Russia is clearing the decks for Assad

Russia still maintains that it is in Syria to fight ISIS. Maybe they will even get round to it one day. Who knows? But in the meantime, their primary target is not ISIS, but rather, everyone who is part of the non-ISIS opposition to President Assad.

On Christmas Day, Russia and the Assad forces assassinated a number of rebel leaders of the “moderate opposition.” Chief among them was Zahran Alloush, the undisputed leader of the Sunni militants in the Damascus area, and head of the Islam Army, the most powerful (and most hard-line) of the groups which participated in the Vienna peace process.

Alloush was no paragon of liberal virtue – he had a penchant for sectarian rhetoric not too far off from that we hear from ISIS, and with a record of torture and political assassinations behind him. But he did willingly engage with the peace process and is largely credited with completely stamping out ISIS in the territory he controlled. He was not just a bitter enemy of Assad, but also one of the most effective fighters against ISIS.

Wreaking havoc

And Alloush is far from the only one to have been targeted. In the past few weeks, the Russians have wreaked havoc on the leadership structures of many independent anti-Assad non-ISIS groups, with targeted strikes against the most important rebel leaders. Whether those rebel leaders were effective against ISIS as well and could have helped in that effort does not seem to have been a consideration at all.

In the past few weeks, the Russians have wreaked havoc on the leadership structures of many independent anti-Assad non-ISIS groups

Azeem Ibrahim

The upshot is this: at the Vienna talks, Russia is ostensibly pushing for a political settlement between the Assad government and the non-ISIS opposition. On the ground, Russia is assassinating the leaders of the non-ISIS opposition and working to dismantle their militias. In other words, Putin is not only looking to torpedo the Vienna process, but also trying to change the facts on the ground so Assad is the only show in town so when it comes to any ceasefire or peace deal. And the only thing that could stand against ISIS in the final instance. That way, Putin will leave the West no option but to come on board with him and Assad if they want to fight ISIS.

But in the meantime, ISIS is doing rather well out of this. The Assad regime has approved the transfer of some 4000 beleaguered Sunni fighters from areas it has safely under siege from areas in safe rebel territory – some of those fighters will be ISIS. And many of the groups who are actively fighting against ISIS, unlike the Russians and Assad, are being decimated, giving ISIS the opportunity to muscle into their territory. It is now only a matter of time before ISIS makes a move into the Damascus areas previously held by Alloush.

The de facto military détente between Assad and ISIS continues, the trade in oil and gas continues (despite heavy American bombardment of the transport convoys), and all under the watch of Putin’s “fight against terrorists”. There should be no doubt, however, as to what Putin’s priorities are: to keep a genocidal maniac in power by using the pretext of fighting against terrorism to target any opposition to Assad except for the terrorists themselves. And once again, our Western leaders have no strategic response to this, and no real desire to do anything other than throw bombs at the problem and hope for the best.

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Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim
 

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:47 - GMT 06:47
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