Day 2 of Russian Airstrikes in Syria

Russian air strikes in Syria continued into Wednesday night, with a second raid on the moderate Tajumu al-Ezza brigade headquarters around midnight. Thursday brought more strikes in a growing list of locations in Hama and Homs, as well as an expansion into Idlib governorate, where Russian jets targeted the headquarters of a rebel brigade named Suqour al-Jebel in the village of Kherbet Hass just outside of Kafr Nabl. Dozens of videos have been uploaded purporting to show the Russian strikes and their aftermath.

Like Tajumu al-Ezza, Suqour al-Jebel is also a moderate FSA-linked brigade, known to have received U.S. weapons and support under the CIA’s covert program that preceded the current public $500 million train and equip initiative. Russian airstrikes hit Suqour al-Jebel’s small contingent in Idlib province, where it battles the Syrian government, but the group’s primary area of operation is in Aleppo province, where it is at the frontlines of the fight against ISIS, which it frequently and actively fights against.

Instead of striking at the major ISIS controlled territories in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and parts of Aleppo, Russia has focused on Syria’s central corridor in Idlib, Homs, and Hama governorates with which border Assad’s coastal stronghold. The exact targets of many of the known Russian air strikes in Syria remain unclear, as some of the missiles have hit populated areas where there are no known rebel headquarters, such as a strike in Talbiseh, Homs that landed just 200 meters away from a civilian field hospital. This area, along with the other targeted towns in northern parts of Homs governorate, has been under siege by pro-regime militias for years and has no known ISIS presence.

The strikes are being coordinated with the Syrian government, which is targeting the same areas as the Russians, with artillery and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. Syrians reporting these strikes describe them as clearly not conducted by the weakened Syrian Air Force, whose patterns they have become all too familiar to Syrias in recent years. The Russian air sorties have involved multiple fighter jets flying in formation and using traditional rockets, as opposed to the improvised explosives that the Syrian military has resorted to in order to conserve dwindling munitions supplies. These areas are the same ones that have been observed in recent weeks by Russian surveillance drones on reconnaissance flights.

In response to criticism that Russia has killed moderate rebels and civilians, the Kremlin has accused Western media of launching an information war. This sort of accusation is common for Russia, which frequently spreads disinformation about its more devious activities in order to insert confusion and doubt into the developing media narratives. The Russian government also regularly sells different stories to the international media and its domestic audience. For example, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the United Nations this week that “We believe that the Free Syrian Army should be part of the political process.” But domestically Russian media, most of which is firmly controlled by the Kremlin, emphasizes that there are no moderate rebels in Syria, and that the Free Syrian Army has the same extreme ideology as ISIS.

Analysis

In Syria, where the jihadi groups have become prevalent amongst the armed opposition, the Russian decision thus far to only target moderate brigades that have been vetted by the U.S. and received prior weapons support under the covert U.S. program, and no ISIS-linkned targets, is meaningful. This target selection combined with the timing of the start of the attacks (during the annual meeting of world leaders at the UN General Assembly in NY and just before a planned meeting with the US to “deconflict” Syrian airspace), are intended to send a clear message to the West, particularly the U.S., to stay out of Syria and stop pushing for Assad to step down.

The double whammy of targeting U.S.-vetted groups and doing it while Putin is propagandizing about fighting ISIS at the U.N. seems designed to provoke a maximal response from the U.S. administration. While Russia’s moves would seem audacious and risky if the U.S. government had demonstrated greater inclination to take strong action in Syria, in the current climate – where the U.S. has suspended even its nominal program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels – Russia runs little risk of inciting the type of hard power response that may actually curb its aggression. Instead it is likely that Putin is testing the waters to see just how tepid the U.S. response will be, before determining how deeply Russia will dive into Syria.

Russian Narratives

The Russian government has been cautiously selling the intervention to its domestic Russian audience as necessary, voluntary, temporary, and limited; all four of which may prove to be false.

The ‘necessity’ argument comes from the need to fight ISIS in Syria, to prevent jihadis of Russian origin from returning and launching attacks at home. First, Russia has already demonstrated that ISIS is not the true focus of its aerial bombing campaign by striking moderate rebel and non-military targets in areas with no ISIS presence. Second, extensive reporting by investigative journalists has brought to light the fact that Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), maintains close tabs on known jihadi threats in Russia and has actively facilitated the emigration of its jihadis to Syria, raising the likelihood that Russia continues to view them as manipulable talking points rather than serious threats. Domestically, the Russian government frequently accuses the U.S. of establishing and supporting ISIS in order to overthrow Assad.

Russia’s second assurance to its citizens, that the deployment is ‘voluntary’ and there will be no conscripts sent to Syria, also appears to stand on questionable ground. In September reports surfaced that some Russian contracted soldiers were seeking help from human rights groups after being deployed to Syria against their will. According to the men, they received no formal orders with details on their deployment, and were not told about the location to which they were being sent until just before their departure. For Russia, these deceptive practices would serve the dual purpose of preventing premature leaks of their intent to deploy, and avoiding widespread subordination from soldiers who do not want to fight in Syria.

Time will tell whether the final justifications that Russia has used to placate its domestic audience – that Russia’s engagement in Syria will be ‘temporary’ and that it will be ‘limited’ to the use of airpower – will also prove untrue. The fact that Russia is significantly expanding the infrastructure needed to support its forces in Syria does not bode well for a Russian withdrawal in the near future. Just one day into the active engagement in Syria, there are no reports of Russian ground forces being used in battle. But the precedent set by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine – where it deployed Russian ground forces while claiming that they were actually local activists – suggests that the Russian government will not admit its use of ground forces in any scenario, making its claim that it will only use air power in Syria less than reassuring.