Russia In Syria: Reducing Or Contributing To The Conflict?


September 30th 2015 marked the beginning of Russia’s involvement in targeting the Islamic State in Syria, and, since then, it has attracted international controversy. Members of the international coalition fighting ISIS, including the United States and Britain, have expressed “deep concern” over Russia’s actions, and have urged President Putin to “immediately cease attacks on opposition and civilians”. There certainly seems to be cause for concern; the Syrian Network for Human Rights has reported that in October alone, the 57 alleged Russian airstrikes killed 263 civilians, including 86 children and 44 women in Syria. Additionally, many have questioned the Russians’ motives, asking whether they are genuine in their desire to disable the Islamic State, or whether they are intervening only to assist their long-time ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

Homs, in particular, is an area that has suffered from Russia’s recent intervention. On October 15th, for example, bombings in the towns of Al Ghanto and Tier Ma’alee killed 48 and 23 civilians respectively. Abu Raten, a local media activist in Al Ghanto, has stated that this first attack hit a building sheltering only civilians and children, and that the force of the rocket also destroyed the five surrounding buildings and killed nearby cattle. The attack in Tier Ma’alee was allegedly directed at a bakery, again unjustifiably targeting civilians rather than the IS combatants, which the Kremlin claims to be its objective.

It is the city of Palmyra that has received the greatest media attention, however, at least partially because of the invaluable historical buildings which have stood undisturbed for millennia until suddenly threatened by ISIS today. The group took over the town in May, and have made it the target of regular high-profile destruction, including the razing of the main Temple of Bel in late August. This has had inevitable consequences on the residents of the area, which Russia has only increased through its violent attempts to intervene. This week alone, repeated strikes have been carried out by Russia, and although they claim its targets are miles from the world-famous ruins, this has been disputed by a number of sources. Activists from within the city assert that there has been a bombing close to a historic castle overlooking the Roman ruins while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also suggested that several strikes have hit the city’s historic citadel. However, exact confirmation of any potential damage caused by the bombardment is yet to be reported.

Regardless of whether damage has been caused to the buildings themselves, Russia has not been cautious about ensuring stability for civilians of the area. Khaled al-Homsi, a member of the Palmyra Coordination activist group, has claimed that “there are only a few dozen civilians still in the main part of the city”, and that others have been displaced to neighbouring towns located on the eastern outskirts.

Russia’s defense ministry has stated that these strikes have been successful and that “Su-25 jets hit a fortified ISIS position in the Tadmur area of Homs province… As a result of a direct strike, a fortification, an underground bunker and anti-aircraft artillery were destroyed”. The question which must be asked, however, is whether these small victories are worth the destruction to the buildings and people who exist there.