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If The Goal Is To Defeat Islamic State, Don't Rely On Russia To Help

  • James Miller

Syrian rescue workers and residents help an injured woman following a reported air strike by government forces on the rebel-held neighborhood of Haydariya in the northern city of Aleppo on April 10.

Syrian rescue workers and residents help an injured woman following a reported air strike by government forces on the rebel-held neighborhood of Haydariya in the northern city of Aleppo on April 10.

Three historic developments have taken place in Syria in the last month and a half. The first was the declaration of a nationwide cease-fire, agreed upon by President Bashar al-Assad as well as most nonjihadist factions of the Syrian opposition. The second, Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement that Russian forces would begin a partial withdrawal from Syria. The latest historic moment was the Assad government's recapture of the central city of Palmyra, which had been occupied by Islamic State (IS) extremists for most of the past year.

Any of these events could have substantial impact on the collective efforts to combat IS, but each of them is clouded in myth, distortion, and broken promises. While world leaders debate the next steps to resolve the Syrian crisis, and while public focus on IS may be fading as the group's March 22 attacks in Brussels recede from short memories, a considerable amount of disinformation about Syria's current events could mean that the best efforts of the international community are just castles made of sand.

The promise made in Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran is that a successful cease-fire in Syria will allow Assad's forces to concentrate their efforts on IS.

It is not a coincidence that after the cease-fire took effect, the first targets of the pro-Assad coalition -- which includes Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos, Lebanese Hizballah fighters, Iraqi Shi'ite militias, Russian private military contractors, and of course Russian air and ground units -- were IS targets in Aleppo, followed soon thereafter by a ground campaign, supported by Russia's air power as well as mercenaries, against Palmyra.

These efforts had the appearance of being the first wave of a new anti-IS campaign. The reality, however, is that Russia and Assad have already moved on to other goals that have nothing to do with defeating Islamic extremism and may in fact empower the terrorists.

Immediately following the Syrian government's victory over IS in Palmyra, I conducted a thorough analysis of Russia's actions in Syria that shows that the facts on the ground dispel the narrative that Russia is fighting terrorism.

Before Putin declared mission accomplished in Syria, Russia's bombing campaign had broken the backs of Western-supported rebel groups. Somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of Russia's air strikes hit areas where IS is not in control. Those air strikes worked, and right before Putin declared the partial withdrawal, he drove the major nonjihadist rebel groups to accept a cease-fire.

But during the period of intense Russian bombardment, IS fighters took advantage of the weakened rebels and launched their own offensives, particularly near Aleppo. While Assad and the Kremlin benefited from IS gains north of Aleppo, this had consequences as IS gains south of Aleppo threatened the government's supply lines to its key bases near the city, particularly the Kweres airport. The very first targets Russia bombed once the cease-fire was in place were IS positions near Kweres, not in northern Aleppo, followed quickly by the assault on Palmyra.

I discussed how Palmyra was geographically and economically significant for the Assad regime, since it lies on a key road between Iraq and the Syrian capital, Damascus, and since it is the only large populated area close to Syria's most important natural gas and (to a lesser degree) oil fields. My colleague Hassan Hassan argued that Assad's primary motive for attacking Palmyra was political, since the quest for a political solution to the Syrian crisis has begun again in earnest and Putin and Assad were trying to position themselves within the international community as leaders in the war on terror.

The belief that Assad and Putin conducted this campaign to help ensure the survival of the Assad government, not to fight terrorism, is one that stems from five years of observing the actions of both the Syrian regime and its ally in Moscow. If that seemed a bold statement to make immediately after a successful campaign to retake territory from IS, events which have taken place since suggest that we were right.

Since their recapture of Palmyra, instead of advancing deeper into IS territory the pro-Assad coalition launched an offensive against rebel groups around Damascus that were party to the cease-fire. In the last week and a half, air strikes have taken place in five regions, leading some rebels to conclude that there is so much fighting it is almost as if the cease-fire had never been signed.

A bigger concern, however, is that the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that was also not party to the cease-fire, is on the offensive but is not being bombed by Russian aircraft -- or by any aircraft, for that matter.

Once again we see a familiar pattern: With world attention shifted away from Syria, the pro-Assad alliance is allowing Syria's most radical elements to advance while it is fighting some of the rebel groups who have been enemies of IS and could help restore order to the country in the future.

We will probably continue to see fighting between Assad's forces and IS in the near future, as IS still controls territory between Damascus and Palmyra that is crucial for the government's supply lines. IS fighters have captured a cement factory about 48 kilometers northeast of Syria's capital and have reportedly kidnapped more than 100 workers there. But like Palmyra, these are battles of convenience in territory that is not central to the IS extremist group's operations. The IS heartland in northeastern Syria has largely been ignored by both Russia and Assad.

All of this is coming at a time when new opportunities for fighting extremism have taken root.

Since 2013, as Assad's brutal campaign against the Syrian people was reaching its apex, pro-democracy activists and nonjihadist rebel groups have had an ugly choice to make -- either fight both Assad and religious extremism, or make some sort of acknowledgement that such a position is completely untenable. Uneasy and morally challenging alliances are hardly anything new, but for the Syrians who are making these decisions, the enemy of their enemy is often the one who is now imposing its will on the people within territory they control. In parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces in particular, even in areas where IS had been militarily ejected by the locals in 2014, the Al-Nusra Front has a major presence.

But that dynamic may be changing. Soon after the cease-fire in Syria took hold, activists once again took to the streets to protest against Assad. In Ma'arrat al-Nouman, a key crossroad where Idlib Province meets Hama Province, supporters of the secular Free Syrian Army clashed with the Al-Nusra Front, who appear to think that now is a good time for them to accelerate the imposing of order on the territory they control, a process which started in 2014.

Since those clashes, there has been significant backlash against the Al-Nusra Front as even some prominent figures have openly criticized the group. Ideological struggles that were shelved as the fight for survival took priority are now emerging once again, but as stated before, Russia and Assad are already voting with their bombs for their candidate in this race.

In the wake of the horrifying attacks in Paris, Brussels, and beyond, worldwide there is considerable urgency in the discussion about how to best combat the black flag of Islamic State. But in a world that is still weary from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, global powers are looking to back foreign champions to bear the brunt of this fight.

The Obama administration, for instance, has backed Kurdish militia groups in northern Syria as its own proxies in the battle against IS, and is providing them with air support and weapons. This has its own geopolitical consequences beyond just the fight against terrorism, but so far it has been effective in regaining at least some territory from IS extremists.

There are also voices calling for different powers to spearhead the fight against IS. Some think more support of non-IS Syrian rebels will be most effective. On April 7, rebel groups seized the northern town of Al-Rai from IS, but on April 11, IS fighters pushed back and recaptured the town -- a key supply line between Turkey and the rebels. Others believe Turkey or Jordan could take a leading role, while still more are skeptical about any of these choices and believe that Western intervention is the only sure way to defeat terrorism that springs from Syria. Still others believe that Assad and its allies in Russia, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq are the only ones who can restore order to Syria.

But many of these options are mutually exclusive, and too many of these conversations are detached from the realities on the ground in Syria. Nowhere is this more obvious than the discussion about the role the Syrian regime plays in this conflict. The facts are clear -- the violence brought to Syria by the Syrian government, violence that started more than two years before IS had a presence in Syria, has created the environment in which radicalism has thrived.

At best, the defeat of IS is not the goal of Assad and his allies, though they fight terrorist groups when it's convenient. At worst, the actions of the government and its allies have enabled groups like IS and the Al-Nusra Front, while dealing a serious blow to forces that have fought against IS in the past. Any strategy to defeat Islamic State that does not accept these facts is a castle made of sand.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena


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