Accessibility links

Breaking News

Tracking Islamic State

Russian soldiers patrol the recaptured rebel stronghold of Aleppo in Syria.

The world is becoming ever more tumultuous. But amid the general storm one country can be relied upon to maintain a sanguine -- and sanguinary -- course: Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The Russian president has, with stolid determination, taken advantage of the world's focus on the political upheaval in Europe and the United States to quietly advance his foreign-policy agenda. On January 29, after months of (relative) quiet in Ukraine, separatist forces backed by Russia launched a large attack against the city of Avdiyivka, just north of Donetsk airport in the country's east. At least four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a single day, and the entire Ukrainian military was put on alert across the front. Since then, increased fighting and heavy casualties has again shaken faith that a cease-fire, and a permanent peace, can be established.

Putin's main foreign-policy goal is clearly the destabilization of Ukraine -- and he continues to do so while barely provoking a squeak of protest from the international community. And it appears that foreign-policy goal No. 2, Russian interference in Syria, is escalating, too.

It was almost a year ago, following a series of defeats for Western-backed rebel groups in Syria, that Putin declared that "the objectives [that were] set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished" in Syria. He would, he further announced, be withdrawing the "main part" of the Russian expeditionary force that had been deployed to the country to prop up Moscow's client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and to protect its naval facility at Tartus.

The vow to withdraw proved premature, as Russia actually increased its presence and ramped up its bombing of Syria's rebels and civilians alike with an almost gleeful abandonment. But, on December 29, 2016, coinciding with a Russian and Turkish-brokered cease-fire following the recapture of Aleppo, Putin again ordered Russian forces to leave the region. Again the time seemed ripe. Following the regime's recapture of the rebel stronghold of Aleppo and several other key victories it was clear that Assad would not be overthrown; the rebels would not win. For Moscow it was "Mission Accomplished."

The beginning of 2017 accordingly saw what appeared to be a genuine withdrawal from the Mediterranean of a naval group led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, announced that "in accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces, Vladimir Putin, the Russian Defense Ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria."

However, right away there were signs that once again Russia was not pulling back from Syria. Shortly after that, two U.S. officials told Fox News that Russia had deployed four new fighter jets, the Su-25 (similar to the U.S. Air Force's A-10), which is used for close air support and has reinforced armor to protect them from ground fire.

Russian air strikes, it seems, are not going to be stopping any time soon.

Permanent Stalemate

The escalation is not particularly large but it is significant. As Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research on International Affairs who has reported extensively from Syria and Iraq, tells RFE/RL: "Russia is there to defend the Assad regime and ensure its continuation, and it can be expected to ensure sufficient forces to achieve this goal. Russia's presence ensures that rebel victory is no longer a possibility in the Syrian war. At the same time, Russia's end goal may well not be the forcible reunification of the entire country by Assad/Iran, but rather a semi-frozen conflict in which the regime survives."

A semi-frozen conflict -- words that echo in both Syria and Ukraine.

Any idea that Assad could regain all of Syria is absurd to the point of fantasy. But this bothers his backers Iran and Russia not one whit. Both would be happy to see a loose, truncated "Assadistan" that secures Iran's land bridge to Hizballah in Lebanon, through which it can better fight Israel by proxy for geopolitical mastery of the Middle East. Russia, meanwhile, will be satisfied with securing its naval facility and proving to the world and its own people that it can protect its client; that it is the only superpower capable of winning wars in the Middle East; and that it alone is "fighting terrorism," while positioning itself as the primary peace broker. The message will be heard, as unequivocal as it is loud: Moscow is a global player once more.

The narrative does not need to be true. Because of course Russia's stated aim -- that it entered the Syrian conflict to fight jihadism, notably in its most virulent manifestation, the Islamic State (IS) group, is largely a lie. The "global war" on jihadism is perhaps the great military trope of our age. And it is both a trope that withstands scrutiny and a war that needs fighting -- unyieldingly and relentlessly. It also, however, provides the perfect cloak for a state with imperial ambitions within which to envelope itself.

As Spyer further notes, Russia has done little to fight IS. Indeed, most of its efforts have been directed against more mainstream Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad. The primary ground partners of the Western coalition in the war against IS are the Syrian Defense Forces, which is essentially an offshoot of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), plus a few others. In truth, neither the Russians, nor Assad, nor the Iranians, nor their Sunni rebel enemies are majorly involved in the war on terror in Syria.

A 'Superpower' Returns

Nonetheless, Russia's strongman will brag about how he was able to bring disparate groups to the negotiating table to seek a permanent peace. A deal will be (or has already been) cut between Turkey, Iran, the Syrian government, and perhaps even the Trump administration in the United States. In Ukraine, Russia brags that it has pushed for a diplomatic solution to that crisis through the Minsk peace process. Even if Russia were to find permanent diplomatic solutions, either in eastern Ukraine or in the Middle East, it would be only finding solutions to problems it played a leading role in creating.

With a declining economy and a population in desperate need of placation, Russia's global ambitions will almost certainly grow unchecked for the foreseeable future. Yet as the geopolitical wheels turn it is highly likely that Russia may see improved relations with the United States and several major European powers, a reward for "fixing" these crises. This is bad news for global stability and for the liberal, Western system that has largely upheld the international order since World War II, as it only encourages Russia's crimes.

But most immediately it is bad news for the people of Syria, whose suffering seems set to continue. For them, the only foreseeable future is one of more misery -- and more death.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian, Politico, Foreign Policy, The Spectator, The New Republic, The New Statesman, and many others.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
A Syrian boy runs while carrying bread following a reported airstrike by government forces in the town of Idlib, a major jihadist stronghold in northwestern Syria.

2017, it seems, will be no less chaotic than its predecessor -- an aphorism made plain by a mere glance at the state of international politics extending from Paris to Washington. But nowhere is this trend clearer than in that most tumultuous of countries, Syria. The end of 2016 saw the fall of the city of Aleppo, the primary stronghold of the rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now, it appears, the rebels are beginning to turn on one another.

On January 26, the Syrian Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham incorporated six other rebel groups into its ranks in northwestern Syria in order to battle Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), a former Al-Qaeda franchise once known as the Al-Nusra Front.

The announcement came just days after JFS attacked Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups west of Aleppo, accusing them of conspiring against it at Russian-backed peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that began in the closing days of January.

In reality, JFS's attack is rooted in weakness. Over the summer, as the siege of Aleppo progressed, JFS played an increasingly important role in the defense of the city, using suicide bombers to blow open Assad's front line positions. This forced Russia and Iran to commit more resources to the battle, which eventually turned the tide.

Since the Assad coalition's seizure of eastern Aleppo in December, JFS and the rebels in general have found themselves boxed in. Their options are running out. Idlib remains their only major stronghold in northwestern Syria.

The more moderate, mainstream factions among the rebels have had a problem since the second summer of the Syrian civil war: Jihadist groups have consistently proved themselves to be the most effective fighting force against Assad. Syrians were initially reluctant to deal with, let alone welcome, forces like JFS, but without sufficient support, groups like the FSA -- made up primarily of former Syrian army officers -- were forced to accommodate the more committed radical groups.

Rapid Developments

The loss of Aleppo has given JFS a chance to consolidate power. As Hassan Hassan, co-author of the New York Times bestseller, ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror, and resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, observes:

"JFS has sought to bring the rebel forces under one umbrella to run the north, especially focusing on Islamist and jihadist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nourreddin al-Zinki. With the failure of the merger attempts and the loss of eastern Aleppo, JFS wanted to consolidate its dominance in the north by force. So the ongoing campaign by JFS against some rebel forces is designed to clean up these areas to rule what remains of the north. JFS recognizes it is the most powerful and organized group in that region, and that its rivals are incapable of effectively organizing against it."

As Hassan further observes, JFS's end game is to ensure that Idlib and surrounding areas do not have the forces capable of eventually turning against it. JFS would usually seek consensus, build alliances, and infiltrate small and big groups to ensure it remains ahead of the curve.

But the rapid developments over the past few months have added urgency to its open campaign. These developments include the participation of major groups operating in the north in the Russia-sponsored peace talks that are under way in Astana. As the pro-Assad coalition is building up military and political momentum in northern Syria, JFS cannot afford to continue to play its old game of playing nice with fellow anti-Assad forces.

Indeed, things are becoming ever more chaotic in Syria's north. In the city of Azaz, an FSA group, the Levant Front, clashed with the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which reportedly captured its headquarters and some checkpoints, forcing it to withdraw fighters from a battle it was fighting against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) in the neighboring city of Al-Bab. To make matters worse, the fighting prompted Turkey to close the border crossing at Oncupinar, across from the Syrian city of Bab al-Salam -- a critical corridor for Turkish support to certain rebel factions in northern Syria.

Rise Of The Jihadists

Jihadist groups now stand ascendant among the coalition battling Assad. JFS in particular has spent years ensuring its indispensability to the antiregime effort. Those opposing the JFS are unlikely to succeed in any open war against it. The FSA and associated groups fought against IS in 2014, when they were much stronger -- a campaign that cost them dearly. Those groups simply cannot afford to fight against JFS as well. As it stands, little can stop JFS from near total control of northwestern Syria.

All of this is of course a gift to Assad. Not only are the rebels fighting among themselves, and in the process weakening the coalition against him, but the regime can double down on a longstanding propagandist tactic of arguing that it is on the front lines of the battle against Jihadism. "Us or them?" runs the argument: an argument that, though largely fallacious, is being strengthened by the day.

Indeed, Turkey -- once seen as the great ally of the FSA and a direct threat to the Assad government -- is now fighting virtually side by side with Syrian soldiers in the campaign against IS in Al-Bab. The regime may be witnessing either a rebel implosion or a jihadist takeover of the opposition, both of which it will welcome with glee. It will help Turkey defeat IS while Al-Qaeda linked groups prosper.

This is a calculated move by the Assad regime, which has shown little interest in confronting jihadists of any stripe.

As Hassan concludes: "It is important to remember Idlib is small, it is only 1.5 percent of Syrian geography. Northwestern Syria is the only area where Al-Qaeda is dominant, so it is a major battle that the international community should keep its eyes on and try to shape."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

Load more

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.


Latest Posts