By Genevieve Casagrande (ISW) – The Russian air campaign continued to concentrate in Deir ez-Zour Province on January 20 – 21 in response to recent ISIS advances against regime forces in the northwestern outskirts of Deir ez-Zour City. Russia’s increase in strikes in Eastern Syria coincides with reports of the deployment of approximately one hundred Russian soldiers and engineers to the Qamishli International Airport in Northeastern Syria. Turkish intelligence and other local Syrian sources claimed that the Russian military personnel arrived at the facility in order to expand the airfield to enable the operation of Russian fighter jets and cargo planes.

The use of Qamishli would provide Russia with closer access to Deir ez-Zour Province, where the regime is coming under increasing threat by ISIS. Russia continues to primarily use its air operations to ensure the preservation of the Assad regime, bolstering the regime’s battlefield position against the Syrian opposition and ISIS. Russian airstrikes have previously targeted both opposition forces and ISIS along Syrian Kurdish YPG frontlines in Aleppo and ar-Raqqa Provinces, facilitating Kurdish advances. Russia may intend to expand this relationship as indicated by reports that Russian personnel met with representatives from the YPG, a key U.S. ground partner, in order to discuss further deployments in Northeastern Syria. Russia could use coordination with the YPG to both undermine U.S. ground partnerships in Syria and threaten Turkey along its southern border. Russian personnel were similarly reported to have deployed to the Kuweires Airbase east of Aleppo City on January 22 in order to inspect the airfield. Use of the Kuweires Airbase would allow Russian to position itself to take advantage of U.S. efforts to sever ISIS’s access to the Turkish border in Northern Aleppo. Russia likely intends to compete with U.S. anti-ISIS operations in both Eastern Syria and Aleppo as it seeks to assert itself as a leading power in the fight against ISIS.