Summary of UN Headquarters ‘Board of Inquiry’ Report
UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy attacked from the air
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today (21 December 2016) submitted to the President of the Security Council a summary of the report of the United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry into the 19 September 2016 incident in which a UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent humanitarian convoy came under attack in Urem al-Kubra, near the city of Aleppo, Syria. The report itself remains an internal document; it contains footnotes detailing relevant sources and citations, two substantial appendices and hundreds of annexes of relevant evidence and information, including witness statements, investigative reports, medical reports, photographs, video footage, audio recordings, meeting notes, correspondence and other materials. The Board of Inquiry is not a judicial body or court of law; it did not make legal findings nor consider questions of legal liability. The Department of Political Affairs (DPA) facilitated the work of the Board.
In light of the interest in the incident and its aftermath, Politically Speaking is reproducing the summary in full below:
Summary by the Secretary-General of the report of the United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry into the incident involving a relief operation to Urem al-Kubra, Syrian Arab Republic, on 19 September 2016
Headquarters Board of Inquiry into the incident involving a relief operation to Urem al-Kubra, Syrian Arab Republic, on 19 September 2016
1. On 21 October 2016, I convened a United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry to review and investigate the incident that occurred in Urem al-Kubra (Big Orem), Syria, on 19 September 2016 which involved a relief operation conducted jointly by the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and which resulted in death and injuries to personnel belonging to the SARC and other persons as well as damage to objects used for this relief operation.
2. The Board was headed by Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Abhijit Guha, a former military adviser in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and member of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations. It also comprised Ms. Catherine Bragg, former Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Ms. Khawla Mattar, currently Deputy Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and formerly Director of the Damascus Office of the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Ms. Leila Benkirane, former Chef of Cabinet at the United Nations Office at Geneva and formerly with the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, and Mr. Jeremy Smith, a weapons specialist.
3. The Board, after its constitution, held meetings in New York, Geneva, London, Ankara and Washington D.C., where it met the representatives of France, Iran (Islamic Republic of), the Russian Federation, the Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The Board submitted to all these States a standardized request for the purpose of obtaining information on the military-related elements of the inquiry, such as air and ground operations in the vicinity of Urem al-Kubra at and around the time of the incident and the civil-military coordination of the convoy, including measures taken to prevent or reduce risk of attacks on humanitarian assets.
4. The Board was only able to travel to the Syrian Arab Republic from 5 to 9 December 2016, as the issuance of visas by the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic was only confirmed on 28 November 2016. The Board travelled to Damascus, where the Board met with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, including the High Relief Committee, SARC Damascus and the United Nations Country Team. At the Russian Embassy in Damascus, the Board also met military officers from the Russian Military airbase in Hmeimim. In West Aleppo City, the Board met the Governor of Aleppo, members of the local relief committee and the Commanding General of the Russian Reconciliation Centre, Hmeimem. The Board also interviewed primary witnesses in West Aleppo. The Board was not allowed to visit the scene of the incident in Urem al-Kubra, the Government stating that it was unable to ensure the safety of the Board, given the ongoing military operations at that location. In this regard, the Board noted that 11 weeks had already elapsed by then since the date of the incident, by which time damaged vehicles had been removed and some destroyed structures had been repaired or rebuilt. Subsequent actions had therefore adversely affected the integrity of the site of the incident and consequently the availability of physical evidence. A visit to the site might therefore not have yielded commensurate results. The Board accordingly developed alternative methods of evidence collection.
5. The Board also met with the members of the High Negotiations Committee for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (HNC) and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SOC). Furthermore, the Board met with representatives of armed opposition groups. It interviewed primary witnesses (eye witnesses) in Gaziantep and Reyhanli.
6. The Board also collaborated with UNITAR-UNOSAT, which provided technical capabilities to analyse satellite imagery and ground photography.
7. The Board used the following materials and methods to arrive at its findings: (i) satellite images; (ii) over 370 photographs and videos; (iii) interviews conducted by the Board of a total of 16 persons who were either eye witnesses to the incident or who were in the vicinity of Urem al-Kubra on the evening of 19 September 2016; (iv) interviews conducted by the Board of a total of 19 secondary witnesses, including United Nations personnel and representatives of armed opposition groups; (v) information from Member States, including information on their air assets; (vi) air tracks shared with it by the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic; (vii) an oral briefing by the Syrian Government regarding their national investigation into the incident, which was still on-going, together with copies of autopsy reports; (viii) information from the SARC.; (ix) documents from the United Nations Country Team for Syria; and (x) open-source information.
8. The Board declined to accept physical evidence, such as munitions remnants that were alleged to be from the site of the incident, as the chain of custody for these items could not be established.
9. The Board placed great emphasis on evaluating each piece of data for the reliability of the source and the credibility of the information. The Board’s findings were based on information and evidence that was corroborated by more than one source. Materials received from Member States were used solely to corroborate material collected by the Board or to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground. The Board did not base any of its findings solely on information provided by only one Member State.
10. The town of Urem al-Kubra is located approximately 15 kilometres west of Aleppo City. Its population was approximately 6,700 persons at the time of the incident. Residents considered Urem al-Kubra to be relatively safe in the context of the wider area and the Syrian conflict.
11. The SARC compound, the incident site, is located approximately 1.5 km east of the town of Urem al-Kubra. It consists of mixed light industry and dwellings. The compound is located alongside Highway 60 — the primary Aleppo-to-Idlib road. Highway 60 was one of the two primary lines of communication — the other being the M5 highway, which runs South to Hama and Homs — that could be used by armed opposition groups to move military materiel, equipment and personnel to frontline areas in Aleppo.
12. The SARC compound was well known as the main warehouse in the area and had been used consistently for the delivery and storage of humanitarian aid for distribution to Urem al-Kubra as well as to other areas in the Atarib district. The last United Nations-SARC-ICRC humanitarian operation to the area before the incident had taken place on 21 July 2016, when aid was delivered for some 50,000 beneficiaries.
13. On the date of the incident, Urem Al-Kubra was under the control of armed opposition groups, with Jaish al-Mujahideen being the predominant group in the area. The Board was informed that other groups, including Nour al-Din al-Zenki also had a presence there. In addition, the Board received reports of a Jabhat al-Nusra presence in the area.
14. Requests to deliver humanitarian aid to Urem al-Kubra from Government-controlled areas were consistently included in monthly requests to the Government. In the case of the present convoy, a request to deliver humanitarian aid to Urem al-Kubra was included in the Inter-Agency plan that was submitted by the United Nations to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Syria for the month of September. The intention was to bring items from Government-controlled West Aleppo, where the United Nations Country Team had its offices and supplies, to the SARC compound in Urem al-Kubra, from where it would be distributed to 78,000 beneficiaries in Urem al-Kubra and its surroundings. That aid was to be contributed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The operation was to be coordinated by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The original intention was that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would also participate, but the ICRC informed the United Nations shortly before 19 September 2016 that it could no longer take part, since it did not have sufficient stocks in Aleppo.
15. Based on the initial approval for the convoy as communicated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contracts were entered into with two commercial entities to transport the supplies. The United Nations, in consultation with the SARC, then informed the Governor of Aleppo and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the implementation dates for the convoy. After approval of the dates, the Aleppo Security Committee, part of the Governor’s Office, monitored the loading of the trucks from its commencement until its completion. The trucks were then sealed in the presence of the members of the Aleppo Security Committee. The Governor then issued facilitation letters for the convoy to pass through Government-controlled check points after the loading was completed. This was done just after midnight on 19 September 2016.
16. In areas under the control of armed opposition groups, the relevant branch of the SARC was responsible for obtaining assurances of safe passage for convoys from the armed opposition groups concerned and making the necessary arrangements with them. On 18 September 2016, SARC Aleppo informed the United Nations that its SARC Urem al-Kubra branch had obtained approval from Jaish Al-Mujahideen for the convoy to proceed. This was confirmed in writing during the course of the following morning.
17. The convoy, which consisted of a total of 31 trucks, left Western Aleppo City in the morning of 19 September 2016. There were United Nations banners on the front and sides of each truck. The convoy was accompanied by a United Nations team and by a team from SARC Aleppo until it reached the last security checkpoint in the Government-controlled area. The United Nations team then returned to its offices. It had originally been hoped that the team would be able to accompany the convoy to its destination. However, it was reported that the Governor of Aleppo had not given his approval for this and it was then decided that the team should not proceed any further. (The Board was informed that the Governor had twice verbally told the United Nations that its team could not proceed beyond the last Government checkpoint. The Governor and the Government of Syria both denied this.)
18. The team from SARC Aleppo then accompanied the convoy to the first checkpoint that was operated by armed opposition groups. From there, accompaniment of the convoy was handed over from SARC Aleppo to SARC Urem al-Kubra in the usual way.
19. From this checkpoint, the armed opposition group Jaish Al-Mujahideen provided an armed escort to the convoy to its destination, at the SARC compound in Urem al-Kubra. The same armed group had been escorting similar humanitarian deliveries in Urem al-Kubra for the previous two years. It also informed and coordinated with other armed groups in the area.
20. The trucks and their cargo were inspected at all checkpoints.
21. The Board was informed that Jaish Al-Mujahideen requested that the convoy move in groups of five, so that it would not block the traffic on Highway 60. When the first set of trucks arrived close to the second checkpoint that was operated by armed opposition groups, it was met by masked armed men, who wanted to take some of the supplies on the convoy. A dispute followed between these men and the SARC Urem al-Kubra team. Following the dispute, three trucks were diverted by these armed men. One of these was fully offloaded, while the remaining two were partially offloaded. The three trucks were then released and allowed to proceed to the SARC compound in Urem al-Kubra.
22. As part of the deconfliction process, separate communications were sent to the Russian Federation and to the forces of the United State-led International Counter-Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant Coalition (the International Coalition Forces) confirming the date of the mission, its route, GPS coordinates, the number of trucks and a map. Regular verbal and written updates were provided on the movement of the convoy.
23. The convoy arrived at the SARC compound in Uren al-Kubra at 13:45 hours local time on 19 September 2016. The armed escort provided by Jaish Al-Mujahideen then ended and responsibility for the security of the convoy passed to the local police, which had a station nearby. Offloading then began.
24. The Board found that the United Nations had complied with all applicable procedures relating to the arrangement and movement of the present convoy. In particular, it had sought and obtained all the necessary approvals from all levels of the Government of Syria and had coordinated all aspects of the operation with the representatives of the Government. Appropriate coordination had been carried out with the SARC and necessary assurances for safe passage had been provided by the armed opposition groups in the area. All necessary deconfliction measures were also taken before, during and after the incident with all concerned.
25. The Board noted that it could not gain a full understanding of the coordination measures employed by the Syrian authorities and that it was not evident from the answers that it had received to its questions that the Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) was informed of the convoy.
26. The Board found the convoy was purely humanitarian in nature and noted that there were no reports of any tampering with the trucks or the supplies (other than the full or partial offloading of the three trucks that were diverted).
27. The Board found that, between 19:15 and 19:45 hours local time on 19 September 2016, the SARC compound was subject to an attack from the air, using multiple types of munitions deployed from more than one aircraft and aircraft type. The munitions used included non-precision unitary bombs and/or smaller blast-incendiary air-to-ground weapons, which could have been missiles, rockets or sub-munition bomblets. The primary evidence for this conclusion came from an analysis of satellite and ground imagery, videos and eyewitness statements. Corroboration came from information provided by Member States and other witness interviews, as well as open-source research conducted by the Board.
28. In reaching this conclusion, the Board considered and rejected the possibilities that the incident was caused by direct fire or ground assault, whether by Syrian Government forces or by armed opposition groups, or by ground-delivered improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or by indirect fire, whether by Syrian Government forces or by armed opposition groups. It also considered and rejected the possibility that it was a staged or hoax event.
29. A total of eight possible major impact points within and near the compound were identified by the Board, with further multiple smaller impacts to the northwest. The southwestern, southern and eastern walls of the compound were damaged and buildings collapsed. Extensive damage was also done to a wall on the opposite side of Highway 60.
30. The Board found that 17 trucks from the convoy were involved in the incident. Eight of these suffered significant fire damage, some being completely consumed. A car, identified by witnesses as being used by the Head of SARC Urem al-Kubra, was also involved in the incident and was heavily damaged.
31. At least ten individuals died, including five drivers who had been part of the convoy and the head of SARC Urem al-Kubra. At least 22 individuals were injured, including a further five drivers.
32. Most of the humanitarian supplies carried by the convoy were damaged or destroyed in the incident, with the losses of the United Nations Country Team totalling almost USD 650,000. (A further USD 96,000-worth of supplies was diverted by the masked armed men who diverted three of the trucks.) The Board was not provided with any information on the value of the losses sustained by the SARC or by the contractors whose vehicles had been destroyed or damaged.
33. Despite initial reports that a medical clinic had been destroyed, the Board found no evidence of a medical clinic neighbouring the SARC compound.
34. The Board noted that it was possible that three other buildings, within 1,500 metres of the SARC compound, were also damaged on the evening of 19 September 2016. One of these was 400 metres from the compound.
The attributability of the incident
35. The Board found that, while the incident was caused by an air attack, it was not possible to identify the perpetrator or perpetrators.
36. The area immediately around the SARC compound had been hit on at least two occasions between 26 June 2016 and 1 September 2016, with two separate groups of buildings, located between 55m and 140m away, having been attacked, most likely from the air. The Board considered that the location of the SARC compound, on the outskirts of a populated area, in an industrial zone and astride one of the two primary roads leading to southwestern Aleppo, made it a realistic possibility that the buildings around it were used by armed opposition groups prior to the date of the incident. Therefore the Board considered that it had most likely been attacked by pro-Government forces.
37. The Board noted that aircraft operating as part of the forces of the International Coalition Forces and aircraft of the Russian Federation and of the SAAF all had the capabilities needed to carry out an attack of the kind that had occurred on 19 September 2016, including at night. Armed opposition groups did not have the capability to carry out air attacks.
38. The Board further noted that no party had alleged the involvement of International Coalition Forces aircraft and, as such, their involvement was highly unlikely.
39. The Board stated that it had received reports that information existed to the effect that the SAAF was highly likely to have perpetrated the attack, and even that the attack was carried out by three Syrian Mi-17 model helicopters, followed by three unnamed fixed-wing aircraft, with a single Russian aircraft also suspected of being involved. However, the Board did not have access to raw data to support these assertions and, in their absence, it was unable to draw a definitive conclusion. Moreover, the Governments of both the Russian Federation and Syrian Arab Republic denied all allegations of their involvement in the incident.
40. The Board noted in this connection that there were technical issues pertaining to a hypothesis of the incident being a result of a joint Syrian Arab Air Force/Russian Federation strike. The Board had been informed that that the Russian Federation did not conduct joint strikes. A high degree of interoperability and co-ordination would also be required for two air forces to operate in the same airspace, targeting the same location.
41. The Board reviewed an excerpt of video footage, purportedly from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), showing an armed opposition group vehicle towing what was claimed to be a heavy weapon alongside the convoy. At the time of the video, the convoy appeared to be stationary, parked on a dual-carriageway road. The footage paused as the vehicle was alongside the convoy in the village of Khan al-Assal, over 6 km east of the site of the incident site. However, in the absence of any other corroborating evidence, the Board stated that it could not find any material link with the incident.
42. The Board stated that it did not have evidence to conclude that the incident was a deliberate attack on a humanitarian target.
43. The Board noted that, while humanitarian convoys, by their very nature, take place in circumstances that expose them to a significant degree of danger, the United Nations had complied with all applicable procedures, protocols, rules and regulations to mitigate these.
44. The Board further noted that it had to deal with several constraints, in particular the limited time available to it to investigate the incident, as well as the integrity of the site after the incident and access to all pertinent information. Member States were also at times constrained in providing the level of detail that the Board required, since they had insufficient time to declassify information to provide to the Board as evidence.
Top photo by Syrian Arab Red Crescent