By Jonathan Mautner
Russia continued to wage an aggressive air campaign in Syria from December 20, 2016 – January 11, 2017 despite announcing a ceasefire and military drawdown in the country. Russia and Turkey brokered a ‘nationwide’ ceasefire on December 28 that took effect one day later, nominally securing the participation of the Syrian government but excluding ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al Sham (JFS), successor of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. At the same time, thirteen various armed opposition factions reiterated their support for a cessation of hostilities, conditioning their assent on the regime’s compliance. Notwithstanding its negotiations with Turkey, Russia conducted heavy waves of airstrikes against at least five opposition towns in the besieged Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus from December 28 – 29, aiming to bolster the pro-regime siege-and-starve campaign near the Syrian capital in advance of the ceasefire. Russian warplanes also aggressively targeted opposition terrain west and south of Aleppo City from December 22 – January 2 and January 9 – 11, setting conditions for pro-regime forces to clear the city’s outlying suburbs and thereby strengthen their hold over its recently recaptured eastern districts. Russia’s continuing air operations in the wake of the evacuation of Aleppo City on December 22 indicate that Russia will continue to take military action to achieve its strategic objectives in Syria, including the consolidation of regime control over the country’s major urban centers. Russia will likely exploit the exclusion of JFS from the ceasefire in order to continue its targeting of acceptable opposition forces that cooperate and collocate with JFS out of military necessity. Russia also conducted airstrikes against ISIS-held terrain in the vicinity of Palmyra in eastern Homs Province from December 20 – January 11 in order to defend the nearby T4 (Tiyas) Airbase, its main base of operations in central Syria. The primary target of the Russian air campaign during this period remained the acceptable opposition, however, demonstrating that the U.S. cannot rely upon Russia to invest heavily in anti-ISIS operations even when the jihadist group threatens core pro-regime interests.
The commencement of the Russia-Turkey brokered ceasefire coincided with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia will pursue a “reduction of [its] military presence” in Syria. Russia will likely use this period to prepare for a new phase of its military intervention in the country, however. Although Russia withdrew its lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, from the Syrian coast on January 6 and as many as six Su-24 bombers from Latakia Province in the following days, these withdrawals do not materially diminish Russia’s military capabilities in Syria. Pro-regime forces advanced into eastern Aleppo City despite the loss of at least two Russian airframes attempting to recover to the Kuznetsov from November 14 – December 3, suggesting that the carrier was neither highly functional nor militarily decisive during its deployment to Syria. Rather, Russia used the Kuznetsov to demonstrate its force projection capabilities, transferring some of its accompanying aircraft to the Bassel al Assad Airport in western Syria following the crashes. Whether by design or for operational safety, those transfers will help enable Russia to continue its aggressive air campaign moving forward. In an effort to refine that capability, the Russian Ministry of Defense also acted swiftly to replace the departing Su-24s, announcing the deployment of four Su-25 warplanes to the airbase on January 12. The deployment of the Su-25s — a more effective ground attack aircraft than the ageing Su-24s — indicates that Russia will use the guise of its purported drawdown in order to rotate out dated airframes in favor of assets that will better enable it to achieve the aims of future pro-regime operations. Russia’s deployment of a military police battalion to Aleppo City on December 22 suggests that those operations may include a concerted effort to clear the city of any opposition fighters who remain in the wake of its evacuation. Whatever their respective missions, the recent deployments of military police, more capable attack aircraft, and new military vehicles to Syria following the Russian drawdown announcement all but confirm that the pro-regime alliance will not simply abandon its pursuit of territorial gain in the Syrian Civil War.
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.