Hidden agendas in the Syrian imbroglio

Drawing by Dormidont Viskarev

Drawing by Dormidont Viskarev

The Russian campaign to bomb Islamic State targets in Syria has met widespread international criticism from other parties with an interest in the region. A closer look reveals that each of the stakeholders in the region is pursuing their own agendas.

It has been over a week since the Russian Air Force began aerial strikes on positions held by terrorists of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS). Resonance from the several dozen air attacks has proved louder than the fallout from the few thousands carried out by the U.S.-led coalition’s air forces over several months.

However, responses from the West to Russia’s attacks have been far less consolidated than they were to Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

According to French President Francois Hollande, France will allow, under certain conditions, joint strikes with Russia in attacking ISIS. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that Russia should play an important role in the resolution of the Syrian crisis, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be allowed to be party to the process.

In contrast, Britain has called Russia's actions in Syria a "grave mistake." The criticism from the United States, where there is even talk of imposing new sanctions against Moscow, is also growing shriller.

Russia is being criticized for hitting the "wrong targets," for allegedly carrying out strikes not only on ISIS, but also on the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition rebels. A statement issued by seven countries (Germany, France, Britain, the U.S.A, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar) after the first bombing expressed "concern" over the alleged deaths of civilians during the bombing.

It is remarkable that, after the U.S. Air Force's accidental air strike on a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz, no such statements appeared.

The "concern" expressed by some countries over Moscow's military intervention in the Syrian conflict on the al-Assad government’s side is threatening to escalate into a full-fledged media war and, in the long term, into an indirect confrontation in Syria against the Russian air force via proxies, who may be given weapons by those who are now criticizing Moscow. It is clear that, behind this criticism, are some of their own hidden agendas, all of which are not confined to the fight against ISIS.

It is from this angle that the sharp criticism of Moscow from Riyadh or Doha; which were not only the original ideological (and financial) inspiration behind the start of the military action to topple Assad, but also the sponsor of several groups fighting against Assad; should be considered.

Turkey, which is also zealously monitoring Russia’s actions, has already protested twice against the intrusion of Russian fighters into its airspace. From the beginning, it has been pushing the idea of introducing a "no-fly zone" at least in the north of Syria and the creation of a sanitised zone along its border to the north.

Russia's intervention has disrupted these plans. Meanwhile, the north of the country is controlled not by ISIS, but the Kurds. The Turks do not want them to tie up with the Iraqi Kurds (and the Kurds in Turkey) to push for the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

Turkish special services until quite recently flirted with parts of ISIS (some of the group’s militants found refuge in the country and received aid). Having joined the coalition against ISIS recently, the Turks are carrying out strikes on Kurdish positions, among others.

Washington is also criticizing Moscow for hitting "wrong targets,” implying moderate rebel groups opposed to Assad. However, the United States is declining to name these "moderate" groups. Representatives of the Pentagon and the White House appear reluctant to answer questions about whether the U.S.-led coalition is carrying out strikes against groups like the Jabhat al-Nusra (which, in turn sometimes clashes with ISIS) or Ahrar Al-Sham, also little short of a terrorist group, which is part of the Islamic Front coalition, or the Army of Islam, which gained particular notoriety for an ISIS-like massacre in the industrial town of Adra, near Damascus, probably because the U.S.-led coalition does not carry out such strikes.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Front, like the Army of Islam, is readying plans to build an Islamic state in Syria under Sharia law, and enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia. They can only be considered "moderate" at a stretch. The Syria Revolutionaries Front (SRF), another Islamist organization that recently claimed to be seen as "moderate," is close to the Islamic Front. However, before being recognized as "moderate," SRF had an alliance with ISIS.

Most often when the West talks of "moderate" groups it is referring to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), created at the beginning of the war with by officers who had deserted the Syrian government army to oppose Assad. However, the FSA, which has always featured a variety of small groups, Islamic jihadi groups among them was, from the beginning, strongly influenced by the ideology of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoyed the covert support of the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Since spring this year, the FSA has effectively disintegrated as a combat group. However, many small and independent local combat groups operate under the "umbrella" of the FSA. These include those entering into tactical alliances with the Islamists, even from ISIS. Those arming these groups should take into account the tendency of militant mercenaries to cross from one group to another, and realize that these weapons could end up in the hands of ISIS.

The pressure on Russia will, of course, increase. The aim is to force the Kremlin to abandon actions that may lead to the strengthening of Assad's position. To what extent Moscow will be able to resist this pressure is a matter of diplomatic bargaining. This would include the fate of Assad himself and his role in the negotiating process during the transitional period.

In terms of tactical military goals then, given the territorial losses by Syrian government troops this year, recovery of their positions with air support will take at least two to three months. The sooner this can happen, before winter, would be best because severe sandstorms begin in the region in that season.

The author is a political scientist and a member of the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy.

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