By Jodi Brignola (ISW) – The Russian air campaign in Syria enabled strategic gains in the regime’s longstanding effort to buffer its coastal heartland in Latakia from January 23 – 25. Russian strikes targeted opposition-held positions along the frontline in both Jebel al-Akrad and Jebel Turkmen mountain ranges in Northern Latakia, facilitating the regime’s seizure of the town of Rabi’ah, the last major opposition-held town in the province on January 24. The regime’s clearing operations in northern Latakia were enabled by Russian air support and were also reportedly guided by Russian advisers on the ground who likely contributed to the operation’s success.
The regime’s consolidation of territory in northeastern Latakia comes after the seizure of Salma by pro-regime forces on January 12, which penetrated the opposition’s defensive line and left opposition forces vulnerable to further regime gains. The Russian air campaign has prioritized the preservation of regime-held territory, especially on the coast and in the central corridor, since its inception. Russia began its military intervention shortly after opposition forces began advancing in northeastern Latakia, and the threat to the regime’s heartland likely precipitated Russia’s military effort in Syria. Regime advances in Latakia also apply increasing pressure on opposition forces in neighboring Idlib province, an opposition stronghold. Russian airstrikes also allowed pro-regime forces to fully recapture the town of Sheikh Meskin in Dera’a province on 25 January following several weeks of clashes with opposition forces.
Russian forces also sought alternate ways to support regime ground operations as the air campaign continues to be forced to sustain multiple fronts. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed to conduct strikes using Tu-22M3 long-range bombers against targets in Deir ez-Zour province from January 22 – 24. Russia has not claimed the use of Tu-22s since December 8, when Russia similarly targeted opposition- and ISIS-held terrain simultaneously. The deployment of long-range bombers may indicate that the existing fleet operating out of Bassel al-Assad Airport is not sufficient to sustain the current rate and distribution of strikes against both opposition- and ISIS-held territory. Russian warplanes have demonstrated a concerted effort against ISIS since the group’s advance on regime-held parts of Deir ez-Zour City on September 17; however, Russian indiscriminate targeting continues to incur high numbers of civilian casualties, and Russian operations aimed at degrading the armed opposition have continued unscathed. Russian warplanes targeted opposition-held territory in Aleppo, Idlib, and Dera’a from January 23 – 25. Russia provided military aid to Kurdish forces via helicopter in northwestern Aleppo on January 25. Russia’s shipment of weapons to Kurdish forces northwest of Aleppo City marks a new stage in Russia’s effort to strengthen ties with Kurdish elements, and will increase pressure on opposition groups operating in the area. Increasing Russo-Kurdish cooperation can disrupt US partnerships with Kurdish forces in other parts of Syria, introduce the potential for Turkish military reaction, and exacerbate Kurdish-Arab tensions in Aleppo province as Kurdish forces attempt to advance on Arab-dominant terrain. Although Russia attempts to present itself as a constructive actor in Syria, it continues to prioritize the preservation of the Assad regime without concern for civilian lives, ethnic tensions, or regional stability.