When Russia started bombing in Syria last week, it said it was targeting ISIS — a claim it's stuck to pretty consistently in the past week. But this map of Russian airstrikes in Syria so far, put together by the Levantine Group, tells a very different story.
The Levantine Group's analysts used a proprietary network of sources, cross-checked with open-source media and information released by the Russian Ministry of Defense, to determine the locations hit by Russian planes. This map shows those strikes overlaid on territory controlled by Bashar al-Assad's regime, by anti-Assad rebels, by ISIS, and by Kurdish forces.
The results are striking — Russian strikes have overwhelmingly targeted rebel-held territory in western Syria rather than the ISIS strongholds in the north and east:
"The Russian air campaign is not geared toward the so-called Islamic State," Michael Horowitz, a Syria analyst at the Levantine Group, told me via email. "Russian airstrikes are focusing on opposition groups controlling northwestern Syria, including the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, other Islamist groups such Ahrar al-Sham, and 'moderate' groups including the Free Syrian Army (FSA)."
The pattern of these bombings, according to Horowitz, suggests it could be a prelude to an anti-rebel ground campaign.
"The map also shows that the first week of airstrikes was meant to 'soften' opposition targets along the coast as well as inside the rebel-held enclave between Homs and Hama," he writes. "Russia is laying the groundwork for a ground offensive in these areas," likely involving Iranian and/or Hezbollah forces, given the depleted state of Assad's troop reserves.
"The Syrian regime’s most imminent threat comes from the presence of opposition forces near the Alawite heartland along the Syrian coast," Horowitz told me. "Beyond the image often depicted of a bold and assertive Russian operation that outmaneuvered the West, the intervention is meant to counterbalance recent regime losses (particularly in the Idlib province), rather than reclaiming Syria back."
Why Russia is targeting rebels rather than ISIS
From Russia's point of view, focusing on the rebels rather than on ISIS makes perfect sense. Assad's Syria remains one of Russia's few reliable allies outside of the former Soviet republics, a vestige of Moscow's former superpower status and a final military toehold in the Middle East. Russia has an important naval base on Syria's western coast, in Tartus.
"ISIS almost never fought the Assad regime," Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me last month. "They were much more focused on fighting other opposition groups and gaining land their opponents had already acquired."
ISIS's growth has arguably helped Assad. His forces have tacitly tolerated ISIS in northeastern Syria while focusing military efforts on the rebels. This was part of what appeared to be a deliberate strategy to encourage extremism in order to discourage foreign intervention against him.
Both Assad and Putin win, in other words, if the West is forced to choose between Assad and ISIS in Syria. Which is part of why Russian airstrikes appear to be targeting ISIS's enemies in Syria — under the pretext of targeting ISIS.