Source: The Syrian Intifada – by Kyle Orton (Russia Teams Up With Islamic State Against Syria’s Rebels)
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.
Hussein Hamedani, a senior General in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), was struck down on Thursday night in Aleppo. Gen. Hamedani is among the 60-70 Iranians killed in Syria this year—as compared to 140 total since 2011—and his demise shows how extensive is Iran’s control of regime-held areas in Syria. Hamedani fought in the Iran-Iraq war, led the repression of the 2009 Iranian uprising, and was, it seems, among those chiefly responsible for the construction of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a 150,000-man, IRGC-commanded sectarian militia that has eclipsed Syria’s army as a source of regime security. Iranian State propaganda claimed Gen. Hamedani was killed by “Daesh terrorists“. It might even be true—though Iran uses such terms to describe all insurgents in Syria. Some reports say Hamedani was killed near Kuweris airbase, which is besieged by I.S., but other reports say Hamedani was killed north of Aleppo, an area that I.S. was just about to make its move on.
On Friday, Russia announced that over the previous twenty-four hours it had “hit sixty terrorist targets” and killed two-hundred I.S. jihadists in northern Syria, two of them senior I.S. commanders. A surprise, then, when later that day I.S. made its most significant territorial gains since its capture of Ramadi and Palmyra in May by sweeping through six villages in northern Rif Aleppo and Russian jets were nowhere to be seen, not even when I.S. took over a rebel-held Infantry Academy north-east of Aleppo City, a mile from the regime front line in the industrial zone of Shaykh Najjar.
Plainly the hundreds of people Russia killed in Aleppo were the rebels who have been keeping I.S. out for years. Since Russia’s intervention began on September 30, it had deliberately targeted the nationalist and other non-I.S. insurgents in Syria. The regime is not positioned—as Russia well knows—to replace the rebellion if Russia succeeds in pushing the rebels out. But, as Russia equally well knows, I.S. will replace the rebels if Russia obliterates rebel positions.
In reality, this is not so surprising. From the very start of the uprising, Assad said it was a terrorist revolt and then he and his allies—Iran and Russia—worked to make it one so the world would look on Assad as the lesser evil. Russia has helped the Assad regime with military-intelligence matters from the start and sent Islamist terrorists from the Caucasus to help I.S. overpower the rebellion. Moscow’s direct intervention is merely the latest tactic toward the strategic end of making Syria’s conflict a choice between Assad and the terrorists.
Already the American plan to increase the number of anti-I.S. airstrikes in Aleppo had been all-but abandoned because, despite Russia’s ostensible participation in a “deconfliction” process, Moscow, which operates in Syria’s western corridor that includes Aleppo, continues to behave recklessly (the U.S. has instead reoriented to bolstering the Kurds and some Arab detachments against I.S. in eastern Syria). Perhaps Moscow’s forcing the reduction of U.S. anti-I.S. strikes in Aleppo and I.S.’s advances in Aleppo are coincidental. Or perhaps not.
Before this had happened, Michael Weiss had written presciently for The Daily Beast that “Russia seems to have inherited Assad’s role as the unacknowledged air force of ISIS.” How true.
In one of the first things I wrote on this blog I documented the contrast between the regime’s scorched earth aerial bombardment policy in rebel-held areas and its tokenistic aerial attacks in I.S.-held areas. Assad’s policy, unsurprising, resulted in I.S. becoming physically and politically stronger and the rebellion weaker, and this was extended during the rebel offensive against I.S. in January 2014 when the regime’s air force “intervened objectively on the side of ISIS,” as Weiss and Hassan Hassan wrote in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, and this was especially true in Aleppo.
In the summer of 2014, after I.S. rebounded from the rebel offensive and conquered Deir Ezzor, I.S. pushed toward the then-sole rebel urban stronghold in Aleppo City. The regime chose this moment to launch an offensive against the rebellion in Aleppo City. As one rebel commanderput it at the time: “You look to the right, and there’s the regime. You look to the left it’s the Islamic State. We are caught in a pincer.”
By the end of 2014, even some who had previously dismissed Assad’s de facto air—and other—support for I.S. against the rebellion as a “conspiracy theory” had been persuaded by the sheer volume of evidence. But it was still noteworthy when the U.S. government publicly stated the obvious.
In early June 2015, the takfiris took another run at Aleppo, specifically targeting one of the bastions of the rebellion in Marea. The regime moved quickly—to bomb the rebels as I.S. moved in on the ground. One rebel spokesman said to The New York Times: “It was never this blatant.” Perhaps that was what prompted the Twitter account of the U.S. Embassy in Syria to publicly declare what many officials working on Syria had long known: The regime is “aiding extremists against [the] Syrian population”. The regime is not only avoiding I.S., the Embassy noted, “but actively seeking to bolster their position.”
In addition to embarrassing the U.S. and helping re-establish Moscow’s “Great Power” status, Russia’s central aim in Syria is to secure Assad in power, and the most politically viable way of doing that, internationally and internally, is to make I.S. the only alternative. To that end, Russia has enabled I.S.’s greatest advances for many months and directly attacked the U.S.-supported moderate opposition. Russia’s intervention has also almost certainly killed the possibility of a no-fly zone, which could have protected the Syrian population from the regime—the major source of the refugee crisis now engulfing Europe—and given the moderate rebels, an alternative to Assad and I.S., space to organize. It makes all talk of the Russian intervention in Syria as an opportunity for common interests, stability, and counter-terrorism seem quite silly. If there’s any consolation, it might be taken in that this time, unlike Algeria, it seems there is some mainstream recognition that Assad and his allies willed the chaos and extremism they now claim to hold back.