Thursday, October 13, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: September 13 - October 11, 2016

By Jonathan Mautner

Russia intensified its air campaign in Aleppo Province following the collapse of the nationwide ceasefire on September 19, aggressively targeting opposition-held districts and suburbs of Aleppo City in support of pro-regime ground operations to seize the city and defeat the acceptable opposition in Northwestern Syria. Russian warplanes conducted heavy waves of airstrikes against opposition forces and critical civilian infrastructure in and around Aleppo City from September 20 – October 6, relying increasingly on incendiary and bunker busting munitions in order to degrade opposition defenses and render the city uninhabitable. Russian airstrikes and concerted pro-regime ground operations concentrated against opposition-held terrain in the southern, central, and northern districts of Aleppo City in order to fix opposition forces along multiple fronts and hinder the movement of opposition reinforcements within the city. These successive and simultaneous operations are a hallmark of Russian campaign design and facilitated pro-regime advances in the northern outskirts of Aleppo City as well as some limited territorial gains near the city center. Russian air power alone likely will not enable pro-regime forces to recapture the densely-populated urban terrain of Aleppo City. Rather, the regime and Iran will have to deploy more combat-effective ground forces in order to leverage the asymmetric effect of the Russian air campaign to clear Aleppo City of the Syrian opposition.

ISW was unable to assess any Russian airstrikes in Aleppo City with high confidence during this reporting period.

Russia, however, briefly tempered its air operations in Aleppo Province beginning on September 29 in order to prioritize the targeting of core opposition-held terrain in western Syria. Russia intensified its airstrikes against opposition forces in the vicinity of frontlines in the mountainous Jabal al Akrad region of Latakia Province beginning on October 5, allowing pro-regime forces to reverse opposition gains secured as part of the Jaysh al Fatah-led “Battle of Ashura” offensive on October 10. Russian warplanes also targeted opposition strongholds in southern Idlib Province in order to halt the movement of fighters aiming to back opposition forces vying to seize nearby Hama City. Russia conducted airstrikes against U.S.-backed opposition groups in northern Hama Province as part of this effort, reportedly using bunker busting munitions to target underground headquarters of Jaysh Idlib al Har – a newfound coalition of former TOW anti-tank missile recipients – and TOW anti-tank missile recipient Jaysh al Izza on September 23 and October 2, respectively. At the same time, Russia conducted air operations in support of the ongoing pro-regime siege-and-starve campaign in the countryside of Damascus, using incendiary munitions against opposition-held areas in the Eastern and Western Ghouta suburbs of the city. Russia will likely continue to coordinate its air operations with regime siege-and-starve tactics that aim to neutralize opposition forces in dense urban terrain with minimal military resources.

Russia also exploited the collapse of the nationwide ceasefire to deter the U.S. from expanding the ambit of its own military mission in the Syrian Civil War. Russia used the period from September 18 – October 10 to move additional military assets into Syria and prepare for the establishment of a permanent naval base in the country. Most notably, Russia deployed components of the S-300 (NATO reporting name SA-23 Gladiator) anti-aircraft, anti-missile system to its naval base along the city of Tartus in western Syria beginning on or around October 1. Russia subsequently announced plans to upgrade and expand its existing naval facility at Tartus into a permanent base on October 10. Russia also reportedly deployed four Mi-28 ‘Havoc’ attack helicopters to the Shayrat Airbase near Homs City on September 18, marking a continuation of Russia’s practice of using ceasefire agreements to deploy additional military assets in Syria. Further, Russia deployed an unidentified number of Su-24 and Su-34 fighter jets to the Bassel al Assad Airbase in western Latakia Province on September 30. Significantly, the SA-23’s deployment to Syria coincided with the U.S. decision to suspend bilateral engagement with Russia on the Syrian Civil War on October 3, as well as statements from anonymous U.S. administration officials that the U.S. is weighing direct military action against the regime and other new options to address Russian intervention in the conflict. SA-23 missiles reportedly possess a range sufficient to reach targets in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Palmyra, suggesting that Russia aims to use the SA-23 in order to both deter the U.S. from conducting airstrikes against core regime terrain in Syria and project force into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The deployment of the SA-23 to Tartus thus likely forecloses additional options for the U.S. to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, ensures Russia’s continued freedom of action in Syria, and will bolster Russia’s integrated air defense system in Syria. The expansion of the Russian base at Tartus, however, demonstrates that Russia aims to create a military foothold in Syria that will endure beyond the conclusion of the Syrian Civil War. 

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.

ISW was unable to assess any Russian airstrikes in Syria with high confidence during this reporting period.