Syria’s Russia-Backed Campaign Isn’t Going All That Well, Report Says

October 19, 2015 Updated: October 19, 2015

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in the middle of a major offensive against rebels and terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State, or ISIS, after Russia started bombing targets on the Syrian regime’s behalf.

Over the weekend, Syria, along with Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite militias, launched a major ground offensive on Aleppo. 

But even with the extra support, Assad’s campaign so far doesn’t seem to be working very well, according to a report from the Institute of the Study of War (ISW).

“The Syrian regime has not gained much terrain in the first week of its large-scale ground offensive against rebel forces, despite support from intensified Russian airstrikes and hundreds of Iranian proxy reinforcements,” Chris Kozak, a Syria research analyst with ISW, wrote in a report published Oct. 14, detailing the regime’s offensive from Oct. 7 to Oct. 14.

“Operations against the Syrian opposition will likely prove harder and slower than anticipated by either Russia or Iran,” he added.

The ISW, considered the most reliable independent group in tracking the changes on the ground in Syria, posted a new map on Sunday, Oct. 18, showing three weeks’ worth of Russian airstrikes in Syria, indicating the majority of them took place in Aleppo, Homs, Idlib Province, and a few around Damascus. The map shows the Russians appeared to have focused their attention on the “rebel” controlled areas, located just north of regime controlled areas.

Syrian army personnel load howitzers near the village of Morek, Syria, on Oct. 7, 2015. The Syrian army has launched an offensive against rebels earlier in the week in central and northwestern Syria aided by Russian airstrikes. (Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP)
Syrian army personnel load howitzers near the village of Morek, Syria, on Oct. 7, 2015. (Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP)

Yet Assad’s forces have made minimal gains so far in their campaign, which started just over a week ago, Kozak said.

Territories controlled by ISIS, and terrorists from Jahbat al-Nusra weren’t targeted as much as the rebels, according to the map posted on Sunday.

But overall, the “confirmed reports indicate that pro-regime fighters have seized only six villages and towns, while rebel forces repelled heavy attacks against several key positions,” Kozak said in the Oct. 14 report. 

Assad’s forces, he added, are risking quite a lot in the new offensive.

“Regime forces suffered heavy losses in manpower and materiel in the face of heavy rebel resistance,” Kozak wrote. “Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated rebels forces claimed to destroy at least 20 tanks and armored vehicles as well as a helicopter gunship in a ‘tank massacre’ on the first day of the offensive. … Continued heavy casualties may leave pro-regime forces vulnerable to a counterattack by Syrian rebels.”

So far, it would appear that neither Iranian nor Russian military deployments are substantial enough to cause a fundamental shift in the balance of power on the ground, he suggested.

An attack made from a fighter jet, which Russian Defense Ministry describes as an airstrike against an ISIS ammunition depot near Talbiseh settlement (Homs), in Syria, on Oct. 5, 2015. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
An attack made from a fighter jet, which Russian Defense Ministry describes as an airstrike against an ISIS ammunition depot near Talbiseh settlement (Homs), in Syria, on Oct. 5, 2015. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

However, Russian state-run media outlets have touted the airstrikes as a success against ISIS. On Monday the air force carried out 33 sorties, targeting “terrorist organizations” across Syria, the Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement. Russia’s Ministry of Defense on Monday said ISIS terrorists are “suffering a severe lack of ammunition” and “are leaving their positions in large numbers,” but did not elaborate.

The price tag for Russia’s intervention in Syria might prove costly for Moscow as well. A long-term military action without tangible gains by the Syrian regime could erode the propaganda effect of the bombing blitz.

Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes could result in heavy civilian casualties, triggering anger among ordinary Syrians and human rights groups alike.

“Unlike the U.S. military, which uses a vast array of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets to strike targets with precision-guided munitions, the Russians by and large use unguided weaponry to strike more indiscriminately,” said an analysis by global intelligence firm Stratfor on Oct. 12. It adds Russia is not restricted by the same rules of engagement that “limit” U.S. operations, since American military operations by law have to take the risk of human casualties into account.

In an update, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said “more civilians,” including two women and five children, were killed by “likely Russian” airstrikes in Aleppo Governorate.

Prior to the civil war, Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, was considered the country’s economic hub, but it has suffered catastrophic destruction since the war began.

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