ROME - Russia has increased dramatically both the rate and breadth of its airstrikes in Syria, tripling the number of air raids in the past few days and demonstrating its “freedom of action” in the war-torn country, according to an analysis by a U.S.-based think tank.
“The escalation marks a dangerous shift in the Russian airstrike pattern to levels only seen prior to the brokering of the cessation of hostilities agreement in late February,” said Genevieve Casagrande, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
The expansion, she notes, coincides with a further breakdown of the internationally-brokered Geneva peace negotiations, which opposition politicians dismiss as a “waste of breath" because of the continued airstrikes on opposition-held territory both by Russian warplanes and the air force of President Bashar al-Assad.
Sunday witnessed an especially violent series of regime airstrikes on insurgent-districts in the city of Aleppo with at least 53 people, including children, being killed, say activists. Regime helicopters dropped dozens of barrel bombs — oil drums or canisters packed with explosive and metal fragments — focusing mainly on the al-Qatriji neighborhood, the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, a Britain-based pro-opposition monitoring group, said.
Rebels responded by shelling government-controlled districts killing a reported eight civilians. The volunteer rescue group, known as the White Helmets, recorded 40 air strikes on Aleppo’s rebel-held areas on Sunday. A rescue worker was killed in the airstrikes.
“Russia is clearly demonstrating its freedom of action in Syria,” according to an assessment by Casagrande. “It has pivoted its air operations towards mainstream elements of the armed opposition across Western Syria. Russian air operations against the Syrian opposition expanded beyond the targeting of critical front lines in Aleppo and once again began to target deep within opposition-held terrain in Idlib Province from May 30 to June 2,” she added.
And for the first time in the Syria conflict a Russian Tu-142 aircraft was filmed flying over Aleppo. The Aviationist, a military aviation website, reported that a video shot purportedly by rebels Sunday showed the reconnaissance plane — the first, if confirmed, of a Tu-142 participating in the air war over Syria.
“The Tu-142 was developed as a maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft,” the Aviationist reports. “However, it is believed to be able to carry different sensor packages and some believe the Bear F could be used as an ISR [Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance] platform, to pinpoint targets for tactical strike aircraft.”
The plane could also have been dual tasked with an additional role to monitor the USS Truman aircraft carrier, currently on patrol in the eastern Mediterranean. Over the weekend two waves of U.S. navy fighter jets were launched from the USS Truman for raids on Islamic State group positions in Raqqa — the first launched from an aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean since 2003, according to U.S. defense officials.
Russian military spokesmen insist their airstrikes are targeting only “terrorists”.
In Syria’s Dara’a province the Kremlin controlled TASS news agency reported the remarks of the spokesman of the so-called Russian reconciliation center, Colonel Stanislav Ivanov, who said: “The international terrorist organizations the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra and other illegal armed groups have unleashed this bloody war. Russia has offered assistance.”
But U.S. officials say Russian airstrikes have targeted more often than not mainstream anti-Assad rebel groups.
Colonel Ivanov was commenting at a rally to welcome a 4-ton humanitarian aid delivery the Russians made in Dara’a. He didn’t note that a few days earlier, on May 31, the Russians launched their first airstrikes on the province since February 25, according to the Institute for the Study of War. Those strikes “targeted terrain largely held by factions within the U.S.-backed Southern Front coalition,” says analyst Casagrande.
But the most intense regime and Russian airstrikes have focused on Aleppo. Analysts say these appear to be setting the circumstances for a full-scale siege of rebel-held parts of the city and much of the focus of the airstrikes appear to be aimed at helping regime ground forces to encircle the rebels and sever insurgent supply routes.
'Hysterical' bombing by Russia
The Syrian Observatory dubs the bombing of Aleppo, which has targeted hospitals, “hysterical.” Since April 22, it claims, at least 2,600 people have been wounded in the strikes and at least 500 civilians have died — including 105 children under the age of eighteen years and 76 women.
Elsewhere in Syria, a top Syrian Kurdish commander died Sunday during a U.S.-backed offensive by Kurdish-led forces to seize from the Islamic State group the town of Manbij. Abu Layla, a brigade commander, was hit by sniper fire. The Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the so-called Manbij pocket, a stretch of territory west of the Euphrates River, took two more villages Sunday aided by an air campaign by U.S. warplanes.