One Man’s Terrorist…: The Targets of Russian Airstrikes in Syria

Russia's direct entry into the Syrian War has been met with widespread controversy. What are Moscow's strategic aims? How does this benefit Russia in the long-term? Examining the targets of Russian airstrikes in the country can help foreign observers to make better sense of the situation.


Following the first round of Russian airstrikes in Syria on 30 September, Syria’s ambassador to Russia, Riad Hadad, insisted that the strikes targeted only “terrorists” and not political opposition factions or civilians. Other reports indicate that Russia targeted United States-backed opposition groups, and killed about 36 civilians including children. Moscow, naturally, denied such accusations in addition to assertions that the majority of its airstrikes targeted opposition groups other than the Islamic State (IS).

There remain doubts not just to who the airstrikes are targeting but to how many have even occurred. According to one U.S. official, “The Russians carried out only one half or at best a quarter of the strikes they claim to have conducted.” At least 80 percent of Russia’s airstrikes do not target IS. The British government even claimed that at one point only one in 20 Russian airstrikes hit IS targets. Other estimates claim that less than 10 percent of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria target IS.     

Increased Russian airstrikes will likely prove detrimental to the Syrian Civil War’s outcome. Targeting non-IS rebel groups could create a scenario where the Assad regime and the caliphate become the only major combatants in the conflict (aside from the Kurds) with the latter unlikely to accept a ceasefire with the former. Russia likely hopes that its actions will force the Syrian people to choose between the Assad regime and the jihadists with Moscow obviously desiring that they side with the government. However, indiscriminate bombings by both Russia and Syria and the resulting civilian casualties could easily cause more citizens to gravitate toward the jihadists. The Kremlin’s increased focus on non-IS opposition groups as well as the apparent interest of the West to work with Russia to find a political solution to the conflict could also prove detrimental to the efforts of such groups.

Death to Daesh

Some Russian airstrikes have actually hit IS targets. On 5 October Russia bombed IS’s de facto capital, Raqqa. Prior to that, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Sukhoi Su-34 (NATO reporting name: “Fullback”) fighter-bombers and Su-24 (NATO reporting name: “Fencer”) strike fighters flew 20 sorties against nine IS facilities including a command post and an underground bunker. In addition, Russian airstrikes carried out against IS targets on 3 October destroyed ammunition depots, fuel depots, and all-terrain vehicles.  

On 5 October Russia also targeted the oasis town of Tadmur and the ancient city of Palmyra – seized by IS in May – according to General Igor Konashenkov, the spokesperson for Russia’s Syria operations. The city is a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, but that did not prevent the caliphate’s fighters from desecrating the historical site by blowing up the Arch of Triumph, a Roman monument, on 4 October. IS also destroyed two other monuments in the city, the Temple Bel and the Baal Shamin Temple. During the 5 October Palmyra bombings, a pair of Su-25 (NATO reporting name: “Frogfoot”) close air support (CAS) jets attacked IS vehicles destroying 20 tanks, three rocket launchers, and an ammunition depot. The tanks destroyed included several T-55s. In addition to Frogfeet, the airstrikes involved Fullbacks and Fencers. About half a kilometer from Palmyra, a pair of Frogfeet and a Fencer struck two targets in Tadmur in Homs province. Russia also targeted ammunition depots in the Homs province. In total, the strikes that day destroyed three weapons depots and 12 vehicles and killed 19 IS fighters including 15 in Palmyra. 

Shortly after the 5 October strikes, Russia, in an unusual move, denied that it hit IS targets in Palmyra likely because it did not want to make it appear that it destroyed mosques and other historical monuments. Russia even stated that the city was too residential and culturally-significant for strikes. Spokesman Igor Konashenkov called allegations that Russia was bombing Palmyra “absolute lies.” However, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that Russian aircraft struck IS targets at least 28-km from Palmyra. This was one of 15 sorties flown by Russian aircraft that day. Russia bombed Palmyra again on 7 October along with neighboring Qaryatain which IS took this summer. The city’s Christian population either fled or became hostages of the caliphate. 

…is Still a Terrorist

However, in some instances, Russia’s claims of targeting the caliphate turned out to be false. Investigations even revealed that videos released by Russia’s own Defense Ministry which claim to show Russian munitions being dropped on caliphate targets actually show Russia bombing non-IS targets. Two videos which claim to show Russian aircraft hitting IS-controlled Raqqa were geolocated 100 miles west of the city. Three videos were filmed in areas matching their descriptions, but showed the bombing of non-IS groups. Five other videos showed a similar trend. One video which gave no location was geolocated to an area with no known IS presence. Another video stated its location as the entrance to Ma’aart al Nu’man even though it was actually 20-km away from there.

Russia’s initial airstrikes in Syria targeted Talbiseh, a suburb in central Homs under the control of the FSA, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa’ida’s Syria franchise. On 2 October Russia claimed that it hit an IS command post and communications center in Aleppo province’s Daret Ezza. Russian aircraft also reportedly hit weapons depots and bunkers in Maaaret al-Numan and Habeet in Idlib province as well as a command post in Kafr Zeita in Hama province. According to the Kremlin, these were IS targets. However, IS has had no presence in these provinces since January 2014. 

On 5 October Russia once again claimed that it hit IS targets in Idlib despite there being no IS presence there. According to Russian media, Fencer and Fullback CAS aircraft struck “IS” arms depots near a forested area which subsequently caught fire. The ensuing inferno destroyed over 30 vehicles including T-55 tanks. That day Fencer sorties also took out an IS command post in Al-Rastan. A Frogfoot took out an IS camp near Jisr al-Shughur destroying ammunition warehouses. Nearby vehicles caught fire when the ammunition exploded. Again, IS has little to no presence in these areas.

Russia has even shown a willingness to target groups backed by the U.S. One strike targeted Jamil al-Saleh, a group that has received arms shipments from the U.S. including BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) anti-tank missiles. These systems are priority targets for the Russians given the threat they pose to Syrian Arab Army (SAA) armor. Reportedly, Al-Saleh does not cooperate with al-Nusra or IS and are not even Islamists. Russia targeted the group because it was actively engaged with government forces. Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan also back and train such rebel groups. Interestingly though, Russian airstrikes have not targeted Kurdish forces.

Much of Russia’s military actions focus on a rebel coalition in Latakia – the ancestral home of the Syria’s ruling Assad family – called the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fatah). While this rebel umbrella group includes many supposedly secular, U.S.-trained rebels, Jabhat al-Nusra occasionally fights under their banner. Russia, much to the U.S.’s ire, makes little distinction between IS and non-IS rebel groups referring to both as “terrorists.” (Though al-Nusra and other Islamist groups are certainly worthy of this label.) Jaysh al-Fatah also conquered most of Idlib province in a spring offensive. Russia has repeatedly targeted Idlib despite there being no IS presence there. The objective of Russia – in concert with Syria, Iran, Hizbullah, and other Shi’a elements – is to push this rebel coalition out of the high ground around Latakia.

The first phase of this effort took place on 7 October when Russia launched cruise missiles at targets in Hama province. Hama is a central province with a majority Sunni capital which has remained in regime hands since the war’s beginning. Non-IS opposition groups, including al-Nusra, control much of northern Hama province. The governorate is key to the Assad regime’s strategy of bringing the major population centers under its control, not just in Hama but also Latakia, Homs, and Damascus. Recently, rebels attempted to take the al-Ghab plain in Hama’s countryside; this is another area key to Russia’s strategy of protecting the pro-Assad coastal stronghold. The Russian strikes against targets in Hama and Idlib also targeted towns close to the north-south highway that runs through major cities in western Syria. Though the 7 October airstrikes focused primarily on non-IS elements in these areas, Russian airstrikes also hit targets in IS-held Aleppo. Russia hit the caliphate in Aleppo before on 5 October when Fullbacks destroyed a headquarters building and a command post. Russia also hit structures housing IS field commanders in Dayr Hafir and al-Bab.  

Following its efforts in Hama, the Russia-Shi’a coalition will then likely move to Idlib province and other targets such as Jabal al-Zawiya, a mountainous area held by insurgents for years, and Jisr al-Shughour, a city in Idlib captured by insurgents in March. Idlib is mostly controlled by non-IS opposition groups.

There is perhaps no greater display of Russia’s duplicity in Syria than its relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). On one hand, the Kremlin has publicly expressed interest in working with the FSA. Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated that the FSA are not terrorists and “should be part of the political process.” According to Foreign Minister Lavrov, Russia asked the U.S. to provide them information on the FSA for coordination purposes, but the U.S. did not respond. However, Foreign Minister Lavrov has also called the FSA a “phantom group.”

Recently, the office of French President Francois Hollande shot down reports from Moscow that he had suggested a plan to get Syrian government forces to cooperate with the FSA. One of President Hollande’s aides insisted that he was only referring to the necessity to bring opposition forces to the negotiating table. At the same time, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria V. Zakharova announced that Russia was ready to assist the FSA as well as the Syrian government. 

By no means, however, are FSA-linked groups off Russia’s target list. The FSA is in a sorry state right now and was even before the Russian airstrikes began. It is not progressing and is running low on weapons. The U.S. has refrained from providing them with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) out of fear that they could end up in the hands of IS or al-Nusra. (In several instances, U.S.-supplied weapons changed hands between “moderate” rebels and al-Nusra.)

In addition to the Russian airstrikes, the FSA also faces attacks from rival jihadist groups who in turn fight each other. They reportedly expected to face such multi-pronged attacks as soon as they learned of Russian aircraft arriving in Syria. Many Syrians have already lost faith in the U.S. They believe the reason for the U.S.’s lack of support is the result of a backdoor deal in which it allowed Russia to bomb Syria so that Assad can win the war. Recent attempts by the West to work with Russia to find a political solution to the Syrian Civil War, one that could leave President Assad’s fate in the hands of Syrian voters, may not leave the FSA wholly satisfied, especially if President Assad wins said elections. Many rebel groups – as well as sympathetic elements in the West – see President Assad as a reason for the Civil War’s continuance.  

The Revolution Will Be Extinguished…”

Russia’s targeting of non-IS opposition fighters could put a severe dent in any future peace process between the Assad regime and the rebels. If Russia continues on this track it could inadvertently strengthen groups like IS that do not want to reach a settlement with the regime, leaving the caliphate and the Assad regime as the only loyalty options for the average Syrian. It is likely that the Kremlin underestimates the number of Syrians who would choose to side with IS.

The reason for Russia’s focus on non-IS groups is likely because it considers the caliphate a strategic threat to the Assad regime while it sees other groups as a more tactical threat. Russia’s primary mission in Syria is to protect the Assad regime, and IS is less concerned about fighting Syrian forces and more concerned about consolidating power in its conquered territories. Russia believes that attacks on the FSA will actually encourage defections to the Syrian regime. Russia’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) relationship with Syria allows it to target the FSA in ways that the U.S. cannot stop.

The caliphate is already taking advantage of Russia’s airstrikes against its anti-Assad rivals. On 7 October Liwa Suqour al-Jabal (“The Mountain Eagles”), a U.S.-backed FSA brigade trained in Qatar and Saudi Arabia by the Central Intelligence Agency, suffered multiple airstrikes. Beginning at 1730 hours two air raids on the Aleppo city of Mansoura, each consisting of three MiG-31 (NATO reporting name: “Foxhound”) interceptor jets, struck ammunition storehouses, artillery, armored personnel carriers (APCs), and tanks belonging to Liwa Suqour al-Jabal. The use of Foxhounds in the 7 October Aleppo raids raises the question of whether Russian or Syrian pilots conducted the airstrikes. Observers first spotted these aircraft over Syria when the Russian airstrikes began, but Russia reportedly sold Foxhound interceptors to the Assad regime as part of an older arms deal.

At the same time, IS launched vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks on Liwa Suqour al-Jabal forces in Deir Jamal, 130-km from Mansoura. According to Hasan Hagali, an al-Jabal commander and former SAA captain, IS hit the group’s main arms depot “where [they] supply all [their] units.”

These were not the caliphate’s only gains as a result of Russian airstrikes. IS also took over six villages near Aleppo, and it now threatens to cut off an important route to the Turkish border. The U.S. and Turkey originally intended for this area to be an “IS-free” buffer zone. Aleppo is controlled by government and rebel forces with IS on the city’s outskirts fighting both groups. Once again, IS used VBIEDs to make gains in Aleppo. The caliphate’s advances are of great concern to its rivals. One anti-Assad activist who called himself Sajid stated that “the revolution will be extinguished in northern Aleppo Province” if IS succeeds.

 Looking Forward

Russia is perfectly content with IS attacking its rival opposition groups. There are even reports that Russian security services are allowing IS fighters to travel from Russia to Syria. Russia likely wants to bring all of the jihadists together in one place so that they can eventually destroy them. Russia also knows that if the U.S. attacks IS and al-Nusra while it targets other rebel groups, their Alawite clients will be the victorious party in the Syrian Civil War. Assad’s opposition is not about to allow this to happen. The Syrian National Coalition has called for a boycott on talks suggested by the U.N. for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, insisting that a peace process can only occur if Russia’s aggression ends and a peace plan drafted in 2012 is revived.  

 Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons