The men who give the orders

Officers responsible for Russia’s airstrikes

This article is from the Autumn 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

Assad’s ministers and generals are all targets for UK sanctions, but amongst those in Russia’s top leadership responsible for crimes in Syria, it seems only two, General Gerasimov and Colonel-General Kartapolov, are under UK sanctions, and they are sanctioned not for actions in Syria, but because of Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Ultimate responsibility for Russia’s military campaign in Syria lies with the political leadership, Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, and Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s Defence Minister. These two are joined by Chief of the General Staff of the armed forces General Valeriy Gerasimov in commanding the National Defence Management Centre (NTsUO), a centralised command and control centre created in 2014.

General Valeriy Vasilevich Gerasimov has been subject to EU sanctions since 29 April 2014 over Russian actions in Ukraine.

Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria began with deploying military forces to Syria in Summer 2015, and with bombing from September 2015 on. As Mathieu Boulegue of Chatham House explained to Syria Notes, for the first two years, high intensity bombing operations were placed directly under the responsibility of the commander in chief of the Russian VKS (Aerospace forces) Colonel-General Viktor Bondarev. He was succeeded in 2017 first by interim chief Lieutenant-General Pavel Kurachenko and then by Colonel-General Sergei Surovikin.

The VKS is made up of three branches under one command: the Air Force, Aerospace/Missile Defence Force, and Space Command. The chief of the Air Force of the VKS is Lieutenant-General Andrey Yudin, who took office in August 2015 right before the start of the Syrian operation.

The head of the Russian group of forces in Syria at the start of Putin’s intervention was General Aleksandr Dvornikov, from September 2015 to July 2016. The post was held by by Lieutenant General Alexander Zhuravlev to December 2016, by Colonel-General Andrey Kartapolov to March 2017, and by Colonel-General Sergei Surovikin to Autumn 2017. Surovikin went on to be commander in chief of the VKS. Zhuravlev held the post for a second time until September 2018. Since April 2019, Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov has held the position, journalist Pierre Vaux told Syria Notes.

Kartapolov is subject to EU sanctions for his role in Putin’s war in Ukraine. Dvornikov, Kartapolov and Serdyukov are subject to sanctions by Australia for their role in military actions in Ukraine.

Ibrahim Olabi of the Syrian Legal Development Programme said to Syria Notes that the responsibility of commanders under international law, which is binding on Russia, is ‘beyond debate.’ It is an established rule under customary international humanitarian law and has been applied in various international criminal courts. He cited the articulation of this fundamental concept given by the International Committee of the Red Cross:

‘Commanders and other superiors are criminally responsible for war crimes committed by their subordinates if they knew, or had reason to know, that the subordinates were about to commit or were committing such crimes and did not take all necessary and reasonable measures in their power to prevent their commission, or if such crimes had been committed, to punish the persons responsible.’

In short, Ibrahim Olabi said, ‘Russian commanders are criminally responsible,’ and ‘they need to live up to that responsibility, or be held to account by states that have a duty to uphold the international order, the UK included.’

Next: Case files — Hospital attacks from 28 April to 10 July 2019.

Case files
Hospital attacks, 28 April–10 July 2019.