The Syrian regime and its backer, Russia, are responsible for 58 "double-tap air strikes" on civilian and humanitarian targets in Syria, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre revealed in an investigative report published last Thursday (July 21).
A "double-tap strike" is the practice of striking a location, then striking the same location soon after to target civilians and first responders who arrive at the scene between the strikes, the Syrian-led rights organisation said.
This is a common tactic employed by Syrian regime and Russian forces to maximise harm, it said, describing this practice as "a regularly implemented military strategy".
"Throughout the last 11 years in Syria, various military tactics have been callously implemented to crush popular dissidence," the report said.
"No method has been left off the table -- from besieging entire cities to using chemical weapons. As a result, civilians are caught in the crosshairs of the conflict and are forced to cope with its endless ramifications."
The report, "When the planes return -- Double tap strikes on civilians in Syria", suggests that double-tap strikes were performed to intentionally harm protected persons and objects, rather than to attack an identifiable enemy.
"This 'shock and awe' approach is meant to quash opposition sentiment and terrorise civilians," it said, noting that these strikes "constitute serious violations of international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes".
The investigating team used data gathered from social media platforms, media outlets and satellite imagery to evaluate and document cases of "double-tap strikes", reviewing hundreds of videos during the process.
The investigators first verified the location of the initial strike, and the arrival of first responders or civilians at the location, after the strike.
They then verified that at least one subsequent attack had occurred on the same location within an hour of when first responders or civilians arrived.
Each piece of documentation was assessed for authenticity, and tools such as geolocation and weather patterns were used to verify that the videos showed the same locations and time frame.
Along with videos, firsthand accounts were gathered from social media and news articles documenting the strikes and casualties.
"Based on these criteria, 58 incidents of double-tap strikes were identified spanning from 2013 to 2021 across Syria," the report said.
'Overwhelmingly civilian victims'
Each of the 58 incidents documented in the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre report occurred in residential areas outside regime-held territory.
There were two "double-tap strike" incidents in Aleppo province, one in Homs, 21 in Idlib, and 34 in Damascus province, the report said.
"As a result, the victims overwhelmingly consisted of civilians, including women and children, as well as first responders who were assisting victims after the initial strike," it said.
Before Russia officially entered the conflict in 2015, Syrian regime forces conducted double-tap strikes by firing artillery shells on targets, it noted.
"After 2015, however, double-tap strikes climbed in frequency and intensity, resulting in broadened destruction, in part because of the use of laser-guided weapons, such as the Krasnopol," the report said.
The Krasnopol is a Soviet artillery system that homes in on a point illuminated by a laser designator, usually operated by a drone or ground-based artillery observer.
The incidents documented in the report, with five detailed examples, demonstrate "the Syrian Armed Forces' policy to attack civilians and humanitarian actors who reside in areas outside of government control".
"This policy is intended to maximise civilian harm, diminish the capacity of humanitarian actors to provide life-sustaining support, and terrorise the civilian population into submission," the report added.
'All the children were killed'
On March 19, 2018, during the Syrian and Russian bombardment of Douma, a vehicle with the Syrian civil defence (White Helmets) insignia visible on its sides and windshield drove past corpses strewn on a street, after an apparent strike.
"Four volunteers in White Helmets uniforms stopped the vehicle to rescue two survivors on the ground who called for help," the report said.
"The volunteers worked together to lift the first man by his arms and legs into the vehicle's trunk. Then they used the same tactic on the second man," it said.
"Once both survivors and the volunteers were inside the vehicle, the driver reversed down the street. About five seconds later, a strike hit the spot where the vehicle was just parked."
In another incident, on May 5, 2016, Russian aircraft allegedly attacked al-Kamuna, a remote displacement camp in northern Idlib province housing primarily women and children.
"The first strike hit the centre of the camp," the report said. "According to witnesses, at least 14 people were killed as dozens of tents went up in flames."
"Soon, a second strike hit the tent that housed the camp’s school, leaving behind remnants of brightly coloured notebooks. Class had been in session, and all the children were killed," it said.
"In the time between the two strikes, the White Helmets and other humanitarian teams arrived at the scene to evacuate families, help injured persons, and control the raging fire," the report said.
"As they were working, Russian planes were heard overhead. Then, a third strike hit the camp near a red firetruck and several volunteers."
About 45 people were killed and 70 were injured in the attack, which caused serious damage to the camp.
On August 8, 2015, civilians in the Homs province town of al-Ghantu came under aerial attack from Syrian regime warplanes.
"In one incident, civilians gathered near a damaged building in a populated area in the neighbourhood," the report said.
"As members of the growing crowd assessed the situation and tried to pull civilians from the rubble, a plane was heard flying overhead."
"People ran in different directions before a second building behind the first target was hit." Activists reported 10 injuries from this double-tap strike.
On June 16, 2014, an air strike dropped a barrel bomb on a market in the southern Aleppo city of As-Sukkari, near a relief centre on al-Wakalat Street.
"As a crowd of men inspected the damaged buildings, an aircraft quickly approached and dropped a second barrel bomb directly on them."
"Around 80 people were killed by the two airstrikes, among whom were seven children, five women and 11 unidentified persons," the report said.
And in a July 6, 2013, incident in Irbin, civilians worked to rescue survivors and find bodies amid a destroyed complex in a residential neighbourhood.
"Video footage recorded the moment when a plane struck nearly the same location as the first strike," the report said.
"The only warning came from an onlooker who yelled 'Plane! Plane!' just seconds before the missile landed," it said. "The civilians rescuing survivors had no time to run. A headless body was carried out from a bombed-out structure."
A minor was among victims of this double-tap strike.