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Syria

Satellite imagery used in Aleppo aid convoy attack investigation

The perpetrator of the Aleppo air convoy attack cannot be determined with certainty, but strong clues have been found through the use of digital technology. The new information points to one guilty party.

Was it an airstrike or merely an "attack"? The Syria air convoy attack that occurred west of Aleppo on September 19 was barely over when the two superpowers, the United States and Russia, started arguing over who was responsible and what terminology was to be used in describing the incident. The United Nations almost immediately decided to call it an airstrike. The Russians protested, as they felt that term had arisen from prejudice against the Russian army. They protested and forced the UN to use the term "attack" for the incident. This appeal has now been reversed.

"With our analysis we determined it was an airstrike, and I think multiple other sources have said that as well," explained Lars Bromley, research advisor at the UN Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT).

For some time now, advanced satellite imaging technology has assisted in viewing and analyzing military operations. The advent of Google Earth, which creates satellite, aerial and ground images in high resolution and 3D maps from all around the world, has drastically improved the ability to document incidents like the aid convoy attack in Syria.

Investigations in Ukraine

In the summer of 2014, this technology was presented to the general public. At the time, there were questions in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict regarding the firing position of missiles targeting Ukrainian troops.

Russland Panzir-S1 Luftabwehrraketen-System (picture-alliance/ITAR-TASS/D. Rogulin)

Satellite imagery was used to determine Russian missile use in the Ukraine conflict

That is when British investigative journalist Eliot Higgins published his research findings on his website Bellingcat. Satellite images from Google Earth showed the missile impact craters. Higgins and his team used the information they gathered on their size and position to calculate the missile trajectory and thus the probable firing position, which was on Russian territory in this case. At the same time, they used Google Earth videos of the missile firing that unsuspecting Russian civilians had posted on the internet. The videos reveal that the firing positions were on Russian territory. The most recent satellite images show burn marks and tire tracks on those spots.

Satellite imagery analysis was also used to investigate the aid convoy attack in Aleppo. The analysis revealed bullet holes in the area of the attack. Among them was a giant crater that was caused "almost certainly [by] air-dropped munitions," UN advisor Bromley said, adding that it was unlikely to have been the result of artillery or mortars.

Syrien Angriff auf UN Hilfskonvoi bei Aleppo (picture-alliance/dpa/Russian Defence Ministry)

The UN aid convoy around noon

Inconsistencies in Russian arguments were obvious even before the analysis. Since only the Russians fly over that region, they quickly drew suspicion. Russian military authorities denied the allegations against them.

Their explanations, however, contradict the satellite images they published in the belief that they would corroborate their explanations. The shadows in the images suggest that they were taken at approximately 1:30 p.m. on the day of the attack, around five-and-a-half hours before the incident. The Russians had been monitoring the convoy for a long time. Other images show the convoy five hours later, just before the attack.

Clues point to Russia

This shows that the Russians had been closely monitoring the aid convoy and knew its exact location at all times and also knew who was around it. The Russians do not accept responsibility for the attack but instead blame an American drone strike, although they had previously ruled out the idea of an air attack. However, drone equipment is not suitable for heavy air combat.

Syrien Trümmerstück der mutmaßlischen Bombe vom Angriff auf den Hilfskonvoi (Bellingcat-Report) (Bellingcat)

Debris from the bomb allegedly used in the aid convoy attack

Two "Hellfires" - or six smaller surface-to-air missiles - cannot cause such heavy damage, wrote Switzerland's "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" newspaper. "It does not fit with the video images that document a considerably more intensive bombing."

Also, only the Russian air force flies over the area in question, which makes it look like it is deliberately attacking key infrastructure; this tactic would fit in with the overall Russian strategy, the paper said. "The reasons behind it are obviously to make life as hellish as possible in the rebel areas."

The satellite analysis is consistent with statements issued by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. They described the attacks as "airstrikes" in their first statements. The evidence is not conclusive but it does offer strong clues.

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