The U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been a boon for the jihadist group’s recruitment efforts – to the extent that, according to American officials in late July, Islamic State has managed to offset with new recruits the number of its fighters who have been killed (between 10,000 and 15,000).
There is every reason to expect the same result from Moscow’s newly launched air campaign, together with reports of Russian troops already engaged in ground combat with Islamic State, and Iran having sent hundreds of troops to take part in a major upcoming ground campaign alongside the Syrian government, Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and other Shiite militias with Russian air cover.
Jihadists in Syria have long whipped up anti-Western and anti-Shiite sentiment to swell their ranks. To the same end, they are now also refreshing bitter memories of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, as well as Russia’s devastation of Chechnya. The triple combination of foreign involvement by Western, Shiite and now Russian forces will likely enable a recruitment bonanza.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s description of Moscow’s campaign as a “holy war” – reminiscent of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s reference to a “crusade” against terrorism – will only add fuel to the fire.
The U.S. and Russian campaigns have certain similarities. That does not bode well for Moscow’s initiative, given that more than a year of U.S.-led airstrikes – in addition to operations by numerous ground forces in Syria and Iraq – has failed to tangibly weaken ISIS.
Both campaigns have caused civilian deaths and injuries from the outset, and both have hit civilian infrastructure. Russian airstrikes, which began only days ago, have already caused several dozen civilian casualties, in addition to hitting homes, a field hospital and a mosque. This will sharpen the resentment of Syrian civilians, in whose interests Moscow claims to be acting.
Neither campaign is clearly defined, which perhaps explains why neither has a set time frame, despite polls showing both Russians and Americans opposed to drawn-out operations. Vague goals and the absence of time frames present the risk of mission-creep. Moscow initially billed its campaign as being against ISIS, but this is a politically convenient cover for its real goal: to come to the rescue of the Syrian government, which has suffered a string of battlefield defeats this year.
After reports that it was mainly targeting Syrian rebels opposed to both the government and ISIS, and bombing areas in which the jihadist group has little or no presence, Moscow acknowledged that its targets are broader than ISIS. Russian warplanes have even struck the Free Syrian Army (FSA), despite Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov saying on Thursday that his government does not consider it a terrorist group.
Meanwhile, Syrians on the ground say most of the targets have been civilian. So whether they are mostly aimed at anti-ISIS rebel groups or civilians, Russia’s choice of targets so far calls into question its expressed motive of taking on the jihadist group.
Hitting rebels opposed to ISIS will benefit the latter as well as the government, highlighting further that Moscow’s real intention is to bolster its ally against any opponents. After all, Syrian rebels have been much more active against ISIS, and for a longer time, than the government has been, and until late last year fighting between ISIS and the government was conspicuously absent.
Members of both coalitions fighting Islamic State have accused each other of foreign meddling in Syria, even though both are involved – the government’s foreign allies to a far greater extent than those of the Syrian opposition.
It is rather galling, for example, for China’s foreign minister to say countries should not “arbitrarily interfere” in Syria the day after Beijing’s ally Moscow began its bombing campaign, amid a marked Russian military buildup.
Similarly, Moscow must have laughed off U.S. President Barack Obama’s warning that its airstrikes risked dragging it into a quagmire, when American warplanes have been carrying out airstrikes for more than a year.
However, Moscow’s own warning in September 2014 that U.S. airstrikes without a U.N. mandate would constitute an “act of aggression” and a “gross violation” of international law seems equally hypocritical given that the Russian campaign also lacks the U.N.’s endorsement. Despite this, and growing international condemnation, Moscow vowed on Sunday to intensify its airstrikes.
Western powers are highly unlikely to come to the aid of Syrian rebels opposed to both ISIS and the government, who have so far borne the brunt of Russia’s aerial attacks. That must have been part of Moscow’s calculations when planning its campaign.
However, the Syrian opposition’s regional backers – primarily the Arab Gulf states and Turkey – are likely to ramp up their support further. An increase in such support contributed to significant rebel victories this year against the government – they would not want to see those gains reversed.
News of Iranian troops in Syria will further galvanize Saudi Arabia, which is locked in an increasingly bitter regional rivalry with Tehran. On the day Russian airstrikes began, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reiterated his country’s long-held stance that there was “no future” for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, “with all due respect to the Russians or anyone else.”
He added: “There are two options for a settlement in Syria. One option is a political process where there would be a transitional council. The other option is a military option, which also would end with the removal of [Assad] from power.” Jubeir said he expected support for the Syrian opposition to “continue and intensify.”
As such, this new push by the Syrian government’s allies is setting the stage for the further escalation and prolongation of the conflict. If Moscow thinks its current muscle flexing will pacify Syria, it is sorely mistaken. If, as reports suggest, Russia is seeking to bolster government heartlands against further losses – in large part to safeguard its naval base in Tartus – this will contribute to the ongoing disintegration of Syria as a territorial unit.
It is hard to fathom, given the appalling levels of death, suffering and destruction already inflicted on the country and its people, but things are about to get a lot worse.
Top Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin gets out of his car as he prepares to meet French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, concerning Russia’s military intervention in Syria. (Associated Press /Alexander Zemlianichenko)