Death from Above: Russia, the Syrian Regime and Civilian Targets

The successful implementation of a cessation of hostilities in Syria looks doubtful. The Assad regime with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah has mounted an increasingly deadly campaign to crush rebels in the north of the country. It comes at a time when all sides should be enacting confidence building measures. Meant to cut off the opposition from the Turkish border and surround the country’s largest city, Aleppo, the regime’s assault is taking a heavy toll on the civilian population. Making matters worse, on Monday Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies targeted hospitals and schools using aircraft and by some reports, cruise missiles. It resulted in at least 46 dead and dozens injured.

Turkey, France and the UN say these attacks violate international law, while Russia has categorically denied it carried out the attacks on three hospitals and one school. In a bizarre and nonsensical statement by the Russian Defence Ministry, Moscow even attacked Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for not providing information about the locations of the hospitals in Maarat al-Numan and Azaz which were targeted by the bombardment. The Syrian ambassador blamed the US for the strikes, a laughable assessment.

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The pattern is clear. According to Physicians for Human Rights, as early as 2011 government forces attacked hospitals in Damascus, Homs and Hama, impeded medical transport and detained and tortured doctors who treated wounded civilians. The organization has mapped these war crimes and documented a total of 336 attacks on health care facilities, 285 of which were carried out by the Syrian regime, another 12 by Russian forces. Furthermore, Amnesty International has documented the murder of 569 health care professionals between April 2011 and October 2014, a number that is likely to be much larger.

As shown by these figures, these deliberate attacks on healthcare facilities are not new. The fact that Russia is participating in what has, since the beginning of the conflict, been a policy of attacking medical facilities and those who work in them, should not come as a surprise. David Nott, a physician who has worked in Syria told BBC World Service that, “If you take out a healthcare worker, you take out healthcare for about 10,000-20,000 people and they won’t feel secure in the area and will feel that they need to leave.” Dr. Nott is right, the targeting of healthcare services by the Syrian regime is meant to ensure that civilians in rebel held areas fear living there and leave. Though, it is also part of a systemic effort by the regime, which has been on display since the beginning of the conflict, to ensure that rebels do not build up governance capacities within the territory they hold. This includes targeting bread lines and water infrastructure with barrel bombs, airstrikes and artillery.

For more, see my interview with CTV National News.

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The Syrian Regime’s Hollow Victories

On 3 February, Syrian regime troops and their allies reached the encircled towns of Nubl and Zahraa to the north-west of Aleppo city. Predominantly Shia, the two towns had been surrounded by rebel forces for much of the last three-and-a-half years. Under Russian air cover, Hezbollah, Shia militas and Syrian government forces pushed out from the village of Hardatnin, through Musrassat Khan and into the two regime bastions. In doing so they effectively cut off rebel held areas in eastern Aleppo city from the Turkish border crossing of Bab al-Salama, a crucial supply route for food, oil and weapons.

                                 A map of the regime’s progress in Aleppo (@PetoLucem)

This victory was one of three major regime achievements over the past few weeks, all of which relied heavily on foreign fighters in leading roles and the use of Russian air support. 26 January saw Syrian troops, allied militias and Hezbollah capture Sheikh Miskeen, in Dara governorate. The town, held by rebels since 2014, had connected the Jordanian border to rebel bastions in the capital, Damascus. While it has been reported that intra-rebel tensions contributed to its fall, the concentration of Russian air power on Sheikh Miskeen and the use of Lebanon’s Hezbollah on the ground were instrumental in its capture.

                                              Capture of Sheikh Miskeen (@PetoLucem)

The regime victory in Sheikh Miskeen came close after the 12 January capture of Salma, in Latakia governorate. The town had been the last major rebel bastion in what is a regime stronghold on the coast of the Mediterranean. During the regime operation a video emerged of Russian commanders overseeing the battle and a few days later, footage from a Russian-led press tour of Salma highlighted the significant role Russian special forces played in its capture. Salma and neighbouring rebel held areas had been under the control of the opposition for the past three years and provided them with a strategic overview of the surrounding area. It was believed that rebels had planned to use Salma to push further into Alawite dominated Latakia governorate, to target the Syrian President’s coreligionists and pressure the regime.

                             Regime capture of Salma, Latakia Governorate (@PetoLucem)

It is telling that the first flag to be raised above Nubl and Zahraa after the siege had been broken was that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. These regime victories were achieved years after rebels had initially captured strategic areas in the country’s north, east and south and only with the help of outside actors. At minimum, there is enough video, picture and reporting evidence to assume that the Syrian regime was incapable of achieving these military gains on their own. Even if rumors of Russian special forces involvement are discounted due to a lack of evidence in the cases of Sheikh Miskeen and Nubl and Zahraa, it is clear that Hezbollah played a major role in the capture of the two former villages. Furthermore, according to pro-regime sources, it seems that Russian special forces at minimum are in the process of expanding their presence on the ground in Aleppo governorate.

                                     Nubl and Zahraa militia pose with Hezbollah fighters

This reliance on outside actors begs the question, will the Syrian regime be able to consolidate these victories and reestablish governance over areas once held by the opposition? Up until the Russian intervention on 30 September, sparked by the falling fortunes of the regime, it seemed as if a rebel victory in Syria was inevitable. A second governorate capital had been lost in Idlib. The city of Palmyra, the middle point between the Islamic State-held western portions of Syria and Damascus had also fallen under control of the diabolical group. The Syrian army and its allies had also not managed to make any significant gains in the year before. The toll of the five year battle for Syria’s future was beginning to have a large impact, the Syrian army had lost roughly 50,000 men, allied militias 36,000 and Hezbollah, 900 fighters, more than the 60,000 domestic and foreign rebel fighters that had been killed in the course of the conflict.

The regime’s ability to take advantage of its recent victories isn’t only a matter of manpower, it is also one of legitimacy. Since March 2011 when the government of Bashar al-Assad decided to shoot its way out of the revolution, it has employed starvation, barrel bombs, and chemical weapons in order to make up for its lack of manpower, in turn causing untold suffering on the majority Sunni Muslim population. Unlike domestic Syrian troops and their rebel counterparts, at some point those foreign Shia militias from Iraq, Hezbollah from Lebanon and of course, the Russian military and air force will have to return home, leaving behind a regime that has increasingly relied on minority groups to defend its hold over much of the Syrian population. Once this occurs the regime may again face calls for change to the country’s governance system and possibly, if it can not come to an equitable arrangement with opposition supporters, experience yet another civil war. With the faltering of the Geneva III peace process it seems that the regime and Russia are not yet willing to acknowledge the demographic, political and military realities of conflict, and Syria’s future.