ISIS smiles big at Russia’s offensive in Syria

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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If there was such a thing as an “ideal scenario” for ISIS, it is quickly transforming to a reality in Syria as the group’s rivals are dealt severe blows by the Russian offensive, while a regional war in proxy is distracting from any serious ground mission to defeat it.

Russia’s 444 sorties in the last week around Northern Aleppo were very much in line with Moscow’s targets since last September and the beginning of its operation in Syria. As this map, prepared by “People Demand for Change” group, shows, the Kremlin’s hit list since the beginning of its operations in September has been far from ISIS strongholds, and focussed on anti-Assad forces. Another recent map by the Institute for the Study of War, highlights the groups that Moscow has targeted, with the goal of helping the regime and its allied sectarian militias regain control of the Northern border.

While Moscow’s battle-plan could succeed in the short term in handing military victories to Assad and pro-Iranian groups, it is a recipe for a counterterrorism disaster in the long run, and one that largely benefits ISIS. Russia’s tactics aiding a cruel dictator, bombing schools and hospitals and fueling sectarian tension, make a perfect recruiting tool for the extremists. Added to this, is that it’s generating a massive influx of refugees feared to be infiltrated by ISIS members, fleeing Syria into Turkey and Europe.

Looking at the battle map in Syria, the Russian air bombardment has effectively overlooked ISIS. Whether that is a temporary strategy to shore up Assad while diminishing his bigger threat -the moderate rebels-, or to ultimately leave the West between two choices Assad and ISIS, it remains to be seen. But for the time being, the Russian strategy from air, aided by Assad forces and allied Shia and YPG (People’s Protection Units) militias on the ground, plays politically and militarily into ISIS’ hands in Syria.

While Moscow’s battle-plan could succeed in the short term in handing military victories to Assad and pro-Iranian groups, it is a recipe for a counterterrorism disaster in the long run, and one that largely benefits ISIS.

Joyce Karam

In the immediate aftermath of the Northern Aleppo battles, ISIS is bound to benefit militarily as Russia deals heavy blows to common Assad and ISIS war rivals. These include battalions in the more moderate Free Syrian Army such as Jabha Shamiya, Faylak Sham, Soukour Jabal, and Nour Deen Zanki. The area targeted also has heavy presence for the more radical but anti-ISIS forces, such as Ahrar Al-Sham, and Al-Qaeda’s allied group Jabhat Nusra. Just as Russia was bombing the rebels this week, ISIS announced the surrender of some of the rebel fighters and families to its forces.

Moscow’s tactics along the way in helping its closest Middle East ally, make a perfect recruiting tool for extremists including ISIS. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented that Russia’s bombardment has killed more civilians last month in Syria than both Assad and ISIS. These tactics have been more magnified with recent accusations to Russia targeting Doctors Without Borders hospital and school in Idlib last Monday. To add fuel to the fire, Russia’s alliance on the ground with Shia militias and Iranian proxies directly enforces ISIS’ sectarian narrative that this is a war against Sunnis, abetted by the West and that only the rule of the Caliphate can bring justice.

Advantage ISIS

For starters, it is this exact sectarian narrative and air bombardment in 2003 that gave birth to ISIS in Iraq. Building on the notion of disaffected Sunnis and recruiting based on U.S. tactics in the war from Abu Ghraib detention camp to Fallujah, ISIS managed to build a foothold in Iraq, that it spread later to Syria.

While the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in 2007 and 2008 relied heavily on Sunni tribes in Anbar in rolling back ISIS, the Russian strategy in Syria is doing the exact opposite. Moscow is alienating the same Sunni groups that threaten ISIS, while striking an alliance with Assad and Hezbollah whose actions have helped the organization recruit and seek monopoly over Sunnis.

The influx of refugees as well from Russia’s bombardment into Turkey and for some into Europe infuses a new element into ISIS’ advantages. Just as more than 30,000 refugees were stranded on the Turkish border, U.S. intelligence officials were warning from ISIS increased ability to infiltrate those fleeing into Europe. Some have even hinted that this is part of Moscow’s plan to compound Turkey’s and Europe’s problems while it rejects settlement of Syrian refugees.

Russia’s strategy and standoff with Turkey over support for the Kurdish YPG that Ankara considers terrorist, also freezes any mission to liberate ISIS territories in Syria. With the YPG expanding its presence on Turkish borders, and the forces that the U.S. , Arab allies, and Turkey have been beefing up to fight ISIS are very much weakened, any serious offensive to fight ISIS in Syria is laid to rest for the moment.

ISIS has every reason to be overjoyed with Russia’s current strategy in Syria, beginning with the scope of Moscow’s targets, its fueling of sectarian tensions and curtailing a larger coalition against the Islamic State. The repercussions of Russia’s actions in Syria will unlikely be confined to the battles between the regime and the opposition, and will be felt in counterterrorism efforts in Europe and beyond.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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