Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Russian Air Power Shapes Strategic Balance in Northern Syria

By Christopher Kozak

Russia prioritized its air support for a major pro-Bashar al-Assad regime ground campaign into Idlib Province between January 22 and February 11, 2018. The Russian Armed Forces focused its air operations in support of a wider pro-regime ground campaign to capture terrain in opposition-held Greater Idlib Province. Russia enabled a successful pro-regime offensive that seized full control of the Abu Dhuhur Airbase in Eastern Idlib Province on January 20. Russia subsequently supported a pro-regime advance towards the town of Saraqib in Idlib Province that began on January 31. Russia conducted heavy airstrikes targeting opposition-held villages along pro-regime frontlines across Eastern Idlib and Southern Aleppo Provinces. Russia also launched near-daily air raids against Saraqib itself that prompted the opposition Saraqib Local Council to declare a ‘disaster zone’ in the town. Saraqib occupies a strategic position along the M5 Highway that would provide an ideal staging ground for future pro-regime operations to reach Idlib City or the besieged pro-regime enclave of Fu’ah and Kefraya – two majority-Shi’a villages that represent a key Iranian priority in Syria. 

Russia adjusted its air operations after the combat loss of one of its warplanes in early February. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria – claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’ near Saraqib with a Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) on February 3. The Russian Armed Forces in response ordered all warplanes to increase their flight altitude outside the range of potential MANPADS. Russia also reportedly deployed new electronic air defense and surface-to-air missile systems to Northern Syria. Russia simultaneously launched a punitive air campaign targeting key civilian infrastructure across Greater Idlib Province including Idlib City and Jisr al-Shughur on the Syrian-Turkish Border. Pro-regime aircraft also intensified their air and artillery bombardment of the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta Suburbs of Damascus, killing at least 200 civilians. Russia likely participated in these strikes, although ISW could not validate a low-confidence strike during the reporting period.

Russia is leveraging the operational effects of its air campaign to shape ongoing strategic negotiations with Turkey in Northern Syria. Russia likely enabled the pro-regime offensive on Saraqib in part to pressure Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to adhere to prior commitments reached at the Astana Talks. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly urged Erdogan to expedite the deployment of observation posts by the Turkish Armed Forces in Northern Syria on January 31. Russia later deliberately shifted its air campaign in order to allow Turkey to establish two outposts in Eastern Idlib Province on February 5 and February 9. Russia nonetheless sustained – if not intensified - its indiscriminate air campaign against opposition groups backed by Turkey in Idlib Province. Russia will use its air assets as both an enabler and a deterrent to shape the long-term future of Northern Syria in negotiation with Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

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.