CAIRO — More than six weeks of Russian airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Syria have failed to weaken the country’s insurgency, even as the military intervention has intensified international diplomatic efforts to end the four-year-long war.
The daily barrage of air attacks on targets across Syria, which have killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands, have secured only minor victories for the embattled Syrian government, according to rights groups and think tanks monitoring the conflict.
By intervening to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has cemented its role as a regional powerhouse and ensured Moscow’s influence over any political transition in Syria, analysts say.
But the military campaign, which began Sept. 30, has exposed the limits of Russian air power to change the dynamics on the battlefield.
Russian warplanes have also dropped what appear to be crude bombs on hospitals, homes and other civilian structures, military analysts and rights groups say. The strikes have deepened Syria’s already dire humanitarian crisis.
“In nearly five years [of war], I have never seen the situation so bad,” Zaidoun al-Zoabi, the head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, said of the past six weeks in Syria. “And we have every indication it will get worse.”
“The airstrikes have increased, the battles [on the ground] have increased, the winter is coming,” said Zoabi, who recently left Syria after helping with aid efforts in the northern province of Aleppo. “People are constantly on the move, but they don’t know where to go. I’ve seen entire villages just abandoned.”
More than 200,000 people have died and 11 million have been displaced since the Syrian government brutally suppressed a pro-democracy uprising in 2011, plunging the country into a bloody civil war.
Since then, the regime’s allies Russia and Iran have thrown their weight behind Assad, whose minority Alawite clan has ruled Syria — often with an iron fist — for decades. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States, meanwhile, provide backing to the majority-Sunni opposition, including weapons.
As Syria descended into chaos, the Iraq-based Islamic State group established a foothold on the battlefield, seizing territory from rebels and the government and imposing its severe version of Islamic law.
But it was in western Syria this past summer, when Syrian rebels began to advance on the Assad clan’s Alawite stronghold in Latakia province, that Russia decided to move to strengthen its increasingly besieged ally, analysts say. Russia also maintains a military base in Latakia on the Mediterranean Sea.
Russia “saw this as a moment where the regime really needed to be shored up,” said Christopher Kozak, Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “Rebel forces were pressing up against core regime territory [in Latakia], and Russia saw that the regime was not going to be able to do this on its own.”
Russia asserts that its operations in Syria are aimed at battling the Islamic State, but activists and U.S. military officials say that just a portion of the Russian airstrikes have targeted the extremists.
“Russian strategy is first and foremost to bolster the Syrian regime, shore up areas where it had been losing,” Kozak said, adding that the Syrian army faced a severe manpower shortage this year. “And to stop further rebel advances from being made.”
Russia has flown more than 1,600 sorties to support Syrian regime ground offensives in at least six of Syria’s 14 provinces, and it has helped government forces break a two-year siege by Islamic State militants on the Kweires air base in Aleppo and seize two towns from rebels southwest of Aleppo city.
Breaking through Islamic State lines outside the air base in Aleppo “represents a significant psychological victory for the regime and its allies,” according to the Syria blog of the Institute for the Study of War, which monitors the fighting.
But in Hama province, in central Syria, regime troops have lost ground to rebel forces since the Russian campaign started, including the strategic town of Morek and the nearby village of Atshan.
Morek lies along the M5 highway that runs from the regime-held capital, Damascus, in the south to Aleppo in the north. Rebel units in the area have been emboldened by the success of U.S.-supplied TOW missiles that their fighters have used to destroy scores of armored regime tanks.
“The Syrian army is totally exhausted, and the Russian airstrikes have not been successful,” said Najib Malaeb, a retired Lebanese brigadier general and editor in chief of Security and Defense Arabia, a Web site on regional military news. Russia should “opt for the diplomatic solution,” he said, pointing to the accelerated rounds of peace talks led by the United States and Russia in Vienna.
But the fresh fighting has displaced more than 120,000 people, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. And rights groups say Russian aerial bombardments have targeted civilian areas — the opposition-aligned Syrian Network for Human Rights and London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the toll at more than 250 non-combatants.
In Homs province, two strikes apparently by Russian warplanes killed a total of 59 civilians, including 33 children, at a residence and near a bakery, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. The group said the strikes appeared to violate the laws of war.
In other areas, Russian raids on hospitals and other medical facilities have signaled “a new level of deterioration in the conflict,” according to Physicians for Human Rights, which documents rights abuses and attacks on health professionals.
The group says it has recorded seven Russian attacks on medical facilities, including raids that put two hospitals in Aleppo out of service, “leaving the southern Aleppo countryside without a functioning medical facility.”
Since the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian regime has presided over a deadly air campaign of raids on schools, hospitals, houses, and refugee camps in rebel-controlled areas. According to a September briefing from the World Health Organization, 12.2 million people inside Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance, including treatment for trauma, communicable diseases and severe mental health needs.
Heba Habib contributed to this report.