The main intention of Russia’s intervention in Syria is to prop up the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and to do that Russia is seeking to ensure that the Islamic State (I.S.) is the only alternative to Assad’s regime. If the conflict becomes binary—Assad or I.S.—nobody can support I.S., and by default it will be accepted that Assad has to stay; even if international help is not given to put down the insurgency at that point, tacit support and political legitimacy will be extended to Russia’s effort to keep its client regime alive. In service of this mission, Moscow has consistently targeted the moderate rebels and even some non-moderate rebels, while avoiding I.S., in the conscious hope that the rebel positions it destroys will be replaced by I.S. fighters. In northern Syria in the last few days, Russia got its wish in a major way.
Hussein Hamedani, a senior General in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), was struck down on Thursday night in Aleppo. Gen. Hamedani is among the 60-70 Iranians killed in Syria this year—as compared to 140 total since 2011—and his demise shows how extensive is Iran’s control of regime-held areas in Syria. Hamedani fought in the Iran-Iraq war, led the repression of the 2009 Iranian uprising, and was, it seems, among those chiefly responsible for the construction of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a 150,000-man, IRGC-commanded sectarian militia that has eclipsed Syria’s army as a source of regime security. Iranian State propaganda claimed Gen. Hamedani was killed by “Daesh terrorists“. It might even be true—though Iran uses such terms to describe all insurgents in Syria. Some reports say Hamedani was killed near Kuweris airbase, which is besieged by I.S., but other reports say Hamedani was killed north of Aleppo, an area that I.S. was just about to make its move on.
On Friday, Russia announced that over the previous twenty-four hours it had “hit sixty terrorist targets” and killed two-hundred I.S. jihadists in northern Syria, two of them senior I.S. commanders. A surprise, then, when later that day I.S. made its most significant territorial gains since its capture of Ramadi and Palmyra in May by sweeping through six villages in northern Rif Aleppo and Russian jets were nowhere to be seen, not even when I.S. took over a rebel-held Infantry Academy north-east of Aleppo City, a mile from the regime front line in the industrial zone of Shaykh Najjar.
Plainly the hundreds of people Russia killed in Aleppo were the rebels who have been keeping I.S. out for years. Since Russia’s intervention began on September 30, it had deliberately targeted the nationalist and other non-I.S. insurgents in Syria. The regime is not positioned—as Russia well knows—to replace the rebellion if Russia succeeds in pushing the rebels out. But, as Russia equally well knows, I.S. will replace the rebels if Russia obliterates rebel positions.
In reality, this is not so surprising. From the very start of the uprising, Assad said it was a terrorist revolt and then he and his allies—Iran and Russia—worked to make it one so the world would look on Assad as the lesser evil. Russia has helped the Assad regime with military-intelligence matters from the start and sent Islamist terrorists from the Caucasus to help I.S. overpower the rebellion. Moscow’s direct intervention is merely the latest tactic toward the strategic end of making Syria’s conflict a choice between Assad and the terrorists.
Already the American plan to increase the number of anti-I.S. airstrikes in Aleppo had been all-but abandoned because, despite Russia’s ostensible participation in a “deconfliction” process, Moscow, which operates in Syria’s western corridor that includes Aleppo, continues to behave recklessly (the U.S. has instead reoriented to bolstering the Kurds and some Arab detachments against I.S. in eastern Syria). Perhaps Moscow’s forcing the reduction of U.S. anti-I.S. strikes in Aleppo and I.S.’s advances in Aleppo are coincidental. Or perhaps not.
Before this had happened, Michael Weiss had written presciently for The Daily Beast that “Russia seems to have inherited Assad’s role as the unacknowledged air force of ISIS.” How true.
In one of the first things I wrote on this blog I documented the contrast between the regime’s scorched earth aerial bombardment policy in rebel-held areas and its tokenistic aerial attacks in I.S.-held areas. Assad’s policy, unsurprising, resulted in I.S. becoming physically and politically stronger and the rebellion weaker, and this was extended during the rebel offensive against I.S. in January 2014 when the regime’s air force “intervened objectively on the side of ISIS,” as Weiss and Hassan Hassan wrote in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, and this was especially true in Aleppo.
In the summer of 2014, after I.S. rebounded from the rebel offensive and conquered Deir Ezzor, I.S. pushed toward the then-sole rebel urban stronghold in Aleppo City. The regime chose this moment to launch an offensive against the rebellion in Aleppo City. As one rebel commander put it at the time: “You look to the right, and there’s the regime. You look to the left it’s the Islamic State. We are caught in a pincer.”
By the end of 2014, even some who had previously dismissed Assad’s de facto air—and other—support for I.S. against the rebellion as a “conspiracy theory” had been persuaded by the sheer volume of evidence. But it was still noteworthy when the U.S. government publicly stated the obvious.
In early June 2015, the takfiris took another run at Aleppo, specifically targeting one of the bastions of the rebellion in Marea. The regime moved quickly—to bomb the rebels as I.S. moved in on the ground. One rebel spokesman said to The New York Times: “It was never this blatant.” Perhaps that was what prompted the Twitter account of the U.S. Embassy in Syria to publicly declare what many officials working on Syria had long known: The regime is “aiding extremists against [the] Syrian population”. The regime is not only avoiding I.S., the Embassy noted, “but actively seeking to bolster their position.”
In addition to embarrassing the U.S. and helping re-establish Moscow’s “Great Power” status, Russia’s central aim in Syria is to secure Assad in power, and the most politically viable way of doing that, internationally and internally, is to make I.S. the only alternative. To that end, Russia has enabled I.S.’s greatest advances for many months and directly attacked the U.S.-supported moderate opposition. Russia’s intervention has also almost certainly killed the possibility of a no-fly zone, which could have protected the Syrian population from the regime—the major source of the refugee crisis now engulfing Europe—and given the moderate rebels, an alternative to Assad and I.S., space to organize. It makes all talk of the Russian intervention in Syria as an opportunity for common interests, stability, and counter-terrorism seem quite silly. If there’s any consolation, it might be taken in that this time, unlike Algeria, it seems there is some mainstream recognition that Assad and his allies willed the chaos and extremism they now claim to hold back.
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UPDATE: An I.S. defector confirmed that under the cover of the Russian airstrikes, which bombed everyone but I.S., I.S. stormed several rebel positions, including taking over the Aleppo Infantry Academy, which was then handed to the regime.
UPDATE 2: On Dec. 17, 2015, Bloomberg reported that the U.S. has stopped flying manned aerial missions against the Islamic State in the area west of the Euphrates River in northern Aleppo (“Box 4”). In this key piece of terrain in the anti-Islamic State fight the rebels, some of them vetted by the CIA, were holding the line against Islamic State, sometimes with U.S. air support.
[E]arlier this month, Moscow deployed an SA-17 advanced air defense system near the area and began ‘painting’ U.S. planes, targeting them with radar in what U.S. officials said was a direct and dangerous provocation. The Pentagon halted all manned flights, although U.S. drones are still flying in the area. … With U.S. planes out of the way, Russia has stepped up its own airstrikes along the Turkey-Syria border, … targeting the rebel groups the U.S. was supporting, not the Islamic State. … The actual number of U.S. flights that were supporting Syrian groups in this area was not large. … Defense Secretary Ash Carter had been resisting a more comprehensive air campaign in the area for two reasons: Some of the groups fighting there are not vetted … [and] Carter prefers a strategy of supporting Syrian Kurds.
In short, Russia has provided Islamic State with no-fly zone protection from U.S. airplanes and has been attacking the ground forces that were containing Islamic State. The report also confirms that the U.S. has all-but abandoned the rebellion, including the 40,000-plus rebels vetted by the CIA, and has instead bet on the Kurdish PYD/YPG as the force to defeat the Islamic State.
UPDATE 3: Russia’s March 14, 2016, announcement of the “withdrawal of the main part” of its “military force” from Syria, appears (six days later) to mean in practice the withdrawal of some fixed-wing aircraft and all-but 1,000 troops, while adding more attack helicopters, and all on a footing that can be scaled-up quickly if a threat to the Assad tyranny emerges. At least 2,000 civilians were killed during Russia’s five-month intervention. As to the Russian intervention’s effect on I.S., the data is in: the daily rate of I.S. attacks increased in Syria, as IHS Jane’s documented, and it is perfectly clear from the map of Russia’s airstrikes that the only serious engagements Russia undertook against I.S. were to help prevent regime collapse to I.S. at Kuweris and in Deir Ezzor City, where the regime had been under long-standing I.S. siege—and still is in Deir Ezzor—with token strikes at Raqqa City, and later Palmyra. Russia declared mission accomplished while I.S. still stands. Russia’s intervention was pro-Assad, not anti-I.S., a distinction that made itself felt most clearly in the above-mentioned case of Aleppo in October 2015: Russia bombed mainstream rebels who were both holding I.S. at bay and threatening the regime, allowing I.S. to expand.
UPDATE 4: On 16 June 2016, Russian aircraft dropped cluster munitions on the base of an armed opposition group in al-Tanf in the deserts of eastern Rif Dimashq, near tri-border area (Jordan, Syria, Iraq), The Wall Street Journal reports. The group, the New Syrian Army (NSyA), is supported by the U.S., Britain, Jordan, and other allies only to fight the Islamic State. CENTCOM contacted Russia’s Levantine headquarters in Latakia and told them the base was part of the anti-I.S. campaign and should not be attacked. Ninety minutes later, the Russians launched a second round of airstrikes. All told, the strikes on al-Tanf killed four fighters. This occurred less than twenty-four hours after a British SAS team of about twenty men had left. Per The Journal:
A U.S. military surveillance aircraft overhead tried to hail the Russian pilots directly using the frequencies which the U.S. and Russian governments had agreed to use in emergencies. The Russian pilots didn’t respond. … After the Russian aircraft returned to base in western Syria, the Pentagon demanded that Moscow explain what happened. Russian military officials initially told their Pentagon counterparts that Russian pilots intentionally struck the garrison, but thought it was an Islamic State facility …
U.S. military and intelligence officials rejected that explanation and said the Russian pilots would have been able to tell from the air that the garrison wasn’t an Islamic State facility because of the unique ways in which it was fortified. … The Russians then told the Americans that the Jordanians had approved of the strikes in advance. U.S. officials said they checked with Amman and were told by their Jordanian counterparts that they had never given Moscow a green light.
The Russians later told the Americans that their air command headquarters in Syria wasn’t in a position to call off the strikes because officers with U.S. Central Command didn’t provide Moscow with the precise coordinates for the garrison. U.S. officials said the Pentagon had never specifically asked the Russians to steer clear of the area around the At-Tanf garrison because it wasn’t close to any of the front lines between the Assad regime and opposing forces and because Russian aircraft didn’t operate in that part of Syria. Moreover, distrust of Russian intentions ran so deep within the U.S. military and the CIA that U.S. officials didn’t want to tell the Russians any more than they had to, officials said.
Once the lies are cleared away, the U.S. is presented with a catch-22: it cannot inform Russia of the positions of its assets because the Russians will then use the information to attack those assets, and if Russia is not officially informed then Moscow will attack U.S. assets and claim it was unaware that is what they were.
The Kremlin’s actions, going so far out of its way to attack the NSyA, a Pentagon-supported anti-IS unit, can only really be described as providing air support to IS.
On 12 July, the Russians bombed a camp about fifty miles from al-Tanf used by CIA-supported rebel groups like Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya (Lions of the East Army), which theoretically fights the regime and IS, though in practice has solely operated against IS. The camp contains about two-hundred families of rebel fighters. The Russians again used cluster weapons, killing five people—two children, two women, and an old man—and injuring forty-eight.
UPDATE 5: On 1 March 2017, southeast of al-Bab, Russia bombed the “Syrian Arab Coalition”, the subordinate Arab units attached to the YPG/PKK as part of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, which the U.S. supports solely as part of the anti-IS campaign. Indeed, the YPG/PKK retains deep political and material relations with the pro-Assad coalition. The U.S. says it supplied exact coordinates to the Russians about the positions of its assets, while Moscow claims it was given the wrong locations.