The Russian air campaign in Syria has begun to bear fruit. Last Friday morning, ISIS fighters stormed a Syrian rebel base in a surprise attack, capturing the base and a string of nearby towns. The attack, outside Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, was ISIS’s most notable advance in the area since August 2014. It was also the most notable military development in Syria since Russian planes began bombing. This is not a coincidence, and we should not expect it to be a one-off. The truth is that Russian airstrikes in Syria are a godsend for ISIS, and Russian President Vladimir Putin probably knows it.
Remember, Putin is a man who came to power by painting himself as Russia’s sole savior from Chechen insurgents. He is also a man who, in his first speech to Russia’s parliament, declared, “We need to put an end to revolutions.” Now, after 18 months as a pariah for invading Ukraine, Putin sees a chance to regain his global standing. His strategy: crush the Syrian Revolution, then paint himself and his client Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as the world’s saviors from ISIS. The problem is that he can only accomplish this task by making ISIS stronger.
In his UN General Assembly speech two days before airstrikes began, Putin said clearly what he wants us to think. He lambasted the U.S. for “aggressive foreign interference” that led to “anarchy areas...filled with extremists and terrorists.” He urged the world to work with Assad forces, whom he claimed were “valiantly fighting terrorism.” He pressed his case by calling for a “genuinely broad” global anti-terror coalition “similar to the anti-Hitler coalition,” i.e., with Russia as a key component. Finally, he discussed Ukraine and criticized “unilateral sanctions...pursuing political objectives”—an indirect but clear reference to U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
Putin wants us to partner with Assad, Iran, and himself in Syria (and forget Ukraine) in order to “fight ISIS.” But none of these actors have a good record of fighting ISIS, or even trying to. According to the security analysis firm IHS Jane’s, Assad forces targeted ISIS only 6 percent of the time in 2014. While Iran-backed foreign fighters have launched massive offensives against pro-democracy Syrian rebels, they were nowhere to be found when ISIS stormed into Palmyra in May. And U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby has estimated that Russian airstrikes in Syria have so far targeted ISIS or al Qaeda under 10 percent of the time.
The Syrian rebels have a real record of fighting ISIS. In 2014, they handed ISIS its worst defeat ever by expelling the group from two provinces and besieging its global headquarters in Raqqah. They evicted ISIS from Syria’s largest city, which is 10 times the size of Tikrit, the main city captured from ISIS by Iraqi forces. They also cut off a crucial ISIS artery to Turkey, just as Syrian Kurds did in their main victory against ISIS to date. The Syrian rebels did all this not with U.S. air support, which the Iraqis and Kurds had, but while being attacked by Iran-backed foreign fighters and barraged by barrel bombs.
For this reason, CIA-backed anti-ISIS rebels have been the main targets of Putin’s strikes in Syria. These rebels must go before Putin can paint himself as the world’s savior from ISIS. But it is unlikely that his favorites in Syria will be able to fill the void; the Putin-Assad-Iran side in Syria has been rapidly losing ground to both the Syrian rebels and to ISIS for over six months. Even with Russian airstrikes, the pro-regime side has made only limited gains while taking heavy casualties, including the deaths of top field commanders. Since Putin cannot defeat these rebels alone, he will need ISIS’s help. Putin’s plan to strengthen Assad will require strengthening ISIS as well.
This brings us back to Friday’s events. ISIS advanced last week in part because Russia supported a fierce Assad ground offensive against U.S.-backed anti-ISIS rebels. Many anti-ISIS rebel groups hold positions both in the center of the country, where the offensive took place, and on the front lines against ISIS in the north. One group was even bombed by both ISIS and Russia on the same day near the rebel-ISIS front lines. While U.S.-backed rebel groups normally rush north to repel ISIS offensives, this time, the fierce Russian assault in the center of the country kept them pinned down.
A second reason ISIS is gaining is that Russian jets interfere with the anti-ISIS coalition. Coalition air raids, despite their serious flaws, have at times beaten ISIS back. But with Russian jets flying in Syrian airspace, U.S. planes are diverting their routes to avoid conflict. Last week, the Pentagon reported two such diversions between Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase and the ISIS stronghold of Raqqah. That flight path runs directly over the towns ISIS just conquered. We can surmise that this is making it easier for ISIS to operate, and we can only imagine how much ISIS would have gained if U.S. forces had left Syrian airspace, as Putin abruptly demanded last month.
While the U.S. and Europe want to beat ISIS, Putin’s main goal is to co-opt the anti-ISIS fight. We need to think long and hard about his Chechen war before we entrust him with this task. Due to the sheer brutality of Putin’s assault, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum placed Chechnya on “genocide watch” in 2001. After the revolt was crushed, Putin put in charge an Islamic warlord as extreme as the most hardline Syrian rebel group. Today, Chechnya is the top exporter of ISIS foreign fighters; with at least 800 out of 1.3 million Chechens having joined ISIS, Chechnya is exporting terrorists at over double the rate of its nearest competitor. This is not a model of smashing success.
President Obama recently vowed that he was “not going to make Syria into a proxy war… Our battle is with ISIL.” But if the U.S. wants to beat ISIS, it cannot allow Putin to apply the Chechen model in Syria. This means it needs to challenge Russian airpower, and the ISIS-rebel front lines are the natural place to start. In fact, France, Britain, and Turkey have been calling for a “safe zone” in this area for months to protect civilians from airstrikes and help moderate rebels to drive ISIS back. However, the U.S. has held up plans for such a zone, and is now citing Russia’s presence as grounds for inaction.
While challenging Russia comes with risks, the alternative is even riskier. Putin has already demanded that U.S. planes leave Syria. Will America heed his demand to avoid a proxy war? And what if Russian planes keep making incursions into Turkey, a NATO member state, from the proposed safe area? Will the U.S. ignore this, too, because it doesn’t want a proxy war? On Sunday, it emerged that the U.S. is pulling its anti-aircraft batteries off the Turkish border against Turkey’s wishes. Will it soon do the same to NATO states in the Baltic, where Russian planes are also making unwanted incursions, to avoid a proxy war? Where does it end? If the U.S. wants NATO to endure, it must end somewhere.
On Tuesday, Politico reported that many of President Obama’s top security officials share this viewpoint, but that they are being thwarted by the President’s West Wing inner circle. Unless we want Putin to derail the anti-ISIS coalition, decimate America’s anti-ISIS partners, and help ISIS reach Syria’s largest city, that has to change. It’s time for the U.S. to join its allies in support of safe zones in northern and southern Syria. It may be a risk, but it’s a risk that Mr. Obama must take.