Thursday, July 20, 2017

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: Pre- and Post-Ceasefire

By Genevieve Casagrande and Ellen Stockert

The Russian military is reshaping its air campaign in Syria in order to compel the U.S. into partnering with Russia, which cannot destroy jihadists, roll back Iran, or set conditions for a desirable settlement to the war. Russia prioritized airstrikes against ISIS in Homs, eastern Hama, and Deir ez Zour Provinces in support of the Bashar al Assad regime from June 8 – July 16. Russia also conducted a series of high-profile strikes, including long-range strategic bombing runs from Russia and cruise missiles launched from the Eastern Mediterranean against ISIS between May and July 2017. Russia de-prioritized its air campaign against the Syrian opposition in June and early July as part of an effort to encourage the U.S. to accept Russia’s proposal for a “de-escalation zone” in Southwest Syria. The U.S. later agreed to the de-escalation zone agreement on July 7 following a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia is disguising its strategic intent by masquerading as a reliable counterterrorism partner for the U.S. in Syria. President Trump’s reported decision to end support for some anti-Assad opposition fighters will likely only encourage Putin to seize greater control over the conflict and continue rolling back U.S. influence in the country.

The ‘de-escalation zone’ deal has further secured Russia’s freedom of action to support Iran and Bashar al Assad’s campaign. Russia has consistently used ceasefires in Syria to temporarily shift and reorient resources elsewhere in the theater. The U.S.-Russia-Jordan ceasefire is no exception. The deal has freed up Russian resources to surge airstrikes in support of pro-regime operations to disrupt the U.S. and its partner forces in Eastern Syria under the guise of fighting ISIS. Pro-regime forces with support from Russian airstrikes launched operations against U.S.-backed groups in Northern Suwayda and Eastern Rif Dimashq Provinces from July 8 – 10 amidst the start of the ceasefire, reportedly seizing over a “dozen” small villages and positions from rebels in the area. Russia has likewise surged strikes in support of pro-regime forces near Palmyra and Deir ez Zour. This shift seeks to constrain U.S. operations and provide leverage for Russia in future negotiations over a potential second ceasefire in Eastern 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.