Let’s get serious about the mess in Syria. Western media and DC think tanks are still muddying the waters in order to spin the Russian military intervention and air campaign as some nefarious plot to rule the world. They pose a false either/or binary choice in doing so. Take this statement from the often reliable Institute for the Understanding of War (IUW): “The Russian air campaign in Syria appears to be largely focused on supporting the Syrian regime and its fight against the Syrian opposition, rather than combatting ISIS” (http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-airstrikes-syria-september-30-october-3-2015). The problem with this claim is that it conflates the Syrian opposition into one conglomerate while excluding IS from the opposition. First, the word ‘opposition’ is itself misleading. We are dealing with Syrian revolutionary forces. Understanding this aspect of the revolutionary/civil war, IS is one of the Syrian opposition/revolutionary groups.
Second, the other revolutionary forces are almost solely jihadi groups — Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), Ahrar al-Sham (AS), the Islamic Front (JI), etc., etc. — which often fight side-by-side with that supposedly ‘moderate’ revolutionary force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In fact, the FSA is dominated by fighters tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Third, the non-IS jihadi groups and the FSA often conduct joint operations.
IUW was honest enough to report that there were at least two and perhaps three sorties that hit IS. What is often left out of this picture is that IS forces are in largely little-populated areas and/or far away from the the core of the Syrian state along the Mediterranean Sea. The other jihadi groups are attacking the Alawi corridor along the coast and in Idlib province, and they do so at times in alliance with the FSA, which is a weak, almost irrelevant force, the fecklessness of which is matched only by its patrons in the U.S. administration.
It is indeed instructive that in his congressional testimony on September 29th, the Senior Editor of the Long War Journal and Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Thomas Jocelyn, did not mention the Western-touted Syrian ‘opposition’ FSA even once in discussing the U.S. Syria strategy or lack thereof. It is mentioned in a caption below the photograph accompanying LWJ’s posting of Jocelyn’s testimony and posted above here. The caption reads: “Fighters from Ahrar al Sham, the Free Syrian Army, and Al Nusrah Front display their banners after a victory in Idlib province, Syria” (www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/09/us-counterterrorism-efforts-in-syria-a-winning-strategy.php). As I have noted numerous times on this site and as Jocelyn does in his testimony, Al Qaida-tied groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Nusrah Front) and Ahrar al-Sham differ from IS only in their tactics and strategy, not their goal – the creation of a global caliphate. The photograph is a good representation of the difficulty, even the impossibility of discriminating between jihadi forces, on the one hand, and Islamist ‘moderates’ of the MB ilk, on the other.
Let’s try some clear thinking. Putin stated openly to the American people and others willing to listen in his Charlie Rose interview that Russia’s military intervention in Syria was about stabilizing and shoring up the Assad regime, so IS and other jihadi groups cannot come to power there. Russia has also said it supports negotiations on a transition from the Assad Baathist regime to another. One cannot stabilize the regime without fighting those who wish to overthrow it. A lesson Washington needs to learn, except it cannot because its main goal was and arguably remains the overthrow of the Assad regime not fighting IS.
It appears that the failure of the US-led coalition’s campaign in Syria is that it has tried to destroy both Assad and IS; hence the other jihadists’ gains in Idlib and elsewhere. The American Syria policy rests on two operational pillars. One is a CIA program designed to back rebels fighting the Assad regime. The other, now defunct, is a Defense Department train and equip program to build a rebel Syrian strike force that was intended to fight only ISIS. This means that there was no U.S. effort to target the tens of non-IS jihadi groups and tens of thousands of non-IS mujahedin fighting in Syria, giving them a free hand to overthrow Assad and terrorize the population, which they do only somewhat less brutally than IS.
This means that U.S. policy was simultaneously easing the threat to Assad and feeding it. On the most basic level, this self-contradictory policy means that the revolutionary/civil war continues leading to the inevitable civilian casualties – putting aside jihadi terrorism and ‘cleansing’ the population through Sharia law – and the flood of refugees into Turkey and Europe.
Newsflash: One cannot fight IS without improving the chances of the Assad regime’s survival, and one cannot fight any of the revolutionary forces without doing so.
It seems that some in the West are rethinking matters in Syria. According to Putin, French President Francois Hollande proposed to him during their telephone conversation yesterday that it might be worthwhile trying to get the Free Syrian Army to join Assad’s military in fighting the various jihadi forces. However, unrealistic this may be, it does signify a shift in one Western leader’s approach to the conflict. In addition, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin that the Russian military has established direct contact and real-time coordination with the Turkish military regarding any Russian operations near Turkey’s border. He also reported that the Russian military has agreed to a document drafted by the U.S. Defense Department, presumably, on ‘deconflicting’ their respective operations over Syria (www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50458). Egypt also chimed in with a different tone, supporting the Russian military intervention as a help in the war against jihadism but remaining uncommitted as to joining the fray (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/10/03/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-egypt-idUKKCN0RX0VZ20151003).
It remains to be seen whether Russia, the West, and the Arabs can develop a joint military and political approach to the conflict.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation. He is also Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at CSIS at http://csis.org/program/russia-and-eurasia-program. Dr. Hahn has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. (2011-2013), the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. (1995 and 2005), and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, San Francisco State, and St. Petersburg State (Russia) Universities.