What Russia’s New Bombing Targets Tell Us About The Ceasefire In Syria

February 23, 2016
A tank belonging to the "Tiger Forces," the pro-Assad coalition, fires on ISIS positions in Khanasser | Al-Masdar News

Live Updates: Yesterday a ceasefire agreement, drafted by Russia and the United States, was agreed upon by moderate rebel groups and the Assad regime. But is it just another ruse? We’ll take a look at what Russia’s bombing today to see how the patterns in Syria are changing.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

What Russia’s New Bombing Targets Tell Us About The Ceasefire In Syria

The major headline out of Syria today is that at least part of the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime have agreed to a ceasefire that will start on Saturday.

For now, use the search engine of your choice and look for “Syria ceasefire.” For a prediction of whether this will work, do the same search but set the date for any time between March 2011 and last month — you’ll see that at every turn, dozens of ceasefire attempts have all ended the same way, with new Syrian regime offensives to take advantage of those who stopped shooting.

Will this one be any different? In short, we have absolutely not a single piece of data which suggests that this ceasefire will be any different. Russia has already said that it will not stop bombing “terrorists” or any rebel groups associated with terrorists. Since Assad and Russia usually define a “terrorist” as anyone who defies Assad’s rule, this is unlikely to work.

Furthermore, there is a specific loophole that Russia will likely exploit. Syria’s moderate Western-backed rebels have often coordinated their efforts with groups like Jabhat al Nusra, a powerful anti-Assad group with radical ideology. Though these groups have remained separate from al Nusra for ideological reasons (and al Nusra has fought against ISIS), al Nusra and some of these other groups often occupy parallel space on Syria’s battlegrounds. Russia will bomb Jabhat al Nusra, and it will then bomb any moderate groups which are in the same region as Al Nusra, even if they are not actively working together.

For this reason, and others, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical
that the ceasefire will solve anything, or even take effect. Apparently
there are plenty within the US government who agree:
Even the State Department which brokered this deal is skeptical:
We could carefully detail how these ceasefire deals have fallen apart in the past. In fact, in September 2013 Russia proposed a deal to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. We carefully detailed how Assad and Russia worked together to duplicitously change the definitions of terms in order to break every ceasefire proposed in Syria from 2011 onward.

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Feb 23, 2016 22:25 (GMT)

We were right then. Could this time be any different? Maybe, but not because Russia or Assad are any more interested in finding a peaceful solution to this crisis. In fact, a major activist group[ reports that Assad’s helicopters have heavily bombed the southern city of Daraya today, which is controlled by the moderate Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army — not Jabhat al Nusra, and certainly not ISIS which is far from here.

No, what’s different this time is that Russia and Assad have the upper hand, militarily speaking, in the fight against Western-backed moderates. The rebel front lines in both the northwest and the south have collapsed, thanks to Russia’s air campaign, and a large infusion of fighters from Hezbollah, Iran, and militias from Iraq.

The Ceasefire Has Not Started, But Has Anything Changed?

Today we see an interesting pattern in the reports of Russia’s  bombing — for perhaps the first time since Russia started its bombing campaign in Syria in September 2015, Russian airstrikes appear to have predominantly struck areas that are actually controlled by ISIS. Up until now, Russian airstrikes have nearly-exclusively targeted non-ISIS rebel groups, and mostly the moderate groups with the most Western support. But in the last several months ISIS has made advances around Aleppo as the moderate rebels — their enemies — have collapsed under the weight of Russian air power. Assad and Russia have for the most part only hit ISIS targets as in order to knock them back from the line of contact with the pro-Assad coalition’s ground forces.

A major focus of today’s attacks is Khanasser, south-southeast of Aleppo city:

The pro-Assad Al-Masdar News reports:

The Syrian Arab Army’s “Tiger Forces” have launched a wide-scale counter-offensive in the Aleppo Governorate’s southeastern countryside after the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) captured the strategic city of Khanasser and several other small villages along the Syrian government’s main supply route.


According to a member from the Tiger Forces’ media team, the Syrian Armed Forces have yet to storm any of the villages ISIS captured; however, they are preparing to strike after the Russian airstrikes dissipate.

War correspondent Harald Doornbos explains why Khanasser is so strategically important to the Syrian regime:

Russian airstrikes were also reported in Deir-Ez Zour, a city in eastern Syria which is controlled by ISIS.

The ISIS advance in northern Aleppo province has not been particularly troubling for the strategy that Russia and Assad appear to be pursuing. As ISIS has advanced north of Aleppo, they make it even more difficult for non-ISIS rebel groups to escape the city. In some areas, non-ISIS rebels have been at risk of being completely surrounded — by ISIS, by the Kurdish YPG, and by the pro-Assad coalition. But ISIS advances to the south of Aleppo endanger Assad’s entire operation. Even with all its foreign support, Assad’s ground coalition is still relatively weak, and ISIS’s advance is a negative consequence of Russia’s strategy. This may explain why we’re seeing the Assad coalition so eager to temporarily agree to a ceasefire.

Is it possible, then, that we could see, at least temporarily, a partial ceasefire that works, giving the pro-Assad coalition more time to at least temporarily beat back ISIS in order to more fully control the situation around Aleppo? As I’ve mentioned above, we’ve exclusively seen Assad use ceasefires to gain a tactical advantage over his enemies. That may mean that in the short-run Russia and Assad will focus on ISIS positions, specifically those near Assad’s forces. In the long-run, however, there’s still no evidence that Assad and Russia will refrain from attacking Syria’s moderate rebel groups, its civilians, and its activists.

James Miller