Enter The Bear
Russia’s military build-up in Syria had drawn increased media attention in the past week, as observers and the United States government scrambled to figure out Russia’s intentions in deploying a number of armored units, air-defense systems and combat aircraft to an airbase near Latakia.
This changed on Wednesday morning when a Russian general showed up at the front door of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and demanded that the U.S. cancel all air operations in northern Syria because Russia was about to launch airstrikes against ISIS. Minutes later, the first Russian aircraft began their bombing runs.
The Strategic Situation
Despite the early claims of the Russian government that their military was in Syria to fight ISIS, nearly all Russian airstrikes have targeted various factions of the Free Syrian Army. A map provided by The Guardian shows a heavy concentration of airstrikes targeted a pocket of FSA forces north of the city of Homs. (Note: As of October 2 Russian airstrikes were also reported in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa).
The war in Syria has now reached an awkward position where the U.S. and allied air forces based in Turkey and Jordan are engaged in a strategic bombing campaign against ISIS and providing close air support to the YPG, while their NATO ally the Turkish Air Force is bombing YPG-allied Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) camps in northern Iraq and last July narrowly missed killing several U.S. Special Forces soldiers training YPG troops. The Russians are striking the FSA, which is in part armed and supported by the CIA. On top of all this, Israel has occasionally launched airstrikes against Hezbollah targets inside Syria.
We now have four air forces each targeting a different faction in the war, yet scrupulously attempting to avoid combat with each other for fear of sparking a wider regional war. Israel, already on edge after launching an airstrike last January that mistakenly killed six Iranian officers, has already sent a military delegation to Moscow to work out an agreement to prevent conflict in the air.
Russia’s actions so far seem to bolster Assad’s strategy of forestalling foreign intervention by fighting the FSA first. Throughout the Syrian Civil War Assad has covertly bolstered the rise of ISIS, from releasing jihadists from Syrian prisons to buying ISIS-produced oil to avoiding fighting them on the battlefield. Assad knows that if he can eliminate the FSA and turn the war into Assad vs. ISIS there will be no foreign intervention to remove him. The West and the Sunni world will be forced to accede to Assad continuing to hold power.
The Cultural Heritage Situation
The areas of heavy Assad-FSA fighting around Aleppo, Homs and Daraa have seen the heaviest combat damage to cultural heritage sites. Combat damage and military trenching combined have damaged more ancient sites than any other cause.
Russian intervention carries a risk that further damage will occur. Rumors of an upcoming major military offensive make further damage likely.
So far the Russian Air Force seems to be making limited use of precision-guided weapons and dropping a lot of unguided bombs. The results appear to have been mixed at best, with the first video released to the press showing one bomb narrowly missing a cluster of buildings and two others missing by a much wider margin:
Heavy bombing was reported at the camps of CIA-backed rebel group Suqour al-Jabal, who were based near the ruins of the ancient Byzantine site of Shinshara.
One strike hit the outskirts of Kafr Nabl, a town that has won renown as a symbol of the peaceful protest movement against Assad family rule. The local council there receives U.S. assistance, and the local rebels have been supported under a covert CIA program aimed at bolstering moderate rebels.
The strike hit a training camp for a U.S.-vetted group called Suqour al-Jabal that is adjacent to Roman ruins on the outskirts of the town, according to activists in the area. Raed Fares, a leader of the protest movement in Kafr Nabl, said the explosion was bigger than anything local residents had seen in three years of airstrikes conducted by Syrian warplanes.
“It was like a nuclear bomb,” he said. “It made a fire six kilometers wide.”
Photos taken by Khalil Ashawi of Reuters show a burning truck amid ancient ruins. Video shot on the scene after the attack seems to show heavy damage to ancient structures:
It should be noted that Shinshara has been damaged already by refugees looking for building material to build shelters, however the rubble surrounding the burned out car appears to be freshly disturbed. Without more images a full damage assessment is not possible.
There has so far been no word from the Russian Ministry of Defense if any measures have been taken to limit the destruction of historical sites within Syria. All videos posted by the Russian MoD do contain a disclaimer that “to prevent engagement of civil population, the targets for the Russian aviation are assigned only outside inhabited areas and only on the basis of confirmed reconnaissance data received from multiple sources.”
Russian intervention in Syria is a gamble. Russia has deployed a few hundred infantry and surface-to-air missile systems to defend its bases, but they know full well that their small force would be overwhelmed by a determined U.S., Israeli or Turkish aerial attack.
The gamble is that no country will dare risk war with the country that possesses the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons just to save the Free Syrian Army. The U.S. will be forced to abandon its CIA-trained allies, and the war will transform into a showdown between Assad and ISIS. (The YPG, which largely maintains a truce with Assad loyalists in Qamishli and Hasakah, can be expected to align with Assad in this scenario). American desires for a negotiated transition of power will be pushed aside as no one will be willing or able to negotiate with ISIS, and vice versa.
It is hard to think of a worse outcome for Syrian heritage than this, where the only factions left standing are the side that has destroyed the greatest number of historic sites and the side which has turned their destruction into political performance art.
It is even harder to think of a worse outcome for the people of Syria than this, where the only factions left standing are the side that has slaughtered the greatest number of Syrians over the past four years and the side which has turned their slaughter into a holy religious duty.
The other option is that the CIA will continue to supply the FSA without the U.S. directly engaging the Russian Air Force, Russian airpower and Iranian troops will prove as ineffective as Assad’s own air force and army at suppressing the rebels, and the intervention will not majorly change the balance of power. In that case the war will continue to grind on much as before.
 Michael Danti, “Ground-Based Observations of Cultural Heritage Incidents in Syria and Iraq,” Near Eastern Archaeology 78, No. 3 (September 2015): 132-141.