By Jonathan Mautner
Russia conducted aggressive air operations in central Syria from March 20 – April 3 in order to simultaneously blunt an opposition offensive and advance the radicalization of the armed opposition. Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and a contingent of U.S.-backed opposition groups seized at least fifteen towns in northern Hama Province from pro-regime forces from March 21 – 23, advancing within four kilometers of regime-held Hama City. In response, Russian warplanes targeted a swathe of core opposition terrain linking northern Hama and southern Idlib Provinces over the next two weeks, fixing the movement of opposition fighters vying to reinforce the offensive. Russia also conducted high tempo air operations behind front lines during this period in an effort to overwhelm emergency response capabilities and press opposition forces into civil defense roles. At the same time, Russia intensified its air operations in northern Damascus City and its Eastern Ghouta Suburbs after Salafi-jihadi factions and U.S.-backed opposition group Faylaq al Rahman jointly lifted the pro-regime siege on the Qabun and Barzeh Districts of Damascus on March 21. In tandem with the redeployment of more capable regime ground units, the dramatic surge in Russian airstrikes effectively reversed much of the opposition advance near Hama City and enabled pro-regime forces to reinstate the siege. Absent a viable challenge to their air supremacy, Russian warplanes will continue to confer an asymmetric advantage to pro-regime forces in the Syrian Civil War.
Russia also continued its systematic campaign to destroy critical civilian infrastructure in opposition-held towns, routinely striking bakeries and hospitals in northern Hama and southern Idlib Provinces beginning on March 22. Russia’s target set and use of munitions designed to inflict severe casualties in densely populated terrain reflects its intent to punish and deter civilian populations that support the opposition. In pursuit of these aims, Russia conducted heavy waves of airstrikes against opposition-held Jisr al Shughur in western Idlib Province from March 27 – April 3, striking the city with cluster munitions almost daily after prominent Salafi-jihadi group Ahrar al Sham downed a regime helicopter in nearby Jabal al Akrad. By conducting such punitive operations in the context of an air campaign focused primarily on the acceptable opposition, Russia has deliberately encouraged both the political radicalization of more moderate factions and their military dependence on Salafi-jihadi groups. The participation of U.S.-backed factions in the al Qaeda-led Hama and Damascus offensives marks just one of the more recent indicators of Russia’s success in coercing the acceptable opposition into such coordination. By its design, Russia will continue to exploit the increasingly radical nature of the armed opposition in order to bolster the ostensible legitimacy of the pro-regime alliance and continue its air campaign in Syria with relative impunity.
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. 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.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this map was published with ISIS control underrepresented in eastern Aleppo Province.