A report released Feb. 13 on the Syrian and Russian offensive that recaptured the city of Aleppo from rebel occupiers could prove to be a test of whether open-source satellite imagery and other publicly available technology can be used to press war crimes charges against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The report, Breaking Aleppo, published by the Atlantic Council, details the tactics and strategy that the Syrian government and Russia used to break the rebel’s four-year hold on parts of what had been Syria’s commercial hub.
The report’s authors hope that by using satellite images to establish a narrative of Syrian and Russian actions, their findings can be used in legal proceedings in the future.
“It’s one thing to raise awareness (about atrocities) through the media, but what we really want is legal accountability,” said Eliot Higgins, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “This could be through civil cases or through mechanisms like the International Criminal Court.”
Higgins, of Leicester in the United Kingdom, is a pioneer in the field of digital forensic research. He first used Google Maps satellite imagery to verify that videos emerging from Arab Spring countries in 2011 were filmed in the way it was claimed they were filmed.
He started a blog in 2012, writing about a phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom and weapons used in Syria. His work gained traction in 2013, when he used photos of munitions to argue that the Syrian government was responsible for the Aug. 21, 2013, sarin gas attack in Ghouta, Syria.
He later founded Bellingcat, an investigative website that analyzes open-source content from incidents such as the 2014 downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine to the movements of Mexican drug cartels.
In the “Breaking Aleppo” report, Higgins and a team of researchers used publicly available material to argue that the Assad government and its allies bombed hospitals and used incendiary and chemical weapons and banned cluster munitions to “break” the rebel hold on Aleppo.
The report called blanket denials by Syrian and Russian officials of such allegations a “pernicious misinformation campaign” that made “truth entirely subjective, such that one party’s lie became just as good as another’s fact.” The authors said they hope their research will block attempts to distort the truth in potential future court proceedings.
“If [Assad] is up in front of the International Criminal Court and tries to call it fake news, then he’s going to be in a lot of trouble,” Higgins said.
The report includes a case study of a hospital in east Aleppo known as M2 that was reportedly attacked at least 12 times between June and December 2016. Using satellite images of the surrounding area, footage from closed circuit television cameras inside the hospital, and images and photos published online by journalists in Aleppo, “it is possible to confirm that many of those attacks occurred,” the report said. “Damage to structures around the hospital is consistent with attacks from above and would strongly indicate the use of air-dropped bombs and artillery, in line with reports from the hospital.”
Human Rights Watch also released a report Feb. 13 finding that Syrian government forces conducted coordinated chemical weapons attacks on the opposition-held half of Aleppo last year. The advocacy group’s methodology includes the use of satellite imagery, but unlike digital forensic research, it relies heavily on eyewitness accounts, Higgins said in a Skype interview.
“We should be able to take the witness statements that Human Rights Watch has collected and combine that with the data we’ve collected and analyzed, and that should all be brought together and presented as making a case of what happened around various incidents,” he said.
Researchers are not yet sure whether their work will affect U.S. policy toward Syria. At least 400,000 people have been killed in the fighting there over the last six years, according to human rights monitors.
There are few people currently working in the time-consuming digital forensics research field, said Higgins, but Bellingcat is training others in hopes that the method will be used in broader contexts. Bellingcat is currently using public records to investigate financial corruption in the U.K. and will soon launch a project focused on Latin America.
It’s not yet clear how exactly the research findings can be used in criminal proceedings, Higgins said, citing chain-of-custody concerns about information found only on the internet. He hopes these questions will be answered in the next year.