Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Back To The West: Russia Shifts Its Air Campaign in Syria

By Matti Suomenaro and Jackson Danbeck

Russia announced the conclusion of major ground operations against ISIS in Eastern Syria and refocused its air campaign to support ongoing pro-regime offensives against opposition forces in Western Syria.

Russia claimed the full ‘defeat’ of ISIS in Syria to press for an expedited withdrawal of the U.S. from the Middle East. Pro-regime forces including Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) achieved significant gains against ISIS in Eastern Syria between November 19 and December 6. Pro-regime forces backed by Russia seized the key border town of Albu Kamal along the Syrian-Iraqi Border on November 19. Pro-regime forces later cleared the majority of the western bank of the Euphrates River in Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province - including the towns of Qurayyah and Asharah - between November 28 and December 6. Russia conducted at least fourteen long-distance sorties involving Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire-C’ strategic bombers in support of these offensives between November 3 and December 6. Russian Col. Gen. Sergey Rudskoy subsequently announced the defeat of ISIS in Syria during a press briefing at the Russian Ministry of Defense on December 7. Russia likely intends to exaggerate its military successes in order to bolster its credentials as a legitimate counter-terrorism actor and intensify pressure for an expedited withdrawal by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition from Eastern Syria. Rudskoy also claimed that Russia provided direct air and special forces support against ISIS to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Syrian Kurdish YPG Spokesperson Nuri Muhammad previously acknowledged the existence of air and logistical support from Russia on December 3. Russia likely intends to leverage its air campaign as one tool in its diplomatic efforts to co-opt the Syrian Kurds - and thereby undermine the long-term presence of the U.S. in Syria.

Russia will refocus its air campaign against opposition forces in Western Syria despite its announcement of a partial military withdrawal from Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of a “significant part” of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria during a surprise visit to the Bassel al-Assad International Airport on the Syrian Coast on December 11. Russian Armed Forces in Syria Commander Col. Gen. Sergey Surovikin stated that the withdrawal will include twenty-three fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopter gunships as well as select detachments of special forces, military police, and field engineers. Russia maintained at least thirty-five fixed-wing aircraft in Syria as of November 17. Russia has previously used claims of partial withdrawals in order to rotate out select units for refit-and-repair, remove redundant capabilities, and reinsert alternative weapons systems better suited for the next phase of pro-regime operations. Pro-regime forces launched limited offensives to capitalize on infighting between ISIS and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria - in Western Aleppo, Southern Idlib, and Northern Hama Provinces in early November 2017. Pro-regime forces later began to achieve sustained territorial gains along these fronts after Russia refocused its air campaign towards Western Syria in late November 2017. Russia likely intends to set conditions for future pro-regime operations to contain and ultimately clear opposition-held Idlib Province.

The preceding 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. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

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.