Russian intervention has left the US with little room to manoeuvre as Syria’s changing battle lines become more complex.
Russia’s claim to have mainly targeted the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) during a six-month military intervention in the Syrian civil war was false, a private think-tank on international affairs said in a report.
The US-based Atlantic Council’s 32-page report released on Tuesday, Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin at War in Syria, compiled using open sources, further alleged that Russian forces sometimes struck civilian targets and used cluster munitions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in September as the Russian military was preparing the operation that his goals were to fight ISIL and remove terrorist impediments to peace talks.
“Neither claim squares with the facts,” the report said.
“Initial Russian Defence Ministry combat reports claimed that [ISIL] was the only target. Yet analysis of open source and social media intelligence (OSSMINT) quickly revealed that the ministry’s claims were deceptive.”
The report said that Russian air strikes had a minimal effect on ISIL, they directly enabled the Assad government to advance against other groups and they weakened the US-backed opposition more than it did ISIL.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through a network of activists on the ground, said in March that Russian air strikes had killed at least 5,081 people since they started in September 2015.
“In fact, the main beneficiary of the Russian air strikes was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces were able to retake key areas in and around Latakia and Aleppo,” the report said.
“The hallmark of the Russian campaign was disinformation. It accompanied the launch of the campaign; it covered the targets chosen and the weapons used to strike them; it masked the real purpose of the campaign, and the strategic effect that it achieved.”
In a forward to the report, Atlantic Council executive vice president Damon Wilson said that the Russian military campaign actually prolonged the Syrian war, which arose from peaceful reform protests in 2011 against Assad, whose government is allied with Moscow.
“The results have been grievous. Russia carried out its air strikes with scant regard for the rule of war: Open-source footage shows the repeated use of banned cluster munitions, and strikes on targets including mosques, hospitals, and water treatment plants,” he said.