Friday, November 17, 2017

Russia: Iran’s Air Force in Syria

By Matti Suomenaro and Jackson Danbeck

Russia intensified its air campaign in early November 2017 in support of Iran’s strategic ground gains in Eastern Syria. Russian forces targeted the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)-held town of Abu Kamal in Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province on the Syrian-Iraqi border with Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire-C’ strategic bombers and submarine launched ‘Kalibr’ cruise missiles between October 31 and November 3. The Russian military conducted these strikes in order to set conditions prior to the start of pro-Bashar al Assad regime operations to seize Abu Kamal on November 8. Russia later leveraged its unique air capabilities to provide direct support to pro-regime operations around Abu Kamal. Russia conducted multiple overnight and real-time interdiction strikes targeting ISIS fighters attempting to reinforce towns around Abu Kamal by crossing the Euphrates River. The forces targeting Abu Kamal included Iranian-directed fighters, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that entered Syria from Western Iraq. The PMF units included Kata’ib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and key Iranian proxy. ISIS nonetheless retains control over Abu Kamal as of November 12.

Russia is directly enabling Iran’s establishment of a land corridor running from Tehran to Beirut and Israel’s doorstep. Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, and the Iranian proxy-dominated PMF likely coordinated the cross-border maneuvers against Abu Kamal through the so-called Quartet Mechanism in Baghdad established in May 2017. Russia and Iran likely intend to further deepen cooperation with the Iraqi government along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran thus stands to gain long-term influence along the Syrian-Iraqi border via Abu Kamal and nearby Al-Qa’im in Western Iraq. Iran will also enjoy significant freedom of movement along the Baghdad-Damascus Highway. Russia has simultaneously used its support to Iran to limit the freedom of action of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and its allied Syrian Democratic Forces along the Euphrates River Valley in Eastern Syria. Russia and Iran are setting conditions to try and expel the U.S. from Syria and Iraq.

The preceding 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.