Cross-posted at The Interpreter.
After a coalition supporting the regime of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad conquered the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS) in late March, suggestions were made that this demonstrated the efficacy of the pro-Assad coalition in fighting IS, and doubtless the same will be said if and when the pro-regime forces conquer Tabqa. It isn’t true. From the time of Russia’s direct intervention in Syria on 30 September 2015 to Moscow’s announcement on 14 March 2016 that it was withdrawing “the main part” of its “military” from Syria, IS was almost untouched and al-Qaeda was barely damaged, while the Assad regime was bolstered and the moderate opposition, particularly those components supported by the West, were gravely weakened.
Despite Moscow’s claims that its mission was fighting IS or “terrorism,” Russia’s real goals can be summarized as three:
- Rescue the Assad regime, which was assessed to be in mortal peril
- Damage the mainstream armed opposition, especially those elements supported by the West, in order that Russia can …
- Rehabilitate the Assad regime internationally by inter alia leaving only extremists as its opponents, depriving the international community of credible interlocutors, and therefore strengthening the Russian hand to make peace talks an instrument for re-legitimizing Assad, rather than removing him
In recent days, this basic war strategy has been seen again in southern Syria.
The Assad Regime Totters
In late March 2015, the Assad regime was swept from Idlib City, only the second provincial capital to fall, by Jaysh al-Fatah (JAF), a coalition of insurgents. JAF included Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Jund al-Aqsa, and Ahrar al-Sham. JAF included, too, Ajnad al-Sham, a slightly ambiguous group that appears to be more hardline, plus Liwa al-Haq, a Homs-origin Salafist group, and Jaysh al-Sunna, a non-ideological group, both of which have since been subsumed by Ahrar. JAF also at that time included Faylaq al-Sham, a much more moderate Islamist group that has since left JAF and moved into the Western orbit, and the offensive was supported by numerous U.S.-backed, FSA-branded groups.
JAF hung together after the fall of Idlib City and pushed on to take Jisr al-Shughur by late April, the gateway to Latakia Province, the coastal homeland of the Assad clan and the Alawi minority from which he hails and which has disproportionately staffed the regime’s trusted military units. By June, the regime was losing ground not only in Idlib, but in Aleppo and in the south. On 9 September 2015, the regime pulled out of Abu al-Duhour airbase, making Idlib the second province to be completely free of a regime presence—and the only one to be free of the regime and IS, which had been expelled by the moderate opposition in January and February 2014. Regime losses were then suffered in Aleppo to rebels led by the moderate Islamists of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front).
It had been thirty months or more since the Assad regime had appeared in this much strategic trouble, and the regime was unable to hide it. Assad gave a very important speech on 26 July 2015 conceding, for the first time, that “there is a shortage in manpower“. This is a chronic problem for the regime: Iran has tried to solve it by raising sectarian militias, orchestrating a Shi’a jihad, and increasingly flooding in its own irregular (and now regular) forces. But the demographics were remorseless. This was the calculation behind the joint decision by Iran and Russia to step in directly.
By June, the regime’s Iranian and Russian supporters had begun preparing their intervention, assessing that the regime would fall without it. Iranian troops were moved into position and Russian air assets and even a contingent of troops were moved to Syria. In July 2015, with the nuclear accord secured, Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), went to Moscow—despite a travel ban imposed by international sanctions that ostensibly prevents him leaving Iran—to finalize the arrangements.
Meanwhile, Russia prepared the ground politically. As a recent comprehensive report by The Atlantic Council notes, Russia very specifically framed its intervention as a means of countering IS. Vladimir Putin had opened his speech at the United Nations, on 28 September 2015, by invoking the anti-Nazi struggle and calling for an international alliance “similar to the anti-Hitler coalition” to defeat IS. As ever, Moscow’s version of the “Great Patriotic War” starts with Operation BARBAROSSA in June 1941, not with the crushing of Poland in September 1939—when Moscow was in a formal alliance with the Nazis. Nor was this the only deception.
Two days after the U.N. speech, with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church, which called Putin’s mission a “holy war“—not dissimilar to ROC’s view of Moscow’s undeclared war in Ukraine—Russia’s bombardment of Syria began. Russia’s first wave of airstrikes did not go after IS. Russia did not even go after al-Nusra, which has laced itself into the rebellion as part of its stratagem for longevity in Syria—thus potentially providing a fig-leaf for Russian claim it was fighting “terrorism”. Instead, Russia attacked Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded nationalist rebels like Harakat Tahrir Homs, the First Coastal Division, Jaysh al-Izza, Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, and Jaysh al-Nasr, which were or had received support through the covert programme run by the Central Intelligence Agency that has vetted and supplies around 50,000 moderate rebels throughout Syria. Indeed, the CIA quickly concluded that Russia was systematically targeting its assets in Syria. This situation was not improved by a public admission that the U.S. did not intend to risk a confrontation with Russia by providing vetted rebels with the ability to defend themselves from Russia’s air attacks.
Russia simply, blatantly, and repeatedly lied about what it was bombing. By 12 October, Russia’s Ministry of Defence had published forty-three videos of airstrikes in Syria, by The Atlantic Council’s count. Exactly one video showed an airstrike on an area held by IS. This “inaccuracy on a grand scale,” as The Atlantic Council puts it, took the form of deception about both the location and the target. The U.S. State Department on 7 October said that more than ninety percent of Russia’s airstrikes had hit non-IS targets.
Russia’s airstrikes, in fact, allowed IS to gain territory in the first two weeks of the intervention. Russia claimed on 9 October that it had killed two-hundred IS jihadists in Aleppo. Hours later—with no sign of Russian jets—IS advanced nearly ten miles north-east of Aleppo City, in areas the rebellion had held IS out of for two years, one of IS’s largest territorial gains since it took Ramadi and Palmyra in May 2015. Clearly Russia had bombed the rebels out of the way, allowing IS’s advance. “Russia’s involvement in Syria is facilitating ISIS’s territorial gains,” The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) summarized at the time. “ISIS is benefiting from Russia’s strikes on the Syrian opposition.”
This was the demarcation between an anti-IS and a pro-Assad intervention: Russia would allow—even assist—IS gains if it helped Assad, and helping IS destroy the other insurgents and make Syria into a binary choice of Assad or IS was very helpful to Assad; it is what the regime had claimed was the case, and worked at making the case, all along. In such a scenario, the regime was sure it could rely on the tacit support of the international community to put down the insurgency.
That the build-up of extremists within the insurgency in Syria—especially extremists that attack the mainstream rebellion—serves Russia’s foreign policy goals is what is behind Moscow having facilitated the travel of Jihadi-Salafists from the Caucasus to the Levant. This was reported as far back as August 2015 and in May 2016 Reuters documented six cases where the Russian state had directly or indirectly helped Islamic militants to go to Syria to wage jihad.
In the case of Saadu Sharapudinov, a jihadi from the village of Novosasitli in Dagestan who was already in the woods waging war against Russia, an offer was made by the Russian security services in December 2012 via a political official—who confirms the story—for the provision of a false passport and an airplane ticket to wherever he wanted to go. In September 2013, the FSB drove Sharapudinov to the airport “in a silver Lada car with darkened windows,” handing him a passport with a new name on it and a one-way ticket to Istanbul. This continued until at least September 2014, when Temur Djamalutdinov departed the Russian Federation, despite having been denied a passport two weeks earlier for non-payment of alimony and being on a watch-list of “Wahhabists,” with a notable uptick of state-assisted departures around the Sochi Olympics in February that year.
This fits a long-standing pattern of Moscow manipulating terrorists, including of an Islamist hue, to quell its internal security problems. One security official in the North Caucasus later frankly explained: “Of course … [w]e opened borders, helped [the jihadis] all out and closed the border behind them by criminalising this type of fighting. If they want to return now, we are waiting for them at the borders. Everyone’s happy: they are dying on the path of Allah, and we have no terrorist acts here and are now bombing them in Latakia and Idlib.” This two-birds-one-stone tactic of serving the state’s foreign policy and solving an internal security concern is not new: the Assad regime exported large sections of its jihadi community to Iraq and Lebanon after 2003.
From 13 October onwards, Russia more accurately—if more vaguely—described the areas it was bombing, and radically altered its rhetoric, claiming to target IS only twice in the month that followed even as, ironically enough, Moscow’s airstrikes into IS-held areas actually increased. Not by much: Britain reported at this time that eight-five percent or more of Russian strikes were against non-IS targets. Still, Russia began launching airstrikes at Raqqa City, helped Iranian-led forces break the siege of Kuweris airbase, east of Aleppo, on 11 November, and hit targets around Deir Ezzor City, where the regime retained a small pocket of control. Even then, however, the Russian attacks came with appalling civilian casualties, rather than any noticeable dent to IS. To the contrary.
IS was still advancing under the cover of Russia’s airstrikes in Aleppo in December, coming within miles of the rebel supply line running from eastern Aleppo City through Azaz to the Turkish border. The pro-regime coalition and IS were advancing in tandem—the regime from the south and IS from the west, soon joined by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from the east—against the Azaz corridor, where the most moderate rebels were present. This was far from a novel situation. As ISW noted, “The Syrian regime and ISIS have historically leveraged one another’s offensives in order to advance against rebel forces in the northern Aleppo countryside.” Just a few months earlier, the U.S. Embassy in Syria pointed out that Assad was conducting “airstrikes in support of ISIL’s advance on Aleppo … not only avoiding ISIL lines, but actively seeking to bolster their position.” When the rebels went on the offensive against IS in early 2014, the regime had “intervened objectively on the side of ISIS.”
Politics By Other Means
By late December 2015, Russia’s intent to use its intervention to strengthen the Assad regime’s hand in international peace talks became clear. On Christmas Day, Russia assassinated Shaykh Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, the powerful Salafist group in East Ghouta that has overseen one of the more successful efforts at rebel governance and ruthlessly suppressed IS activity, keeping them from having a major presence in Damascus. Meanwhile, Russia “continue[d] to use disinformation,” according to ISW, literally inventing moderate opposition groups that it was supporting with airstrikes in order “to present its air campaign as a constructive force,” though in reality Russia continued to “indiscriminately target rebel-held areas in northwestern Syria”.
In January 2016, Russia’s intervention reached a “tipping point,” as the Levantine Group points out. The bombardments had to that point allowed significant tactical gains for the regime against the mainstream opposition and even al-Nusra—though, with the exception of Kuweris, nothing against IS—but now the balance shifted strategically. In a zone more than one-hundred miles from an IS position, on 12 January, the insurgency was driven from Salma, its main command centre in northern Latakia Province, by a diverse pro-regime coalition that included Shi’a jihadists and the fascistic Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and on 24 January the town of Rabia, which insurgents had held for four years, was overrun by the pro-regime forces, collapsing the insurgency’s forward position in the province. The next day, the regime re-conquered Shaykh Maskeen in the southern Deraa Province from the rebellion—not IS, which has no presence in the area. Shaykh Maskeen is a key strategic outpost to keep the regime’s supply lines into Deraa City and Russian air power was the clear difference-maker: the regime had tried, in an effort spearheaded by Hizballah jihadists, to retake the area in November 2014, and failed.
The most important Russia-enabled victory over the mainstream opposition was the cutting of the rebel supply line at the Azaz corridor on 4 February 2016, and the connecting of the regime’s enclaves in southern and eastern Aleppo to the villages of Nubl and Zahra in the northwest. The breaking of the loose sieges on these two Shi’a villages helped the regime to “revitalize its core supporters,” the Levantine Group notes, and “also significantly increased its leverage: With Aleppo almost surrounded, the collapse of any ceasefire agreement or negotiations could lead to a new regime offensive capable of turning … into the opposition’s most crushing defeat, given Aleppo’s centrality to the Syrian revolution.” The PYD had opened an office in Moscow on 11 February, and just four days later Russia would provide airstrikes for the PYD to assault the battered rebel pocket in northern Aleppo and occupy Tel Rifaat.
It was in this context that Russia agreed to a ceasefire on 12 February, supposed to take effect on 19 February, to consolidate its gains. This first effort failed but the second was implemented on 27 February. While the “cessation of hostilities” never actually took hold, a reduction in hostilities did, but mostly because the mainstream opposition—under pressure from Western countries—agreed to stop fighting. Russia and the regime went on with their war, albeit at a lower level, and IS and al-Nusra were excluded in any case.
Between Russia’s agreeing to the ceasefire and its purported enactment, the regime’s weaknesses, namely its shortage of manpower and consequent inability to hold territory, re-asserted themselves. The territorial gains in Aleppo were incredibly strategic, but they were physically modest, yet the regime could not defend them—even while led and augmented with masses of foreign fighters. On the evening of 21 February, jihadi groups—Jund al-Aqsa, Imarat Kavkaz v Sham (Caucasus Emirate in Syria), and the Turkistan Islamic Party from one side, and IS from the other—attacked the pro-Assad forces’ supply line along the Aleppo-Khanaser road and captured various points. Towns were traded over the next few days, but the regime’s momentum in Aleppo, and the sense that it was about to put an end to the rebellion entirely, dissipated.
The ceasefire did allow Russia and the regime to divert resources south to Palmyra, in an offensive that began on 9 March. The pro-regime coalition made a great show of force, with more than one-hundred-and-sixty airstrikes in the first forty-eight hours. Russia announced its partial withdrawal from Syria on 14 March, but the offensive ground on. A pro-Assad ground coalition led by the IRGC and its various terrorist proxies from among Shi’a jihadist groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Russian Special Forces, and even Russian mercenaries advanced on the ancient city, taking it on 27 March.
“The capture of Palmyra … was more of a public relations victory than a military one,” the Levant Group points out. The Assad regime had barely defended the city in May 2015, as some of its own supporters had complained at the time, and it soon became clear that the Assad regime had choreographed its takeover of Palmyra, allowing IS to withdraw most of its resources. Theoretically, Palmyra could have been a launch-pad for further offensives against IS. The taking of al-Qaryatayn, a Christian village under IS control near Palmyra, was inevitable, but the envisioned large-scale regime offensive into Deir Ezzor or Raqqa was always a fantasy: the regime had neither the power nor the will. Palmyra had been about positioning the regime as the frontline of civilization against barbarism—in other words making the international community regard Assad as a bulwark against terrorism, rather than its enabler. The notion that Assad is helpful in the anti-IS fight is very difficult to maintain if one looks at any timescale wider than March 2016.
The regime weaponized IS’s previous incarnation for use against post-Saddam Iraq before the Coalition had invaded. After that, as U.S. courts would later find, Assad had enabled IS to behead two Americans trying to reconstruct Iraq and to blow up four Americans who happened to be at a hotel at the wrong time in Amman. IS secretly infiltrated Syria in August 2011 with an advanced party, but a massive IS infrastructure was already in Syria, especially in the east, because this is where the Assad regime had sheltered IS’s fighters in safe-houses run by Military Intelligence, and where the terrorist training camps overseen by the regime had been based. After the uprising broke out, Assad continuously bombed rebel-held areas to prevent them setting up an attractive alternative form of governance. It is especially notable, then, that this key regime tactic was not employed against IS, which Assad left almost wholly alone until late 2014, when he began token airstrikes after the storming of Mosul.
By the time of Palmyra’s fall, Assad had been enabling IS for fourteen years; without his support the group might not even have existed after the Sahwa-and-Surge of 2007-08. The expansion of the area under regime control was not a gain for counter-terrorism in Syria, even on the coldest reading: the regime’s capacity extends to indiscriminate atrocities, not the stable and legitimate governance needed to defeat groups like IS.
Overall Effects of Russia’s Intervention
The Russian intervention began with statements about the “fight against the IS” and attacking “ground targets of the IS terrorist group,” but it quickly became apparent that this was not Russia’s goal. The primary objective was to prop up the Assad regime, which had been assessed as on course to collapse, and rehabilitate the regime internationally by strengthening its position in any conceivable peace negotiations, specifically by eliminating all acceptable alternatives. In practice, this meant IS was largely unscathed by Russia’s military intervention, and even the loss of Palmyra—which occurred after Russia’s intervention had formally ended—was a peripheral loss for IS, though a major political victory for the regime.
“ISIS territorial losses as a result of Russian air strikes were minimal,” The Atlantic Council concluded. The IS losses in the period since Russia intervened in Syria had virtually all been in the north-east, enabled by American and Coalition airstrikes in support of PYD-dominated forces. IS increased the pace of its operations after Russia intervened and actually made gains in areas—western Aleppo and eastern Homs—where Russia had aerial supremacy. A Syrian oppositionist, living under Russian airstrikes in Aleppo, said: “The Russians are … almost playing the role of ISIS’s air force.” The direct, desired effect of Russia’s bombing was enabling advances by pro-regime ground forces in key strategic areas. The actual effect of that was that “Russia’s bombing campaign had little impact on ISIS, more impact on the Nusra Front and most impact on the other opposition groups, including those backed by the West,” The Atlantic Council concluded. Indeed, “the greatest loser from the Russian air campaign appears to be the most moderate elements of the opposition.”
That Russia had not intended to destroy or significantly weaken IS—or even al-Nusra—with its intervention can be ascertained by the fact that during Russia’s intervention IS wasn’t destroyed or significantly weakened and in the days before Russia announced its withdrawal al-Nusra was on the offensive against the Western-supported opposition group Division 13 in Marat al-Numan. Nonetheless, Moscow declared that “the objective set before the Defence Ministry” had been “generally fulfilled”.
As part of Russia’s strategy of weakening the mainstream opposition, especially those parts close to the West, there is prima facie evidence of war crimes. The regime’s campaign to ensure the destabilization of rebel-held areas with airstrikes and helicopter-borne “barrel bombs,” preventing the formation of an alternative form of governance, worked because the rebels would “lose the population, either through literal displacement or because people blame their plight on the rebels as well as the regime.” In other words, the regime engaged in collective punishment of civilian populations, the support system of the rebels, to make them turn on the rebels. Russia appears to have done the same thing.
At least 2,000 civilians were killed by Russia’s bombing. Moscow not only struck at clearly civilian targets, but engaged in “double tap” assaults—launching airstrikes at the first responders like the Syrian Civil Defence (“White Helmets”), too. (In the months since, a disinformation has been launched to claim the White Helmets are al-Qaeda, i.e. legitimate targets of pro-regime air attacks.) Russia destroyed water treatment plants, grain silos, and numerous hospitals, including several on the same day. Russia had claimed, amid international criticism, that Russian bombers “never missed their targets“. Perhaps they were telling the truth. Russia also did nothing to lift even a single one of the forty-three sieges the Assad regime maintains, eight of them so severe that deaths from starvation are either ongoing or imminent.
Russia’s wide-ranging and systematic assault on the moderate armed opposition and the civil society that underpins it has bolstered the extremists in Syria. On 10 April, an insurgent offensive led by al-Nusra began in Aleppo. The rebels had largely maintained the ceasefire, but as mentioned above the regime and Russia had not. Al-Nusra had, in December 2015, declared that the ceasefire was a pro-regime conspiracy against the revolution, but had taken care not to be implicated in its breakdown, even as it agitated for that outcome. By the time of this Aleppo offensive, the ceasefire was widely discredited among the opposition since it put restraints on them and did nothing to curb crimes by the pro-regime coalition—the regime used this insurgent escalation as cover to bomb market places in two anti-al-Qaeda towns in Idlib, for example, without any concrete international reaction. Within ten days the already-fictional ceasefire was beyond pretence.
As was shown in Marat al-Numan, al-Nusra does not have the ideological allegiance of the population or the rebellion; al-Nusra has tactical indulgence from an opposition with few other choices. But as soon as those other choices open up, as they did with the reduced violence, the population took them: peaceful protesters returned to the streets—first with nationalist slogans that angered al-Qaeda and then directly against al-Qaeda after they pushed Division 13 out. IS can gain recruits in a situation where the regime forces a choice between itself and IS, or the coalition utilizes anti-Sunni sectarian forces or other politically unacceptable actors to “liberate” IS-held areas, but IS does not aim for popularity; rather it extorts a basic level of collaboration from a population once it controls an area. IS can do this more easily if the most rooted bulwarks—the localist opposition—is removed; Russia obliged, and has continued to do so.
Russia and IS’s Advances in Southern Syria
IS has been trying to infiltrate southern Syria, Damascus and the Deraa-Quneitra theatre, essentially since it began laying the foundations of its caliphate in northern Syria in the spring of 2013. The first signs of overt IS activity in southern Syria came in July 2013 when pictures emerged of a training camp dedicated to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged from Ghouta.
Jaysh al-Islam (JAI), one of the earliest actors to fight IS, had already issued public condemnations of IS and initiated more indirect combat with IS in late 2013, undertaking religious instruction in the areas it controlled—where Salafi norms are culturally widespread—to blunt IS’s spread. There was less direct fighting against IS in the south as the rebellion launched an offensive against it in the north, driving it from positions in seven provinces and clearing two (Latakia and Idlib) entirely in eight weeks between January and March 2014, but it did force IS to redirect resources from the south to the north. Still, by the summer of 2014, taking advantage of the unmerciful regime siege of eastern Damascus and its tradecraft, IS had accrued to itself several hundred members in the Damascus suburbs. In June-July 2014, rebels, led by JAI, sharply curtailed IS’s activities, driving it from overt control of areas and arresting scores of its members, largely quarantining it to al-Hajr al-Aswad.
IS re-emerged in southern Syria in December 2014—a result of its now well-established methodology, where groups it had secretly recruited were confident enough to emerge in public (even if continuing to officially deny their IS connection). Of special note in this category is Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk (LSY), which first made contact with IS in the summer or fall of 2014, but was first accused of IS links in December when al-Nusra attacked it. At the time, LSY, which had been an FSA-style group in good standing, could plausibly argue—in the wake of al-Nusra dismantling the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front—that this was al-Qaeda taking out another nationalist bulwark against its jihadist project. No longer. Earlier this month, the State Department designated LSY as a terrorist organization, noting it had “pledged allegiance” to IS. IS made a move on Yarmouk refugee camp in April 2015, and was repelled—though it has tried again recently. JAI was the leading force in halting IS in Yarmouk—al-Nusra appeared to remain neutral and the regime all-but openly stood aside—and over the summer of 2015, as the regime was ceding Palmyra and al-Qaryatayn to IS, JAI destroyed most of IS’s positions in Qalamoun and stamped out its cells and agents from Ghouta. JAI was accused—not without warrant—of moving against its rebel rivals under the cover of the anti-IS purge, but the fact stood: IS’s expansion in Damascus had again been checked by JAI and the group was confined to al-Hajr al-Aswad and some areas of Yarmouk.
For IS, it appears to be a case of third time lucky. In December, Russia murdered JAI’s leader, Zahran Alloush, which has led to escalating turmoil in East Ghouta that IS will surely take advantage of, but the most important development is the spread of IS in the deep south, in western Deraa. On 21 May, two of IS’s affiliates, LSY and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (HMI), joined together to form Jaysh Khaled bin al-Walid, and on 10 June the Mujahideen Group was added to this merger. “Nowhere in Syria has [IS] succeeded in growing organically as it has done in Deraa,” Hassan Hassan has written. Issam al-Rayes, the spokesman for the Southern Front, echoed the point: “[LSY] fighters come from the same area and therefore they have a popular base. It is difficult to have fighters from other areas fighting there, especially given that [local] people do not welcome the [U.S.- and Jordanian-backed] rebels.” Hassan adds: “This is a remarkable development especially since the Southern Front has been hailed as a good example of international support to the opposition.”
But it is the actions of those international supporters that are one of the reasons for IS’s success in the south. The removal of al-Nusra as it consolidates in Idlib is one factor—as an ex-subordinate of IS’s, al-Nusra was better able to detect IS’s cells. The heavy American-Jordanian control over the Southern Front through the Military Operations Command (MOC) based in Amman—largely by supply (or denial) of resources—is the other. The foreign influence over the Southern Front need not have been problematic, but the decision of those powers to deter the Front from concerted attacks on the regime, and instead to divert them into attacks on Jihadi-Salafist groups has been devastating.
The MOC threatened the Southern Front with a cut-off of resources in late 2015 if they did not cease attacks on the Assad regime and concentrate on fighting al-Nusra, and in the second week of June the MOC suspended the delivery of supplies to the Southern Front because the Front’s offensive against IS in the area, begun in March, had not made enough progress. On 13 June, the Southern Front responded by announcing it would combat IS in its Deraa strongholds until it had been completely eliminated. The designation of LSY has raised hopes that the rebels in southern Syria are going to receive Coalition air support to uproot LSY’s five-hundred or so fighters. Perhaps. It will not change the fact that the blackmailing of the rebellion into fighting solely against the Jihadi-Salafists has had the net effect of providing an opening for Jihadi-Salafists, who can present the Southern Front as hirelings of foreigners who have betrayed the revolution’s very raison d’être: the fight against the Assad regime.
Jordan has consistently worried more about Jihadi-Salafists on its border and the spill-over of refugees than the Assad regime, and now Amman is coming under Russian influence that is exacerbating this policy orientation. The erosion of the popular legitimacy of MOC-supported rebels and setting up a dynamic where such groups are as rejected as the groups the coalition is supporting against IS in northern Syria and Iraq is providing IS the same kind of opportunity. It is into this context that direct Russian airstrikes have been launched against groups whose only mission is to contain and defeat IS.
The Russian air force bombed the FSA-branded New Syrian Army (NSyA) on 17 June. This might appear unremarkable after what has been laid out above, but NSyA was a special case even by those standards. NSyA is based near al-Tanf, far in the east of Rif Dimashq near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, where the regime has no presence, and the group is specifically designed—supported as it is by the U.S.’s overt, Pentagon-run program—only to fight the Islamic State. As a U.S. defence official pointed out, this was a deliberate, calculated attack: the Russians dropped ordinance, possibly including cluster munitions, on the NSyA, ignored a U.S. call on a pre-agreed communications channel, and waited for U.S. jets that had been diverted to the area to leave before launching a second round of airstrikes against the NSyA. “Russian aircraft have not been active in this area of southern Syria for some time,” the official added. Thus, Moscow has significantly altered its activities with the effect of removing obstacles to IS’s progress in southern Syria. It is difficult to describe this as anything except Russia acting as IS’s air force—a direct succession from the regime.
Russia’s response was entirely predictable. “The continuing mingling in places of the so-called moderate opposition with al-Nusra is a really serious problem,” the Kremlin’s spokesman said. The U.S. had prepared the ground to let this to happen, allowing Moscow to change the subject from its enabling Assad’s exterminationist campaign against the Syrian population to the proximity of U.S.-vetted rebel groups and al-Nusra. In doing so, the U.S. legitimized Russia’s claims that it was acting in good faith to target terrorists and only struck U.S. assets when they hadn’t distanced themselves enough from al-Nusra—when nearly the exact opposite is the truth.
Following on the public-relations conquest of Palmyra, the pro-regime coalition earlier this month initiated a similar effort to take Tabqa airbase, purportedly as a prelude to a march on IS’s capital, Raqqa City, twenty-five miles away. The attempt to re-establish a regime presence in Raqqa Province, which was brutally ended in August 2014, is deeply symbolic for the regime. Damascus has tried to maintain a skeletal presence in every one of Syria’s provinces as part of its claim to legitimacy, and it would once again allow Assad to try to insinuate himself into the U.S.-led international anti-IS coalition by presenting a short-term, “facts on the ground” argument. It would also serve as a belated restitution of honour after Tabqa’s ignominious fall, which provoked public charges of betrayal from well-connected regime supporters, who wondered aloud how the regime could have failed so spectacularly to even try to provide assistance as IS invaded the base.
But this effort of the pro-Assad coalition has now ended in fiasco, as anybody could have predicted it would. Five miles from Tabqa all the regime coalition’s gains have been reversed. Perhaps the pro-regime forces have the capacity to take and hold Tabqa—eventually—but they are at full stretch in doing so, and the notion of the regime conquering Raqqa City is fanciful. Again, no matter how amorally the situation is viewed, the pro-Assad coalition simply cannot be the answer to IS—and that makes the assumption it wants to be.
Russia’s actions in Syria since it intervened last September belie the idea that its primary concern is the suppression of IS, al-Qaeda, and associated terrorist groups. Russia’s aim was to rescue the Assad regime, and that interest is served by the weakening and ultimately eliminating U.S.-aligned and nationalist opposition forces and in the short-term strengthening anti-regime extremists; Moscow has acted accordingly. Russia’s intervention has both removed obstacles to al-Qaeda and IS, namely the rebels who can uproot and replace them, and provided the only conditions—extreme anti-civilian violence—in which al-Qaeda and IS can pose as the Sunni vanguard, a protector-of-last-resort.