Thursday, July 14, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: June 18 - July 13, 2016

By Genevieve Casagrande with Jonathan Mautner

Russia continues to use its air campaign in Syria in order to constrain the U.S. and other regional actors into a partnership in the Syrian Civil War. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on July 14 to discuss a recent proposal from the White House for bilateral military cooperation in Syria. The proposal calls for the establishment of a “Joint Implementation Group” based in Amman, Jordan that would facilitate synchronization of U.S. and Russian air operations against both al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, according to a leaked copy of the proposal. The meeting is ongoing and it remains unclear if Russia intends to accept the alleged proposal. It would, however, grant Russia authority to conduct unilateral strikes if Russian personnel faced an “imminent threat” or if extremist groups were to expand territorial control outside of “designated areas.” Russia has consistently targeted mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition and U.S.-allied groups under the guise of “fighting terrorism,” and has cited threats to civilians and regime-held terrain as justification for targeting these groups. Russia ultimately seeks to subordinate U.S. policy in Syria to Russian objectives, which include the preservation of its client regime in Damascus and a solidified foothold on the Mediterranean. If it accepts, Russia would likely exploit the loopholes in the proposal to legitimize a continued campaign against the broader opposition in support of the Assad regime.  

Russia set conditions for the proposal through a calculated expansion and subsequent tapering of its air campaign throughout June and July 2016. The tempo of the Russian air campaign in Aleppo Province decreased significantly from June 29 – July 13, following a major escalation of the Russian air campaign in early June 2016. However, Russian warplanes continued targeted strikes in support of pro-regime ground operations to encircle and besiege Aleppo City. Russian airstrikes continued to target discreet locations along the opposition’s last ground line of communication (GLOC) into Aleppo City. Pro-regime forces with Russian air support established fire control over the Castello Road north of Aleppo City on July 7 after seizing the nearby Tal Jabenja hill. The number of locations targeted by Russian airstrikes in Aleppo Province fell by roughly 50 percent from June 29 – July 13 in comparison to the preceding two-week period in which Russian airstrikes escalated to levels only seen prior to the brokering of the Cessation of Hostilities agreement in February. Russia likely intends to frame the decrease in its air campaign since June 29 as a confidence-building measure meant to facilitate the potential military partnership with the United States. Russia has previously used temporary decreases in air operations in Aleppo to present itself as a constructive partner in the fight against terrorism in Syria.

Russia’s air campaign nonetheless continued to prioritize the targeting of mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition and U.S. allied groups from June 29 – July 13. Suspected Russian warplanes conducted several airstrikes in the vicinity of the Hadalat Refugee Camp along the Syrian-Jordanian border on July 12. The strikes killed at least 12 and wounded over 40 others, including family members of fighters from U.S.-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipient Jaysh Asoud al Sharqiya. Russian air operations intensified against ISIS in eastern Homs Province from July 9 - 12, but only following the salafi-jihadist group’s shoot down of a Russian Mi-25 helicopter near Palmyra on July 9. Russian Armed Forces subsequently sortied six TU-22M3 ‘Backfire’ strategic bombers from an unidentified airbase in Russia on July 12, targeting alleged ISIS training camps and ammunition warehouses in the eastern countryside of Palmyra. The potential resurgence of ISIS in the vicinity of Palmyra may require Russia to divert some air assets from northwestern Syria in the coming weeks in order to counter the salafi-jihadist threat and preserve pro-regime gains in the area. Limited Russian air operations against ISIS offer Russia further opportunity to garner legitimacy as an effective anti-ISIS actor in Syria and subsequent authority to continue its air campaign. Deal or no deal, Russia will likely continue to prioritize its support for pro-regime operational objectives over the fight against violent extremists in Syria. 

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.