Thursday, November 5, 2015

Russia Repositions Military Assets in Syria as ISIS Advances in Homs

by: Jennifer Cafarella and Kaitlynn Menoche

Russia shifted military assets into Eastern Homs Province in response to an ISIS offensive against pro-regime forces south of Homs City that began on November 1, 2015. Russia positioned at least five attack helicopters at the T4 (Tiyas) military airbase and additional rotary wing aircraft at the Shayrat military east of Homs City by November 4. Russia is also operating rotary wing aircraft out of the Hama military airport, while their fixed wing aircraft remain based at the Bassel al-Assad military airbase in Latakia. Russia has also deployed an additional 2,000 personnel to Syria since the start of  its air campaign on September 30, according to U.S. security officials, though it is unclear whether these personnel are located at these bases in Eastern Homs Province. Russia also maintains a military base at the Hama municipal stadium, which likely houses Russian military personnel. The Russians have spoken of the plus-up. Russian Air Force Commander Viktor Bondarev, in an interview on November 5, stated “we sent not just fighter planes, strike aircraft, and helicopters but also anti-aircraft rocket systems” because “we took into account every possible threat.” It is unclear whether Bondarev’s remarks indicate that Russia has deployed additional anti-aircraft Systems to Syria since the start of Russian airstrikes in Syria on September 30, 2015.

An ISIS offensive against pro-regime forces south of Homs City prompted some of the Russian deployment into Eastern Homs Province. ISIS captured the desert city of Palmyra in May 2015 and has been positioning itself for further offensives toward Homs. ISIS advanced westward from the town of Quryatayn in southeastern Homs Province on November 1. It seized the regime-held town of Mahin and attacked the neighboring town of Sadad, located less than 15 km. east of the M5 highway. ISIS likely seeks to seize portions of the M5 highway south of Homs City, possibly by seizing the town of Hasiya and the adjacent industrial city on the highway. Capturing the town would sever the regime’s ground line of communication (GLOC) from Homs City to Damascus, limiting the regime’s ability to move forces between fronts in southern and central Syria.

ISIS may be pursuing other operational level goals with the new offensive.  It could seek to fix regime forces away from the regime-held T4 (Tiyas) airbase east of Homs City. ISIS has launched periodic attacks against the airbase since the capture of Palmyra and has stated its intent to capture it.  ISIS could instead intend to seize the Shayrat military airbase, located less than 30 kilometers northwest of Mahin. ISIS will likely attack pro-regime forces on multiple axes in a future offensive against any of these regime-held positions and is .  positioned to conduct a pincer movement on any of the objectives listed here.  ISIS has a support zone in the northeastern corner of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, bordering Syria, and could simultaneously attack Hezbollah forces concentrated south of Homs City from Lebanon in order to disrupt the ability of pro-regime forces to respond. ISW forecasted in mid-September that ISIS would most likely launch a multi-pronged offensive to seize either the T4 or Shayrat military airbases, and most dangerously attack south of Homs near Qusayr.

ISIS has been conducting mutually supporting operations to thwart the Russian-backed ground advance in several locations. ISIS had severed the regime’s ground line of communications (GLOC) from Hama to Aleppo City on October 23, before its assault south of Homs City, and had seized multiple checkpoints along the road between the towns of Ithriya and Khannaser. ISIS also attacked the regime’s command and control node in Safira, southeast of Aleppo City along the GLOC, on October 28. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members in Northern Syria appear to headquarter in Safira, as evidenced by the death of multiple IRGC officers in the area since 2012. Russian special forces are coordinating airstrikes on behalf of the regime in Syria, and could also be present in Safira. ISIS’s attack against Safira forced the regime to abandon an ongoing offensive to break ISIS’s siege on the Kuweiris airbase east of Aleppo City. Pro-regime forces repelled ISIS from Safira and regained control of the GLOC by November 4 with the support of Russian airstrikes in Aleppo.

The Russian deployment to the T4 and Shayrat airbases positions Russia to blunt the ISIS advance using airpower. Russia has also increased the defensive fortifications of both bases, likely including heavy artillery. Russia conducted airstrikes against ISIS in Eastern Syria from November 2-3, including positions near Quryatayn and Palmyra. These strikes did not directly target the ISIS forces attacking Sadad and are not the first Russian airstrikes against ISIS in Eastern Syria. It is possible, however, that Russia will shift fixed wing aircraft to either the T4 or Shayrat military airbases in order to increase its air sorties against ISIS in Eastern Syria. The forward deployment of attack helicopters in Homs could also support a future regime offensive to retake the ISIS-held city of Palmyra, although such an offensive appears unlikely in the near term.

ISIS’s attacks in Aleppo and Homs Provinces demonstrate that ISIS remains capable of launching offensive operations in Western Syria in November 2015. ISIS attacked strategic regime terrain in both Northern and Central Syria in quick succession, forcing the regime and its Russian backers to alter their deployment. ISIS is likely setting conditions for a major offensive by stressing the regime’s ability to defend core terrain on numerous fronts. ISIS has thus far focused its major attacks on pro-regime forces but will likely attack rebel-held terrain in Western Syria if the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) successfully isolates ar-Raqqa City from the north. The current strategy of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition does not adequately account for this risk; the U.S. does not have sufficient ground partners in Western Syria to prevent further expansion by ISIS. The U.S. must develop an alternate strategy to prevent ISIS from expanding into Western Syria in order to preserve the impact of counter-ISIS operations in Northern Syria on ISIS's overall strength in Syria.