Thursday, December 8, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: November 8 - December 6, 2016

By Jonathan Mautner

Russia leveraged the asymmetric advantage of its air power in Syria in order to facilitate major pro-regime gains in eastern Aleppo City from November 26 – December 7, bringing the regime close to securing the city’s ultimate surrender. Russia conducted targeted airstrikes against a contiguous swathe of five opposition districts in northeastern Aleppo City from November 25 – 26, enabling pro-regime forces to recapture four neighborhoods in the area. At the same time, opposition forces withdrew from five additional neighborhoods in the vicinity of the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsud District in northern Aleppo City, ceding control of the districts to the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. Most recently, pro-regime forces seized the Sha’er District on December 6 and advanced into the dense urban terrain of Aleppo’s Old City on December 7 after the withdrawal of opposition fighters, establishing control of more than three-fourths of the opposition’s urban pocket. The withdrawal of those fighters to more open areas of the city will render them increasingly vulnerable to Russian airstrikes and place them under greater pressure to accede to regime surrender and evacuation proposals.

Russia also intensified its air operations against schools, markets, and other civilian infrastructure in the suburbs north and west of Aleppo City and in neighboring Idlib Province from November 25 – 28 and December 3 – 6, respectively, aiming to extract a high cost for the opposition’s continued resistance in Aleppo City. Russia will continue to wage its air operations in northwestern Syria for both military and punitive effect, at least until the regime’s siege-and-starve campaign coerces Aleppo City’s remaining opposition districts to surrender. As Russia acts deliberately to reinforce that campaign, opposition-held eastern Aleppo City and its bastion of acceptable opposition factions will likely surrender before the incoming U.S. administration takes office. This eventuality would not only bolster the regime and its allies, but also threaten the national security objectives of the U.S. in Syria. Lacking alternatives, the remnants of those once acceptable opposition forces will likely withdraw to core opposition terrain in Idlib Province and cooperate more closely with Salafi-jihadist groups in order to continue their insurgency against the Syrian regime. Although committed to overthrowing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Salafi-jihadist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham are also invested in attacking the U.S. and its allies. If the regime achieves victory in Aleppo City, the U.S. will face both a continuing civil war and an increasingly durable Salafi-jihadist safe haven in northern Syria from which groups can plan and potentially execute external attacks.

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.