A UN investigation into atrocities committed in Syria has for the first time accused Russia of direct involvement in war crimes for indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas.
The latest report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria focuses on events of July 2019 to January this year, and in particular attacks by "pro-government forces" on civilian targets like medical facilities, driving 700,000 civilians from their homes, The Guardian wrote.
The commission focused on two incidents in which it found substantial evidence that Russian aircraft were directly involved in the bombing of civilian areas. The panel has in the past suggested possible Russian responsibility for war crimes, but this is the first time it has found proof of Moscow's culpability.
The first incident was a series of air strikes on a market place in Ma'arrat al-Nu'man, a densely populated area 33 km south of Idlib city, on July 22. The commission report describes the attack as a "double tap" air strike, in which a second wave of bombing hit the same target when rescue workers were on the site. Forty-three civilians, including four children, were killed and at least 109 injured.
The second attack investigated was the August 16 bombing of a compound for displaced civilians standing alone in fields just outside Haas in southern Idlib governorate. That attack killed 20 people, including eight women and six children, and injured 40 others.
"Based on the evidence available, including witness testimonies, video footage, data imagery as well as reports by flight spotters, flight communication intercepts and early warning observation reports, the commission has reasonable grounds to believe that a Russian aircraft participated in each incident described above," the report said.
"In both incidents, the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas."
Russia has denied responsibility for the mass killing of civilians in Syria, insisting its air campaign in support of the Damascus regime is solely targeted against terrorist groups.
While frequently condemning daily atrocities in Syria, the UN usually seeks to avoid naming those responsible. It relies on the government of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian backers to distribute humanitarian relief around much of the country.
The commission of inquiry is made up of three independent experts, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro a Brazilian legal scholar, Karen Koning AbuZayd, a veteran American UN official, and an Egyptian human rights expert, Hanny Megally. The panel was established by the Human Rights Council in 2011 to provide continuing reports on human rights violations in the Syrian conflict.
"This is a huge development," said Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute. "The UN very rarely attributes attacks like this, and it is really important that they do so in a report like this. Given the position of the UN in Syria though, it's not surprising it is tucked away in the report and they haven't made a big thing of it."