Two weeks ago, Russia began brazenly launching airstrikes all across Syria, and last week Russia fired cruise missiles into northern Syria from the Caspian Sea. This was supposedly unexpected by the Obama administration, which insists that Russia’s efforts are “doomed to failure” and that Putin is entangling his forces in a “quagmire.” But the reality is the opposite: Russia’s intervention is directly empowering ISIS and it is Obama’s policy which is now doomed.
Though Russia claims to be fighting ISIS first and foremost, over 90 percent of its airstrikes targeted moderate rebel groups fighting against both Assad and ISIS. Those targets were probably chosen by the Assad regime, which in 2014 targeted ISIS in only 6% of its 982 counterterrorism operations. One wonders whether Assad and Putin would ignore ISIS altogether if they could get away with it and focus on their real goal: keeping the regime in power and destroying all credible alternatives.
The first Russian airstrikes in Syria targeted Talbiseh, a rebel-held village in the northern suburbs of Homs, killing 30 civilians and 3 children. That Sunni community has been a hotbed of anti-Assad activity since early 2011, and for the past few months, its residents have been resisting advances by nearby ISIS. Just before Russia bombed Talbiseh, ISIS assassinated 3 of the town’s Sunni clerics because they had rallied local rebel fighters and residents to fight ISIS. Russia’s attacks on these anti-ISIS communities effectively makes Russia the air force of ISIS.
Among Russia’s other targets were the First Coastal Division in Latakia, Tajamu al-Ezzeh in Hama, and Suqour al-Jabal in Aleppo--all recipients of TOW missiles through the CIA’s train and equip program. These moderate Sunni rebel groups have been crucial allies to the U.S. fight against ISIS. Last Wednesday, following Russian airstrikes targeting Suqour al-Jabal, ISIS detonated a car bomb targeting the same group. It seems that ISIS has accepted Putin’s invitation to join the Russian coalition against Assad’s foes.
Whenever Russian airstrikes attack moderate Syrian rebels and civilians from the sky, ISIS will be lurking in the shadows, awaiting the opportune moment to swoop in. That’s exactly what happened this week, when Russian airstrikes paved the way for ISIS to capture eight villages in Aleppo that had been defended for months by moderate rebels. ISIS similarly took advantage of air cover provided by the Assad regime over the summer. Empowering ISIS in this manner is not simply an unintended consequence of Russia’s latest intervention. Borrowed straight from Assad’s playbook, Putin’s strategy aims to force the international community to accept a false binary that Assad has promoted from the very first days of the nonviolent uprising: a choice between radical Islamists or Assad.
By eliminating the moderates and empowering ISIS, Putin is forcing Obama to accept Assad’s role in the fight against ISIS and in a future Syria. Sadly, it seems Obama has succumbed to Putin’s strategy even if it means that ISIS will win, at least in the short term. On Monday, the administration’s spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, Army Colonel Steve Warren, said: "We have seen ISIL make progress based on Russian airstrikes." The next day, White House spokesman Josh Earnest reminded reporters that countering Russia's involvement in Syria is not a high priority. Combined, these statements are a tragic admission of Obama’s resignation to accepting ISIS because of his unwillingness to confront Putin and Assad.
And Putin isn’t simply helping ISIS by destroying its major opponents--he has also become its number one recruiter. As Russian airplanes fly over ISIS-held Raqqa and bomb rebel-held areas instead, Syrians are sent a message: that they are better off joining ISIS. But Putin’s new recruits for ISIS will mostly come from abroad, as they have from the beginning. For four years, Russia has directly boosted ISIS’s ranks by facilitating the passage of Chechen rebels to Syria. This is not unlike Assad’s tactic of releasing radical Islamists from prison early during the uprising, in order to manufacture the sort of terrorism that could legitimize his brutality. Russia’s newest intervention will turbocharge the jihadist magnet in Syria, inspiring Russia’s Islamist opponents from around the world to travel to Syria, in a manner similar to how brutal Shiite militias like Hezbollah attracted their bloodthirsty Sunni counterparts. This jihadist cause became even more compelling after the Russian Orthodox Church declared the airstrikes a “holy war against terrorism,” which was quickly followed by jihadist rallying cries from Saudi clerics. These modern Crusades are every jihadist’s wet dream, and that is exactly what Putin and Assad wanted.
The White House should be worried now, not only that the policy goal of a Geneva-type Syrian peace process has become impossible, but that Putin’s actions may have destroyed all hopes of defeating ISIS too. Though many Syrians want to fight ISIS, their first priority is to stop the number one killer of civilians: the regime’s barrel bombs, which now have Russian backing. The no-fly zone that Syrian rebels need in order to focus on fighting ISIS is needed now more than ever, but it has also become more difficult and less likely due to the newest player in Syria’s skies. And while Russia targets the anti-ISIS rebels in Idlib, Latakia, and Aleppo, it is openly challenging radical Islamists from around the world to a fight that the Syrian people will pay the price for.
Obama long ago abdicated the U.S.’s moral imperative to protect Syrian civilians, and to promote peace. Now he is also capitulating to Putin on a core strategic imperative by failing to recognize and confront Russia’s empowerment of ISIS. This may be the final nail in the coffin of the US’s fight against ISIS, which has already been a complete failure due to micromanagement of the anti-ISIS airstrikes and a laughably misguided train-and-equip program. Any hope of ending this horrible conflict--or even just defeating ISIS--has now been lost, and all that a generation of Syrians will remember is that U.S. and Russian warplanes joined the Assad regime in bombing their country to oblivion.
Rahmani is a Syrian American political and human rights activist, and also an international law student at American University Washington College of Law. He regularly travels to northern Syria, and recently returned from a visit to Latakia, Idlib, and Aleppo. He tweets at @KenanRahmani