By Genevieve Casagrande
Russia has continued its air campaign against the Syrian opposition, despite its claims to temporarily suspend airstrikes against Syrian al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al Nusra and the opposition. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced a temporary pause in its air campaign against Jabhat al Nusra in order to give opposition groups time to distance themselves from the jihadist group on May 25 and again on May 27. The withdrawal of opposition forces from key frontlines jointly held with Jabhat al Nusra – particularly in Aleppo – would likely render core opposition-held terrain vulnerable to advances by pro-regime forces. Russia is conducting a concerted effort against opposition forces in Aleppo, following opposition gains against pro-regime forces in southern Aleppo throughout April and May 2016. Russian air operations have largely concentrated against positions along the opposition’s last remaining supply route into Aleppo City from May 13 - 26, including against towns northwest of the city and areas in Aleppo’s northern industrial outskirts. Pro-regime forces remain positioned to encircle and besiege opposition forces in Aleppo City by severing this supply route. Pro-regime forces continued low-level ground operations supported by Russian airstrikes from May 12 -17 to complete the encirclement through the city’s northern industrial districts, although these efforts were unsuccessful.
Russia remains a decisive military force in the Syrian conflict, despite its alleged drawdown. Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesperson Col. Steve Warren stated that Russian currently retains “almost identical” military capabilities following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial withdrawal on March 14. The distribution of Russian air operations in northwestern Syria demonstrates Russia’s continued prioritization of support to the Assad regime. The military assets that Russia maintains in theater allow it to respond within 24 hours to threats to regime terrain. Russian airstrikes escalated against opposition forces in northern Homs Province and southern Hama Province from May 12 – 16 and again from May 19 – 22 in response to renewed opposition operations against regime forces in the area. This concentration of strikes in defense of pro-regime terrain, however, was largely unable to reverse opposition gains.
Russia has meanwhile continued to present itself as an effective partner in the fight against terrorism, while continuing to function as a destabilizing force in the Syrian conflict. Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced on May 20 that Russia had presented a plan to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition to begin joint airstrikes against “international terrorist and illegal armed groups” that violate the cessation of hostilities agreement. U.S. officials subsequently denied the existence of any such agreement. Russia caveated its proposal for joint strikes, stating that Russia would not accept any arrangement that prevented it from conducting unilateral airstrikes in Syria. Russia is unlikely to halt military action against mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition, which remain the Assad regime’s largest adversaries. Russia has continued to indiscriminately target both Jabhat al Nusra and mainstream opposition factions in northwestern Syria despite the International Syria Support Group’s agreement to new measures to reinforce a nationwide cessation of hostilities on May 17. Russian airstrikes continued to primarily target opposition forces in northwestern Syria from May 13 - 26, rather than terrorist organizations such as ISIS. ISW was only able to assess one Russian airstrike against ISIS for the two-week period from May 13 – 26 with low confidence, despite continued ISIS operations throughout Syria.
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. This map represents locations targeted by Russia's air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties.
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.