By Jonathan Mautner and Christopher Kozak
Russia enabled pro-regime forces to complete the physical encirclement of Aleppo City on July 28, isolating the primary nexus of the non-jihadist opposition in Northern Syria. These gains threaten the long-term survival of mainstream opposition groups that could serve as potential partners against ISIS and Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Russian warplanes continued to concentrate airstrikes against opposition targets on the northern and western outskirts of Aleppo City from July 14 - 27, allowing pro-regime forces to seize positions along the Castello Highway that serves as the only major ground line of communication (GLOC) into opposition-held districts in the eastern half of the city. Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu announced on July 28 that Russian President Vladimir Putin would authorize a “large-scale humanitarian operation” around Aleppo City in order to “help civilians…taken hostage by terrorists” while pro-regime forces opened a number of evacuation routes for the estimated 250,000 civilians that remain in Eastern Aleppo City. On the same day, Assad issued an offer of general amnesty for any opposition fighters that surrender to the regime within the next three months. The proposals regarding humanitarian support and national reconciliation, however, coincided with continued airstrikes against critical infrastructure and densely-populated urban terrain within Aleppo City, suggesting that Russia likely aims to depopulate Aleppo City in preparation for concerted pro-regime ground operations to force the surrender of opposition groups within the city.
Russia also intensified its air operations in Eastern Homs Province in a likely attempt to preserve its legitimacy as a viable international partner in the Syrian Civil War. Russia concentrated its strikes on the eastern outskirts of Palmyra – a key crossroads town that provides the regime with a launching point for future operations into Eastern Syria. Russia invested significant resources into the operation to seize Palmyra in March 2016 and spun the victory as a triumph against terrorism that justified its narrative for intervention into the Syrian Civil War. Recent advances by ISIS near Palmyra have threatened to undermine this narrative. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it sortied six long-range strategic bombers from Russia to strike alleged ISIS targets near Palmyra on July 21, marking the second such sortie in the past month. The regime later deployed over 1,000 Iranian-backed Iraqi and Afghan Shi’a militia fighters to Palmyra on July 25 in order to reinforce the defenses of the city. Russia will likely continue to prioritize its campaign against ISIS in Eastern Homs Province in order to preempt its potential resurgence in the region and protect its claims to be a credible partner against violent extremism.
Russia continues to wage its air campaign in a manner aimed at shaping the terms of a potential end-state to the Syrian Civil War in accordance with its strategic objectives. Putin has leveraged his role in the conflict in order to attract the U.S. into a one-sided partnership that will ultimately benefit Assad. On July 26, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that talks regarding potential cooperation with Russia in Syria against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra had been “making progress” and noted that final details could be announced as early as August 2016. The continued consideration of a bilateral deal despite the looming siege of Aleppo City will likely encourage Russia to continue its operations unchecked against large swaths of the mainstream opposition under the guise of counter-terrorism. Continued attacks against mainstream opposition groups will fuel further radicalization and consolidation under the leadership of jihadist groups. At the same time, Russia continued to promote itself as a constructive diplomatic actor by participating in a trilateral meeting with the U.S. and UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura on July 26 that urged a resumption of political negotiations. Russia will use its military influence to set conditions on the ground that force the U.S. into tacit acceptance of the long-term preservation of the regime.
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.