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Russia's Unhelpful Game In Syria

  • James Miller

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Damascus on June 18.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Damascus on June 18.

On June 16, U.S. F-18 fighter jets scrambled to intercept a group of Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers that had just conducted an air strike against a camp of soldiers who are central to the mission of the United States and the United Kingdom in their efforts to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

The camp that was hit was relatively new, and a British newspaper had just recently broken the news that British special forces regularly operate there, though it's unclear whether British or U.S. soldiers were in the camp at the time. Regardless, the commanders of the U.S.-led coalition believed that the Russian air strikes needed to be stopped, and they sent fighter jets to stop them.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the F-18s reached the Su-34s on emergency broadcast frequencies and told them to cease their activities, a capability the United States and Russia put in place in order to avoid accidental conflicts or midair collisions. But when the F-18s left the area to refuel, the Russian bombers ignored the U.S. threats and conducted a second bombing raid on the same camp.

If this story played out in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, during the NATO mission to end genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 or in Kosovo in 1999, this incident would have made front-page news, with 24/7 coverage of the growing threat of war plastered across every television in the United States.

But since the incident occurred in 2016, in a small desert town in Syria called Al-Tanf, near the border with Jordan and Iraq, the Western media and political apparatus does not seem to care. Perhaps some are confused by the complicated conflict and don't know who to trust on the topic of Syria. Perhaps some have bought the Russian line, echoed by some Western politicians, that Russia is fighting IS. For sure, everyone is tired of headlines about war in the Middle East.

To be sure, the Pentagon addressed the issue with both the Russian Defense Ministry and the press, expressing its "strong concerns about the attack." A U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times that this was "an egregious act that must be explained." The unnamed source continued: "The Russian government either doesn't have control of its own forces or it was a deliberate provocative act. Either way, we're looking for answers."

It appears Russia is continuing to focus exclusively on preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even if that means drawing out the conflict, or even allowing terrorism to flourish. I argued previously that Russia's bombing campaign, which started in September 2015, was nearly exclusively focused on bombing anti-Assad rebel groups, including groups that were backed by the United States and which played a major role in ejecting IS from northeastern Syria.

In May, Russia did indeed assist the pro-Assad coalition in recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra from IS. As I noted, those actions served to accomplish three aims, all of which strengthen the Assad regime: to consolidate territory, to secure access to the energy-rich fields of central Syria, and to propagate the myth that Russia and Assad are primarily locked in a battle against terrorists.

That was six weeks ago. As my new analysis of the work done by the Institute for the Study of War shows, since then there has been a significant increase in Russian air strikes, almost exclusively against civilians or rebel groups that have been trained and armed by the United States. Russia has largely returned to its pattern of ignoring IS. Russian air strikes, by crippling Western-backed rebels that oppose IS, have allowed the terrorist organization to expand into new territory.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former special adviser for transition in Syria at the U.S. State Department, says that "Russia's decision to bomb an anti-[IS] unit trained by the U.S. and the U.K. illustrates two points: the low priority Moscow places on fighting [IS]; and the contempt in which today's Russia holds the U.S."

He continues: "Assad and the Russians see [IS] as Assad's ideal adversary: a horrific organization that may serve as Assad's ticket back to polite society, notwithstanding all of the regime's war crimes.... Moscow's assessment of American leadership emboldens it and encourages it to act in ways that may prove -- during the time left to this administration or in the next -- reckless, destabilizing, and dangerous."

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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