Analysis: Massive ISIS convoy bombed by Syrian and Russian Air Forces

Written by Oliviero Reusser (Twitter). 

On the 25th May on 12:03 CET a tweet, seen below, said that 36 cars belonging to ISIS had been destroyed, fleeing from the village of al-Busairi in eastern Homs governate towards the Syrian Hamad, which is a word used for the Syrian desert.

As with other reports about destroying massive ISIS convoys that came out of Iraq and Syria earlier, one could expect that videos showing the bombing of the convoy would be released soon. On the same day, at 21:59, the twitter account for the "Central Military Media", a possibly Hezbollah-linked media organisation reporting from the government side on the battlefield in Syria, teased a video of the Syrian army and its allies eliminating a large ISIS convoy in the vicinity of Zaza in rural southeast Homs governate. The Zaza junction is a military checkpoint and road junction in southeastern Homs, where the N2-Highway connecting Damascus and the al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq is joined by the Highway 45, a road going south from the al-Busairi village in the mountains north of Zaza checkpoint; see the map below.

Location of Zaza junction in southeastern Homs, via wikimapia.org

Location of Zaza junction in southeastern Homs, via wikimapia.org

This was indeed the case as less than two hours later a 5:16 minute long video was released on the youtube channel of Military Central Information. The video showed different drones tracking a supposed ISIS convoy composed of multiple pickup cars, pickup trucks, several motorcycles and possibly some artillery pieces driving through the desert before they get hit by airstrikes. Seeing as only ISIS held territory in that area at that time, we can conclude that the convoy was indeed composed of ISIS fighters. 

A video released by the official youtube account of the Syrian Ministry of Defence in the early hours of the 27th May says to show "a large ISIS convoy targeted by the Russian aviation in the Syrian badia heading towards Palmyra". "Badia" is a word used to describe the arid, steppic rangeland spanning parts of eastern Syria and northern Jordan. 

Even thought the title of the video of the Syrian MoD said that the Russian Airforce carried out this attack, no mention of the attack was to be seen on any of the official media accounts of the Russian MoD. 

During the early hours in the morning of the 27th May however, several media outlets, including Russia Today, Sputnik News and the Tass News Agency began to post news about a statement made by a source in the Russian Ministry of Defence. SputnikNews said that the airstrikes "destroyed more than 120 Daesh militants [...] while fleeing from Syria's Raqqa for Palmyra", according to the source. According to Russia Today, the source said that "kurdish forces have allowed ISIL to open a corridor to flee the besieged city of Raqqa [...] towards Palmyra". According to Tass agency, the source said that "the terrorists had received an opportunity for unimpeded withdrawal on the condition they will head towards Palmyra". It is worth noting that Palmyra is currently held by Syrian government forces and has been captured twice by ISIS in this war, last time on the 11th December 2016 after a blitz-offensive before being recaptured by Syrian government forces in early March.

Following the controversial claim regarding the SDF allowing the establishment of a corridor out of Raqqa, a city close to being besieged by the US-backed kurdish-led SDF, a statement was posted on the official SDF website. The statement called the charges from the Russian MoD blatant and far-fetched accusations aimed at destorting the image of the SDF, denying the truth of these claims.

It is impossible to say whether the statement by the source in the Russian MoD, which cannot be independently verified or identified is connected to the massive ISIS convoy destroyed in southeastern Homs. The article by SputnikNews however shows footage purportedly released by the Russian MoD, which is a cut from the video released by the Syrian MoD (see above). The article says that 39 pickup trucks were destroyed and 120 militants killed during the attack. As drama unfolded on social media between supporters of the SDF and supporters of the Syrian government regarding the controversial claims, users took to satellite images and maps to geolocate the exact position of the convoy destroyed. 

Comparing the two videos quickly shows that they show the same convoy, which first travels on a paved road, then moves into the sandy mountains and continues on smaller roads and along riverbeds. Footage of the video by the Syrian MoD at 0:06 shows the trucks leaving the paved road onto a smaller road. By guessing the rough location of the convoy to be in the areas south of al-Busairi, the village recently captured by the Syrian army during an offensive into the mountains, and scanning satellite imagery, the exact location was discovered by twitter user @wasc_algonquin, as seen below. 

Further analysis of the images confirms the location to be indeed in the spot the user said it was, as seen below. 

The cross marks the location where the convoy leaves the paved road, via wikimapia.org

The cross marks the location where the convoy leaves the paved road, via wikimapia.org

More points shown in the video can be pinpointed to a location further east, where the convoy travels on a small road near what appears to be a riverbed before taking a sudden turn to the left of their traveling direction. The exact location can be pinpointed to the coordinates of 34.0668 and 37.7433, as seen below.

Location of the left turn taken by the convoy, via Bing hybrid map.

Location of the left turn taken by the convoy, via Bing hybrid map.

Analysis of the video reveals the exact locations.

Analysis of the video reveals the exact locations.

Further watching the video of convoy makes it possible to establish more or less the exact route taken by the convoy before being destroyed by airstrikes. The first airstrike, as seen in the Syrian MoD video at 0:11 and the Military Central Information video at 2:26 occurred in the location as seen below. It is worth noting that the convoy appeared to be stuck in a sort of traffic jam at that moment, as the cars appeared to be standing still. 

Route taken by the convoy before the first airstrike hit, via wikimapia.org

Route taken by the convoy before the first airstrike hit, via wikimapia.org

By looking at the videos, we can establish that the convoy was heading south of al-Busairi, the village captured by the Syrian army in the early hours of May 25th. According to Military Central Information, the airstrikes occurred at 22:30 of the 24th May. This would confirm the unconfirmed rumours that went around that day that ISIS retreated from the whole area east of the town of Qaryatayn and was then captured by government forces. Looking at the Military Central video from 0:55 to 1:00 we can pinpoint atleast 25 vehicles, mostly pickup trucks. Assuming that every pickup truck carried between 2 or 4 fighters and that not the whole convoy is shown on video, the amount of fighters present in the convoy should number atleast 80 up to about 100, most likely more. This matches with the claim by the Russian MoD source, which said that 120 fighters were destroyed during the attack. 

Screenshot from the video by Central Military Information shows the number of vehicles. 

Screenshot from the video by Central Military Information shows the number of vehicles. 

By looking at a larger map, we can establish from the route of the convoy that the ISIS fighters were retreating from the village of al-Busairi in Homs eastwards towards southern Palmyra and less isolated ISIS-held territory in Syria.

Picture shows the path of the convoy and their likely planned direction. The town of Palmyra can be seen in the top right corner of the image. Via Google Earth

Picture shows the path of the convoy and their likely planned direction. The town of Palmyra can be seen in the top right corner of the image. Via Google Earth

It is impossible to assert whether the attack talked about by the source in the Russian MoD is indeed the one we can see in the two released videos. The videos however definitely show a massive ISIS convoy fleeing eastwards from Homs towards the south of Palmyra.