US Officials Say Russia Preparing For Aleppo Offensive As Syria ‘Ceasefire’ Collapses

April 20, 2016
Aftermath of yesterday's regime air strikes on a marketplace in Maarat al-Numan, which killed at least 45 civilians. Screenshot from YouTube video by Hadi al-Abdallah

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

US Officials Say Russia Preparing For Aleppo Offensive As Syria ‘Ceasefire’ Collapses

A report today in the Wall Street Journal cites a “senior US defense official” as saying that Russia has deployed artillery units near Aleppo, as regime-allied forces prepare for a new assault.

Russia Moves Artillery to Northern Syria, U.S. Officials Say

Russia has been moving artillery units to areas of northern Syria where Assad government forces have been massing, raising U.S. concern that the two allies may be preparing for a return to full-scale fighting after a nearly two-month cease-fire with the main opposition, U.S. officials say.

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Apr 20, 2016 13:44 (GMT)

According to the report, the movement of artillery assets has been tracked by US intelligence:

After the partial cease-fire took effect in late February, U.S. intelligence agencies tracked the movement of Russian artillery units south to areas where the Assad regime at the time was fighting Islamic State militants, particularly in the Tadmur and Palmyra areas. Russian troops directly man the artillery pieces, which have been used with devastating effect on the battlefield since last year, according to U.S. officials. Russia has also deployed advisers to support the Assad regime in its military campaign, officials said.

Then, about two weeks ago, U.S. intelligence agencies began to detect the redeployment of artillery units to areas near the northern city of Aleppo, the opposition stronghold, and inside Latakia province, near where government forces have been gathering, according to the senior U.S. defense official.

The Russian artillery movements have increased in recent days, raising U.S. alarm about Moscow’s intentions, the official said.

That Russian troops are manning artillery in support of regime-allied ground forces is no secret. Such was confirmed to Vedomosti back in November.

Of course there are plenty of Russian soldiers fulfilling other tasks in Syria that the Kremlin hasn’t been so forthcoming about. The presence of Russian special forces near Palmyra has been demonstrated by the death of one fighter last month.

In addition, Saint Petersburg’s Fontanka newspaper published an extensive investigation into the activities of a “private military company” – ChVK Wagner, operating as off-the-books cannon fodder for Russia’s military operations in both Syria and Ukraine.

The movement of artillery units is likely far easier for US satellites or human intelligence sources to track than infantry or special forces of course. But there are other indicators that Russia is preparing to aid the regime in an assault on Aleppo.

From the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. officials pointed to recent statements from Assad regime officials in Damascus about a planned offensive against rebel forces in their Aleppo stronghold in northern Syria. Russian officials told their American counterparts that the regime was bluffing about the offensive, but Moscow was noncommittal about getting Damascus to disavow the idea, either because the Russians knew Damascus wouldn’t listen or because they weren’t sure themselves what the Assad regime’s intentions were, or both, according to officials. 

The report comes amidst a major deterioration in the situation in Syria. 

Following yesterday’s horrific civilian casualties as a result of regime air strikes on the Idlib town of Ma’arrat al-Nouman, the Syrian opposition delegation has walked out of peace talks.

According to the Syrian Local Coordination Committees (LCC), at least 45 civilians were killed and 70 wounded as a result of the attack on a marketplace. Another 9 were killed and 15 wounded in Kafranbel, around 11 kilometres to the southwest.

Syrian journalist Hadi al-Abdallah filmed the aftermath: 

Ma’arrat al-Nouman was subjected to some of the very worst bombardment by Russian jets between September 30 last year and the “cessation of hostilities” that came into effect (for a while somewhat successfully) in February.

Russian jets are reported to be been active too, as the Wall Street Journal notes:

U.S. officials say Russian forces in Syria have also stepped up the tempo of their air operations in support of the Assad regime in recent days. The Russians are currently conducting about a dozen airstrikes a day, compared with as many as 100 a day before the cease-fire took effect, according to the senior U.S. defense official.

According to the LCC, Russian jets conducted eight air strikes this morning on a rebel-held airbase near Abu al-Duhur, around 45 kilometres south of Aleppo.

The airbase, which fell to fighters led by Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, at the beginning of September last year, is of great strategic importance. It was used to attack rebel positions across the Idlib province and also to supply besieged regime bases in Wadi Dei and Hamadiyah. Capturing the base would help the regime-allied forces to drive a wedge between Aleppo and the Idlib province, which would be disastrous for the rebels.

The base was a major target for regime air strikes just before the beginning of the Russian air campaign at the end of September:

Faced with the impending threat of a return to full-scale warfare and an assault on Aleppo, the Wall Street Journal reports that the CIA and “partners in the region” have been “drawing  up a list of anti-artillery and antiaircraft weapons which could be provided to the moderate opposition if the cease-fire collapses and full-scale fighting resumes.”

So much, then, for the cessation of hostilities.

— Pierre Vaux