Is Russia Really Going After ISIL in Syria?
On September 30 Russia commenced it aerial bombing campaign in Syria. Russian officials said around 20 missions were conducted against ISIL in Hama and Homs provinces. Western media was suspicious of Russian claims, as according to Syrian activists the areas struck were not controlled by ISIL. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, responded to these criticisms by saying that “the rumours that the target of these air strikes are not ISIL positions are unfounded” and that the Russian air force would “exclusively” target ISIL. Yet the US State Department claimed that less than 10% of Russian airstrikes are against ISIL or al-Qaida militants. Who are we to believe here, the Russians or the Americans?
Well the simplest answer is that we should believe neither of them. Both Russia and America are presenting distorted accounts of the situation in Syria so as to further their own ends. Russia is in Syria to maintain Bashar al-Assad in power and to prevent the creation of a pro-American Sunni Islamist state (for an exploration of why this is the case see my previous posts here). The US appears to desire the opposite outcome, the ousting of Assad and the formation of a new ‘democratic’ pro-Western regime. Thus the aims of America’s and Russia’s foreign policies are contradictory, making the two powers adversaries vis-à-vis Syria. Hence, why both will employ obfuscation to thwart the other, which makes it difficult for an objective observer to determine what is going on in Syria.
Since Russia wants to maintain Assad in power, to achieve this end, any group that is threatening Assad’s regime must be eliminated or at least degraded. ISIL is such a group and for this reason Russia is targeting it in Syria with air strikes. But there are many other such groups, such as Jabat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Ahrar ash-Sham, Jaish al-Fatah, Jaish al-Haramoun, etc. All of these groups and others that threaten Assad are also the target of Russian air strikes.
So when Lavrov states that Russia will “exclusively” target ISIL in Syria he is lying, because Russia will target any rebel forces that are threatening Assad’s regime, the majority of which are not ISIL. But Lavrov is not lying by intimating that Russia is fighting against ISIL. The real question is how much of Russia’s efforts will be focused on ISIL and how much on other rebel groups?
In the short term it is probable that Russian and Syrian forces will preferentially target non-ISIL rebel groups for a variety of reasons. Firstly groups such as Jabat al-Nusra, the FSA and Ahrar ash-Sham are generally more proximal to territory controlled by Assad and as such they pose an immediate threat. In contrast ISIL is based more in the eastern portion of the country making them less threatening to Assad’s power base.
Secondly, because ISIL’s caliphate spans two nations, its focus is divided so that their full ‘might’ is not concentrated against Assad, whereas the other rebel groups are completely focused on fighting Assad, which makes them more of a threat. Another consequence of ISIL’s Iraqi territory is that if its forces are heavily bombarded by Russia in Syria they will likely flee into Iraq to seek safe haven. It is harder for the other rebel groups to flee from Syria making them more vulnerable to Russian air strikes.
Thirdly, ISIL is not only fighting Assad’s forces but is also ardent enemies with many of the other rebel groups in Syria. Any group that does not swear allegiance to ISIL is considered an enemy. So if Russia targets and thereby weakens groups fighting ISIL, then ISIL will likely opportunistically attack them, weakening them further and possibly destroying them. In the short term such a divide and conquer strategy may strengthen ISIL, but with the other rebel groups destroyed or significantly weakened then Russia air power can focus on ISIL.
With there being many reasons for Russia to focus their bombing campaign on non-ISIL groups, why do Russian officials keep stating that they are solely fighting ISIL? The answer is so Russia can gain sympathy and support for their Syrian air campaign. ISIL is the most violent and gruesome of the rebel groups. They will kill anyone, both Muslim and infidel, that does not abide by their ideology. Moreover they behead, burn, stone, throw off buildings, machine gun, drown, explode, bury, rape and enslave their numerous enemies. For these reasons many consider ISIL to be the epitome of evil. So if Russia attacks ISIL, or at the least say they are attacking ISIL, then many people, including Americans and Europeans will be very supportive of any such anti-ISIL campaign. This is a very clever piece of PR by Putin and his officials.
Now America is not very happy with what Russia is doing in Syria. While America may want Assad out of Syria, they do not seem very keen to do the necessary dirty work to depose Assad themselves. Someone else has to do the dirty work of fighting Assad, and that someone else is the ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria (which upon closer inspection appear non-existent). It is not surprising that US Secretary of State John Kerry had “grave concerns” that Russia was striking non-ISIL rebel groups because these groups are being used by America and its Sunni allies as a proxy army to fight Assad’s regime.
While America flounders to draw up a response to Russia’s intervention in Syria, it is a good starting point to discredit Russia by stating that ISIL is not the target of their intervention. The American propaganda machine is in full force, telling us that Russia is not fighting ISIL, but the Russian propaganda machine is also busy attempting to counter this narrative.
The problem that we have as observers is who are we to trust, American propaganda or Russian propaganda? America says less than 10% of Russian airstrikes have targeted ISIL, while Russia says that they have destroyed 1,623 targets in Syria which have primarily been ISIL. To get an accurate and undistorted view of what is occurring in Syria is difficult, but fortunately there are sources of information within Syria that are of use. The group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has kept track of casualties in the Syrian Civil War, has reported that Russian airstrikes have killed 131 ISIL fighters and 279 fighters from other rebel groups. According to these figures 32% of total rebel casualties have been ISIL members. These figures validate my contention that Russia is preferentially targeting non-ISIL rebel groups, but its also tends to discredit the American claim that less than 10% of Russian airstrikes have targeted ISIL (and al-Qaeda).
It is also interesting to note that some Christian leaders within Syria have welcomed Russian airstrikes. The Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, has called Russian airstrikes a source of “hope” for Syrian Christians. Monsignor Jacques Behnan Hindo the Catholic Prelate of Hassaké-Nisibis has been more explicit. He said, “Moscow’s intervention has been positive because they are really targeting Daesh [ISIL] and the militia are beginning to flee,” and with regards to American airstrikes, “people never believed in America’s attacks.” So here we have two Syrian prelates who believe that Russia is attacking ISIL.
It is true that Russia is going after ISIL, to eliminate it as a threat to Assad and to destroy its Chechen elements before they can return to the Motherland and launch terrorist attacks there. However Russia is not “exclusively” focusing on ISIL as there are other rebel groups that are as or more threatening towards Assad’s regime than ISIL. So America is not being completely disingenuous when they question whether Russia is in fact targeting ISIL, however they do not seem to be concerned with furthering the truth but with discrediting their adversary Russia. In this situation it appears that Russian propaganda is closer to the truth than American propaganda. How things have changed from the Cold War.