The US and Russia in Syria: A Few Thoughts on How To Pick Your Enemies

Where Moscow succeeds spectacularly, Washington will probably fail, despite engaging similar means. Why is that?

Russia and the U.S. are undertaking a similar military plan in Syria: air raids on local enemies to support land attacks on local allies. Since the start of the American intervention against the so-called Islamic State in the fall of 2014, the Islamic State has lost approximately 20 percent of its territory, even though none of the important cities have fallen. But Moscow’s intervention, which started a year later, is more effective: after a month of explosive Russian raids, the combined forces of the regime and Iranian military have almost surrounded part of Aleppo (once the biggest city in Syria), which is controlled by the forces of opposition supported by Turkey. Following the panic-stricken flight of the population, approximately 300,000 civilians and 30,000 fighters remain. The siege will be long and bloody.

But if Aleppo gets effectively shut off, it will be a deciding event in the course of war. Syria will divide into the Islamic State group, with the other part controlled by Bashar Assad and supervised by revenge-craving Alawites and their Russian and Iranian patrons, from which Sunnis will flee in panic – abroad or even to the Islamic State group.

But if their allies fail, Turkey will most likely close its borders completely, and American victory over the Islamic State group in Syria will become problematic. Where Moscow succeeds spectacularly, Washington will probably fail, despite engaging similar means.

Why? First, the means might be similar, but the way they are used — not so much. The American coalition conducted 3,200 offensive air attacks as of mid-January, whereas Russia conducted 700 attacks solely on Aleppo in the course of one month (and Russia is also operating on the south front). While the Americans are striving to harm as few civilians as possible, the Russians are doing quite the opposite by bombing schools and hospitals. The newspaper Liberation stated on Jan. 29 that the World Health Organization is keeping track of these recent attacks, while the United Nations has determined that the activities of Assad’s regime “border on genocide.”*

Everyone who is able flees, hence the hundreds of thousands of refugees reaching Europe through Turkey. Ankara judges that attacks on Aleppo could cause another wave of migration 600 times as strong. Not only does this disrupt defense strategy, but it often makes it impossible. Fighters abandon their posts more often than they abandon their families – hence the significant successes of regime forces after only a few months of Russian bombing and the lack of success by the enemies of the Islamic State group after nearly a year and a half of American raids.

Secondly, Russians pick their enemies carefully. Their raids pose nearly no threat to the caliphate’s positions as they are aimed at oppositional forces that are battling the Islamic State group and Assad’s regime. In other words, Russians bomb targets for Assad that Americans support by bombing the Islamic State group. However, to avoid aggravating the relations with Russia, the U.S. does not attack its local allies, even though the Russians do not hesitate to attack America’s local allies. The latter also receives arms from Turkey, but cannot be protected by them from either the Russians or Assad’s aircraft.

Shooting the Russian jet down above Turkey backfired catastrophically on Ankara and the forces it supports. Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey and is a military threat to it, and Russian aircraft are more fiercely bombing areas in Syria that are inhabited by the Turkmens, who are related to the Turks and supported by Ankara.

On the other hand, the Americans have had to abandon their plans for arming the Syrian Kurds because Ankara (which is at war with its own Kurds and recognizes Syrian Kurds as its allies) has told Washington: either them or us. And that guarantees that the Islamic State group will not be threatened by serious land assaults or air raids, which they are capable of withstanding.

The conclusion – in Syria, and most likely not only there – appears to be clear: it does not pay to have Americans as allies and Russians as enemies, which does not necessarily mean that the opposite situation would pay off. The Russian-Syrian arrangement announced by Moscow provides, among other things, that the arrangement expires one year after one of the sides ends it, which means that Russia could continue to carry out bombings for a year even after Syria advises Russia they wish to terminate the agreement. But at least Russia’s allies do not have to worry about falling into American disfavor, as it is rather the Americans who appear to worry about running afoul of Russia.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted phrase could not be independently verified.

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