By: Jonathan Mautner with Christopher Kozak
Russia continued to focus its air campaign against Aleppo City and its environs after opposition groups lifted the siege of the eastern districts of the city on August 6, setting conditions for a potential pro-regime counteroffensive to reestablish the encirclement. Russia conducted airstrikes in support of pro-regime forces in frontline districts on the southern outskirts of Aleppo City undertaking repeated efforts to roll back opposition gains. Meanwhile, Russia increasingly directed its air operations against a swathe of opposition-held terrain in the western and southwestern countryside of Aleppo Province in an attempt to block the opposition from dispatching reinforcements from Idlib Province towards Aleppo City. Russia also continued to conduct sorties targeting opposition-held suburbs northwest of Aleppo City in an effort to prevent the opposition from threatening the new regime ground line of communication (GLOC) to Western Aleppo City through the nearby Castello Highway. At the same time, Russia maintained its targeting of core opposition terrain in Idlib Province, including a wave of reported incendiary attacks on August 28 – 29 that came in likely response to the start of a new opposition offensive in Northern Hama Province. Russia will continue to use its air power in order to disrupt the movement of opposition forces in Northern Syria and thereby render the opposition increasingly vulnerable to a pro-regime counteroffensive in Aleppo City.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the start of air operations in Syria from the Shahid Nojeh Air Base in Hamedan Province in Western Iran on August 16 following the deployment of Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire’ strategic bombers and Su-34 ‘Fullback’ fighter-bombers to the airbase the preceding day. Russia claimed to use the base to conduct several airstrikes against ISIS and Syrian Al Qaeda successor Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Aleppo, Ar-Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zour Provinces between August 16 and August 22. Russia previously used Shahid Nojeh Air Base as a transit point for its aircraft in November – December 2015. Russian MP Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov stressed that the “issue of costs for combat actions is paramount right now” amidst reports that basing the strategic bombers in Western Iran would allow Russia to reduce the flight time of its long-range bombers by roughly sixty percent when conducting strikes in Syria. Russia aims to minimize the financial and logistical costs of its intervention in the Syrian Civil War after almost one year of constant military operations. Russia also hopes to enhance its broader operational flexibility by securing the use of an additional base from which to conduct air operations in support of pro-regime forces in Syria. Russia promoted its use of the airbase in a likely attempt to underscore the participation of regional allies in its military intervention in the Syrian Civil War and highlight for the U.S. the strength and depth of the Russian-Iranian partnership. At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that Russian warships launched cruise missiles from their positions in the Mediterranean Sea against alleged Al Qaeda targets in Western Aleppo Province on August 19. The public disclosure of Russia’s use of the airbase nonetheless generated significant domestic pressure inside Iran. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on August 22 that Russia had “finished for now” its operations from the Shahid Nojeh Air Base, claiming that Russia had only sought “temporary” permission for use of the base. Meanwhile, Iranian Minister of Defense Hossein Dehghan condemned Russia for “grandstanding and incivility” in the announcement of its presence at the airbase, noting that there had been “operational coordination” between the two countries but “no written agreement” for use of the facility. The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed the return of all its aircraft from Iran but added that further use of the base could occur “depending on the prevailing circumstances” in Syria. The abrupt end to the apparent basing deal highlights a degree of tension between Russia and Iran despite their mutual support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. This miscommunication may hamper coordination between Russia and Iran on the ground in Syria, but the potential for Russia to use the airbase in the future suggests that it is unlikely to alter Russia and Iran’s shared objective of bolstering the Syrian regime against its military and political adversaries.
The tempo of the air campaign declined significantly following the departure of Russian warplanes from the Shahid Nojeh Air Base on August 22. This decrease in activity also corresponds with the start of a cross-border intervention by Turkey into Northern Syria on August 24. Opposition groups supported by the Turkish Armed Forces and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes seized the ISIS-held town of Jarabulus as part of an offensive entitled ‘Operation Euphrates Shield.’ The operation began roughly two weeks after Turkish President Recep Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in the culmination of an ongoing diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. The relative lull in airstrikes from August 24 – 29 may be a tangible result of this thawing of relations. Turkey reportedly received assurances from Russia that its forces would not be targeted during the operation. Nonetheless, Turkey’s continued support for the opposition and insistence on regime change in Syria will likely preclude deeper coordination between Turkey and Russia in the Syrian Civil War. Alternatively, the de-escalation of the air campaign during this period could reflect continuing efforts by Russia to negotiate an agreement with the U.S. for joint military action in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed on August 26 that the U.S. and Russia had moved “very close” to a new deal to reestablish a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ in the Syrian Civil War following discussions between the two sides in Geneva. Kerry and Lavrov previously held talks in Moscow in July 2016 to discuss a proposal for bilateral military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia against ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria in exchange for concrete progress towards a ceasefire and political transition. Russia also signaled on August 18 its support for a weekly forty-eight-hour ceasefire in Aleppo City as called for by UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, albeit under terms and conditions favorable to the regime. The decline in strikes and support for ceasefires mark a continuation of Russia’s efforts to portray itself as a good-faith actor amidst the ongoing negotiations. The trajectory of the campaign on the ground, however, suggests that the recent decrease in the intensity of the air campaign will likely be temporary at best.
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.