Why every side in Syria has a hidden agenda

16 october 2015

Georgy Bovt - a political scientist and a member of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy.

Resume: All of the parties with a stake in the conflict are pursuing their own goals

Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria against so-called ISIS targets has been met with widespread criticism by the other international parties with an interest in the region, but a closer glance reveals that each of the stakeholders is in pursuit of their own aims.

A week has passed since the beginning of the Russian Air Force's air strikes on the positions of Islamic terrorists in Syria, and the resonance of a few dozen attacks has proved louder than that of a few thousand carried out by the U.S.-led coalition over several months. Furthermore, the response of the West to Russia’s attacks has been far less consolidated than it was on Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

France, according to its president Francois Hollande, will allow, under certain conditions, joint actions with Russia in attacking ISIS, while German chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that Russia should play an important role in the resolution of the Syrian crisis; moreover, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be allowed to be party to the process. In contrast, the UK has called Russia's actions in Syria a "grave mistake." The criticism from the U.S., where some have already started talking about new sanctions against Moscow, is also growing sharper.

Russia is being criticized for hitting the "wrong targets," for allegedly carrying out strikes not only on ISIS, but also on the so-called moderate Syrian opposition. After the first bombing a statement by seven nations (Germany, France, the UK, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar) expressed "concern" over the alleged deaths of civilians during the bombing. Remarkably, after the U.S. Air Force's accidental air strike on a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz in the days immediately preceding this, no such statements appeared.

The "concern" of some countries over Moscow's military intervention in the Syrian conflict on the side of Bashar al-Assad's government 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. Behind all this criticism are their own goals, which are not confined only to the fight against ISIS.

It is from this angle that the sharp criticism of Moscow from Riyadh or Doha – which not only were originally ideological inspirers of the start of military action to topple Assad, but also directly or indirectly support some of the 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 in the same area of a sanitary zone along its border.

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 bond with the Iraqi Kurds (and especially their own) to push for the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

Until recently, the Turkish special services, according to some reports, flirted with ISIS (some of the group’s militants found refuge in the country and received aid). Having joined the coalition against ISIS only recently, the Turks are carrying out strikes on the positions of the Kurds, among others.

The U.S. is also criticizing Russia for hitting the "wrong targets,” implying the moderate rebel groups opposed to Assad. However, Washington is avoiding naming these "moderate" groups. Representatives of the Pentagon and the White House do not like to answer questions about whether the U.S.-led coalition is carrying out strikes against such formations as that very same Jabhat al-Nusra (which, in turn sometimes clashes with ISIS) or Ahrar Al-Sham – also nothing short of a terrorist group, which is part of the Islamic Front coalition, or the Army of Islam, which gained notoriety, in particular, for an ISIS-like massacre in the industrial town of Adra, near Damascus – because the U.S.-led coalition does not carry out such strikes.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Front, just like the Army of Islam, is hatching plans for building an Islamic state in Syria under Sharia law and enjoys the support of the Saudis. They can only be considered "moderate" at a stretch. The Syria Revolutionaries Front, another Islamist organization that recently claimed to be seen as "moderate," is close to the Islamic Front. However, before being recognized as "moderate," it made 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 the aim of opposing Assad by officers who had deserted from the government army. However, the FSA, which has always featured a variety of small groups, Islamist ones among them, was from the very start strongly influenced by the ideology of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoyed the covert support of the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Since the spring of this year, the FSA has effectively disintegrated as a combat structure. However, many small and independent combat local groups operate under its "umbrella," including those entering into tactical alliances with the Islamists, even from ISIS. Those who are arming these groups should take into account the tendency of militants to cross from one structure to another and understand that these weapons may end up in hands of ISIS.

The pressure on Russia, of course, will increase. The objective is to force the Kremlin to abandon actions that may lead to the strengthening of the positions of Assad's troops. To what extent it will be possible to resist this pressure is the question of diplomatic bargaining, including on the fate of Assad himself and his role in the negotiating process in the transitional period.

If we talk about purely tactical military goals, then, given the territorial losses by government troops this year, the recovery of their positions with air support will take at least two to three months. It will be necessary to do this catching up before winter, when severe sandstorms begin in the region.

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