Russia must reconsider its role in the fight against ISIL

Russia's military intervention in Syria has had the effect of galvanising opposition forces, writes Hassan Hassan.

The intervention ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin in Syria has galvanised opposition groups. Umit Bektas / Reuters
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Nearly two months into the Russian military intervention in Syria, it should be already clear this involvement has been toxic on multiple levels. So far, the move has caused at least two high points of polarisation not only inside Syria but also in the region at large, with little to show in terms of reversing the rebels’ gains on the ground.

Moscow’s decision to intervene on the side of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad had a unifying and galvanising effect for the ­anti-government forces. In a rare show of support for the Free Syrian Army, for example, individuals affiliated to extremist forces praised western-backed groups for destroying around 20 regime tanks during the first ground offensive assisted by Russian air cover. Armed factions seem to have increasingly adjusted to the merciless Russian bombardments and managed to make a number of significant gains against the regime, primarily in southern and northern Aleppo.

Meanwhile, the only major achievement for the regime forces has been to break the siege of the Kweiris airbase between Aleppo and Raqqa, although the base was not completely secured and ISIL returned to carry out suicide attacks outside it.

In the background of this meagre performance, the Turkish military downed a Russian jet last Tuesday. Some of the responses coming out of Russia about the incident are adding ­fuel to the fire raging in the region. For example, Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was “Islamising” Turkey – suggesting that Moscow is either unaware of the landscape in the region or arrogantly ignoring it. For its part, the Russian embassy in the UK released poster art from 1915 mocking Ottoman soldiers.

These responses only help Mr Erdogan, who has long sought to present himself as a voice for Sunni Islam in the neighbourhood and beyond. While these statements may resonate positively within Russia, they are driving more people in the region to view the Russian intervention in Syria as part of a greater effort, not just an attempt to save a desperate ally.

Previously, Moscow could characterise its unwavering support for the Assad regime over the past five years as a reflection of its commitment to the Syrian state. Indeed, some in the opposition hoped that it would broker a deal between the two warring sides.

The provision of weaponry and political support at the UN Security Council is one thing. It is quite another to deploy forces in Syria and remorselessly strike residential areas. Expressing anger towards Turkey through the use of language that could be viewed in some circles as ­anti-Islamic is perilous, especially as many view this as part of a wider Russian-Iranian alliance.

The portrayal of the military dispute with Turkey in cultural terms could add to the already toxic sectarian situation in the region. Some people are calling for boycotts of Russian products in favour of Turkish ones. These voices, which reflect how Russia is perceived, should push Moscow to rethink its posture.

On a more subtle level, invoking past empires in discussing what is happening in Syria – Ottomans versus the Soviet Union – risks vindicating such claims made by extremist forces in the conflict. This is what the international campaign against ISIL tried to avoid by including Muslim countries in the fight and carefully depicting the battle as being one against a fringe group that does not represent Islam. This populist rhetoric should not be taken lightly, especially when it comes amid a substantial increase in the level of destruction and polarisation caused by the Russian intervention in Syria.

But regardless of this potential intangible effect, the standoff is already shifting the focus away from ISIL. Once again, countries that claim to be committed to the fight against ISIL are busy dealing with their own battles and priorities. And the situation is poised to become even more complex as division deepens between the international forces involved in the Syrian conflict.

The momentum built after the Paris attacks to fight ISIL has been overshadowed by disagreements within the pro-opposition international base, since France has so far failed to form a “grand alliance” that includes Russia, and also by the Russia-Turkey dispute.

The landscape inside Syria is already transforming in a way that may not help the fight against ISIL. It is hard to imagine how the international community will bridge the increasingly profound disagreements between the foreign forces inside Syria, especially as Russia fails to achieve palpable progress for the regime on the ground and as initial hopes for reviving the political process lead nowhere.

Hassan Hassan is associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and South Africa Programme, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan