Rights groups have said the suspected Russian bombing of chicken farms and water stations in Idlib, one of Syria's last rebel-held areas, is meant to push out displaced locals. It may have been a war crime.
The Syrian Archive, a Berlin-based group that digitally monitors and documents human rights violations in Syria, released a report on Tuesday that indicates the use of new methods targeting anti-government rebels in the country, as well as civilians living under their rule.
The report, obtained exclusively by DW, details the bombing of the Arshani water pumping station in northwestern Syria, near the last enclave of opposition fighters in Idlib. Russian planes are suspected to be behind the strikes. Russia has backed the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad since the conflict started more than a decade ago.
The attack on the water pumping station, which took place on January 2 around midday, was widely reported at the time, but the Syrian Archive has since used open-source verification techniques and almost 100 pieces of visual evidence, including videos and pictures, to come up with a more complete picture of what happened that day.
The damaged water pump in Arshani village supplies about 225,000 people in Idlib. The area is home to around 2.8 million people, around half of whom fled fighting elsewhere but who don't want to live under the Assad regime.
About 1.7 million of them are internally displaced, and many live in tent cities that have sprung up around Idlib. Human Rights Watch has said that three-quarters of the population rely on regular humanitarian assistance because of damaged infrastructure and economic hardship.
'It's more than an attack'
Idlib is now mostly controlled by Islamist militia groups opposed to the Assad government. But in its report, the Syrian Archive showed that the water pumping station was far from any sites that could possibly be considered military targets.
"It's really in the middle of nowhere," said Hamoud, the Syrian Archive's primary researcher on the report. He preferred not to give his full name for security reasons.
In January, news agency Reuters and other media reported that eye witnesses said Russian warplanes had bombed the water station. The Syrian Archive cross-checked those reports with flight tracking data from various sources, all of which showed that a Russian plane, most likely a Russian Air Force Su-34, was in the area at the time of the attack.
Russia's Defense Ministry and the Russian Embassy in Syria did not respond to DW's request for a statement on the incident.
Two bombs were dropped, and one worker at the station was injured. According to DW's sources on the ground, the station has since been repaired and is working again.
It is likely that attacking infrastructure, like this water pump, is a tactic to pressure or force civilians to leave the area, Haneen, the Syrian Archive's project manager responsible for the report, told DW. She also did not give her full name for security reasons.
"It's more than an attack," Haneen said. "It has a significant negative impact on the possibility of life in such an area."
Haneen explained that such strikes worsen the already difficult humanitarian plight of Idlib's displaced people.
January's bombing is not an isolated incident, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) recently confirmed.
"At the start of 2022, there has been an increase in airstrikes on infrastructure, including farms and water pumping stations," UNOCHA noted in one of its most recent situation reports.
In particular, poultry farms had been targeted by Russian warplanes, the Syrian Civil Defense group — more commonly known as the White Helmets — said in a January 5 field report.
From November 11 through January 4, there were aerial attacks on seven farms around Idlib, the organization wrote. Most were poultry farms, but one also had cows. As a result, eight civilians were killed and 11 others wounded. Tens of thousands of chickens also died.
Bombing these farms "poses a threat to the incomes of hundreds of families," the Syrian Civil Defense said in its report. Destroying agricultural facilities also leads to a general rise in prices for basic goods, the organization noted, something that the millions of displaced Syrians in the area, many of whom do not have jobs, can hardly afford.
This is not the first time warplanes have targeted civilian infrastructure during the Syrian civil war. Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, recorded dozens of attacks on civilian infrastructure during a Syrian-Russian military campaign to retake opposition-held areas around Idlib beginning in April 2019.
That included attacks on schools, hospitals and even popular markets. In July 2019, a handful of attacks on water pumping stations and water tanks were also recorded.
An estimated 1,600 civilians were killed during the campaign, which only ended in March 2020, when Russia and Turkey, which supports opposition forces in the area, brokered a cease-fire for Idlib.
Attacks on civilian infrastructure appear to have increased again at the beginning of this year.
The bombing of the water station, and even the chicken farms, could potentially be prosecuted as war crimes in the future. International humanitarian law rules out deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructure in armed conflict zones — that includes water pumping stations.
Tracking human rights violations
The same principle about not attacking civilian infrastructure could ostensibly apply to the farms in Idlib, said Anne Schroeter, a legal researcher and project coordinator at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, or ECCHR, based in Berlin.
"[Those attacks] could constitute war crimes if the farms can be seen as civilian objects or infrastructure, and they were not used for military purposes," said Schroeter, adding that recent Saudi airstrikes on farms, factories and warehouses in Yemen have also been described as possible war crimes.
Although Tuesday's report by the Syrian Archive would be helpful in encouraging prosecuting authorities to take a closer look at a war crime, it's not enough to base a whole case on, said Schroeter.
"These kinds of reports are helpful, but they need to be accompanied with additional material, which in turn will depend on the framework the specific investigation takes place in," she added.
The investigators at the Syrian Archive will now add their latest report to a database they are compiling, which already includes about 3.5 million videos.
"If this information can be used to prevent targeting like this in the future, it will be amazing," said project manager Haneen.