Russian airstrikes in Syria: Chechnya revisited
Russia’s ongoing air campaign in Syria — which, critics say, targets civilians rather than the Daesh militant group — is reminiscent of Russia’s military policy in Chechnya in the late 1990s, when, after failing to weaken Chechen fighters on the ground, the Russian air force began striking civilian infrastructure.
Turning vast swathes of Syria into a war zone, Russia is currently providing air support to forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in hopes of weakening the anti-Assad opposition.
In the fifth year of the Syria conflict, as the Assad regime began having trouble raising manpower for its military, Russia began its air campaign with a view to shifting the balance in the regime’s favor.
While Russia claims its air campaign — which began on Sept. 30 of last year — is aimed at Daesh targets, Russian warplanes have repeatedly targeted civilian areas and the moderate opposition groups that control them.
Last October, Russian airstrikes were mostly carried out in Syria’s Idlib, Hama, Homs and Aleppo provinces. In the second half of October and into November, airstrikes targeted opposition-held areas of southern Idlib, southern and northern Aleppo and Latakia’s predominantly-Turkmen Bayirbucak region.
Since December, all of these areas have remained subject to fierce Russian aerial bombardments.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) told Anadolu Agency that the civilian death toll caused by Russia’s air campaign in Syria now stood at almost 1,000.
Last November, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that, in the period between Oct. 5 and 22, intense Russian airstrikes had led to the displacement of more than 120,000 people in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib.
Despite repeated appeals by western countries to refrain from striking civilian areas, however, Russia has continued to so — suggesting that the practice has become Russian military policy as it was during Moscow’s earlier fight with Chechen separatists.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Chechnya quickly declared independence. Russia responded by sending troops to Chechnya, who fought Chechen separatists from 1994 to 1996.
The bloody conflict finally ended with a cease-fire agreement after Russian troops failed to crush the separatists.
In 1999, Russia reinvaded the self-governing republic of Chechnya — this time using its air force to crush the separatists.
From August to September of that year, Russia pounded Chechen capital Grozny with as many as 1,700 airstrikes.
Russia reportedly used cluster munitions during six months of fighting in which hundreds of Chechen civilians were killed and some 100,000 displaced.
In that conflict, Russian attacks on Chechnya’s civilian infrastructure were intended to put physical and psychological pressure on a population that largely supported the separatists.
Here, too, Russia had tried to reduce the country into one big war zone by forcing its civilian population to flee.
Once the region was cleared of civilians, the Russian military was able to carry out airstrikes without constraint, giving it a massive advantage in its fight against irregular Chechen fighters on the ground.
Reducing civilian support
As in Chechnya, Russian attacks on Syria’s civilian infrastructure — including mosques, schools and hospitals — appear to be aimed at reducing civilian support for the anti-Assad opposition and giving Russia an advantage over irregular Syrian fighters.
Recent Russian attacks on civilian positions in Syria have occurred on:
Jan. 13, when three children were killed and another 25 people injured after Russian warplanes targeted a primary school in Aleppo. On the same day, Russian airstrikes in opposition-held Idlib forced local schools to shut for one week
Jan. 12, when Russian airstrikes targeted an Aleppo mosque killing eight people, while another 37 civilians were killed — and 55 others injured — in an attack on a residential area of Idlib
Jan. 11, when 17 people were killed and another 25 injured when Russian warplanes struck a school in Aleppo
Dec. 26, when Russian aircraft struck a school in Idlib province, killing nine people and injuring 11 others
Dec. 25, when Russian airstrikes killed at least six civilians and injured eight others in Aleppo
Dec. 18, when Russian warplanes struck residential parts of the Jisr al-Sughur region of Syria’s Idlib province, killing 16 and injuring 20
Dec. 15, when at least 25 people were killed and another 30 injured after Russian airstrikes targeted a gas station and market in the village of Maarat al-Naasan in Idlib