Friday, February 23, 2018

Russia's Air Campaign against Civilians Shifts to Damascus

By Matti Suomenaro

Russia is setting diplomatic and military conditions for a pro-regime offensive to expel the opposition from the Eastern Ghouta Suburbs of Damascus. Russia shifted its air campaign to participate in an intense aerial bombardment that has killed hundreds of civilians and fueled a widening humanitarian catastrophe in Eastern Ghouta. Russia is exploiting a de-escalation zone implemented by Turkey in Idlib Province in order to redirect pro-regime manpower and assets towards Damascus. Russia remains a net driver of violence rather than stability in the Syrian Civil War.

Russia is directly participating through its air campaign in an emergent humanitarian catastrophe in Eastern Ghouta. Russia and Syria dramatically intensified their airstrikes and artillery shelling on the besieged opposition-held Eastern Ghouta Suburbs of Damascus, killing more than four hundred civilians and targeting at least five hospitals on February 18 - 22. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied that Russia or its allies in Iran and Syria are responsible for the violence, stressing that all three states are engaged in an “absolute war against terrorism” in Syria. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia also accused global media of spreading “disinformation” regarding the situation in Damascus. ISW nonetheless confirmed airstrikes in nearly every opposition-held district of Eastern Ghouta by Russia on February 19 - 21. Russia also reportedly delivered large quantities of aerial munitions to the Syrian Arab Air Force at the Dumayr and Sayqal airbases outside Damascus on February 20. Russia remains culpable for the current humanitarian suffering in Eastern Ghouta.

The Russo-Iranian Coalition is setting diplomatic and military conditions for a pro-regime offensive against Eastern Ghouta. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that pro-regime forces could “deploy the experience of freeing” Aleppo City to Eastern Ghouta on February 19. Syria reportedly deployed at least ten warplanes and reinforcements including the elite Syrian Arab Army (SAA) Tiger Forces to the outskirts Eastern Ghouta on February 17 - 20. Russia similarly deployed at least eleven additional warplanes to the main Russian airbase at Bassel al-Assad International Airport on February 22. The reinforcements from Russia included four Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’ Ground Attack Aircraft and four Su-35 ‘Flanker-E’ Air Superiority Fighters as well as two prototype Su-57 Stealth Air Superiority Fighters. Russia simultaneously impeded a draft resolution ordering a thirty-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta at the UN Security Council on February 22 - 23. Russia has attempted to further muddy the debate and justify its actions through allegations of “relentless shelling” by “terrorist” groups in Damascus.

The Russo-Iranian Coalition has enabled its escalation in Damascus through a corresponding de-escalation in Northern Syria. Russia shifted its airstrikes away from frontlines in Eastern Idlib Province and Southern Aleppo Province after Turkey moved to implement the terms of a de-escalation zone previously brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey at the Astana Talks. Russia began shifting its air campaign after Turkey established two observation points in Eastern Idlib Province on February 5 and February 9. Turkey established[1] a third such observation point in Eastern Idlib Province on February 15. Russia also deployed military police to enforce the de-escalation zone near the town of Hadher in Southern Aleppo Province on February 14. Russia nonetheless sustained its airstrikes in Southern Idlib and Northern Hama Provinces, despite the relative calm along the front lines. Russia likely intends to leverage this relative calm to free pro-regime manpower and air assets for the anticipated ground operations in Eastern Ghouta. The Russo-Iranian Coalition successfully leveraged de-escalation zones under the same framework in order to intensify their operations against ISIS and the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Eastern Syria in 2017. 

[1]“TSK konvoyu, yeni gözlem noktası için İdlib’e intikal etti,” Anadolu Agency, February 9, 2018,; “Turkey army moves to set Syria ceasefire observation point,” Yeni Safak, February 15, 2018, https://www(.)