Sunday, June 19, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: May 27 - June 17, 2016

By Genevieve Casagrande

Russia has escalated its air campaign in Syria in an effort to deter and undermine Western military action. ISW assesses with high confidence that Russian airstrikes targeted areas held by the U.S.-backed New Syrian Army near the Syrian al Tanaf border crossing with Iraq on June 16. The U.S. trained and equipped the New Syrian Army to fight ISIS in southeastern Syria. The U.S. sent jets to intercept and prevent additional attacks, but Russian warplanes returned to conduct a second strike against New Syrian Army positions while the American jets refueled, according to anonymous U.S. Defense Officials. Russia and the U.S. held a teleconference on June 18 to discuss the incident, during which Russia requested that the U.S. “share coordinates” of U.S.-backed opposition groups in Syria. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the two sides agreed to “[aim] to improve the coordination on fighting the terrorist organization in Syria,” but did not specify any new measures to prevent the targeting of U.S.-backed groups. The strikes are a clear demonstration of Russia’s willingness to escalate with the U.S. and likely belief that the U.S. will be unwilling to sufficiently counter the provocation.

The attack against the New Syrian Army follows an increased American military response to Russian activity in Syria over recent weeks. The U.S. deployed the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group on June 3 to the Mediterranean Sea in order to conduct strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and offset increased Russian naval capabilities in the Mediterranean. Russia subsequently deployed long-range naval reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft to theater, which local Syrian activists documented in Aleppo Province on June 5. Russia also began to project force into Eastern Syria from June 5 - 17, intensifying its own aerial bombardment of ISIS-held terrain in ar-Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour Provinces. The U.S. has nonetheless continued to conduct strikes against ISIS from the Mediterranean. The U.S. also deployed the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group to the Mediterranean on June 13, which will reportedly remain in the Mediterranean after the Truman returns to the U.S. in late June. The deployments of U.S. strike carrier groups are likely an effort to deter a continued Russian buildup of air and naval anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Russia’s attacks against American-backed groups in Syria and the expansion of its air campaign into ISIS-held terrain demonstrate that Russia will continue to change conditions on the ground in Syria in order to undermine American interests. Russian airstrikes during the first two weeks of June increased to rates that “exceeded the pre-cessation of hostilities totals” in Aleppo Province, according to Director of the CIA John Brennan. In response, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated on June 15 that the U.S. is not “going to sit there while Assad continues to offensively assault Aleppo and while Russia continues to support in that effort.” Russia nonetheless continued to bombard opposition-held areas in Aleppo Province amidst a temporary ceasefire agreement in Aleppo City from June 16 - 17. ISW assessed a total of 14 Russian strike locations in the Aleppo area with low and high confidence during that time period. Russia’s claim to adhere to a ceasefire despite continuing its air campaign obfuscates its role in exacerbating the Syrian conflict. Russia’s violation of the ceasefire agreement demonstrates that it remains undeterred from continuing its campaign against the Syrian opposition despite American rhetoric threatening greater U.S. response.

The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. 

High-Confidence reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.