Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: October 26 - November 20, 2016

By Christopher Kozak and Jonathan Mautner

Russia announced the start of a “major operation” against positions allegedly held by ISIS and al-Qaeda in Central Syria on November 15. The operation is designed to showcase the military strength and power projection capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces. The Russian aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ launched a number of sorties from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea targeting core opposition-held terrain in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces – the first such use of an aircraft carrier in combat by Russia. These strikes were accompanied by a wave of cruise missiles launched from missile frigates accompanying the ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ as well as long-range strategic bombers sortied from Northern Russia. Russia also reportedly conducted several strikes against inland targets with its Bastion-P anti-ship missile system. These integrated land, naval, and air capabilities are neither necessary nor sufficient to defeat the opposition in Northern Syria. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin likely intends to leverage this display of advanced weaponry in order to assert his ‘great power’ status and bolster domestic support for his intervention into the Syrian Civil War.

Russia also resumed its air operations against opposition-held districts of Aleppo City after a nearly month-long pause on strikes in the besieged city. Activists reported the start of heavy airstrikes throughout Eastern Aleppo City on November 15 despite claims by the Russian Ministry of Defense that a moratorium on airstrikes remained in place. Russian Ministry of Defense Spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov even denied the reports as “public rhetoric” and “blatant lies” from the U.S. State Department. The intensified airstrikes come amidst continued pro-regime ground operations to tighten the blockade on Eastern Aleppo City after opposition forces launched a failed bid to lift the siege of the city in late October 2016. Although pro-regime forces remain unable to seize the entirety of Aleppo City over the near-term, the military assistance provided by Russia will likely precipitate its ultimate surrender under the regime’s siege-and-starve campaign. The UN reported the distribution of the last food rations in the besieged opposition-held districts of Eastern Aleppo City on November 10 and predicted a “killer winter” for their estimated 250,000 residents. The surge in air operations also coincided with an uptick in reports of airstrikes targeting hospitals, schools, and other critical civilian infrastructure across Northern Syria.

The U.S. faces increasing constraints on its available courses of action as Russia takes continued steps to limit future options for engagement in the Syrian Civil War. Russia aims to force the surrender of Eastern Aleppo City and thereby impose a major defeat on the remaining acceptable opposition in Northern Syria. This outcome will hasten the transformation of the opposition into a movement dominated by Salafi-Jihadist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, eliminating potential partners for the U.S. in Syria and legitimizing the counter-terrorism narrative of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Russia also consolidated its control over regional airspace with the deployment of seven additional S-300V4 air defense systems to Syria on November 15, reinforcing the effective no-fly zone created by its integrated air defense systems in the country. These measures aim to raise the cost of any military intervention against the regime and steer the U.S. into accepting military cooperation against ‘terrorism’ with Russia and Syria as the path of least resistance. Any partnership along these terms would only exacerbate the long-term grievances that fuel Salafi-Jihadist groups in Syria while allowing Russia to consolidate its regional influence and advance its strategic objective to expel the U.S. from the Middle East.

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.