By Genevieve Casagrande
The tempo of Russian air operations has dramatically escalated in Syria. The rate and breadth of Russian airstrikes nearly tripled from May 29 – June 2 in comparison to the previous five day period. ISW was able to assess a total of 29 Russian airstrikes with low and high confidence beginning on May 29 and only 10 locations from May 24 -28. This escalation marks a dangerous shift in the Russian airstrike pattern to levels only seen prior to the brokering of the Cessation of Hostilities agreement in late February 2016. This expansion of the Russian air campaign coincides with the further breakdown of Geneva negotiations, including the resignation of Chief Opposition Negotiator Mohammad Alloush on May 30 due to a reported lack of political progress and continued bombardment of civilians in opposition-held terrain.
Russia is clearly demonstrating its freedom of action in Syria. It has pivoted its air operations towards mainstream elements of the armed opposition across Western Syria. An anonymous U.S. intelligence official confirmed on June 3 that “Russia and [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad have “primarily targeted the moderate opposition” despite their claims to the contrary. Russian air operations against the Syrian opposition expanded beyond the targeting of critical frontlines in Aleppo and once again began to target deep within opposition-held terrain in Idlib Province from May 30 – June 2. ISW was also able to assess two Russian airstrikes with low confidence in Dera’a Province on May 31, marking the first assessed Russian strikes in the province since February 25. The strikes targeted terrain largely held by factions within the U.S.-backed Southern Front coalition. Russia also continued its intense bombardment against the opposition in Aleppo in a likely condition setting effort for the pro-regime encirclement of Aleppo City, targeting key locations along the opposition’s last remaining supply route into the city.
ISW has changed its assessment methodology regarding low- and high-confidence strikes since the last publication of a Russian airstrikes map on May 28. Both the Russian Ministry of Defense and Western officials have altered their patterns of reporting on Russian air operations within recent weeks. ISW has therefore amended the criteria for determining high-confidence reporting to rely more heavily on key indicators of Russian airstrikes, rather than statements from Russian and Western officials. Key indicators of strikes include precision, flight patterns, and time of strikes as well as an examination of picture intelligence.
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.
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.