Thursday, October 27, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: September 20 - October 25, 2016

By Jonathan Mautner with Christopher Kozak

Russia implemented a series of unilateral ‘humanitarian pauses’ in Aleppo City in a new attempt to obscure its ultimate military objectives in the Syrian Civil War and reduce mounting diplomatic pressure against its intervention.  Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu announced a series of three eleven-hour ‘humanitarian pauses’ from October 20 – 22 to allow for the “safe exit” of civilians and opposition fighters from Eastern Aleppo City. The announcement followed a temporary halt to pro-regime airstrikes in Aleppo City that Russia instituted on October 18. Nonetheless, Russia dramatically intensified its airstrikes against opposition forces and critical civilian infrastructure in Aleppo City during the four-day period preceding the temporary halt in its air campaign, conducting strikes with bunker-busting munitions aimed at degrading opposition defenses and coercing the local population to abandon the city. Pro-regime forces also continued to conduct ground operations and restrict humanitarian access during the suspension of the air campaign as part of their continued effort to depopulate opposition-held districts of Eastern Aleppo City. In effect, Russia acted to ensure that its ‘humanitarian pauses’ did not serve to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo City.

Russia paused its air operations in Aleppo City for military and geopolitical reasons rather than humanitarian ones. Although Russia shifted its air campaign away from Aleppo City to target core opposition terrain in Idlib Province from October 18 – 21, the overall tempo of the campaign decreased across Western Syria over the past seven days. Russia may have used this period as an opportunity to conduct much-needed maintenance on its forward-deployed aircraft given the pace of operations of its intervention since September 2015. Russia may have intended to further ease the strain on these airframes through the deployment of its sole aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on October 17. Russia likely also sought to relieve mounting international pressure in response to its aggressive air operations in Aleppo City. The U.S. and EU both issued increasingly public threats of targeted sanctions and calls for investigations into potential war crimes committed by pro-regime forces in Aleppo City as Russian warplanes aggressively targeted the city from October 14 – 17. Russia nonetheless will not suspend its air campaign on any long-term basis in response to international censure, having ratified an agreement for the indefinite deployment of its air forces to Syria on October 7. Russia resumed heavy airstrikes against outlying suburbs of Aleppo just one day after the conclusion of the ‘humanitarian pauses’ on October 22, preventing opposition forces from reinforcing or resupplying the besieged city.

Russia partnered its ‘humanitarian pauses’ with a campaign of disinformation that aimed to draw parallels between the actions of Russia in Aleppo City and the Anti-ISIS Coalition in Mosul in Northern Iraq. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued on October 25 that the U.S. and Russia are both conducting military operations against major urban centers held by ‘terrorist groups’ and accused the U.S. of hypocrisy for its condemnations of Russia in Syria. This rhetoric marks an attempt to establish a moral equivalency between the actions of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East and bolster its false narrative that Russia has solely targeted terrain occupied by jihadist forces. Russia will likely continue to cultivate this narrative as coalition forces move to recapture Mosul in Iraq and Ar-Raqqa City in Syria in order to justify even more aggressive pro-regime operations to clear opposition forces from Aleppo City. 

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.

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