Jalal Zein Eddine

How Russia has served ISIS

Russian air force pilots and technicians checking a Russian Sukhoi Su-30 jet fighter at the Hmeimim airbase in the Syrian province of Latakia on 5 October 2015. (AFP/Pravda/Kots)

ALEPPO — Ahmad, from the town of Al-Raei, won’t be among the few individuals who have joined ISIS recently because his father won’t allow it. However, the number of new-entrants into the group has seen a new increase since Russia’s brazen intervention in the Syrian conflict.


Since Russia’s direct military intervention, ISIS has entered a golden period. Its leaders and members hope that dynamics on the ground will shift in favor of the group, which had begun to suffer from manpower losses and popular dissent in the areas under its control. ISIS has greeted Russia’s intervention with something akin to celebration, especially after a Russian bishop said it was a holy war. This was all the group could have wished for. “They accused us of extremism and fanaticism but the truth has revealed itself. The intentions of the heretic West and the atheist East have emerged unmasked, in their true form,” says Abu Muslim, the leader of Friday prayers in Manbij. “They have pooled their resources to pounce on the caliphate state, which will reach Moscow in spite of them.” So, the group is doing its utmost to convince everyone that it really is fighting a holy war against heresy and atheism.


The group’s fiery speeches aren’t always noteworthy. What is noteworthy is that over the last two weeks many of its mosques have designated the task of giving speeches to people from Chechnya, other Russian republics and the Turkestan region. Mohammed, a teacher from Manbij, believes that the goal of this strategy is to convince Muslims of the group’s Islamic identity and that the war it is waging aims to raise the banner of Islam, thus mobilizing the people against the Russians. Preachers have focused on the Islamic principle of loyalty and enmity, and on Russian oppression of Muslims over many decades. Their new war has been portrayed as an extension of past Russian wars against Muslims.


Not confined to the mosques, mobilization has also been taking place on the street. The group convened a meeting of notables from Arab tribes in the Hasakeh Province towns of Shadadi and Hafl. During the meeting, the notables pledged allegiance to the ‘Caliph of the Muslims’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and swore to take action against anyone who aids the Russians. “The strange thing is that the area has been controlled by ISIS for some time now and the tribal chieftains have already been forced to swear allegiance to the caliphate,” says Al-Bab resident Sheikh Moussa. “Why are they repeating the scenario at this time?”


Today, the group is portraying itself as the only legitimate representative of Sunni Muslims and saying that Bashar al-Assad is not the only enemy — all the Arab regimes and world powers that pounced on the Sunni community are enemies. “The Arab regimes tricked the Sunni community in Syria and tempted them with false, deceptive promises,” says Abu Muslim. “Assad poured down his fire, shells and barrel bombs on them and they were given no weapons to confront the planes that destroyed the country and wiped out crops and offspring, even though such weapons were available. Arab rulers are loyal to the heretical West, in fact, they portray mujahideen seeking to apply God’s Sharia and establish the caliphate as enemies. As a result there has been infighting among members of the Sunni community and this has warmed the hearts of their enemies — the rejectionist Shiites and traitorous Arab rulers.” So, according to Abu Muslim, ISIS is attacking rebel factions because of their loyalty to the ‘heretical West.’


The group hopes that Russia’s intervention will contribute to changing the mood of the people and lead to ideological reevaluations that will push the Sunni street towards extremism. This would increase the number of new entrants it recieves and might prompt rebel factions to pledge their allegiance. According to Muaz, a smuggler from Jarablus, “the Syrian-Turkish border has seen an influx of foreign fighters lately from France and Britain as well as a number of Gulf Arabs, especially Saudis. The number of foreign volunteers receded greatly in recent months but now it has begun to increase again, albeit at a slower rate than before due to the heavy Turkish security presence. If it weren’t for that, mujahideen would be flowing in in the thousands.”


ISIS is benefitting on the ground from Russia’s intervention as most of the Russian strikes have been directed at what are known as Islamist factions and the moderate opposition, including groups trained by the United States. In the words of Abu Walid, a field commander on the north Aleppo front:


“Russia has done a great service to ISIS. ISIS fears the Islamist factions more than Assad, as fighting the latter shows that the group is conducting a legitimate jihad. Also, unlike the rebels, Assad’s troops don’t have the necessary combat doctrine to fight ISIS.”


So, the Russian strikes, as they are currently being carried out, weaken rebel factions but not ISIS. As Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: “The Russian strikes target the moderate opposition, they do not target ISIS.”


ISIS’s great hope is that the rebels will be defeated in the new confrontation. Abu Muslim says, “all that will be left in Syria is two camps: the camp of belief represented by the caliphate state and the camp of heresy represented by the Nusayri (Alawite) regime, which is supported by the forces of heresy. The mujahideen must shorten the road, end the shedding of blood and pledge allegiance to the caliphate to defend the Muslims and mend the banner of Islam.” ISIS is doing its utmost to convince the street that it is seeking to destroy Assad, while the ‘apostates’ (the rebels), according to Abu Muslim, are acting as a shield between the group and “the areas and strongholds of the Nusayris.”


ISIS has taken advantage of Russia’s intervention through military operations in which it seized eight important rebel-held areas to the north of Aleppo in one night: the Infantry Military College, the Juvenile Prison and the Free Zone, as well as a number of villages including Fafin, Tel Qarah, Tel Susayn and Maarata. Some of these locations border regime-controlled areas, but despite this there has been no friction or clashes between the two sides. Near-certain news is emerging from inside the group that it intends carry out a large military operation to swallow northern rural Aleppo whole, and to prepare for this it has employed a policy of car-bombing.


The Russian Air Force has contributed to the latest ISIS advance because the fear of a mid-air collision has forced down the rate of international coalition strikes. This has enabled ISIS to seize the moment and achieve an advance. Conversely, the group fears that Russian air support for Assad may lead to the lifting of the siege on Kuweires Air Base. “Fierce clashes, which have taken on a back-and-fourth nature, are currently underway between ISIS and regime troops with Russian air support on the Sabihiya front. Control over the area has shifted from one side to the other several times,” says Youssef, an Ahrar al-Sham fighter in southern Aleppo. “If the siege on Kweiris is lifted it will be a setback for the group because the regime is trying to expand towards the city of Al-Bab, the group’s commercial center.”


Whatever excuses may have been used to justify Russia’s intervention, the information on the ground shows that the group has expanded and taken control of new areas, and it has also regained some of its legitimacy. The Russian strikes, if they continue as they are, will strengthen both the Syrian regime and ISIS, and weaken the national opposition. This in turn will lengthen the war and make any solution in the foreseeable future impossible.


This article has been translated from the original Arabic by Ullin Hope.

Russian air force pilots and technicians checking a Russian Sukhoi Su-30 jet fighter at the Hmeimim airbase in the Syrian province of Latakia on 5 October 2015. (AFP/Pravda/Kots)

Russia has done a great service to ISIS. ISIS fears the Islamist factions more than Assad, as fighting the latter shows that the group is conducting a legitimate jihad."