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. Continue reading →
This morning, Russia ostensibly agreed to help the U.S. impose a ceasefire in Syria within a week—on the way to a negotiated settlement. This could not work right now, even if Russia intended it to. But Russia does not. Russia’s role since intervening in Syria in late September 2015 has been to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad and a primary tactic in that overarching strategic aim has been the attempt to destroy all opposition to Assad that the international community could possibly deal with, and to create a binary situation where there is only the regime and jihadi-Salafist terrorists, primarily the Islamic State (IS), and secondarily—in areas where they do not threaten key regime interests—Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda). Moscow will eventually turn on IS, but in the short-term Russia has engaged in indirect coordination with IS to weaken the rebels and push them out of key strategic areas, notably in eastern Aleppo where Russia bombed rebels out of the way who had been holding IS out for years. On Tuesday, Foreign Policy reported on another aspect of this Russia-IS collaboration that aims to empower the takfiris in the short-term as part of the long-term plan, also supported by Iran, to secure the Assad regime in power. Continue reading →
Turkey concluded its biggest investigation to date into Islamic State (IS) operatives on its territory on Friday, and blacklisted sixty-seven people. This provides a good moment to review what Turkey’s role has been in the rise of IS, especially amid the escalating accusations from Russia that Turkey is significantly responsible for financing IS. The reality is that while Turkish policy has, by commission and omission, made IS stronger than it would otherwise have been, so has Russia’s policy—and Russia’s policy was far more cynical than Turkey’s, deliberately intended empower extremists to discredit the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s focus on bringing down Assad and Ankara’s fear of Kurdish autonomy led it into these policies and now—having seemingly found the will to act to uproot IS’s infrastructure on Turkish territory—there is the problem of actually doing so, when IS can (and has) struck inside Turkey. The concerns about these external funding mechanisms for IS, while doubtless important, obscure the larger problem: IS’s revenue is overwhelmingly drawn from the areas it controls and only removing those areas of control can deny IS its funds. Continue reading →
The United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned four individuals and six entities connected to the regime of Bashar al-Assad on November 25 for helping to transfer Syrian government funds to the Islamic State (IS), and for assisting in Russia-connected schemes to help the Assad regime evade the international sanctions imposed on it. While the sanctions freeze all assets of the individuals and entities that are under U.S. control and ban Americans from transactions with them, the most significant effect of these sanctions is political: the revelation of details about how Assad strengthens the Islamist terrorists he claims to oppose to discredit and destroy the rebellion against his regime. Continue reading →
Devastation of the Ibrahim al-Khalil mosque in Tareeq al Bab after Assad’s barrel bombs, Aleppo, April 2015 (source)
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. Continue reading →
Shamil Basayev and Murad Margoshvili (a.k.a. Muslem a-Shishani)
Last year I wrote about the murky role Russia was playing in the Syrian war, bolstering the Assad tyranny while facilitating the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Salafi-jihadists as a means of dividing and discrediting the Syrian opposition. Moscow’s action were in line with the strategy it had used to defeat the separatist movement in Chechnya, infiltrating the insurgency, driving it into extremism, and facilitating the arrival of al-Qaeda jihadists who displaced the Chechen nationalists. In Syria, Russia’s actions accord with the strategy adopted by the regime and its Iranian masters to present Assad as the last line of defence against a terrorist takeover of Syria and a genocide against the minorities. New evidence has emerged to underline these points. Continue reading →
This Arab regime claims to be a one-party system but in reality a small Mafia-like cabal of military and intelligence officers have dispensed power for decades. Finally a democratic challenge erupts; people take to the streets demanding first reforms and, when the regime responds with pseudo-reforms and lethal violence, the fall of the government. Eventually the people fight back and an armed struggle breaks out. The regime builds its strategy around provocation, arresting and killing the liberals and democrats, infiltrating the insurgent groups and having the extremists attack the moderates, directing infiltrated groups to commit atrocities that discredit the whole insurgency, and using Iran’s international terrorist networks to lure Salafi-jihadists into the country who can help discredit the opposition’s cause in the eyes of the world. By presenting a binary picture—the regime or a terrorist takeover—the state tries to secure at least tacit support, if not direct intervention, from the West to defeat the insurgency.