Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: Pre- and Post Cessation of Hostilities

By Genevieve Casagrande

Key Takeaway: The cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria has collapsed and violence has once again ramped up across Syria. The nationwide ceasefire brokered by Russia and the U.S. on September 9 stipulated that after at least seven days of reduced violence and uninterrupted humanitarian access across Syria, the U.S. and Russia would establish a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to coordinate strikes against ISIS and al Qaeda. The ceasefire, although short-lived, was ultimately a success for the Syrian regime and Russia. Both parties utilized the cessation in order to consolidate recent gains in Aleppo City and to redeploy military assets to other critical frontlines in likely preparation for upcoming offensives. Russian and regime airstrikes escalated against opposition forces in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces in the 48-hours prior to the cessation of hostilities going into effect on September 12. Russia subsequently pivoted its strikes towards ISIS-held terrain in Eastern Syria throughout the tenuous ceasefire with the opposition, but began to break the terms of the ceasefire and intensify strikes against opposition targets in Homs Province on September 16 – 17. Reported Russian airstrikes targeting a UN humanitarian aid convoy on September 19 marked a dangerous phase line in the willingness of Russia and the Syrian regime to violate international law and deny besieged opposition-held areas humanitarian aid. Hardline elements of the Syrian opposition meanwhile continued to use the failed ceasefire to increase their own influence among mainstream opposition factions, undermining efforts by the U.S. to compel independent opposition groups to distance themselves from al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. Both Russia and the Syrian regime will continue to use subsequent ceasefires to solidify gains against the Syrian opposition in Aleppo City and to employ siege-and-starve tactics to force the defeat of the opposition in critical terrain. Russia will continue to exert pressure on the U.S. and the international community by escalating levels of violence in order to extract concessions in negotiations over the Syrian Civil War.

The preceding 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.


The General Command of the Syrian Arab Army declared an end to the seven-day ceasefire on September 19 as violence by all parties escalated in Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs Provinces. Russian airstrikes on a UN humanitarian aid convoy only hours after the Syrian regime’s declaration of the end of the cessation represented a dangerous escalatory step in the pro-regime willingness to violate international law and deny aid to besieged opposition-held areas in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has nonetheless continued to reiterate that the “ceasefire is not dead,” despite its near-constant violations and the Syrian regime’s denial of humanitarian aid to besieged populations throughout the country. Members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) similarly agreed on September 20 to “pursue” a ceasefire based upon the terms of the U.S.-Russia deal announced on September 9. Pro-regime airstrikes have meanwhile escalated across the country, resulting in over 38 deaths in Aleppo Province on September 18 - 19 alone.

The U.S.-Russia Ceasefire Deal

The U.S. and Russia announced the resumption of a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria on September 9. The agreement stipulated that after at least seven consecutive days of “reduced violence” and unimpeded humanitarian aid deliveries beginning on September 12, the U.S. would establish a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) in order to coordinate U.S. and Russian airstrikes against al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. The deal required Russia to ensure the regime’s adherence to its terms to include the prevention of regime warplanes from conducting air operations in areas where “the legitimate opposition” or “[Jabhat] al Nusra” is present as designated by maps drawn up during technical meetings between Russia and the United States. The full terms of the agreement were not publically disclosed, but the U.S. reportedly shared the text of the deal to designated “partners” after considerable pressure from France and Russia. The deal nonetheless lacked the necessary enforcement mechanisms or consequences to ceasefire violations to prevent pro-regime forces and Salafi-Jihadist groups from spoiling the cessation of hostilities.

Russian and the Regime Violations

Russian and the Syrian regime amplified their air campaigns against the Syrian opposition in the 48-hours prior to the ceasefire deal going into affect on September 12. The Russian air campaign subsequently pivoted to primarily target ISIS in eastern Syria after the onset of the cessation of hostilities. Pro-regime forces meanwhile continued operations against remaining opposition-held pockets in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and the northern Homs countryside; Russian airstrikes notably began to escalate against opposition-held areas in northern Homs from September 16 - 17 in violation of the agreement. Pro-regime forces will likely try to consolidate control over the central corridor to include the collapsed opposition-held pockets near the regime strongholds of Damascus and Homs cities over the coming months.

Pro-regime airstrikes on a UN humanitarian convoy in western Aleppo Province just hours after the regime’s declared end to the ceasefire marked a dramatic escalation in efforts to deny humanitarian aid deliveries in opposition-held terrain. The targeted strike violated both international law and the terms of the ceasefire brokered by the U.S. and Russia. It killed an estimated 20 civilians and at least one aid worker while destroying 18 trucks destined for opposition-held areas of western Aleppo Province. The UN subsequently announced the suspension of all humanitarian aid convoys into Syria. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes stated on September 20 that the U.S. holds “the Russian government accountable” for the airstrikes against the aid convoy. Rhodes did not specify if the strike was carried out by the Syrian regime or Russia, but unidentified U.S. officials reported that preliminary analysis of the strike indicated two Russian aircraft carried out the attack. Russia likely seeks to use the escalating levels of violence to constrain the U.S. and the international community into increasing the threshold for acceptable levels of violence in Syria in order to allow the Syrian regime to pursue victory over the Syrian opposition in northwestern Syria.

Russia had already exerted its own control over the flow of humanitarian aid into Aleppo at the time of the strike, however. The UN ultimately remained unable to deliver humanitarian aid to the estimated 300,000 civilians in Eastern Aleppo City throughout the cessation, despite the deal’s requirement for unhindered humanitarian aid deliveries to Aleppo. Russian forces deployed a “mobile observation post” at the entrance to Aleppo City along the Castello Road on September 13, which was the primary supply route into opposition-held areas of eastern Aleppo City before pro-regime forces severed it in late July 2016. Pro-regime forces temporarily withdrew from their positions along the road to transfer control of the critical supply route to Russian forces on September 15, but ultimately returned to their positions along Castello after opposition forces refused to withdraw. There was little indication, however, that the Russian forces withdrew from the supply route. The movement of Russian personnel to Castello Road allowed Russia and the regime to block humanitarian aid deliveries to Aleppo City in support of the Assad regime’s siege-and-starve tactics to force the surrender of the opposition in Aleppo under a crippling siege. Russia agreed to the cessation of hostilities deal only after pro-regime forces with considerable Russian air support were able to reestablish the siege on Aleppo City on September 4, essentially freezing frontlines with the opposition in the city. The ceasefire allowed the regime and Russia to reset operations in Aleppo in order to consolidate these recent gains, while the Syrian opposition remains constrained by the ceasefire and unable to launch a counteroffensive.  

Operational Reset

The Syrian regime and Russia used the cessation of hostilities to shift military assets to frontlines with ISIS. Russia allegedly deployed four Mi-28 ‘Havoc’ attack helicopters, a transport helicopter, and a contingent of fifty special operations forces to the Shayrat Airbase near Homs City on September 18, according to local activists. Russia has used prior ceasefire agreements to redeploy additional military assets to key frontlines within Syria, including a deployment of attack helicopters to the Shayrat Airbase in the wake of the original ‘cessation of hostilities’ brokered in February 2016. Pro-regime forces exploited the dynamic rotary wing strikes to retake the city of Palmyra from ISIS in central Homs in March 2016 during the previous nationwide ceasefire. Russia and the Syrian regime likely sought to similarly use this period of cessation to divert resources away from previously active frontlines with the opposition to clear remaining ISIS-held terrain threatening the regime-held city of Palmyra and the remaining regime-held areas of Deir ez Zour City.

Russian airstrikes during the cessation of hostilities primarily concentrated against ISIS-held areas in Deir ez Zour Province amidst a pro-regime offensive in the area. However, these operations were disrupted by reported U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on pro-regime forces in Deir ez Zour on September 17 that accidentally killed at least sixty-two pro-regime fighters. U.S. CENTCOM released a statement confirming that coalition aircraft may have “mistakenly struck” pro-regime forces while conducting operations against ISIS near Deir ez-Zour City, stressing that the coalition would not “intentionally strike” a known regime position. The Russian Ministry of Defense blamed the incident on the “stubborn refusal” of the U.S. to coordinate its air operations with Russia in Syria, exerting additional pressure on the U.S. to partner with Russia amidst escalating hostilities with opposition forces in western Syria.

Syrian Opposition and the Ceasefire

The failed attempt at a ceasefire ultimately risks driving the remaining “legitimate” members of the opposition towards hardline groups and fueling anti-U.S. sentiment. Twenty-one "FSA-affiliated" opposition factions and prominent Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al Sham released joint statements on September 12 agreeing to allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas in Syria. The groups also expressed considerable reservations about the lack of enforcement mechanisms to prevent indiscriminate pro-regime aerial bombardment and rejected the “targeting of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or any other faction that fights against the regime.” The joint statement represented tentative support for a general ceasefire in Syria, but a sharp condemnation of the current terms of the nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ brokered by the U.S. and Russia. Hardline elements of the opposition such as Jabhat Fatah Al Sham (JFS) – successor of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra -- have used the failed ceasefire to increase their own influence within opposition ranks in Syria. JFS Emir Abu Mohammad al-Joulani condemned the U.S.- and Russian-brokered nationwide ceasefire on September 17. He stressed that the deal between the two countries aims to impose a “political solution that would result in the complete surrender. Continued failures of the United States to bring about a functioning ceasefire to Syria will ultimately drive the long term staying power of hardline groups like JFS in Syria as anti-U.S. sentiment grows. The U.S. risks driving these “legitimate” groups closer to al Qaeda in Syria, rather than forcing these groups to distance themselves from hardline, Salafi-Jihadist groups.


The U.S. cannot accept a partnership with Russia in Syria so long as it continues to function as a belligerent actor in the conflict. Russia will continue to pursue its vital interests in Syria to include the preservation of the Assad regime and will continue to prioritize the defeat of the Syrian opposition, which remains the Syrian regime’s primary adversary. Russia and the regime will therefore pursue a strategy to remove mainstream opposition forces from the battlefield either through their submission, destruction, or the transformation of these groups into radical elements that can be rightfully targeted as terrorists. Russia is purposefully driving this radicalization through its deliberate targeting of civilian and humanitarian infrastructure. Russia will pursue an escalatory path in Syria that will constrain the U.S. and the international community into accepting certain levels of violence in exchange for a U.S.-Russia deal that will discourage Russia from escalating further. The U.S. must develop appropriate enforcement mechanisms to ensure both pro-regime forces and opposition groups adhere to the terms of any potential ceasefire in Syria and cannot rely upon Russia to ensure compliance with international law, let alone ceasefires.