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Haid Haid

Russia’s new priorities in Syria

As negotiations in Vienna loom, Putin and Assad are looking to undermine the opposition’s bargaining power

Smoke billows after air strikes by regime forces on the town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region, a rebel stronghold east of the capital Damascus, on 13 December 2015. At least 31 civilians were killed in heavy bombardment of a besieged Syrian rebel stronghold, including near a school, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. (AFP/Amer Almohibany)

Russia’s intervention priorities seem to be changing according to the regional and international dynamics of the conflict in Syria. While Moscow’s long-term priority remains to prevent Assad’s regime from collapsing, it seems that two other short-term priories have been established recently: to sabotage Turkey’s interests in Syria as proxy revenge for Turkey downing a Russian fighter jet in November; and to increase attacks on armed groups that participated in the recent Syrian oppositions meeting in Riyadh in preparation for peace talks in Vienna, as a means of spoiling them.  

 

It’s noteworthy that the majority of Russia’s airstrikes have systematically targeted non-ISIS groups since the beginning of their intervention in Syria in September, which not only contradict Russia’s publically-stated goal but have also allowed ISIS to further gain from rebels under Russian attack, especially in rural Aleppo.

 

 

A total war strategy

 

Russia launched a significant campaign of airstrikes on 30 September in support of the Assad regime to maintain and expand the territory it controls. In a recent statement, Russian President Putin justified Moscow’s military action in Syria by protecting itself from Syria-based extremists, and gave orders to immediately destroy any targets threatening its forces in Syria. The important detail still missing here is the criteria they are using to define the terrorist groups they are planning to target. However, this mystery was soon solved when it became clear that Russia has been attacking non-ISIS groups using the regime’s definition of terrorism, which includes everyone opposing it, including civilians.

                         

Even though this campaign has failed to produce a decisive shift in the regime’s favor, it has boosted regime operations, which to date have killed far more Syrian civilians than any other forces in the country. As of November, Assad’s forces have killed 181,557 civilians since March 2011, compared with 2,034 killed by ISIS and 2,751 by other armed opposition groups. Moreover, it’s become clear that Russia is also mirroring Assad’s total war strategy. Of the systematic Russian attacks on civilian facilities, 60 were documented in November alone, making excuses of ‘collateral damage’ absurd. Destroying such facilities doesn’t just impact people in the short term by terrorizing them; it also increases civilian suffering in the long term.   

 

Russian attacks using indiscriminate weapons also mirror Assad’s collective punishment strategy. The systematic attacks on civilian facilities in particular and civilian areas in general are used to push locals to blame opposition groups for their suffering and being the cause of the attacks. According to monitoring groups, the Russian airstrike death toll as of 20 November stood at 403 civilians, a figure that includes 97 children. Additionally, more than 120,000 Syrians were internally displaced in October alone.

 

 

A proxy war

 

After the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet on 24 November, Putin warned that the tragic incident would lead to serious consequences for Turkey. This tension didn’t lead to direct military confrontation, but it was translated into a commercial backlash against Turkey.

 

Moreover, Moscow’s revenge wasn’t limited to Turkey’s interests in Russia but was extended to include Syria as well. First, Moscow allegedly destroyed an ISIS oil convoy in Syria, days after Putin accused Ankara of supplying financial and military support to jihadist extremists, although locals reported that the strike had targeted an aid convoy in northwestern Syria. Russian airstrikes continued to target civilian facilities such as markets, schools, hospitals and bakeries, etc., in towns along the Turkish border. The lack of basic services and the increased risks imposed by these airstrikes are likely to create a new wave of refugees trying to cross illegally to Turkey, which closed its border with Syria in March to stop the flow.

 

Russia has also increased its attacks on groups affiliated with Turkey in order to weaken them, which will reduce Turkish influence on the ongoing conflict as well as on Syria’s future. This is why eliminating these groups as a means of harming Turkey’s interests in Syria have become a priority, as Turkey will only be able to have that kind of influence if the groups it backs continue to hold strategic zones in Syria.

 

Moreover, targeting these groups will create a void that will likely be filled by Kurdish forces that have been looking to capture these territories; from Jarablus/Azaz, along the border to link the cantons of Kobane and Efrin in northern Syria. The Turkish government views the prospect of a contiguous, autonomous Kurdish region along its border — essentially one ruled by the PYD, a party with close ties to the PKK — as a threat. Furthermore, emerging reports indicate that Russia is supporting the Kurdish forces in their attempt to do so as a way of getting back at Turkey.

 

 

A spoiler

 

A recent increase in attacks on Jaysh al-Islam is a provocative move to push it out of the political talks with the Assad regime as part of the UN-backed strategy announced in Vienna last month. Driving a wedge between the Syrian political opposition and the armed opposition has become a priority due to the recent agreement by 116 diverse representatives to create one negotiating body to represent them. Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam are the among the strongest armed groups in Syria invited to the meetings and their presence gave the meeting more influence.

 

Ahrar al-Sham walked out before the Riyadh meeting ended, without signing the final statement., If Jaysh al-Islam also walks out and becomes a peace spoiler then the opposition will be in a weak position at the negotiating table with the regime. The increased attacks on Jaysh al-Islam’s stronghold, Ghouta, in rural Damascus, might put it under pressure from other armed rebels and local communities to request the cessation of aerial attacks as a precondition to negotiate. This condition will not be accepted by the regime, which will present the group with two options: lose its community support or become a political solution spoiler.

 

The danger of Russia’s intervention in Syria extends well beyond the suffering of civilians. It has deep implications for the local and regional dynamics of the conflict. This intervention should not be dealt with as a check-mate move that can’t be reversed, but rather considered a security threat to Syria’s present and future. The sooner we start thinking about ways to stop it from committing, and facilitating the commitment, of war crimes with impunity the closer we’ll be to finding a political solution.    

 

Haid Haid is a program manager at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s office in Beirut. He tweets @HaidHaid22

Smoke billows after air strikes by regime forces on the town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region, a rebel stronghold east of the capital Damascus, on 13 December 2015. At least 31 civilians were killed in heavy bombardment of a besieged Syrian rebel stronghold, including near a school, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. (AFP/Amer Almohibany)

Of the systematic Russian attacks on civilian facilities, 60 were documented in November alone, making excuses of ‘collateral damage’ absurd.”