Double-tap strikes: Syria's weapon of terror is being challenged

Double-tap strikes: Syria's weapon of terror is being challenged
The Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) has documented 58 double-tap strikes in Syria, which have left countless civilians and rescue workers dead.
5 min read
21 July, 2022
The Syrian regime and Russia have used double-tap airstrikes throughout the war [Getty]

Of all the methods of terror deployed by the Assad regime and Russia during the Syria war - ranging from barrel bombs to chemical weapons - perhaps none have been so deliberately destructive and callous as double-tap strikes.

The aim of the strikes - targeting the same site twice or multiple times - is to kill or maim as many first responders and medics as possible, as well as destroy civilian infrastructure and spread terror among the civilian population in opposition areas.

In that respect, it worked. Double-tap strikes contributed to the flight of millions across Syria's borders with a criminal intent by Russia and the Syrian regime to crush the rebel uprising.

Yet it didn't manage to destroy the organic civil rescue network established in opposition areas with White Helmets workers and medics continuing to bravely whisk away the injured from destroyed buildings, knowing that another bomb might be heading for the location in a matter of seconds.

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) has recorded 58 such incidents between 2013 and 2021, all in opposition areas. They increased when Russia entered the scene in September 2015 bringing precision weapons and high-tech fighter jets to the war.

"Syrian and Russian Armed Forces conduct double-taps by striking an initial location, then striking the same location soon after to target civilians and first responders who arrive at the scene between the strikes," Nessma Bashi, legal officer at SJAC explained.

"This 'shock and awe' approach is deliberately used to crush opposition sentiment and instil fear in civilians who are trapped with nowhere to hide. As a result, double-tap strikes cause large-scale damage to identifiable civilian areas and terrorise civilians into government submission."

The White Helmets have saved countless civilians in Syria [Getty]

The team picked through hours of video footage and images, using the latest investigative tools, to confirm the strikes, their locations, and times, which might one day be used as evidence against those who ordered the bombings.

SJAC chose to focus on five of these attacks in case studies for the report 'When the Planes Return: Double-Tap Strikes on Civilians in Syria'.

The first case presented by the team was during a 2018 Russian and Syrian regime assault on the opposition stronghold of Douma, when barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and white phosphorus pounded the densely populated Damascus suburb.

It also saw countless double tap strikes targeting first responders, with one incident on 19 March leaving 15 dead, including White Helmets workers who were rescuing casualties from an airstrike.

The location of the attack was confirmed by the SJAC team from six videos of the incident which concluded that white phosphorous was used in the assault.

Another double tap attack on a camp in northern Idlib province for internally displaced Syrians in 2018 saw around 45 people killed and 70 injured.

Rescue workers were attempting to extinguish a blaze in the camp caused by an initial bombing when a second missile struck, killing them and a classroom full of children. Moments later a third missile struck, killing more survivors and civil defence workers.

The third case study was an attack on the town of Al-Ghantu in Homs province in March 2015, when a second Syrian strike targeted trapped civilians. It left ten injured and an apocalyptic landscape of craters, uprooted olive trees, and dead livestock

Investigators used the shadows of trees and the minaret of a mosque to determine the time and location of the bombings.

In June 2014, barrel bomb attacks on a marketplace in Aleppo killed 80 people, including seven children and five women. The second strike occurred when a crowd of men approached the damaged buildings looking for survivors.

Finally, the SJAC team pieced together evidence confirming a deadly 2013 Syrian regime double-tap strike on Arbin in the Damascus countryside.

There was no evidence of fighters being present at any of the five incidents the SJAC investigated, and all victims were civilians.

The report should help dispel long-standing claims by Russia and the regime that it only targets military facilities and confirms likely collusion between intelligence and militaries to target civilians and rescue workers.

"For each of these incidents, documentation - including photos, videos, and publicly-available statements - suggests that the core principles of International Humanitarian Law were violated," Bashi told The New Arab.

"More specifically, airstrikes hit residential areas where there were no identifiable military targets, thus violating the principle of distinction by which civilians should be distinguished from combatants and civilian objects are respected, as well as the principle of proportionality which obligates respect for civilians and civilian objects to the fullest extent possible."

The strikes are believed to have broken Articles 15 and 71 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Convention which states that medical personnel and humanitarian workers should not be targeted. The evidence could be used to pursue the culprits for suspected war crimes in court.

"Our team preserves evidence of violations regardless of the affiliation or identity of the victim or perpetrators," Bashi added.

"Field documentation is analysed based on international legal standards and linked to related evidence within SJAC's database, ultimately informing SJAC's public reports as well as UN mechanisms and prosecutors across Europe to support active criminal investigations."

Syrian and Russian Armed Forces conduct double-taps by striking an initial location, then striking the same location soon after to target civilians and first responders who arrive at the scene between the strikes

Yet there are evident challenges in the pursuit of justice. Syria is not a state party to the Rome Statute so prosecutions cannot be pursued via the ICC, while Russia's membership in the UN Security Council gives both governments further protections.

"While Russia and Syria are state parties to the Geneva Conventions and evidence of their violations is plentiful, international humanitarian law lacks an enforcement mechanism," Bashi added.

It is hoped that other avenues could be pursued, as has happened in Germany, with the principle of universal jurisdiction or other legal mechanisms.

However,the same methods of terror are now being seen in another conflict involving Russia.

"The same patterns of double-tap strikes have emerged in Ukraine where Russian Armed Forces strike locations shortly after humanitarian actors and civilians arrive at the scene in response to an initial strike," said Bashi.

"Weapons used to conduct strikes have been consistent with those used in Syria, including barrel bombs. The use of double-tap strikes in Ukraine is evidence that the Russian Armed Forces are intentionally employing tactics used in the Syrian conflict to maximise civilian casualties in Ukraine."

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin