By Genevieve Casagrande
Key Takeaway: Russian air operations in Syria bolster the legitimacy and staying power of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Russia seeks to preserve its client regime in Syria and thereby ensure its foothold in the Middle East in line with its strategic objectives. The vast majority of Russia’s air operations in Aleppo Province have targeted mainstream Aleppo-based opposition groups, despite Russia’s insistence that its intervention aims exclusively to eliminate ISIS, Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra (JN), and other “terrorist organizations.” The agreement on a “cessation of hostilities” announced by world powers on February 11 fails to restrict the military operations of Russia, Iran, or the regime in Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city. The regime and its foreign backers thus remain free to continue their efforts to besiege opposition forces in Aleppo City. They have captured additional terrain on February 12 and 13, showing their intent to continue exploiting their recent gains. The ground campaign and Russian airstrike patterns indicate that the pro-regime forces intend complete the encirclement in the outer cordon northwest of Aleppo.
Russia’s air campaign in Syria has brought Syrian President Bashar al Assad within five kilometers of achieving his long-standing strategic objective to encircle and besiege Aleppo City, Syria’s largest urban center and a key opposition stronghold since 2012. Pro-regime forces supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fighters and Iranian proxy forces severed the primary opposition held-supply line to Aleppo City on February 3 during operations to relieve the partially-besieged regime-held towns of Nubl and Zahraa. Pro-regime forces subsequently began to expand territorial control north of Aleppo, clearing at least two additional opposition-held villages on February 5 – 6. Russia directly enabled these gains through a heavy campaign of airstrikes and likely through the assistance of Russian Special Forces reported to be operating in the province.
Pro-regime forces can sever the last remaining opposition supply line into the city at two discrete locations: an inner cordon which regime forces are 5 km away from completing, and an outer cordon which regime forces are over 10 km away from completing. Russia has concentrated strikes in the outer cordon northwest of the city, indicating that this is where regime forces will likely complete the siege. This outer cordon is rural terrain and therefore more easily cleared than the dense urban terrain inside the city or the industrial sector in the northern city limits. The rural area northwest of Aleppo is a key transit zone for supplies to reach opposition forces inside the city from their last remaining supply line running eastwards from the Turkish border. A review of Russia’s airstrikes from October 2015 – February 2016 displays Russia’s consistent targeting of the outer cordon, and its territorial gains on February 12 – 13 confirm their intent to complete the cordon here.
Russian Airstrikes Set Conditions for Encirclement of Aleppo
Russia began setting conditions for this encirclement of Aleppo in mid-October 2015, just two weeks after beginning its air campaign in Syria. The city has evidently been an enduring campaign priority, but required multiple simultaneous and successive operations, as Soviet doctrine would recommend. Russian airstrikes heavily targeted the southern Aleppo countryside from October – December, drawing opposition forces away from critical frontlines inside the city and northern countryside. The pro-regime forces had as their first operational objective reaching the M5 highway that links Aleppo and Damascus in order to set conditions for future operations west into Idlib Province. The airstrikes indeed facilitated significant gains by pro-regime forces in the southern countryside. They achieved the operational objective by seizing the opposition-held town of Khan Touman on December 20. Their second operational objective was to encircle ISIS positions east of Aleppo City that threaten the regime’s stronghold of Safira, a key area of interest to both the regime and Iran. To that end, Russian airstrikes since October also targeted ISIS in the eastern Aleppo countryside in order to enable pro-regime ground forces to push westward from the Kuweires Airbase. The campaign to complete the encirclement of the terrain between Safira and Kuweiris remains ongoing as of February 13. Russia nevertheless largely stopped air operations to the south of Aleppo City by January 12 as it began to dedicate a significant amount of its air power to opposition positions north of the city in preparation for the upcoming regime offensive there.
Airstrikes Support Kurds after Turkey Downed a Russian Warplane
Russian airstrike patterns changed after a Turkish jet downed a Russian warplane on November 24, after Russia violated Turkish airspace. Russian warplanes immediately began conducting airstrikes that assisted Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) operations against the opposition in Northern Aleppo Province near the Turkish border. Russian warplanes also increased the volume of strikes against the supply lines that sustain Syrian armed opposition forces in Aleppo Province. The targeting of these supply lines undermined the ability of opposition forces backed by Turkey to defend against regime and YPG forces simultaneously, and ultimately overwhelmed opposition defenses.
Russia’s sustained bombardment of the opposition’s supply line from the Turkish border north of Aleppo city enabled Kurdish forces to advance within meters of the key border town of Azaz. Syrian Kurdish YPG and allied opposition elements seized the opposition-held Menagh Airbase, south of Azaz, and five nearby villages by February 10. This advance capitalized on the disposition of opposition forces further south against the regime to penetrate a previously strong defensive line.
Russian pressure on opposition forces in Aleppo and facilitation of Kurdish gains accomplishes numerous strategic objectives. Russia is simultaneously portraying Turkey as a regional aggressor through a sophisticated information campaign in order to deter any decisive action by Turkey to assert its strategic interests. Russia seeks deliberately to exploit and expand disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey about Kurdish issues. Turkey opposes American support to the YPG, and the controversy over this support limits the effectiveness of the anti-ISIS coalition by creating a sustained rift between the two countries about their respective goals in Syria. The advance by YPG forces north of Aleppo City on terrain critical to Turkey heightens Turkish-American tensions by emboldening the YPG. Russia is concentrating airstrikes along the highway through Azaz to cut off Turkish supplies to Aleppo, claiming that the Turks are facilitating ISIS. Reports of Turkish shelling on YPG positions near Azaz on February 13 demonstrate the risk that the Turks will escalate in response to YPG gains and Russian airstrikes along its border. Russia is thereby also challenging NATO by provoking Turkey and trying to show the limitations of the principle of collective defense.
Russia obscures its true intentions in Syria through an active disinformation campaign. Its primary objective in Syria is to maintain an air and naval base on the Mediterranean by ensuring the preservation of the Assad regime. The distribution of Russian airstrikes in Aleppo Province demonstrates that its air campaign is primarily directed at weakening the armed Syrian opposition generally, not ISIS or al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The “cessation of hostilities” agreed upon the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) on February 11 will likely only further the regime’s campaign to complete the siege of Aleppo, which Russia has been setting conditions for since October 2015.
The U.S. must seek solutions to the violence in Aleppo in ways that recognize that Russia, Iran, and the regime are belligerents to the conflict. Ceasefire agreements that do not police the actions of these three actors will likely result in increased violence and preclude any future political process that is agreed upon by legitimate representatives of the armed opposition. Russia, Iran, and the regime may soon besiege opposition forces and an estimated 300,000 civilians in Aleppo City. At the same time, the Russian air campaign has deliberately targeted hospitals, markets, water treatment stations, and other civilian targets in Aleppo Province in order to punish and depopulate opposition-held terrain. The U.S. must therefore mitigate the humanitarian disaster and prevent the collapse of the opposition in the province. U.S. policymakers should demand that Russia cease all airstrikes in Syria as part of any “cessation of hostilities” or nationwide ceasefire. The U.S. should also authorize humanitarian aid drops in Aleppo City and increase military support to U.S.-backed opposition groups in Aleppo. The U.S. should consider establishing a humanitarian safe zone north of Aleppo City in partnership with Turkey in order to forestall a Turkish intervention against the YPG in Syria and ameliorate the refugee crisis along the Syrian-Turkish border. A safe zone north of Aleppo City could also help opposition forces facing encirclement survive by placing pressure on the regime’s northern flank and positioning Turkey to provide artillery support to the opposition inside Aleppo City.