Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Russia's First Reported Air Strikes in Syria Assist Regime with Targeting Broader Opposition

by ISW Research Team

Updated 10/02/2015 3:57pm (EDT): Updated airstrikes map covering September 30-October 1, 2015 can be found here.

Updated 9/30/2015 8:25pm (EDT): 
First Russian strikes in Syria: Russian warplanes conducted 20 airstrikes on the rebel-held towns of Rastan and Talbisah north of Homs City, as well as on the towns of Al Latamneh and Kafr Zeita in Hama Province. In addition, Russia “aided” regime airstrikes in the northwestern countryside of Latakia Province, according to an anonymous regime security source. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the airstrikes targeted eight Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) positions in total. The Syrian regime also released statements confirming Russian airstrikes in Homs and Hama, claiming that the airstrikes targeted both ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliated militants, likely referring to Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. However, local Syrian sources claim the airstrikes exclusively targeted rebel positions, including the headquarters of Free Syrian Army-affiliated, Western-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipient al-Izza Gathering in the town of Al Latamneh, rather than ISIS-held positions. Syrian Civil Defense Forces, a volunteer emergency responder organization, reported 36 civilian casualties from the Russian airstrike in Talbisah in northern Homs, in addition to several civilian casualties in Hama. Although there are small ISIS “sympathetic” cells in the rebel-held pockets of northern Homs, the Russian decision to target terrain that is held by the Syrian opposition and not ISIS signals Russia’s intent to assist the Assad regime’s war effort at large, beyond anti-ISIS operations.

Official Syrian regime request: Damascus confirmed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad requested military assistance from Russia in a letter to President Vladimir Putin prior to the launch of Russian airstrikes in Syria. The Kremlin’s chief of staff Serge Ivanov confirmed Assad “appealed to the leadership of [Russia] with a request for military aid.”

Russian effort to edge out U.S.-led coalition: U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby stated that a Russian official informed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad about the airstrikes and requested that American military aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during Russian operations. An anonymous U.S. official reported that the U.S.-led coalition warplanes continued to conduct airstrikes against ISIS militants in Syria. Senior Israeli officials also announced that Russia informed Israel about an hour before it conducted airstrikes in Syria. Russian government officials made contact with Israeli National Security Adviser, Yossi Cohen, as well as other senior officials in the Israeli defense establishment. The notice was designed to avoid any confrontation between Israeli and Russian planes. 

By Genevieve Casagrande and Christopher Kozak

Sources consulted include: Social media accounts of local Syrian activists, local Syrian news affiliates, international news agencies, and Russian news agencies.

Updated 9/30/2015 1:25pm (EDT):  Syrian Civil Defense Forces reported 33 civilian casualties from the Russian airstrike in Talbisah in northern Homs. According to local sources, these Russian airstrikes have expanded into the provinces of Hama and Latakia, as well as other rebel-held areas in the northern countryside of Homs. These airstrikes continue to target areas held by Syrian rebels, including Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, Western-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipients, and a number of other local rebel groups. Notably, the nearest positions held by ISIS are over 55 km from the areas targeted by the Russian airstrikes. No Russian airstrikes have yet been reported against ISIS’s positions in Syria.

Russia’s foreign ministry accused international media of conducting information warfare by reporting civilian casualties from Russian airstrikes in Syria. As Russian involvement in Syria continues to expand, Russian disinformation will come in direct conflict with the situation reported by ground forces inside Syria. In this instance, despite claims by Syrian sources that Russian airstrikes are exclusively targeting Jabhat al-Nusra and rebel locations, Russian officials claim that the airstrikes are only targeting ISIS in Syria.

After a vote in Russia’s upper house of parliament unanimously authorized President Vladimir Putin to conduct military operations in Syria, the head of President Putin’s administration stated that the military objective of the operation was “exclusively” to provide air support to the Syrian government forces in combatting ISIS. Shortly after the vote, Russia’s Ministry of Defense also acknowledged the start the Russian air campaign, which it claimed involved “precision airstrikes on Islamic State land-based targets in Syria.” Russia’s defense minister Sergey Shoygu also told members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) alliance that the air campaign would consist of Russian air strikes against ISIS’s military equipment, lines of communication, vehicles, weapons caches, and oil infrastructure in Syria.  Genevieve Casagrande and Hugo Spaulding
Sources consulted include: social media accounts of local Syrian activists and Russian news agencies such as TASS, Sputnik, Interfax, and RIA Novosti

Updated 9/30/2015 12:30pm (EDT): Russian Airstrikes in Syria Map

Posted 9/30/2015 8:52am (EDT): An alleged Russian airstrike hit the rebel-held town of Talbisah north of Homs City. Talbisah is home to Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, and a number of other local rebel groups, all of which are active in local governance efforts in the area. Both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have claimed a number of vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs) in Homs City, located only 12 kilometers south of Talbisah. Following reports of U.S. and Turkish efforts to establish an ISIS "free zone" in the northern Aleppo countryside, JN withdrew from the border and reportedly reinforced positions in this rebel-held pocket north of Homs city. Notably, the airstrike did not hit ISIS militants and rather resulted in 33 civilian casualties. If confirmed, the airstrike would signal Russian intent to assist in the Syrian regime's war effort at large, rather than securing the regime's coastal heartland of Latakia and Tartous.  Genevieve Casagrande