As with the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts against the Islamic State group (ISIS), Russia’s air campaign has also started out with grandiose claims regarding the efforts exerted and successes achieved thus far against the group.
For example, despite more than a year of U.S.-led airstrikes and ground operations, Britain’s Daily Express newspaper – under the headline “End of ISIS?” – would have us believe that the group is “on the verge of defeat” after just a fortnight of Moscow’s campaign. A day later, RT (Russia Today) claimed that “demoralized ISIS militants” are “deserting en masse.” This is unabashed propaganda, regardless of the obvious failings of the U.S.-led coalition.
Supporters of the Russian campaign criticize the U.S.-led coalition for not significantly weakening ISIS by now, but they overlook an important difference. While the U.S.-led campaign’s target has been ISIS specifically, most Russian airstrikes have targeted Syrian rebels opposed to the group, including the Free Syria Army, despite Russia’s foreign minister saying, the day after his country’s airstrikes began, that the FSA was not a terrorist group.
The pattern of bombings is clearly shown by a map on the BBC’s website detailing the locations of U.S.-led and Russian airstrikes in Syria from September 30 (the day Moscow’s campaign began) until October 14. From the outset, Syrian rebel groups have been far more active against ISIS than the Syrian government has been (until summer last year, fighting between ISIS and the government was conspicuously absent).
As such, the Russian campaign, while supposedly designed to take on ISIS, is directly benefitting the group by mostly hitting its primary opponents in Syria.
This is not mere speculation. ISIS has made significant gains in the province of Aleppo – not against the government, but against rebels who are being bombed by Russian warplanes.
It is “increasingly clear” that ISIS is “taking advantage of Russian airstrikes against the rest of the opposition to march into new territory,” the Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen reported last weekend. ISIS militants are now “the closest they have come to Syria’s former commercial capital in two years.”
Meanwhile, with Russian air support, the Syrian government and its allies are undertaking and planning major ground assaults against rebels opposed to ISIS, which is mainly watching from the sidelines. The group is also using Russian involvement as a recruiting tool, as it has done with Western and foreign Shiite involvement.
Those Russian airstrikes that do target ISIS seem to serve as a veneer, so that the air campaign’s supposed raison d’etre is not completely rubbished. However, that veneer is proving increasingly thin as time goes by and developments unfold.
The impetus behind Russia’s air campaign is to prop up the government of Bashar al-Assad by targeting its biggest threats, which are the various rebel groups that are also opposed to ISIS. This strategy would ultimately lead to a Syria largely controlled by two parties: the government and ISIS.
That the group benefits from Russia’s involvement is no surprise, and is not even a coincidence or unfortunate by-product. The stronger ISIS gets, the more people buy into the flawed notion that Assad is an indispensable partner in its defeat, and that he is thus part of the solution to the Syrian conflict rather than part of the problem, or in fact the cause of it.
As this narrative gains traction, his government’s central role in ISIS’s presence and expansion in Syria becomes increasingly overlooked. In other words, ISIS is instrumental to Assad’s rehabilitation, so Russia will be in no rush to blunt that instrument.
There may come a time when the government and its allies feel that Syrian rebels are sufficiently weakened for them to start going after ISIS as the last remaining obstacle to Assad’s renewed and total domination. Until then – and that scenario looks unlikely – the group can sit relatively comfortably.
The irony, however, is that the U.S.-led coalition has also benefitted Assad, albeit inadvertently– even American officials have acknowledged this. Its sustained bombing of ISIS – while diligently avoiding the government – has allowed the latter to more concertedly target Syrian rebels. Monitors and activists on the ground have noted an increase in government bombings of rebel-held areas since the coalition campaign began.
As such, it is no surprise that initial, strong condemnation of the coalition, and threats against it by the government and its allies, became much more muted with time, even turning into calls for open cooperation. Russian calls in this regard should thus be seen not as an olive branch, but a tactic to further shore up Assad, and a means of carrying out that strategy unhindered.
The government has come to realize what was obvious from the start: that despite the rhetoric on both sides, the coalition does not pose a threat to it. In fact, the debate about whether there should be cooperation, or under what circumstances it should happen, masks an unpleasant reality: in terms of the beneficiary of both campaigns, de facto cooperation is already taking place.
Top Image: Smoke rises after shelling by the Syrian army in a suburb of Damascus on 14 October 2015. Backed by Russian airstrikes, the Syrian army has launched an offensive against rebel factions in central and northwestern areas of the country. (Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP)