Growing Air War in Syria Sparks New Refugee Crisis
Russia’s strikes are killing hundreds and displacing thousands. After Paris, Putin may get a green light to really take the gloves off.
This post was updated at 10:00 am on Tuesday Nov. 17 to reflect breaking news.
The Russian warplanes bombing Syria every day aren’t simply bolstering Damascus while hammering the U.S.-backed groups working to unseat President Bashar al-Assad. They’re also contributing to Syria’s misery by sending a new wave of refugees fleeing from their homes.
Take Homs province, where the town of Mahin was bombed more than 100 times in a single day by Russian aircraft, according to an activist with close ties to residents of the region. Sandra Bitar, whose organization, Emesa, operates in Homs and other besieged areas, said some civilians trying to flee the Russian bombardments were pushed back into Islamic State-controlled areas by forces loyal to Assad. Those refugees had to flee “through the desert to Raqqa, from Raqqa to near Aleppo, from Aleppo to Idlib,” Bitar, who lives in Gaziantep, on the Turkish side of the Syria-Turkey border, told Foreign Policy in an interview in Washington on Friday. “The regime didn’t allow civilians to go from Mahin to their side; they pushed them to ISIS areas.”
In other cases, those who tried to flee to safer ground were targeted by Russian strikes as they traveled in convoys through the Syrian countryside. On one occasion, three children were killed, Bitar, who visited Washington for a conference hosted by the Middle East Institute, told FP. “People had to leave their houses there because of the Russian airstrikes, not because of ISIS,” she said.
Syria is rife with similar stories of civilians caught in the crosshairs of Russian airstrikes, a trend that has only increased as Moscow has intensified its air campaign to bolster Assad. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 120,000 people have been displaced since early October because “as a result of aerial bombardment, as well as ground offensives among the parties,” and on Sunday, European Council President Donald Tusk raised alarm that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bombing campaign has already sparked “a new wave of refugees.”
Moscow’s escalating military intervention on behalf of Assad is virtually certain to expand even more significantly in the wake of last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris. After weeks of deliberation, Putin blamed terrorists on Tuesday for the air crash in Egypt that killed 224 people and vowed to intensify airstrikes in Syria against those who carried out “one of the bloodiest crimes” against Russians. Putin added that Russia’s air campaign in Syria “should not only be continued but should be intensified so that the criminals realize that retribution is inevitable.”
Shortly after, Putin made good on his promise as Moscow bombed Raqqa using both sea-launched cruise missiles and long-range bombers.
French President François Hollande will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Nov. 24 and Putin on Nov. 26 late to talk about how to “combine our forces to achieve a result that is already too late in coming.”
Hollande’s request for Russian assistance against the Islamic State seemed to be an indirect green light for Moscow to step up its air war inside Syria. The comment was a noticeable shift in tone for Hollande, whose government had been critical of Putin over his annexation of Crimea and continued meddling in Ukraine. In another marked change, Hollande said that France is committed to seeing Assad leave power, but made clear that the fight against the Islamic State is now a higher priority. “Our enemy in Syria is Daesh,” he said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State.
In his remarks to French lawmakers, Hollande said France is “at war” with the Islamic State, which he vowed to destroy. French warplanes, he said, would be sharply escalating their assaults on Islamic State positions throughout Syria. On Sunday night, a dozen French aircraft struck targets in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
Hollande’s comments drew a standing ovation from French lawmakers, but an expanded French air campaign could add to the dangers facing Syrian civilians on the ground. Washington uses some of the world’s most precise weapons, but the U.S. strikes are thought to have killed at least 225 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. There is no reliable data yet on the death toll from the French strikes, but some collateral damage is inevitable. Moscow has remained firm in its claims that it has not struck civilians and is exclusively targeting terrorist strongholds. But according to analysts and rights groups, Russian warplanes have also dropped what appear to be crude bombs on hospitals, homes, and other civilian structures.
Western acquiescence to a stepped-up Russian campaign, meanwhile, is certain to force even more Syrians out of their homes.
U.S. officials have confirmed the Russian use of cluster munitions against populated locations in Hama and Idlib provinces. And rights groups say Russian bombardments have targeted civilian areas: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition-aligned Syrian Network for Human Rights put the toll at more than 250 noncombatants. According to an Oct. 29 statement by Doctors Without Borders, Russian airstrikes had targeted at least 12 medical facilities throughout Syria. In Homs province, two strikes reportedly carried out by Russian aircraft killed a total of 59 civilians, including 33 children, at a residence and near a bakery, according to Human Rights Watch.
Now, as Western governments reeling from the aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris are galvanized to respond, they seem even likelier to focus on defeating the Islamic State, not ousting Assad.
“There’s been an evolution on the Western side over the last couple months on whether Assad must go as a precondition,” Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told FP. “As diplomacy heats up and concerns over the Islamic State grow, getting rid of Assad may no longer be priority number one.”
That shift in priorities was evident less than 24 hours after the siege in Paris, when 17 countries overcame their differences on how to end Syria’s war and adopted a timeline that will let opposition groups help draft a constitution and elect a new government by 2017. The proposal, announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday in Vienna, would establish a cease-fire between the government in Damascus and the recognized opposition groups before holding elections. The Paris attacks “show that it doesn’t matter if you’re for Assad or against him,” Lavrov said during a news conference in the Austrian capital. “ISIS is your enemy.”
Borshchevskaya said that the deal was an obvious win for Putin.
“The plan announced in Vienna is largely based on what Russia has been proposing. It’s very ambiguous about the fate of Assad,” said Borshchevskaya. “It shows that, in the short term at least, Putin has been able to achieve his goals.”
The United States and its Western allies have long insisted that removing Assad is the only way to put an end to Syria’s nearly five-year civil war. But Russia’s beefed-up military intervention has cemented Moscow’s role as a regional power broker in the Middle East and has ensured its influence over any political transition in Damascus.
Speaking at the G-20 summit in Turkey on Monday, Putin pointed to a change in Washington’s stance on cooperating with Moscow. “Life is always evolving and at a very fast pace, often teaching us lessons. And I think that now the realization that an effective fight [against terrorism] can only be staged together is coming to everybody.”
His remarks came shortly after he and Obama talked face to face for more than 30 minutes on Sunday, their first meeting since Russia launched its air war in Syria in September, and a possible indication that tensions between them are thawing.
Putin’s recent gains aren’t limited to Syria. According to Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the distraction of the Islamic State could signal a shift in European Union policy toward Russia’s controversial role in the conflict in Ukraine.
Hollande has expressed Paris’s desire to ease sanctions placed on Russia due to its role in the Ukraine crisis, and cooperation against the Islamic State could be a pretext for doing so.
“There is less focus on Ukraine, and EU sanctions will be up for renewal in early 2016,” Mankoff told FP. “If the Russians can play a constructive role in Syria and not turn the pot in Ukraine, there will be pressure in the EU to roll back sanctions on Moscow.”
But even if the United States and its allies are willing to temporarily look the other away on what they perceive as shortcomings in Russia’s air campaign, the worsening humanitarian crisis is set to continue.
Moscow has flown more than 1,600 sorties to support the Assad regime since it launched airstrikes on Sept. 30, and Russia denies it is targeting civilians, asserting that its operations in Syria are aimed only at battling terrorists. The bulk of the groups it’s striking are U.S.-backed rebels. Bitar said that in addition to the Russian strikes, the Assad regime has not let up on its air campaign, which also targets civilians. Just last week, she said, the regime barrel-bombed a camp for displaced people in the northwest countryside of Homs.
And large groups of rebels aren’t the only Assad opponents at greater risk since the Russian airstrikes began. She told FP that since Russia’s interference, the Syrian government has had the time and resources to refocus its energy on targeting individual anti-Assad activists living in government-controlled areas, including Damascus.
“The [Syrian] secret service are more relaxed, so right now they are retargeting the activists that are still under the control of the regime, because they have the Russian and Iranians fighting instead of them,” she said.
Bitar was herself imprisoned twice by authorities loyal to Assad in 2012 and only fled when she was tipped off that authorities hoped to arrest her again.
With memories of the 35 days she spent in an Assad prison still fresh, Bitar said that for many of those quietly working to push Assad out of power, the risk of imprisonment may not be worth the reward.
“It’s not a place for a human being,” she said as she wiped away tears. “It’s enough for you to hear the voices of screaming men and women when they have been tortured; you cannot sleep after that. And when you smell the smell of burning flesh after putting electricity on their bodies, it’s something horrible.”
Photo credit: RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY
Correction, Nov. 19, 2015: A news article on Nov. 16 summarized a U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report as saying Russian airstrikes in Syria and ground offensives by government forces there had displaced 120,000 civilians since October. The report actually states that the population has been displaced “as a result of aerial bombardment, as well as ground offensives among the parties.” It does not specify that the airstrikes were carried out by Russia or that the ground assaults were carried out by the Syrian government.
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan
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