoint accuracy of its weapon systems seem to be doing the opposite. The overwhelming impression is of a hit-and-miss campaign, reported in a hit-and-miss way.

This text was updated on 17 November to clarify the significance of the drone’s targeting cross.

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