Russia Pounds the Achilles’ Heel of America’s ISIS War

U.S.-backed rebels are cheek by jowl with al Qaeda—giving Russian jets an excuse to bomb the hell out of them.


In the last week, Russia has stepped up its attacks in northern and western Syria, and the U.S. has cried foul, claiming Russia is only pretending to target terrorists.

“Despite claims they are focusing on [al Qaeda in Syria] and [ISIS], Russia and [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad have primarily targeted the moderate opposition,” a U.S. intelligence official explained to The Daily Beast. “Moscow’s offer of joint operations with the United States [against ISIS] was a blatant attempt to deflect attention from his targeting of moderate opposition, and sadly, innocent Syrians trying to survive the disaster Assad has created. By continuing to back Assad, it appears Moscow has squandered the opportunity presented by the cessation of hostilities to stabilize the situation in Syria.”

Russia has a completely different version of this story. The Kremlin says some of the U.S.-backed rebels not only work with al Qaeda but refuse to sever the relationship. Therefore, it is not Russia’s fault that U.S. allies are working so closely with a terror group and that Russia accidentally strikes U.S.-backed rebels in its the war against extremists in Syria.

And the fact is, the Russians aren’t totally wrong. Some of the U.S.-backed rebels do team up with al Qaeda. The latest Russian-led assault in Syria has made it harder for the U.S. to convince those groups to break those terrorist ties. It’s a situation that further exposes the Achilles’ heel of the American strategy in Syria: the line between terrorist and “moderate rebel” is pencil-thin.

The claims and counterclaims by the United States and Russia are the latest iteration in the battle of who is a legitimate target in counter-terror operations inside Syria. The debate was resurrected this week after the country has suffered its worst bombardment in months. A purported wave of Russian strikes earlier this week on hospitals in opposition-held parts of the city of Idlib killed at least 60.

In addition to the city of Idlib, Russian and Syrian government airstrikes have concentrated on the neighboring province of Aleppo, home to Syria’s largest city, and Daraya, a Damascus suburb under siege by the regime. In recent weeks, Russia has supported Syrian forces in Aleppo, moving troops from the city of Tadmour, U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast.

Russia has denied targeting anyone other than al Qaeda and ISIS, which are excluded from a so-called cessation of hostilities that took effect in February. But terrorists are clearly not the only casualties in the Russian air attacks. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian air strikes have killed more than 2,000 civilians, including 500 children and 300 women, since Russia’s intervention began on Sept. 30.

The U.S. believes that Russia has set its sights on the rebels in the latest campaign to weaken opponents to Assad by conflating opposition groups with al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.

Last month, before the latest assault, Secretary of State John Kerry called for rebels to distance themselves “physically and politically” from Nusra. A month earlier, U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney issued a statement urging the opposition to dissociate from terror groups.

It didn’t happen. Last week, Russia claimed they were pausing for a day for rebels to relocate from Nusra. Russia then ramped up its attacks on both rebels and Nusra.

The Russians claim that as opposition areas shrink, rebel forces are increasingly moving toward Nusra-held areas, making it difficult to distinguish between rebels and terrorists.

“I have an impression, which is supported by yet unconfirmed facts, that these [moderate] groups intentionally occupy al-Nusra front positions in order to prevent al-Nusra from being attacked…Perhaps those supporting al-Nusra are interested in breaking down the ceasefire and doing everything to force a military solution [of the Syrian crisis]. This would be totally unacceptable,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Sputnik News last month.

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What appears to be happening is that in critical areas of the war the rebels are pinched between Nusra and the Russian bombardments. And when the Russians see Nusra arriving, they point out its presence and declare the strike legitimate, experts believe.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because Russian bombardments have weakened critical mainstream opposition defenses, requiring Nusra to deploy reinforcements, after which Russia can point to Nusra and say that Russian strikes have targeted Nusra all along,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

To be sure, it has been clear for years that the U.S.-allied anti-Assad rebels in Syria lean on al Qaeda’s military prowess for their survival. Some U.S. officials stress that Nusra and opposition forces currently are working together on occasion and that such cooperation is not born out of shared ideology but practical wartime necessity.

Kerry’s growing push for the opposition to distance itself from Nusra became all the more difficult this week, after the latest rise in air assaults on the opposition. Simply put, the opposition needs Nusra’s help to survive, experts said. Indeed, the opposition working with al Nusra is the best defense for civilians who are victims of the ramped up air campaign and the threat of a regime ground advance. This week, reports emerged of civilians fleeing Idlib after the attacks on the hospitals.

“The opposition does not have enough military capability to preclude defeat. In the absence of that, they have chosen an alliance with Nusra. An alliance does not equal shared objectives or ideology for most groups,” Cafarella asserted.

All the while, ISIS has seized numerous villages from U.S.-backed rebels in northern Aleppo and is positioned to take Azzaz. These opposition forces face defeat without increased U.S. support.

In the short term, there is nothing to stop Russia from continuing its attacks on Nusra and opposition groups.

The Geneva talks are, at best, tenuous. The chief negotiator resigned earlier this week in protest against the regime’s refusal to allow humanitarian aide into besieged areas and in objection to Russia’s air campaign.

The United Nations has so far not followed through on a pledge to make humanitarian airdrops into rebel-held areas without Assad’s permission. A June 1 deadline set by the United Nations International Syria Support Group passed with no action.

“The failure, once again, of the ISSG to deliver on its promise to intervene confirms that Russia has freedom of action in Syria,” Cafarella told The Daily Beast.