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Why Putin Wants To Tar IS And All Assad's Enemies With The Same Brush

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

Free Syrian Army rebel fighters fire rockets towards government forces in the northern countryside of Quneitra in June this year.

Free Syrian Army rebel fighters fire rockets towards government forces in the northern countryside of Quneitra in June this year.

Earlier this week, we noted how a pro-Kremlin website claimed the extremist group Islamic State (IS) had sent Chechen militants to Latakia province in Syria.

The report was incorrect -- the Chechen group is not part of IS.

But it was almost certainly an intentional obfuscation.

Russia's conflation of all armed opposition groups with extremist Islamist militants is an integral part of a narrative that has evolved during the Syrian conflict.

Its goals are to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, counter the United States, and maintain influence in the Middle East.

The "IS threat" narrative contains several arguments that Moscow puts forward in support of these aims.

1. ‘There Are No 'Moderate' Rebels’

According to Moscow, the vast majority of groups fighting Assad are foreign-backed terrorists, not "moderate rebels."

"The Free Syrian Army does not exist," Russia's ambassador to international organizations in Geneva, Aleksei Borodavkin, told the United Nations a year ago, referring to the Western-backed umbrella of moderate rebel forces.

This narrative is partly true. In the north and increasingly the center of Syria, rebel factions are mostly Islamist or Islamist-influenced. Some, like the Al-Nusra Front and the foreign fighter groups, are Salafist-jihadist.

U.S. attempts to bolster moderate rebels have gone awry. The first group to receive U.S. weapons collapsed in March and the United States said this week that there are only "four or five" U.S.-trained rebels fighting IS.

But moderate rebels are still influential in some parts of Syria's far south, where Jordan's intelligence services are active.

2. 'IS Wants To Destroy Syria'

Moscow has warned that IS and other Islamist groups are threatening to turn Syria into a "terror state."

Therefore, eradicating these groups is more important than ousting Assad, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

3. 'Assad Has To Be Part Of Fight Against IS'

Russia has insisted that Assad must be part of the fight against IS, claiming that Syrian armed forces are "the most effective military force on the ground."

Meanwhile, Russia has frequently slammed the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition, saying that it is both illegal (because it has not asked Assad's permission to operate) and ineffective.

4. 'Rebels Should Unite With Assad Against IS'

Both Russia and Assad argue that the threat posed by Islamic State is so great, rebels should unite with government forces to counter the militants.

On September 16, Assad used an interview with Russian news outlets to call on rebels to stop fighting him and help him defeat IS.

Only then can Syrians work on a political solution to the conflict, Assad explained.

Assad's call may seem unrealistic. But it is not a new tactic.

Moscow first put forward the idea nearly two years ago.

"Everything must be done to create a battle-worthy alliance of the government and the patriotic opposition against the terrorist interlopers who flock to Syria from around the world," Lavrov told Russian TV in December 2013.

4. 'The West Is Responsible For IS'

Both Moscow and Damascus have blamed the West for the rise of IS (and other Islamist groups in Syria), saying that while Washington is quick to say Islamic State is a terror group, it has backed other armed groups against Assad.

In February, Putin said the rise of IS was the result of Western "interference" in Syria as well as "double standards" over who it deemed terrorists.

Assad repeated this narrative in an interview with Russian media this week.

"What are IS and the other groups? A Western extremist project," the Syrian leader said.

5. 'Russia's Military Build Up In Latakia Is To Fight IS'

The claim that Assad is essential to countering the IS threat has provided Russia with an argument for its military buildup in Syria -- which is causing increasing alarm from the United States.

"We support the government of Syria in its effort to counter terrorist aggression," is how Putin explained the Russian military expansion in Latakia at a September 15 security summit in Tajikistan.

The Real Threat To Assad

As Russia continues its military build-up in Syria, it has also stepped up its use of the "IS threat" narrative.

But these moves are only partly about IS.

While Islamic State is a threat, a bigger problem for Assad is the advance of other radical Islamist battalions, particularly Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate -- the Al-Nusra Front -- and Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria.

Part of the Jaish al-Fatah military operations coalition, Nusra and Ahrar have driven out government forces from almost all of Idlib province.

And they now threaten Latakia, Assad's coastal stronghold.

But the war is not being fought on the battlefield alone.

Russia's best chance to save its ally in Damascus could be an agreement with the West that while Assad should go or at least be demoted, most of his regime remains in place.

And the only way to achieve that is by persuading Washington and its allies that this would be the best way to fight IS.

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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