On September 30, the long-expected Russian military intervention in Syria rolled into action. According to Russia’s Ministry of Defense, more than 50 airplanes and helicopters took part in a first wave of strikes against anti-Assad insurgents. Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Major-General Igor Konashenkov’s announcement:
In accordance with a decision by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin Russian Aerospace Forces planes on Wednesday started an operation to deal pinpoint strikes against ground targets of the [Islamic State] terrorist group in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.
The Russian Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergey Shoigu has told his counterparts in the Collective Security Treaty Organization that in the course of the military operation in Syria Russian warplanes have been attacking military equipment, communication centers, motor vehicles, and munitions and fuel and lubricants depots of the Islamic State terrorists.
Just as when the United States began bombing in Syria almost exactly one year ago, there is much confusion over who is being targeted. The American attacks have mainly hit extremist Sunni jihadis, like the self-proclaimed Islamic State and al-Qaeda, with a small handful of confirmed or suspected strikes on other Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham.
In its public messaging, the Russian government has focused almost exclusively on the Islamic State and President Putin appears eager to present himself as leading a George W. Bush–style “war on terror.” But Putin also seems to be attacking other foes of his ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—some of whom are linked to the United States.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has mentioned the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s official wing in Syria (and incidentally a rival of the Islamic State), and “other terrorist groups”. He also stressed that Russia does not consider the Free Syrian Army, to which U.S.-backed groups belong, to be a terrorist group. But the Russian list of targets appears to be much longer than the Kremlin wants to let on and it seems like the Syrian government has some influence over where to call in Russian air strikes. Yesterday, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Russian Air Force is bombing a number of Syrian factions “chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria,” without providing any further details.
The Jets Are Russian, but the Pilots Could be Syrian
Syrian dissidents now rush to blame Putin for every airstrike in the country, but evidence is often lacking. Identifying which specific attacks can be attributed to Russian pilots is made more difficult by the fact that Assad’s air force operates in the same airspace, aided by Russian reconnaissance. While Putin has upheld at least some pretense of distinguishing the radical jihadis from other insurgent factions, Assad makes no distinction at all among the armed groups opposing him.
It is hard to tell a Syrian strike from a Russian strike, not least because both nations use similar or even identical equipment. Russian-made jets and helicopters, including Su-24 fighter-bombers and Mi-24 helicopters, have been deployed in Syrian skies by both Assad and Putin. But the Russian expeditionary force also includes more advanced Sukhoi models (Su-25, Su-30, and Su-34), which are not known to be in Assad’s inventory. So if these planes were used in a particular airstrike, chances are they were Russian-piloted.
On the other hand, the Syrian government has recently received new shipments of Russian-made equipment and one Assad-friendly newspaper in Lebanon reported that Syrian forces used “newly arrived Russian planes” in an offensive east of Aleppo. There are claims that Syrian government forces have received training in Russia in recent months, perhaps on operating new equipment. If this is true, and if these forces included fighter pilots and air mechanics, it could mean that Assad now has access to aircraft models that were not previously used by Syrian forces. That would make it even harder to conclusively determine who is pulling the trigger where.
Who Has Been Hit So Far?
According to the Syrian state news agency, SANA, the first wave of Russian bombing raids on Wednesday were carried out in collaboration with the Syrian air force, against Islamic State targets in “Rastan, Talbiseh, al-Zaafran, Taloul Hamr, Aidoun, Deir Foul, and the vicinity of Salamiya."
The last name on that list, Salamiya, leaves some room for ambiguity. Salamiya, which is home to many members of Syria’s small Ismaili minority and remains in government hands, is indeed threatened from the east by the Islamic State. But the rest of these locations fall on the eastern side of what is sometimes called the Rastan Pocket. With Rastan and Talbiseh its two major towns, this rebel-held enclave stretches north of Homs, from the Houla region through a number of smaller Sunni Arab villages up toward the southwestern suburbs of Salamiya. Rebel territory stops before the area contested between the regime, based primarily in Alawite or Ismaili towns, and the Islamic State, in the Sunni Arab desert region further east. The Rastan Pocket is thus a sealed-off enclave, although some of the front lines appear to be crisscrossed by tribal smuggling trails.
In the Rastan Pocket itself, the Islamic State is not in control. The group has had—and may perhaps still have—some type of presence in the area, but it appears to be strongly dominated by other Sunni rebel groups. They are a disparate mix that includes al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, but also independent Islamists like Ahrar al-Sham, some Muslim Brotherhood loyalists, and a number of smaller local factions. In early 2014, the Rastan area filled up with additional fighters evacuating the Old Town of Homs City, as part of a ceasefire with the government. Many of these groups are overtly hostile to the Islamic State, but the picture is very murky and there have been reports of a silent presence in the area. As recently as June, one group of Islamic State loyalists was run out of the Talbiseh area by a rival faction known as the Tawhid Army. In other words, it is not clear what, or who, the Russians attacked there.
The Latamneh Attack
Another first-day airstrike took place in Latamneh, north of Hama. This is near the fighting in the Ghab Plains, which involves both al-Qaeda and Western-, Turkish-, and Gulf-backed rebels. While the Rastan Pocket, or parts of it, can be presented as something of a gray area, this is not the case in the Ghab region. Except for sleeper cells and such, the Islamic State has no presence in this area. That is in stark contrast to its main jihadi rival, al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which plays a prominent role in the Ghab-Hama fighting.
One local faction in Latamneh, Tajammou al-Izza, has published a video of Russian-made jets shelling the village and, apparently, their positions. It is not a jihadi group. To the contrary, Tajammou al-Izza claims to have received backing from the Military Operations Center in Turkey, where nations including the United States cooperate to “vet” rebel factions in order to ensure that they are not linked to transnational jihadism. The group has also issued propaganda videos showing members in the process of firing American-manufactured antitank missiles of a type not issued to rebels that do not enjoy a U.S. stamp of approval.
In other words, Russia would appear to have bombed a U.S.-backed rebel group on the very first day of its air campaign.
It was not a clear-cut case, at first. The jets visible on the Tajammou al-Izza tape are hard to identify with any certainty and seem to be of a model used by both Assad’s and Putin’s air forces in Syria. The SANA report does not mention Latamneh as a Russian target. Rather, it seems to imply that this was a mission flown by Assad’s air force. But evidence soon arrived from an unexpected source: the Russian Ministry of Defense. Soon after the strikes, the ministry released a videotape showing an attack on a hillside target. Using online map services, Russian bloggers were quickly able to pinpoint the location as Latamneh.
Because the Nusra Front is a prominent part of the rebel mix in this area of Syria, Russian officials may well be able to claim innocence and say that Tajammou al-Izza is effectively an al-Qaeda ally. Whether this particular attack was a case of mistaken identity or not, one Russian goal seems to be to goad Washington into an unwinnable public debate about exactly how distant its Syrian clients should be from al-Qaeda. Both Putin and Obama know very well that many Western-backed groups work side by side with the jihadis, albeit often out of desperation and despite instructions to the contrary from their funders. The U.S. government and its allies argue that they are still worth supporting, in order to build up nonjihadi capacity for the future, but that line of reasoning won’t fly with the tabloids. Whether rhetorically or kinetically, highlighting the unsavory sides of Western intervention in Syria is certainly in the Russian interest.
In Washington, reactions to the Latamneh strike have been muted so far. U.S. officials quickly began to mutter little words of protest, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying that his government would have “grave concerns” if this turned out to be true. But the U.S. government still seems to be in the process of monitoring and analyzing the Russian air campaign.
Nonjihadi Syrian rebels have been less diplomatic. “We denounce the Russian attacks against the Free Syrian Army and civilians,” I was told by Ibrahim al-Idlibi, an activist who works alongside rebels in northern Syria. In his view, which appears to be shared by many Syrian opposition supporters, the goal of the Russian strikes is primarily political. Idlibi claims that Moscow seeks “to portray al-Qaeda as the strongest force in Syria and thus transform the Syrian revolution from a popular revolution to an assembly of terrorist forces gathered under the flag of al-Qaeda.”
Palmyra, the Ghab Plains, and Aleppo
On September 23, when it had become clear that a Russian aerial intervention was in the works, I wrote an article for Syria in Crisis speculating about Russian targeting options. As I saw it then, some areas stood out as likely focal points for Russian involvement.
One is the Homs-Palmyra region, which has also been suggested as a likely target for Russian-Syrian-Iranian reconquest by the British journalist Robert Fisk. The fall of Palmyra in May 2015 gave the Islamic State unimpeded access to a range of targets east of Homs and allowed it to plan an assault on Syria’s gas-fueled power infrastructure. To prevent this is a priority of the highest order for Assad and—interestingly enough—also for the United States and other nations that want to keep Syria’s state institutions up and running. Boosting Assad in the Homs-Palmyra region would therefore serve Putin’s interests beautifully.
Another area of concern is the Ghab Plains and related regions in the northern parts of the Hama Governorate, where Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, and other rebels—peripherally including Tajammou al-Izza—are pushing south. They are now for the first time moving into core government areas, including Alawite majority districts, which has sent a chill down the spine of many Assad supporters.
When writing the September 23 article, news had just broken about Russian Air Force participation in a government offensive intended to break the Islamic State’s siege on the Kweiris Airport, east of Aleppo. This news now seems to have been false. I have seen no evidence that the operation is anything but a Syrian project, although it involves new equipment provided by the Russians, and Russian liaisons, trainers, or advisers could of course be embedded in the force pushing toward Kweiris.
The Aleppo area is still going to be a major area of concern for Putin. The fate of this divided city is a make-or-break issue for both Assad and the rebels. They both rely on thin supply lines that are under constant military threat, including from the Islamic State. In Assad’s case, this supply line stretches down to Hama past the Salamiya area.
We’re now seeing Russian airstrikes in all of these areas, including one that seems to have hit near the Salamiya-Aleppo road. How the Rastan Pocket fits into the picture is not immediately obvious, but weakening the rebel concentration there could surely free up more pro-government militias in the Homs area. On Friday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it had attacked a jihadi training camp and a command post in the Islamic State-held Raqqa area, but most strikes still take place in Idlib, Hama, and Homs, where the Islamic State is a marginal force or not present at all. By contrast, there have so far been no known Russian attacks in southern Syria, around Damascus, or in the vicinity of Aleppo City, and none in support of the Kurds or pro-Assad enclaves in the far east, like Deir Ezzor. Reuters is now reporting anonymous Lebanese claims that a contingent of Iranian special forces is en route to Syria to support an upcoming ground offensive. True or not, some form of ground action is likely to begin soon, which might allow a clearer view of Russian priorities.
Same Old Arguments
After only three days of strikes, we can hardly sketch a clear pattern and must not jump to conclusions. But it should be obvious that the Kremlin is in no way limiting its offensive to the Islamic State. Quite the contrary, most attacks so far seem to have targeted other groups and despite its antiterror rhetoric, the Russian government appears to be primarily concerned with bolstering its ally, Assad. If that is the goal, it will require taking on a wide array of other rebel factions.
In Moscow’s view, these are not contradictory goals. By propping up Assad, the Russians argue, they are empowering a ground force able to shield what remains of the Syrian state and to block Islamic State advances into western and southern Syria. The United States takes the opposite view, saying that Assad cannot be a partner—or at least not their partner—because he is a war criminal and because such an alliance would ruin relations with the Sunni Arab factions needed to build a sustainable alternative to the Islamic State. But Putin is likely to shrug off these objections, as he has done for four years.
Assuming, then, that the Russian intervention is in fact mainly about protecting Assad, where does Assad need protection the most? I think my September 23 guesses were good enough. In order to preserve his hold on core areas and the economically useful bits of Syria, Assad must focus on the the Ghab-Hama front, the Homs region, and his supply line to Aleppo. This means that we’re going to continue to see a lot of Russian airstrikes in these areas in the months ahead.
UPDATE: Just as this post was published, on October 2, the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State called on Russia to "immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians" and to focus on the Islamic State.