Last June, the U.S. embassy in Damascus accused Bashar al-Assad’s air force of clearing a path for an ISIS advance on Syrian rebels in the Aleppo town of Azaz. “Reports indicate that the regime is making air strikes in support of [ISIS’s] advance on Aleppo, aiding extremists against Syrian population,” the embassy account tweeted, following up with a broader accusation: “We have long seen that the regime avoids [ISIS] lines, in complete contradiction to the regime’s claims to be fighting [ISIS].”
Now Russia seems to have inherited Assad’s role as the unacknowledged air force of ISIS.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fighter jets rocketed an ammunition storehouse, destroying artillery, armored personnel carriers and even tanks belonging to Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, or The Mountain Eagles, a U.S.-backed brigade of the Free Syrian Army. A video uploaded by the brigade to YouTube shows the burning wreckage of the Russian airstrike, in Mansoura, in the western suburbs of Aleppo, as the local commander known as Abu Mohammed taunts his enemy: “Thank God, we are all fine,” says Abu Mohammed. “We don’t fear Russia or anyone helping the Russians. Bashar, we will remain resistant fighting you even without any ammunition or bullets. We will fight you with knives. We don’t need ammunition, Allahu Akhbar.”
The cameraman then adds that the Russians weren’t the only ones hitting the brigade yesterday. “The Russian airplanes are targeting Suqour al-Jabal’s weapon depots in Aleppo and ISIS attacked the bases with explosives at the same time.”
Hasan Hagali, the top commander for Suqour al-Jabal and a former captain in the Syrian Arab Army, explained via Skype to The Daily Beast: “Yesterday, at 5:30 p.m. a base belonging to Suqour al-Jabal was targeted in two air raids in Mansoura. In each raid, there were three Russian Mig-31 jets. That’s our main arms depot, where we supply all our units. At the same exact time—5:30 p.m.—ISIS sent a car bomb against us in Deir Jemal, against our base. This is about 130 kilometers away from Mansoura.” (Although two U.S. officials told Bloomberg last month that MiG-31s were en route to Syria, they haven’t yet been filmed or photographed there, and earlier reports from August that they’d been sold to the Assad regime as part of an older arms contract have been disputed.) An earlier ISIS attack against a Suqour al-Jabal frontline position, he added, occurred in Ehres, also in western Aleppo, at around 3 o’clock. But ISIS locations in the province, no doubt equally visible from the air, were left unscathed by the Russians.
In the last week, less than 10 percent of all Russian missiles (and now ship-borne cruise missiles) have struck ISIS or al-Qaeda-affiliated targets, according to the U.S. State Department. What is a consensus view among analysts is that ISIS clearly is not Putin’s quarry in Syria, at least not yet, because he’s too busy killing the anti-Assad rebels supported and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency. U.S. officials have acknowledged as much.
But that Moscow might actually be objectively helping ISIS defeat a common enemy by acting as air support for the jihadists’ ground assaults against U.S. proxies is less well understood, even though it fits with predictions warning that Putin’s adventure in the Levant was never going to be counterterrorist in nature.
Rather, this Russian adventure was designed to fortify a faltering client regime, possibly help it regain lost territory, and above all eliminate any credible threat to its legitimacy or long-term rule which, for the moment, ISIS does not pose.
“It’s clear that Russia’s strategy in Syria is to make the conflict binary by giving Syrians only two choices: Assad or ISIS,” said John Schindler, a former U.S. intelligence analyst and occasional Daily Beast contributor. “Attacks on the FSA, while encouraging defections to the regime, are a key component of how Russia operationalizes its strategy for Syria. Russia has excellent intelligence on Syria, especially from signals intelligence, and is using this to target FSA and others in a manner that the U.S. government can do little about now. Joint operations with ISIS are to be expected, some with intent, some by default, and should not surprise given the extent of regime intelligence penetration of [ISIS].”
Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst and a military specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that while he doesn’t doubt that the Russians will eventually set their sights on ISIS, for the time being, it behooves Moscow’s war aims to indirectly allow ISIS to devour U.S.-backed rebels. For one thing, Putin’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence arm and one of the successors of the former KGB, has actually been helping jihadists in Dagestan emigrate to Syria to join ISIS, the better to lower the temperature on a homegrown Islamic insurgency and also enervate American-led coalition efforts.
The Russians, White added, have strategic form here. “We had the classic case of the destruction of the Polish Army in 1944,” he told The Daily Beast. “As the Soviets approached Warsaw, they stopped and let the Germans crush the Polish rebellion. The Red Army did nothing to help the Poles. But then they chased Germans out of Poland. It’s possible that a similar plan is unfolding in Syria.”
But it may not work.
One of the ironies of the Obama administration’s vow not to interfere with Russia’s intervention in Syria is that it already has—and successfully.
Today, Russian warplanes heavily bombarded several targets along a salient in Hama province, reportedly using thermobaric munitions and the same multiple launch rocket systems earlier employed to devastating effect in east Ukraine. At the same time, Assad’s army advanced to dislodge the rebels from towns such as Kafr Zita, Morek and Kafr Nabudah. But the army failed, principally because many of its Free Syrian Army opponents were equipped with TOW guided anti-tank missiles, all supplied by the CIA. As many as 18 regime tanks (all manufactured in Russia or the former Soviet Union) were destroyed by these weapons in a 24-hour period. And the rebels held their ground in Hama.
At roughly the same time, Russian naval vessels fired long-distance cruise missiles across Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian airspace, hitting indeterminate targets in eastern Raqqa (where ISIS is present) but also in western Aleppo and Idlib (where ISIS is not). Footage of these strikes, accompanied by swishy computer-generated simulations of their flight paths, were disseminated almost in real time throughout Russia’s state-controlled propaganda organs, such as the English-language RT.
The battlefield may yet change following the injection of an unknown quantity of Russian “volunteers”—Putin’s shorthand for plausibly deniable Russian soldiers—in addition to hundreds of Iranian troops said to being joining Assad’s beleaguered military in the coming days and weeks. But it is almost beyond dispute that these foreign fighters will not be deployed to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, where ISIS reigns, but rather to central and western Syria, where the Free Syrian Army plus other assorted Islamist and jihadists factions do.
The missile strikes at unknown targets from the Caspian Sea are meant to project “strength and power,” according to Lilia Shevtsova, a nonresident fellow and Russia expert at the Brookings Institution. “The Kremlin’s adventure has both psychological and systemic dimensions,” she emailed to The Daily Beast. “On the one hand, this is an act of blackmail against the West—Putin’s way of trying to force the Americans to accept the Kremlin’s rules of the game. On the other hand, it’s a desperate attempt to reproduce the military patriotic legitimacy of the Russian government. But erasing terrorists? Come on!”