Russia has ramped up its air war in Syria—big time. And it’s starting to show. Relentless and indiscriminate, Moscow’s bombing runs have devastated military and civilian strongholds and cleared a path for Syrian regime forces to counterattack against ISIS militants and rebels.
Five months after the first Russian warplanes slipped into Syria to reinforce the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin’s air wing near Latakia—on Syria’s Mediterranean coast in the heart of regime territory—has found its rhythm, launching roughly one air strike every 20 minutes targeting Islamic State militants, U.S.-backed rebels and civilians in rebel-controlled areas.
“From Feb. 10 to 16, aircraft of the Russian aviation group in the Syrian Arab Republic have performed 444 combat sorties engaging 1,593 terrorist objects in the provinces of Deir Ez Zor, Daraa, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo,” the Russian defense ministry claimed in a statement.
That’s double the rate of air strikes that the much larger U.S.-led coalition has managed to sustain in its own, much older campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Leave out the coalition airstrikes in Iraq, where there are no Russian forces, and the disparity appears even greater. While lately Russia has launched around 60 air raids every day in Syria, the U.S. and its allies have pulled off just seven, on average, since launching their first attacks in Syria in September 2014.
To be fair, the coalition’s daily pace of air strikes fluctuates. On Feb. 21, U.S. and allied planes launched 14 attacks in Syria—a high-than-average number, but still far fewer raids than Russia launched every day in mid-February.
The air-power gap is plainly evident on the battlefield. With Russian jets providing cover, regime ground forces are steadily pushing back against ISIS and rebel fighters in western and north-central Syria. In late January, regime troops captured from rebels the town of Sheikh Miskeen, which lies between the Jordanian border and Damascus and was a key crossroads in the rebels’ supply network.
The regime has also begun chipping away at ISIS defenses surrounding the ancient city of Palmyra.
But civilians have borne the brunt of the Russian-incurred devastation. The Violations Documentation Center, which monitors attacks on Syrian civilians, told Al Jazeera that at least 1,458 civilians including 346 children died in Russian air strikes between September and late January.
For its part, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 1,015 civilians had died in five months of Russian air raids, including 238 children.
Meanwhile, the U.S. air war lately has focused on destroying ISIS’ oil facilities, oil-transportation tanker trucks and stashes of hard currency.
The attacks on the militants’ economy has strained ISIS’ finances, reportedly compelling the group to cut pay to its troops by 50 percent. The pay cut could be behind an apparent recent drop in the number of active fighters in ISIS’ ranks from more than 30,000 to as few as 19,000.
In late 2015, monitoring groups, including the Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, separately estimated that several hundred Syrian civilians had died in coalition airstrikes since September 2014. The
In any event, with just a few exceptions the coalition air strikes have not helped secular rebel forces seize territory in Syria. Indeed, the only major U.S.-backed rebel group to make any significant gains in recent weeks is the People’s Protection Units, the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party.
But the People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG, captured its new territory not from the regime or ISIS, but from other American-backed secular rebels. And it was reportedly the chaos resulting from Russian air strikes, rather than any assistance from coalition warplanes, that gave the YPG the opportunity to advance.
Each Russian air raid is arguably much more destructive than an equivalent coalition attack. The Kremlin claimed that each of its strikes destroys three or four targets, on average. By contrast, the American coalition said it hits, on average, two targets every time it launches a jet.
There are simple explanations for Russia’s busier strike schedule and for the alleged greater destructiveness of Moscow’s warplanes. The Kremlin’s airmen possess a classic military advantage called “interior lines.” That is to say, they are based inside a perimeter of allied troops, attacking outward at surrounding enemies.
Typically, Russian planes only need to travel a short distance before bombing their targets—shorter, by far, than the average distance an American or allied plane must travel. The northern city of Aleppo, arguably the center of gravity of rebel forces in Syria, lies just 100 miles—a 15-minute jet flight—from Latakia, where Russia’s air wing is based. And rebels holding onto neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus are even closer. Russian planes can reach them in a few minutes.
By contrast, many coalition warplanes launch from Al Udeid air base in Qatar, a thousand miles from north-central Syria. Others are based in Kuwait, 800 miles from the fighting. In the fall of 2015, Washington negotiated access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, allowing the U.S. Air Force to stage at least one fighter squadron just 100 miles from the Syrian war zone. But many coalition warplanes still travel hundreds of miles to reach their targets, limiting how many sorties they can fly in a given period of time.
And that means Moscow can launch more frequent attacks, even though its air wing of around 40 planes is smaller than the U.S.-led force, which usually includes more than 100 jet fighters and bombers scattered across several air bases.
The reason for the greater destructiveness of Russian attacks is more chilling. Where coalition warplanes almost exclusively launch laser- or GPS-guided “precision” munitions, Russian planes have been carpeting Syria with unguided cluster bombs, each scattering lethal explosives over an area the size of a football field or larger, indiscriminately wiping out militants, rebels and civilians alike in a single pass.
A sustained Feb. 15 cluster-bomb attack on Aleppo destroyed an entire neighborhood, reportedly damaging five hospitals and two schools and killing no fewer than 50 people. The U.N. condemned the bombardment “blatant violations of international law.”
But Russia’s violations are paying off—for Assad. Relentlessly bombing combatants and civilians alike, Russian warplanes are helping his regime turn the tide of battle in its favor, likely prolonging the nearly five-year-old war in Syria.