Russian Airstrikes in Syria: June 3-28, 2016

Russia continues to pressure the U.S. and regional actors into closer cooperation through its military intervention in Syria. Russia ultimately seeks to supplant the U.S. as a security guarantor in the Middle East and has used its air campaign in Syria to galvanize its demands for greater coordination in the theater. Unidentified U.S. administration officials claimed that the White House issued a proposal for military partnership with Russia in Syria after several weeks of negotiations between the two countries. The deal reportedly calls for the U.S. to conduct a coordinated air campaign against ISIS and al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. In exchange, Russia has reportedly agreed to push the regime to stop striking specific geographic zones held by oppositions groups deemed acceptable by the U.S. The provision of geographic delineations of armed groups has been a longstanding demand of Russia. This type of delineation remains infeasible in opposition-held Syria as Jabhat al Nusra and other jihadist groups do not unilaterally control terrain, and any withdrawal of opposition forces from key frontlines jointly held with jihadist groups would likely render core opposition-held areas vulnerable to advances by pro-regime forces.

Russia nonetheless continued its air campaign against the Syrian opposition in support of the Assad regime across Western Syria. Russia prioritized its air campaign in Aleppo Province from June 18 – 28 and allegedly employed incendiary munitions against opposition-held areas of the province. Russian airstrikes and pro-regime ground operations largely concentrated against key towns along the opposition’s last remaining ground line of communication (GLOC) into Aleppo City. Pro-regime forces remain positioned to sever this GLOC and complete the encirclement of opposition-held areas of the city, but have thus far been unsuccessful. The Russian air campaign in Aleppo, however, appears to have significantly decreased beginning on June 29 after a week of Russian-Turkish rapprochement. Turkish President Recep Erdogan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 27 that allegedly apologized for the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet on November 24. Erdogan and Putin later agreed to normalize relations between Ankara and Moscow during a phone call on June 29. The two leaders also reportedly agreed to work together in the fight against “terrorism” in a sign that the de-escalation between Turkey and Russia in Syria will likely continue over the coming weeks.

Russia however will continue to use limited air operations against ISIS to bolster its narrative that Moscow remains the ideal partner in the fight against terrorism in Syria. Russian warplanes conducted limited strikes against ISIS-held terrain in ar Raqqah and Deir ez Zour Provinces from June 18 - 28, including an alleged strike against the town of al Quriyah in Eastern Deir ez Zour Province that killed at least 47 on June 25. Russia began to escalate its air campaign against ISIS-held areas of Deir ez Zour on June 5, conducting intermittent strikes against targets in the province in the weeks following the deployment of a U.S. carrier strike group to the Mediterranean on June 3. Russia will likely continue to both use limited air operations throughout Eastern Syria to assert itself as a decisive anti-ISIS actor and call for deeper cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

ISW changed its assessment methodology regarding low- and high-confidence strikes with the last airstrikes map. Both the Russian Ministry of Defense and Western officials had altered their patterns of reporting on Russian air operations within recent weeks and ISW amended the criteria for determining high-confidence reporting to rely more heavily on key indicators of Russian airstrikes, rather than statements from Russian and Western officials. Key indicators of strikes include precision, flight patterns, and time of strikes as well as an examination of picture intelligence.

The 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.

High-Confidence reporting: ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation of key indicators of Russian airstrikes provided by opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible.

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.