(Russian air strike map in January 2016)
Russian air raids over Syria were seen to have tapered off in the first 10 days of the New Year to their lowest level since the onset of Moscow’s major intervention in Syria in late September, intelligence sources report. The slowdown was not officially reported or explained. But our sources point to three likely causes:
1. The Russian Air Force conducted an exceptionally intensive series of aerial strikes over northern and southern Syria in the course of December. This may have caused too many technical problems for the overtaxed ground crews to keep up with the necessary maintenance work.
2. Winter conditions in the region are subject to extreme and rapid change, often swinging between snow storms and warm air currents in the space of a few hours. Russian air and ground crews alike are finding it hard to adjust to Middle East weather.
3. The first days of January are Russia’s traditional holiday season. The Eastern churches celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. Air crews may have decided to take a break from combat missions.
In case the slowdown was misinterpreted in the West, the Russian high command published a set of statistics Monday, Jan. 11 that painted a picture of intense activity.
In the first ten days of 2016, the Russian Air Force was said to have conducted 311 air strikes against 1097 targets.
The communiqué also noted that the first Syrian Air Force MidG-23 fighter plane was able to land at Hama air base. This central Syrian facility had been inactive for months because it was under rebel artillery fire and was now restored to full operation, thanks to Russian air bombardments of rebel forces.
From Hama, the Syrian army is now back in command of the Rte 5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, opening up for Syrian, Hizballah and pro-Iranian militia armies their only road link and supply route between central and northern Syria.
The recovery of Hama also provides a shield for defending Latakia, President Bashar Assad’s main power base.
Western intelligence experts estimate that the air strike statistics offered by Moscow are exaggerated. They tie the operation for the relief of the Hama air base with a project about to be launched by the Russian command from its base outside Latakia, namely, the transfer of Russian air force and special operations officers and forces teams to the Palmyra area, in readiness for an offensive to seize all the Syrian air facilities to the west of the town from ISIS control.
Russian tacticians in Syria appear to be focusing now on pushing rebel and Islamic State forces out of all the airfields they have captured, in order to get the Syrian Air Force flying and bombing again, and so ease the burden on the Russian flight crews in Syria.