Thursday, June 8, 2017

Russia’s Maneuvers in Syria: May 1 - June 7, 2017

By Ellen Stockert and the ISW Syria Team

Russia has reshaped its military campaign in Syria to constrain the U.S.’s current operations and future options. Russia deprioritized its airstrikes against opposition-held terrain in Western Syria following the announcement of four ‘de-escalation zones’ brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey on May 6. Russia claimed this shift was a continuation of its supposed counter-terrorism campaign in Syria. Russia’s actual target for this new operational phase is not ISIS or Al-Qaeda, but rather the U.S. and its partners and allies.

Russia positioned pro-Bashar al-Assad regime forces to disrupt the U.S. in Syria under the guise of anti-ISIS operations. Russian airstrikes supported pro-regime forces in a major offensive in Eastern Aleppo Province that culminated with the seizure of Maskanah - the last urban center held by ISIS in Aleppo Province - on June 4. These gains nonetheless placed the pro-regime coalition on the border between Aleppo and Ar-Raqqa Provinces within 55 miles of Ar-Raqqa City. Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime could use this region as a base to disrupt ongoing U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) operations to seize Ar-Raqqa City from ISIS. Russia similarly reasserted its capabilities with cruise missile strikes against ISIS logistics positions near Palmyra in Eastern Homs Province on May 31. The Russian Navy’s Mediterranean Task Force simultaneously conducted exercises with Russian Marines off the Syrian coast. Russia’s actions in Eastern Aleppo Province, Homs Province, and the Mediterranean demonstrate Russia’s resolve to compete with and undermine U.S. influence throughout Syria.

Russia continued to leverage partnerships with local forces in order to maximize the impact of its air campaign in Syria. Russian airstrikes targeted U.S.-backed opposition groups Jaysh Asoud al Sharqiya and the Ahmed Abdo Martyrs Brigade near the Zaza Junction in the Badia region of Eastern Homs Province on May 31. Pro-regime forces advanced throughout April and May toward the joint U.S.-Syrian opposition base at Tanaf on the Syrian-Iraqi border until U.S. airstrikes on May 18 and halted pro-regime forces from further incursion into an established “de-confliction” zone. The U.S. conducted additional strikes against pro-regime forces near Tanaf on June 6 and June 8. Pro-regime advances near Tanaf could impede U.S. freedom of movement along the Syrian-Iraqi border and deter potential U.S. operations against ISIS launched from Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province. Russia has also resumed air support for pro-regime ground efforts in Dera’a City in Southern Syria despite the ‘de-escalation zone’ agreement brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey in Dera’a Province. Pro-regime forces reportedly deployed from Aleppo City and Damascus to Dera’a City between May 29 - 31. Russia and the pro-regime coalition may attempt to use the deployment to Dera’a City to consolidate pro-regime control over Southern Syria and block potential U.S.-Jordanian mobilization along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Russia also advanced political efforts to constrain potential U.S. action in Syria. Russian officials met with representatives from Iraq, Iran, and the Assad regime in Moscow on May 21 to discuss terrorism and cooperation on Syrian-Iraqi border security. An Iraqi partnership with the Russia-Iran-Assad axis would undermine U.S.-Iraqi relations and open the door to greater Russian influence in Iraq. U.S. and Jordanian officials reportedly met with Russian representatives in Amman, Jordan, to discuss a de-escalation zone along the Syrian-Jordanian border. The expansion of Russian influence along Syria’s borders will put Russia and the U.S. in greater competition in Southern and Eastern Syria. The U.S. risks losing opposition partners and influence by partnering with Russia and must not misconstrue Russian air and missile strikes against ISIS as an indicator of Russian reliability in Syria.

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. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

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.