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Russia's Air Campaign In Syria May Be Hurting Anti-ISIS Campaign


Russia is not losing any time in Syria. Peace talks are said to be clearing the way for a possible pause in Syria's civil war in the next few days. And as that possible pause approaches, Russia's air force in Syria has been acting like a store owner facing a going-out-of-business sale, trying to push as many bombs out the door before closing as possible. We're going to talk about this first with NPR's Alice Fordham. She is in Turkey just outside of Syria's northern border. Hi, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is it like to be under those bombs in northern Syria?

FORDHAM: Yeah, I'm hearing grim stories from people who have recently run away from what they say is exactly these Russian airstrikes, and the civilians are talking about strikes that are more ferocious than anything they've seen during five years of war. A lot of these people have already been displaced once, so they're in towns and villages that they thought would be safe that now are being targeted in a way that they haven't been previously. But what people say they feel is the goal of this air campaign is depopulation. There's hospitals. There's schools. There's crucial supply routes being hit, and people are clearing out entirely in a way that they say they hadn't before, not from these areas.

INSKEEP: And we've been hearing that from witnesses on the program in the last couple of days. We also have NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who is in our studios here. And, Tom, when we hear about those effects of Russian airstrikes, how many airstrikes are the Russians conducting?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Steve, when they started this back in the fall, they were doing roughly 60 airstrikes per day, and an airstrike could be multiple bombs dropped on a target. So, don't think of it as just 60 bombs dropped.

INSKEEP: Could be hundreds of deadly bombs, OK.

BOWMAN: Exactly. Now, that's ramped up over the past few months to 90 strikes per day. But what's interesting, Steve, is during the peace talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russians, the Russians spiked that number up to 120 airstrikes per day, clearly to gain an advantage to grab more turf around that northern city of Aleppo, which is where you have anti-Assad rebels fighting. They want to grab as much turf as they can before the cease-fire - any cease-fire starts. And what's interesting, Steve, is the Russians have done this before. If you look back at the 1990s in Georgia and Ukraine more recently, this is the way the Russians operate.

INSKEEP: To race the clock, you're saying.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Alice Fordham, are the Russians, as far as you can tell from talking to refugees, targeting, still, rebel groups that are supported by the United States?

FORDHAM: Well, I'm talking to the rebel groups themselves. And they say very clearly that they believe that they are the target of these Russian-led airstrikes. The Syrian air force is still operating, but it does seem like Russia is at the forefront of what's happening. They have lost strings of territory that was absolutely crucial. They say that they're seeing gains by the regime and by other forces in the area, and they're very disillusioned. They feel betrayed and abandoned.

INSKEEP: Can I ask you both, is anybody making progress against ISIS at the moment or even particularly interested in doing so?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. now is bombing mostly in the eastern part of the country around Raqqa, which is sort of the headquarters of ISIS. And they are making some headway with ISIS around that area. But the bottom line is you need ground troops to take these areas, and they don't have enough ground troops, Syrian air coalition members, to grab Raqqa. They'll admit that. They only have, like, four or 5,000 troops. So, you need a lot more troops to actually hold turf. They don't have that now.

INSKEEP: Alice Fordham, we've heard U.S. strategists say more than once that capturing Raqqa, the ISIS capital, is really important - that it would be a huge propaganda victory if that city were to fall. Is anybody in any position to try to do that?

FORDHAM: Well, it's certainly the case that gains have been made in the east of the country, as you say, Tom. But what people are telling me here is that, in the melee of this battle in northwest Syria at the moment, ISIS have actually made a few smallish but significant gains. And what some of the rebel leaders have been telling me as well is that their forces are now so desperate and so squeezed that they think that some of their fighters might well defect to ISIS. So, the group could actually be making gains at this point.

INSKEEP: Is Russia doing anything significant against ISIS which it says it wants to do?

BOWMAN: It's hitting some of the ISIS targets, some of the Nusra targets. But most of the strikes, at least three quarters of the strikes, are against the anti-regime rebels.

INSKEEP: Alice Fordham, what are the implications of that if there is a pause in fighting?

FORDHAM: Well, I think that there's implications in whether the pause in fighting will happen at all. What the rebel fighters say is that they have no demonstration thus far that Russia is acting in good faith. It says that it's hitting Nusra and ISIS, and it's hitting other people. So when Russia says it will participate in the cessation of hostilities, the rebel forces say, well, how do we know that that's true?

INSKEEP: NPR's Alice Fordham is just outside of Syria. NPR's Tom Bowman is in our studios. Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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