The timing of Moscow and the Syrian regime’s attacks over the past few months indicates a desire to pressure the international community before major international meetings on the Syrian war.
On March 5, 2020, Russia and Turkey signed a ceasefire agreement in Syria’s Idlib that included Russian and Turkish patrols along the key M4 highway. Since then, opposition held-areas in Idlib and Aleppo have been subjected to artillery and raids by the regime and Russia.
In early 2021, strikes against areas controlled by the opposition forces escalated and reached their climax in May and June. They mainly focused on the de-escalation zone in Idlib, which is the area located in the vicinity of the M4 highway.
Russian attacks in the months of May and June can be read as a part of Russia’s tactics to pressure the international community before several high-level meetings regarding Syria, including President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with US President Biden, the 16th round of the Astana talks and finally the United Nations meeting regarding the extension of the use of border crossings for humanitarian aid.
It was expected that the attacks would slow down after those meetings. On the contrary, the attacks increased significantly and the regime and Moscow began targeting different sites, most of which were residential and infrastructure sites. It is therefore worth taking a closer look at Russia’s air strike strategy and its goals for the region.
Russia and the regime conducted 34 attacks during the month of May, primarily targeting civilians. While 68 percent of the targeted locations were within the de-escalation zone — where there is a deal with Turkey, 32 percent were in other locations.
In June, Russia and the regime increased the number of attacks to 66, killing 42 civilians. The ratio of hits within the de-escalation zone also rose in an obvious way: 96 percent of the targets were within the boundaries of the de-escalation zone and near Turkish Armed Forces’ locations. This was done in conjunction with Russia hinting that it may take military action on Jabal al Zawiya, an area of strategic importance.
The timing of the escalation suggests that it aimed to serve Russia's political objectives. Russia aimed to pressure international actors, particularly Turkey, to improve its negotiation terms in the UN Security Council sessions regarding the UN Resolution 2533 extensions, which Moscow aimed to block. There were also indications that there could be new waves of displacement, which it could use to pressure other actors.
In July, the UN Security Council extended the use of humanitarian border crossings into Syria, and Russia and the regime increased their attacks, conducting 114 strikes and over 18 raids on civilian and civil defence locations in northern Idlib, killing more than 45 civilians. 81 percent of the targeted locations were within the de-escalation zone.
Future goals and scenarios
Between May and June, Russia worked to deliver a clear message to Ankara, showing its ability to escalate and urging it to make concessions. This was illustrated in the number of June strikes targeting points in Jabal al Zawiya, most of which were areas with Turkish military presence, including heavy armoured vehicles.
Despite their previous efforts and the intensity of air strikes, a ground operation by Russia and the regime in the area remains difficult for several reasons.
First, the heavy military presence of the Turkish Army and Syrian National Army in the Jabal al Zawiya region in the vicinity of the M4 international road makes it a risky endeavour. Second, Jabal Al Zawiya is a mountainous region that is difficult to navigate. Finally, there isn’t enough manpower for a ground operation in the region, as it would require pulling pro-regime troops out of the ongoing battles against Daesh cells in the Syrian Desert (Badia).
Instead, Russia and the regime will continue bombing these areas, in case they want to launch an operation in the future. Meanwhile, Russia’s strategy will be to continue targeting random areas in Idlib, including the area south of the M4, to make the region as unlivable as possible for those living there. In doing so, Russia can create new waves of displacement towards northern Idlib and pressure Turkey.
Moscow will also continue to hit the opposition forces' defence lines to wear them out and may work to create a fragile security reality in opposition-controlled areas with the aim of facilitating a possible ground operation in the future.
These past few months, Russia escalated its attacks before the Security Council meeting to achieve its goals. As a next step, Russia will likely try to barter by offering to ease its strikes and its position on humanitarian crossings in exchange for America's reconsideration of the Caesar sanctions against the Syrian regime.
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