By Genevieve Casagrande and Jodi Brignola
Key Takeaway: Russia announced a new phase of its air campaign in Syria on November 17 following a new directive from Russian President Vladimir Putin. This new directive comes as FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov confirmed the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 to be “a terrorist act.” President Putin vowed to “punish” those responsible and stated that the Russian air campaign in Syria “must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable." The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced that the new air operations plan will double the size of Russia’s strike force able to target positions inside of Syria to include 25 long-range strategic bombers, 8 SU-34s, and 4 SU-27s. These new warplanes will be based from the Mozdok airbase in Northern Ossetia along Russia’s southern border with Georgia and flown over Iranian and Iraqi airspace to launch operations inside Syria. The new phase will also include an increased number of combat sorties from the Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia Province.
Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu reported during a briefing with President Putin that 12 long-range Tu-95 bombers carried out airstrikes against ISIS' positions in ar Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour on November 17. One Tu-160 and one Tu-95 fired 34 Kalibr cruise missiles at targets in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces on November 17. The U.S. was alerted of Russia’s intention to use sea-based cruise missiles in addition to long-range aircraft prior to these strikes according to an anonymous U.S. defense official. Multiple sources including the Russian MoD and the French MoD stated that Russia used cruise missiles to strike ISIS positions in Raqqa. French newspaper Le Monde reported that Russia launched cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, citing anonymous sources. The Kremlin did not confirm cruise missiles targeting ISIS in ar Raqqa. Local ground reporting only confirmed cruise missile strikes against rebel positions in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces with some local Syrian sources reporting that the missiles were fired from the direction of the Mediterranean. Notably, the majority of Russian airstrikes from November 16-17 targeted rebel positions, not ISIS.
Russia’s intensified air campaign may open the opportunity for Russia to continue its efforts to draw Western countries into a new counterterrorism coalition in the Middle East. French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian stated that the cruise missile strikes near ar Raqqa may indicate “this grand coalition with Russia is possible.” Increased airstrikes by both France and Russia prelude further cooperation between the two countries. Russia will continue to present itself as an effective anti-ISIS actor in Syria to the international community, despite the continuous low number of Russian airstrikes targeting core ISIS terrain.
The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, Syrian state-run media, and statements by Russian and Western officials. The recent influx in Russian strikes throughout Syria caused a notable inflection in ground reporting as well as discrepancies within Western and Russian media sources. Those strikes that have been reported inconsistently from news sources deemed reliable within the past 48-hours are represented by an “Unknown Russian Strike” categorization. Instances of cruise missiles are only depicted if reliable picture or video documentation of the missile has been released.
High-Confidence reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated both by official government statements reported through credible channels and documentation from rebel factions or activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible.
Low-Confidence reporting. ISW places low confidence in secondary sources that have not been confirmed or sources deemed likely to contain disinformation.