The government of Bashar al-Assad stands poised to recapture the last part of Syria held by rebels, with millions of civilians also under threat. Yet just three years ago the capital Damascus appeared likely to fall, and with it Assad. That dynamic changed with the aggressive intervention of Russia in Syria’s turbid civil war. Samuel Oakford reports on Moscow’s most ambitious foreign military intervention in decades.
When the Assad government moved on rebel-held areas of southwest Syria in late June, events followed a troublingly familiar route. As with the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta and Aleppo city before it, pro-government forces turned to Russia for blistering and deadly aerial support. Moscow ordered attacks in and around the provincial capital of Dara’a, unleashing a barrage of strikes over a matter of days. In the last week of June alone, Russian forces were implicated in at least 150 alleged civilian deaths, according to Airwars tracking.
Just as in Ghouta and Aleppo, Airwars also monitored multiple reports claiming the consistent targeting of civilian infrastructure, including clinics and other medical facilities in Dara’a, as well as residential areas and shelters where fleeing civilians had sought refuge. On June 28th, at least 20 civilians were killed after alleged Russian strikes reportedly hit several shelters in Al-Massifra. Photographs also showed a hospital in the town in ruins from the bombing.
Compared to other urban campaigns in Syria, the Russian onslaught on Dara’a was short lived. Airstrikes were overwhelming, and by the second week of July the government flag was already being hoisted.
While US Coalition strikes against ISIS remnants are now largely relegated to narrow parts of eastern Syria, the Russian campaign is gearing up again for what may be the deadliest - and effectively final - battle of the war. On September 4th, local monitors began reporting heavy Russian and regime strikes in the northern province of Idlib, the last substantial redoubt of opposition forces including dominant jihadist factions.
The UN has warned that some three million civilians, many displaced from elsewhere in the country, are penned inside Idlib - trapped between encroaching regime forces and the closed Turkish border. Already facing humanitarian catastrophe,this all makes them more vulnerable to airstrikes, which have already claimed thousands of lives in the province.
When Russia began bombing Syria in support of the government three years ago, large swathes of the country had been lost by the regime. ISIS controlled much of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassaka governorates - while rebel and extremist islamist groups such as Al Qaeda affiliate the al Nusra Front had seized territory across much of northern and southern Syria - and even parts of the capital. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov asserted in a September 5th interview, “If you remember, we started assisting Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, when ISIS militants had almost reached Damascus, and the al-Assad Government was on the verge of collapse.”
Since then the regime - backed by intense and deadly Russian airpower, and Iranian and other proxies - has captured large urban centers in the center and north of the country, and eventually pushed opposition groups from the outskirts of the capital itself. Advances by US-backed SDF forces meanwhile droves ISIS from nearly all of northeast Syria. Tens of thousands have been reported killed during these parallel air campaigns.
Yet there have been significant differences between these two campaigns. Although Russia recently declared conducting 39,000 airstrikes in Syria since 2015, those strikes have stopped and started - undulating with political developments. Victory for the US-led alliance has always been focused on the military defeat of ISIS, a goal that the campaign has bulldozed towards at all times. Yet Russia’s goals in Syria have always been wider, with airstrikes and other military support focused primarily on helping the Assad government to secure control over all of Syria.
“The military strategy here depends entirely on the political,” said Yury Barmin, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst. “They don’t carry out airstrikes because they need to eliminate this or that group, but they carry out airstrikes because they need to implement political goals.”
In Idlib, those dynamics have held out some hope for a political solution. For the last year, the province has been under a partial ceasefire involving Turkey, Iran and Russia. These same powers, pulling at the myriad anti-government forces on the ground, could still reach some sort of agreement, but hopes for such an accord diminished greatly after a summit in Tehran last week that brought together Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Any assault, whatever the reason for it, will inevitably lead to a catastrophe, killings and a major human tragedy," Erdogan warned. "We never want to see Idlib turn into a lake of blood. We have to find a rational way out in Idlib that could meet our security concerns.”
Putin dismissed such worries. He said civilians were being used to "shield terrorists," and, “It is necessary for the fight to continue until all terrorist groups in Syria, especially in Idlib, are eradicated.” Putin suggested the leaders of the armed groups there should just lay down their weapons.
Over the course of the war, Russia has at times halted strikes following local and national ceasefires. It has ignored other cessations entirely, or observed them only to later escalate ferociously to bring about desired results. Moscow has shown little regard, either in its actions or words, for civilian life – so much so that civilian harm has appeared not just unpreventable but calculated. Russian strikes in this way can be extremely punitive, said Matti Suomenaro, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, a conservative think tank in Washington DC that tracks the Russian campaign.
“A good example of this is after mid-September of last year, when there was an opposition offensive launched in Idlib province,” said Suomenaro. “Russia specifically increased its targeting of almost all medical facilities in southern Idlib, almost as punishment.”
Diplomatically, Russia has also maneuvered cannily with power-players in the region. In southwest Quinetra, Moscow recently refrained from bombing, apparently due to the area’s proximity to Israel. When Turkey shot down a Russian plane and Russia’s ambassador was later assassinated in Istanbul, it led only to more productive relations between the two increasingly illiberal nations.
Though Syrians are by now familiar with Russia’s bombings in their own country, clues to what remains in store for civilians trapped in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold – can be found in both Russia and the Soviet Union’s military past.
Officially, Moscow’s campaign in Syria has been explained as a counterterror operation, key to the national security interests of Russia and carried out at the express invitation of a despotic but technically recognized government. “All of this military activity is a manifestation and kind of support of the concept of sovereignty,” said Timur Makhmutov, deputy program director at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a think tank based in Moscow.
“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict,” said President Vladimir Putin in a televised address announcing the campaign in September 2015. “We will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups.” In Syria, Russia would provide airpower in support of regime and other ground forces including the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Iranian troops.
An early example of Russia’s approach came halfway through the first year of the Russian campaign. From 99 alleged Russian-linked civilian casualty incidents tracked by Airwars in Syria during October 2015, reports rose steadily, hitting an early peak of 182 in February 2016. Then, after a ceasefire was agreed, allegations fell dramatically, to 39 claimed events by May.
“I think there are some failures and these failures should be recognized on the ground but Russia is trying to make ceasefires to let people who are under the attacks and [in] these crisis situations out,” said Ruslan Mamedov, a colleague of Makhmutov’s at RIAC in Moscow. Russia, he noted, engaged Turkey, which he said helped bring about effective surrenders and evacuations among groups over which they held influence . “These kinds of approaches helped to save lives,” said Mamedov.
Ceasefires in Syria have rarely held. In November 2016, Airwars tracked 215 separate events that included allegations of over 1,000 civilian deaths at the hands of Russia – about two-thirds of which were in Aleppo, which was now under direct attack. By December, all hospitals in eastern Aleppo were reportedly wrecked from regime and Russian bombings – attacks that the UN Commission of Inquiry found to “strongly suggest the deliberate and systematic targeting of medical infrastructure as part of a strategy to compel surrender.” That tactic was a war crime, said the Commission.
“We see that now when the Russians wanted to have a softer approach with the opposition they would stop bombing for a while, introduce short periods of calm,” said analyst Yuri Barmin. “When they see that the opposition isn’t cooperative, then they ramp up the bombing.”
This brutal strategy worked – at enormous cost. Russia, the Assad government and those opposition fighters that remained did reach a deal in mid December that saw at least 34,000 people evacuated from Aleppo to neighboring Idlib governorate. Thereafter, Airwars monitored a significant drop in civilian casualty events tied to Russia in Syria.
When it first militarily intervened in Syria, Moscow claimed to be doing so in order to fight the so-called Islamic State. That assertion has been controversial ever since. Well into 2017, Russia and the regime stood accused by Western adversaries of bombing ISIS lightly, or not at all. It was certainly the case that in the early days of its campaign Russia primarily focused on rebel and extremist groups in the west of Syria, rather than on ISIS.
Yet Russia did later shift its firepower eastward - towards Palmyra and then beyond - in what was viewed in part as a counter to US influence in the area. Soon pro-government forces were racing against the US’s proxy fighters in Syria, the SDF, to reach the Euphrates River Valley area along the border with Iraq. Beginning in September 2017, monitors began reporting significant death tolls from suspected pro-government strikes in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate.
On February 24, 2018, amid the carnage in Eastern Ghouta, UN Security Council diplomats passed a nationwide cessation of hostilities (leaving out ISIS and al Qaeda-linked groups) that was immediately ignored. In the lead up, Amnesty International insisted that Russian and Syrian government forces “deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities.” Those attacks amounted to war crimes, said the group.
Air strikes, shelling and ground incursions all increased after the resolution. In the month that followed, the UN monitored some 1,700 deaths in Eastern Ghouta, caused in particular by airstrikes. UN investigators recorded 29 separate attacks on health facilities in the enclave.
According to Airwars monitoring, in one seven day period Russia faced allegations of responsibility for over 300 deaths. Doctors Without Borders separately reported a death toll of 1,000 in just two weeks.” Russian officials called the reports “disinformation.” The Siege of Eastern Ghouta was over by April, with much of it in ruin. (By comparison, more than two-thirds of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by the US-led campaign there.)
Despite tens of thousands of Russian airstrikes and three years of war, Moscow has yet to concede a single civilian fatality from its Syria campaign. Nor is Airwars aware of any Russian civilian harm monitoring process comparable with that of the US-led Coalition - which by contrast has admitted to more than 1,000 civilian deaths across Iraq and Syria.
“I’m not aware of any serious discussions within the military about who is a civilian and who is a legitimate target,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre, and a former analyst with the International Crisis Group. “I don’t think for them this is generally a point of concern.”
Both the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Mission to the UN in New York did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Recent figures released by Russia’s Ministry of Defense show the staggering scale of Moscow’s deployment in support of the Assad regime. Along with 39,000 airstrikes with more than 86,000 “militants” claimed killed, a total of 63,000 Russian personnel have so far been deployed to Syria.
Deaths among Russian personnel have nevertheless been relatively light - not unexpected given that Russia, just like the US-led Coalition, is primarily focused on remote airstrikes. Most aircrew have died as a result of crashes, though a small number of aircraft have been shot down.
Yet these official combat deaths in Syria appear to be significantly outweighed by those of Russian contractors. In February 2018, at least dozens and possibly hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed when pro-regime fighters reportedly attacked an SDF base in eastern Syria where American troops were also based.
The roots of Moscow’s intent to minimize official casualties (which can also be seen in the current Ukraine conflict) may be found in another intervention more than three decades ago: the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By the time they were driven out nearly a decade later, some 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed, and the communist bloc was close to collapsing.
“What we call Afghan syndrome - the memories of the Afghan war - are still very strong in this society,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “The Afghan war in public consciousness is associated with a very protracted war with many casualties among the Russian conscripts which was inconclusive and damaging for the Soviet Union.”
If the approach to keeping its own forces out of harm’s way came from Afghanistan, Sokirianskaia looks to Chechnya for insight into how Russia fights in urban settings. During two wars in the Muslim-majority region in 1990s and early 2000s, urban areas – specifically the capital of Grozny – were levelled.
“I’ve been working on armed conflicts involving Russia for the last 17 years and what we’ve seen is these campaigns have often been indiscriminate,” she said. “Chechnya is a good example - Syria on a smaller scale. In Grozny, with a half million civilians inside, hardly a single building was spared.”
Images of the destruction in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta drew comparisons to infamous pictures showing Grozny’s shattered skyline. (Russia gleefully trolled those on social media, making the comparison itself.) Thousands of Russian soldiers – and countless more civilians – were killed in fighting for the Chechen city. “The Russian lesson from Grozny was don’t do urban warfare with your own people,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA.
Yet the wars in Chechnya were not viewed as failures, despite the intense civilian harm they caused.. “Chechnya works fine as far as Russia is concerned because it is [now] peaceful, it is subdued, it has arrived at a method of government which resolves the problem,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme. “For Russia, civilian suffering is a tool to be exploited to win the war.”
Syrian civil society and and monitors have made extensive years-long efforts to track the civilian toll of the war in Syria, including from Russian strikes. But do these reports make it back to Russia? How many Russians are even aware of the thousands of civilians killed by their military? The answer – as with most citizens of Coalition member nations like the US – is that very few likely are.
“An average Russian who doesn’t have independent information on Foreign Policy and relies on the state media for their knowledge of international relations trusts the official narrative on who is committing violations,” said Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “In the end both the media and the Russian citizens prefer to not to really focus on the humanitarian disaster, just to distance themselves from this issue. Everyone knows it is a bloodbath in Syria, but we working to restore peace and are fighting terrorists.”
In response to questions stating that Russian and government forces have killed untold thousands, Vladimir Putin told Fox News in July 2018 that recent US actions also carried a heavy price: “A huge proportion of the civilian population of Raqqa died. It was erased from the face of the earth. It reminds me of Stalingrad from World War II, and there is nothing good about it.”
The Russian president’s point appeared to be that such destruction and mass civilian casualties is an inevitability of urban warfare - whoever the belligerent.
After weeks of protracted and apparently failed negotiations, Syrians are poised once more for the regime – and the Russian Air Force – to turn their firepower upon Idlib. Civilians there have reason to be terrified. According to the United Nations more than three million people are at risk. Most have nowhere left to run.
There is still hope that diplomacy may prevail: after all, Russia’s airstrikes act as a means to an end. Airstrikes in Idlib fell considerably during August, as hope still held that a diplomatic solution from talks in Astana might perhaps peel off some less hardline groups in the province. During the final full week of the month, Airwars monitors didn’t track a single casualty event in Syria that was blamed Russia. That ended on September 4th when reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes — all in Idlib.
“We have seen a pattern where the number of airstrikes usually drops before big battles,” said Airwars’ Syria researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan. “If or when this campaign on Idlib starts, the consequences on civilians would be catastrophic. The Syria-Turkish borders are closed and there does not seem any other place they can go to in order to be safe from the airstrikes.”
Any casualties at Idlib will join a lengthy list. In the three years since Moscow entered the war in September 30th 2015, Airwars has monitored over 18,485 alleged civilian deaths tied to Russian actions in Syria. At least 5,917 of those reported killed have been named in local outlets, on social media or by casualty recorders. Though Airwars is still working to vet all the nearly 18,000 deaths alleged against Russia, other casualty recorders such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, have put the figure at more than 7,800 civilians killed through the end of June 2018.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently implied that some measures will be taken to protect “compliant” civilians in Idlib - just as he claims occurred at Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta: “We always set up humanitarian corridors and always did our best to sign a local ceasefire agreement with the compliant opposition. They were pardoned by the Syrian government, laid down their weapons and rejoined peaceful life in Syria.”
Yet for military planners, any concerns over the safety of civilians will take a back seat to Moscow’s ultimate goal: the complete triumph of Bashar al Assad.