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The high price of Russian bombs in Syria

Russia’s use of blind aerial bombings could win the war in Syria cheaply, yet at a great cost.
Men inspect the damage at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force on a busy market place in the town of Ariha, in Idlib province, Syria November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah  - RTX1WDXG

As Russia increases its air attacks in Syria, the civilian death toll continues to rise.

“Destruction caused by Russian air attacks is enormous," Furkan Azre of Idlib told Al-Monitor during a recent phone conversation. "These attacks are openly targeting civilians. They are randomly bombing towns without distinguishing between fighters and civilians."

Azre spoke of the destruction of a bakery run by a Turkish humanitarian nongovernmental organization.

“That bakery ... used to bake 16,000 loaves of bread every day, but Russian bombing turned it to rubble. Russians are even denying our loaf of bread,” he said. The bakery had employed 50 people and met half of the daily bread needs of Idlib. Azre said Russia also has damaged scores of other outlets that serve people's basic needs.

Russia has noticeably intensified its air bombardments of late north of Latakia, Idlib and Homs, and south of Aleppo. These are areas dominated by Al Nusra Front, Free Syrian Army, Ahrar Al Sham, Army of Conquest and Turkmens. According to Russia, they are all terrorists. The latest incident was Nov. 29, when Russian airplanes bombed a crowded marketplace in Ariha, close to Idlib, killing 44 civilians, mostly elderly and children.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that since Sept. 30, when Russia started its air operations in Syria, 403 civilians, including 166 women and children, have been killed. 

“I am certain in these two months Russia killed more civilians than ISIS militants," Azre said. "What kind of anti-ISIS operations are these?”

Many wonder why Russian attacks cause so many civilian casualties. For the answer, we have to look at the economic costs and strategic goals of these attacks.

Civilian casualties of Russian attacks against populated locations are high because of their preference for cheaper blind, dumb, free-fall fragment bombs. In most of its attacks against populated areas, Russia uses OFAB 250-270 unguided, free-fall bombs that cost $25,000 each, along with OFAB 250-500 and OFAB-100-120 series.

Russia rarely uses GPS-guided KAB-500 munitions in its attacks. The OFAB 250-270 widely used by Russia costs only one-sixth as much as the AGM-114R Hellfire guided missile that the United States typically uses in its Syria attacks. Both projectiles have similar destructive power. In other words, although they cause the same destruction, an American air attack in Syria costs six times as much as a Russian one. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates, Russia's defense budget in 2014 was $84.5 billion. Despite this big budget, Russia tries to spend as little as possible on a war that is costing it $5 million to $7.5 million a day, according to an IHS analysis cited in International Business Times. Russia is aware that the war in Syria could last a long while, and it also has a war in Ukraine to finance.

But frugality is not enough to explain the blind Russian attacks against civilian populated locations in Syria. There has to be some strategic thinking behind these attacks.

The opposition has no fixed installations, command-control centers, or communications and logistics bases in downtown Idlib or the Sunni-dominated Hamas-Homs and Aleppo areas. Opposition fighters in these locations are usually "armed civilians" who fight for three days and then spend four days taking care of their businesses and families. When the Sunni opposition doesn’t have fixed installations that can be targeted, what are the Russians going to bomb? Here one must also note that Russia heavily relies on President Bashar al-Assad's forces to acquire targets, analyze the situation and provide intelligence in specific areas. Russia doesn't stringently question coordinates and target lists provided by Assad’s army. It is doubtful that Russians have lists of confirmed military targets; hence, they end up bombing residential areas and markets that civilians and armed opposition jointly use.

Furkan Azre claims Russian airstrikes are meant to force civilians to leave areas controlled by the opposition. “The Assad forces put civilian targets in their coordinates and target lists. Russians, without carefully checking these lists, consider all of them military targets,” Azre said.

Russia is also applying psychological pressure when it targets assistance workers from international relief organizations and other civilian facilities. Russia, confident that Syrian parties will sit down to negotiate one day, uses its air attacks strategically to erode the opposition’s determination to continue the war and to make them negotiate from a position of weakness.

According to a contact in Idlib who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Russian attacks have made considerable progress in intimidating civilians, forcing them to migrate and breaking their spirits.

“Those who could escape are gone," the contact said. "If we had the financial means, we wouldn’t stay here a day more. Pro-Assad forces send us daily warnings to leave right away because the worst of the air attacks have yet to begin. There are no foreign fighters in Idlib. Nearly all armed militants are Syrians. But we are truly tired."

Russia continues with blind air attacks against civilian-populated locations in Syria both to keep the costs of its involvement low and for strategic reasons. But increasing civilian losses in these attacks must surely make the Russians think they may be losing the chance for peace while trying to win the war with dumb bombs.

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