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How Russian bombing is changing Syria's war, in 3 maps

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Monday, Russia apparently bombed three Syrian hospitals and a school.

The Russians are denying it, blaming the strikes on the United States, but American planes aren't flying in the parts of northwest Syria where the bombings took place. ISIS has no real presence there, and the group is the sole target of America's airstrikes.

Russia, instead, is striking areas held by Syrian rebels — and recently it's been picking up the pace. The goal has been to help the Syrian government, which was until recently tottering, seize more territory in advance of the planned ceasefire (though it's far from clear that this ceasefire will actually materialize).

These bombings, in addition to being a humanitarian catastrophe, speak to Russia's growing offensive in Syria and the impact it is having on the war there.

This has, to a degree, worked. Bashar al-Assad's forces have reversed the war's momentum and even made real gains in some areas. But the gains, such as they are, are quite limited — and come at tremendous humanitarian cost.

1) Russia's bombing is accelerating

According to observers of the Syria conflict, Russian bombing has escalated substantially since it began in September 2015 — particularly in the past few weeks.

"The Russian air campaign has grown both in terms of number of strikes and geographic reach," Michael Horowitz, a senior intelligence analyst at the Levantine Group responsible for Syria, told me.

The focus, as you can see in the below map, is in northwest Syria, specifically near the city of Aleppo and Idlib province.

(Institute for the Study of War)

These are areas where Syrian rebels, as well as the Syrian al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra, are battling Bashar al-Assad's forces. There have also been strikes against rebel positions in south (near Daraa), as well as some targeting ISIS.

"Major air operations [have been] reported in northern Aleppo, in southern Syria and in eastern Aleppo (against ISIS)," Horowitz wrote.

These strikes show no sign of slowing, despite a planned ceasefire agreement that's supposed to come into force this week. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev told Time that his country had no plans to stop bombing anytime soon. "I think it all has to stop," Medvedev said, "when peace arrives."

Civilians are, of course, bearing the brunt of this assault: Russia does not try very hard to avoid collateral damage. The three hospitals bombed on Monday were part of a broader pattern of attacks on medical centers by Russia and its allies.

"Monday’s strikes were the latest in a series of attacks on medical facilities and workers, totaling 14 so far this year," the Guardian's Matthew Weaver and Kareem Shaheen write. The hospital strikes "have dashed hopes that an agreement in Munich about a 'cessation of hostilities' could be implemented this week."

2) Russia is helping Assad retake territory — and it's working

The Russian onslaught is making a real difference on the battlefield. The below animated map shows gains by Assad's forces near Aleppo, Syria's largest city, in the first week of February.

The rebels (in green) are clearly losing ground to the government (in tan). ISIS (in black) is also losing territory, while the Kurds (in yellow) are taking advantage of real weakness to seize some of their nearby territory:


Aleppo has served as a major rebel base since 2012, when the Syrian civil war really took off in earnest. In late September 2015, Assad's forces began a concerted effort to retake the city. The above map shows their progress: By December, they had made significant advances around the city and, by February 5, had essentially surrounded it.

Assad's forces, weakened by attrition and serious recruiting problems, were unable to accomplish this alone. Russian bombing, as well as Iranian troop deployments, was absolutely vital to Assad's offensive in Aleppo (as well as similar gains in southern Syria, near Daraa).

"The operations in Aleppo Province have hinged upon heavy military support from both Russian warplanes and Iranian proxy fighters," Christopher Kozak, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, writes. He continues:

Russia concentrated a significant portion of its air campaign against opposition forward positions and supply lines in Aleppo Province. Meanwhile, U.S. officials estimated in October 2015 that up to 2,000 Hezbollah, Afghan, and Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters led by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani currently operated in Aleppo Province.

This offensive has left Aleppo basically encircled: the 300,000 to 400,000 Syrians in rebel-held parts of the city will only get food and medicine if Assad lets them have it. Tens of thousands have already fled the city, further worsening Syria's dire refugee crisis.

Strategically, these advances have put Assad in a much stronger position. While it looked like he was on the road to defeat in the fall of last year, he's now got the upper hand militarily — which gives him more leverage in any negotiations over Syria's future.

"The Russian reinforcement has changed the calculus completely," Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, Defense Intelligence Agency chief, said in Senate testimony reported by the Washington Post.

Assad, Stewart said, is "in a much stronger negotiating position than he was just six months ago. ... I’m more inclined to believe that he is a player on the stage longer term than he was six months to a year ago."

3) Nonetheless, Syria's war remains a stalemate

While Assad's Russian-backed advances are real, Assad is not poised for military victory over all of Syria; the war is still a deadly stalemate.

The following map, from Horowitz and the Levantine Group, illustrates this point. Red arrows show regime offensives. The faint red shows territory held by Assad before January. And his territorial gains are shown in bright red — I promise it's there, but, tellingly, you have to squint to see it, in small areas near Latakia, Aleppo, and Daraa:

(Levantine Group)

"The areas captured by the regime are small in this zoomed-out map," Horowitz tells me. "It's quite difficult to see them."

So while the rebels have indeed lost some territory, and while some of it is in strategically important urban areas, what you see here is not a vast transformation of the map.

That's because Russia and Iran can't fix the fundamental weaknesses that keep Assad from winning. Even in Aleppo, the most strategically important front where Assad is making gains, it's not obvious he can build on recent advances and actually take the city.

"Assad’s forces remain over-stretched and it is not clear that the regime has the resources to maintain activities on multiple fronts, let alone engage in a long siege of Aleppo or move towards actually taking control of the city," Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes in a February report.

"Unlike elsewhere, the rebels are less likely to be willing to surrender, even under siege conditions, given the strategic importance of the city," Barnes-Dacey says.

So it's best to see the current advances in Aleppo and elsewhere as demonstrative of the back-and-forth nature of the Syrian civil war, in which momentum and territorial gains have shifted back and forth between the parties.

These shifts reflect the fundamental weakness of all parties. Assad has manpower problems, the rebels are deeply divided, and ISIS has managed to make enemies out of virtually every powerful actor in the Middle East. No side is strong enough to crush any other through force, so gains end up being pretty temporary. Moreover, both Assad and the non-ISIS rebels are backed by actors outside of the country, who tend to escalate when it looks like their proxies are losing ground.

This creates a deadly seesaw effect, whereby Assad and the rebels keep trading territory without anyone ever gaining a permanent upper hand. This also makes any kind of peace deal even harder to negotiate: At any given point, either the rebels or the regime feel like they're winning on the battlefield. Whoever has the upper hand has less incentive to come to terms.

And so long as the war drags on, atrocities like Monday's hospital and school bombings are guaranteed to repeat themselves over and over again.