On 30 September 2015, the Russian Federation overtly entered militarily the Syrian war by starting an air campaign. It supports the government of Bashar al-Assad, from the Russian point of view the legitimate ruler of Syria, while attacking extremist jihadis threats and notably the Islamic State (see below for references). The entry of this new powerful actor is a game changer, not only in Syria, but, more broadly, regionally and globally, as noted by most observers.
Although it is very early to assess fully the consequences of Russia’s involvement, we shall identify and outline hypotheses regarding the impact it may have, notably as far as the Islamic State is concerned. To be able to evaluate this impact, we would need first to have a clear vision of what is happening on the ground, basically the characteristics of the Russian air campaign and related damages on the Islamic State, possibly in combination with the already ongoing U.S.-led coalition strikes besides various groups fighting on the ground, notably the Kurds.
We are here facing a first hurdle, considering the existing very high level of polarization at global and regional level. The characteristics of the Russian air campaign and military involvement are not, or not only, a matter of facts, they are a tool and stake in a war which is also fought over influence and ideas, within an unstable world order where shifts are at work and, as a result, also involve struggles over influence and ideas.
Looking at the Russian strikes through the lenses of some of the actors involved, we shall outline these perceptions as they will give us the belief-based framework within which actors evolve, define, then carry out their actions. We must emphasise here that focusing on perceptions does not mean looking for truth or falsehood, but trying to understand how actors interpret the world. Perceptions may be accurate or false, contain element of truth or not. What matters is that they impact actors’ understanding and reasoning. We shall finally sketch out the more general picture as evolving from the actors’ reports, pointing out general characteristics of the situation in Syria. With forthcoming posts, and building upon this initial assessment, which will be revised if need be as events develop, we shall move forward in our assessment of possible major impacts.
Russia and its air strikes in Syria
As far as Syria is concerned, and without considering other regional and global objectives, Russia aims to support the government of President Bashar al-Assad to restore order and peace in Syria, while destroying jihadis threats, including the Islamic State, and, if need be, groups dubbed moderate but likely to finally join the Islamic State and thus enhance the related global threat (e.g. The Washington Post, “Read Putin’s U.N. General Assembly speech“, 28 Sept 2015; Yuri Barmin, “Identifying the Strategy behind Russia’s Air Strikes in Syria“, RIAC, 5 October 2015).
As a result and as Lindsey Hilsum titled her article for The Guardian, “In Assad’s heartland, villagers see Russians as saviours” (4 Oct 2015) .
The creation of a wilayat Qawqaz (Caucasus) on 23 June 2015 by the Islamic State, i.e. on part of the Russian Federation territory, as well as the involvement of Russian citizens among jihadis fighting in Syria, certainly also contribute to Russia’s willingness to see the jihadi danger stopped (Harleen Gambhir, “ISIS Declares Governorate in Russia’s North Caucasus Region“, ISW, 23 June 2015; Helene Lavoix, “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Structure and Wilayat“, RTAS, 4 May 2015; Mike Eckel and Joanna Paraszczuk, “U.S. Sanctions North Caucasus Militants For IS Recruiting Efforts“, RFERL, 5 Oct 2015; Barmin, Ibid.).
Confirming this concern, on 6 October 2015, a counter-terrorism operation was being carried out in the Dagestan Republic, part of North Caucasus Federal District in Russia, after others being launched in July and August (Tass, “Counter-terrorist operation regime declared in Russia’s North Caucasus“, 6 October 2015 & “Counter-terrorist operation launched in Russia’s Dagestan“, 10 August 2015).
Meanwhile, Russia must also face, as the rest of the world, risks of terrorist attacks, as, for example, on 11 October 2015, a counter-terrorist operation arrested people planning a terrorist attack on Moscow (Reuters, 11 Oct 2015).
As a result, Russian’s reporting, through the Russian Defense Ministry, notably by means of its website, or Youtube channel, relayed by official or quasi-official media, will reflect these perceptions and aims.
For example, according to the Russian Defence Ministry, on 5 October, 10 strikes (indeed out of 15 to 20) targeted the Islamic State, from Tadmur in Homs, to “IS headquarters and a command post in the Aleppo province” near Dayr Hafir, through “structures housing field commanders in Dayr Hafir and al-Bab”, while “30 IS military vehicles including tanks were destroyed in the forested area near the city of Idlib” (“Russian Air Force destroys 20 ISIS tanks near Palmyra – Defense Ministry“, RT, 5 Oct 2015; Ria Novosti, 5 Oct 215, Russian Defense Ministry, Youtube Channel).
On 6 October, always according to the Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, Russian forces “have launched air strikes on 12 objects of logistic infrastructure, command posts, training camps and facilities of militants belonging to terrorist groups allied with Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL],” “in the course of nearly 20 combat flights” (RT, “Russian jets hit 12 ISIS targets in Syria, ’cause panic among extremists“, 6 Oct 2015). According to the spokesman, those strikes took place in areas as varied as outside Damascus (“an Islamic State army munitions plant” was “destroyed”), Deir ez-Zor (“two command centers destroyed”), or the Idlib Governorate (“a training camp for IS militants” “eliminated”).
Russia is also ready to show its use of advanced military material to see its aims met in Syria, which, meanwhile, contributes to demonstrate military and technological power, useful both in terms of international influence and arms trade. We thus have, for example, the use of Krasukha-4, broadband multifunctional jamming station, which could impair enemies communications (“Jamming the Jihad: Russian Electronic Warfare Systems Spotted in Syria“, Sputnik News, 8 Oct 2015). Note that the U.S. has a very similar approach, as shown by the American series of “photo essays” related to Operation Inherent Resolve, U.S. Department of Defense.
Another Russian example is the much publicised ship-launched cruise-missiles fired from the Caspian Sea on targets in Syria (“Massive strike with precision weapons on targets in Syria, LIH, of the Caspian Sea“, video by the Russian Defence Ministry; Patrick Lyons, “Russia’s Kalibr Cruise Missiles, a New Weapon in Syria Conflict“, New York Times, 8 Oct 2015). Incidentally, the almost immediate controversy regarding the second such strikes, with, on the one hand, the U.S., using unnamed Pentagon officials, pointing out that 4 missiles would have strayed in Iran, information the Department of State refused to confirm (“U.S. Officials: Russian Cruise Missiles Aimed At Syria Crashed In Iran“, RFERL, 8 Oct 2015; “Daily Press Briefing – Syria/Russia“, U.S. Department of State, 8 Oct 2015) and, on the other, Russia denying such problems (“Proof please? CNN claims Russian missiles crashed in Iran, Moscow refutes, US can’t confirm“, RT, 8 Oct 2015), points out that more than Syria is also at stake here. It too shows the high level of confusion not to say deception obscuring the overall situation, which makes it even more necessary to turn to perceptions if one wants to understand what is happening with regard to the Islamic State.
Actors hostile to the Islamic State and unfavourable to the government of Bashar al-Assad
Non-Russian actors, not only hostile to the Islamic State, but also unfavourable – up to hostile – to the government of Bashar al-Assad tend to interpret the Russian strikes with perceptions that can be, so far, categorised along two main lines of focus: the Russian strikes are actually mainly carried upon all groups hostile to Bashar al-Assad, and not against the Islamic State; Russia is as violent as the Bashar al-Assad regime it supports, thus does not care about civilian lives, and, as a result, airstrikes indiscriminately target and kill civilians. Those two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, but can be combined.
Perception 1: Russia strikes all groups fighting Bashar a-Assad, not only the Islamic State
In the first category of perceptions, we can find many Western actors, as exemplified by the Institute for the Study of War detailed – and assorted of a confidence judgement – ongoing reporting on where Russian strikes took place: e.g. “Russian Airstrikes in Syria 30 Sept-4 Oct, and “Russian Airstrikes in Syria 30 Sept-5 Oct“, etc.
The Bellingcat blog‘s attempt at correcting “inaccurate descriptions from the Russian Ministry of Defence about their airstrikes in Syria” in their crowdsourced effort “Geolocation and Analysis of Russian Ministry of Defence Syria Airstrike Videos” also fit this first perceptual category. Unfortunately in the case of Bellingcat, the repeated “verification footnote” that the Islamic State is not in this area (e.g. Elliot Higgins “looks good, right location, no ISIS in that area, false.”, verification of “Oct 8th – Airstrike KP LIH gangs on the outskirts of Tama”) is grounded in absolutely no evidence at all, which de facto destroys the whole project. Were the project able to ground its assertions in proper evidence, adding to them a basic confidence judgement, then we would have an extremely useful tool to primarily enhance our knowledge of the Islamic State military operations. It is, however, most probably impossible to obtain this type of certain knowledge in guerrilla warfare, when the situation is fluid and changing, and when fighting units hide and use deception, without setting up a complete intelligence system.
This perception, then, could very easily lead those who see the world through these specific lenses to believe that any advance of the Islamic state after the start of the Russian air strikes could also be a consequence of these strikes. The reasoning would be that non-Islamic State groups were holding the Islamic State back, and, thus, attacking them de facto helps the Islamic State. The capture by the Islamic State of a few villages around Aleppo on 10 October (Dominic Evans and Parisa Hafezi, “Islamic State closes in on Syrian city of Aleppo; U.S. abandons rebel training effort“, Reuters, 9 Oct 2015), could lead to this type of interpretation, as exemplified by Pamela Engel “Russia just handed ISIS a ‘big win’ in Syria’s largest city” (Business Insider UK, 9 Oct 2015). Fighting groups in Syria opposing Bashar al-Assad, have of course interest to promote these perceptions. A proper analysis would also consider that such victories by the Islamic State take place after years of fighting, including after one year of U.S.-led coalition strikes (BBC News, 23 Sept 2014), and that large swathes of territory were previously taken by the Islamic State when Russia was not operating (e.g. recently Palmyra). Thus, a proper conclusion, but a more humble one because considering uncertainty, might be that, even with Russian involvement through airstrikes, the outcome of the ongoing war in Syria is far from certain.
Perception 2: Russian air strikes are brutal and kill civilians
In the second category, focusing on the “brutality and violence on civilians”, we find some Syrian actors fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime, for example the Syrian National Council, the Islamic State, or sources located within the area the latter controls.
The Syrian National Council represents the political authorities of Syria for the groups opposing Al-Assad (for a summary and historical approach, see Helene Lavoix, “The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NC) and the Supreme Joint Military Command Council (SJMCC or SMC)“, updated 24 Feb 2014). It is partly legitimate internationally in so far as some countries such as members of the League of Arab States, Turkey, France or the U.S. have recognised it as the sole legitimate authority for Syria (Ibid.). Its domestic legitimacy, considering the various groups fighting on the ground, furthermore not recognising the NC, is, however, contested. The NC denounces Russian strikes emphasising the suffering of civilians, as, for example, with its 30 September 2015 Press release, titled “Russian Airstrikes Are a Bold Aggression, Fuel Terror, and Undermine a Political Solution,” or with other official statements (see the SNC website).
The famous blog “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently” (RBSS), which opposes the Islamic State since the fall of Raqqa between April and June 2013 (e.g. Aymenn al Tamimi, “Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in Raqqah: Demonstrations and Counter-Demonstrations” Jihadology, 24 June 2013) is another instance that exemplifies a perception focusing on harm caused to civilians. Here, it most probably represents the collective feelings of people rather than a military or political grouping.
RBSS stresses the fear of civilians regarding forthcoming Russian raids and preparing to leave, while also pointing out a “state of confusion” among ISIS ranks, which would be ready to abandon the Islamic State to fight alongside Al Nusra, as Russia is considered as the primary enemy. According to the author, the mindset of the population would have been reinforced by bombings targeting the city, which took place on 17-19 September 2015 (thus before the official start of Russian strikes), and were attributed to Russians because the aircrafts did not look like those usually used by the Bashar al-Assad regime (Sarmad Al Jilane “A frighten off the Russian aviation in Raqqa“, 5 Oct 2015; “Regime air force bombing Alraqqa and ISIS is on call up“, 17 Sept 2015, RBSS).
The RBSS article is particularly important because it underlines how much fear is at work in Syria among the population. This fear and all the reasonings that may emerge from it will need to be assuaged one day, besides anger and resentment, should stabilization ever happen again. Meanwhile, fear is most likely to remain a political tool in the hands of those trying to mobilize followers; scared people being promised security in exchange for obedience.
The Islamic State and the Russian airstrikes
The Islamic State’s psyops products also address the Russian airstrikes and involvement in the war, although their number is still relatively low. We shall most probably have to wait until the publication of the next Dabiq by Al-Hayat Media Center to get an even better idea of the full perception of the Islamic State. Indeed, the latest versions of the various Islamic State’s psyops magazines were all published before the start of the Russian strikes: Dabiq#11 on 9 September 2015, Dar al Islam#6 and Konstantiniyye#3 on 27 September 2015, and Iztok#2 on 2 August 2015 (all Al Hayat media center publications).
Using the French and English magazines*, as well as photo reports and raw footage from the Islamic State “Agency Depths”, we may nevertheless start outlining the Islamic State’s image of the Russian entry in the Syrian war.
First, the Islamic State’s message – and most probably perception – as shown in its psyops products, fits with the second type of perceptions identified above, i.e. showing the Russians as harming civilians (see photo above). It can be found in the products which started illustrating the bombings they weathered recently, for example in Aleppo, or Raqqa.
In Aleppo the Islamic State psyops products specifically accuse, although cautiously, Russia, and show ruins and civilians among them (“The effects of the devastation caused by the bombing of military aircraft believed to be Russian, on the door of a city in the countryside of eastern Aleppo”, raw footage, Agency Depths, 5 Oct 2015). In the case of the Raqqa, in a way that corroborates the RBSS posts, they display images of wounded, notably children “Some of the video shows dead and wounded as a result warplanes bombing the town of Raqqa”, raw footage, Agency Depths, 17 Sept 2015). They also portray ruins and angry citizens after strikes that took place, according to the video, on 21 September 2015 (“Warplanes bombed several areas in the city of Raqqa today”, raw footage, Agency Depths, 21 Sept 2015). Note, however, that here they do not specifically and officially accuse Russians.
Second, we find a much larger approach to the Russian military operations. We may assume that the Islamic State expected the entry of Russia in the Syrian war at some point. It had, anyway, to address support to Bashar al-Assad, even before the beginning of the Russian strikes, as well as operations in the Caucasus, as that region is, from the Islamic State’s point of view part of its wilayats. As a result, Dabiq #11 devoted a large part of an article (“From the battle of al-Ahzāb to the war of coalitions”, 9 Sept 2015) to try establishing, in a very far-fetched way that “the most important allies of the Americans” are “Iran, Syria, and Russia”. According to the Islamic State, all are conspiring to promote a “new Safavid empire”, thus favouring and spreading Shi’a Islam (Ibid., pp.48-52).
It is crucial to note that the vision of a religious sectarian conspiracy backed by Christian crusaders to bring about an empire hostile to Sunni Islam, is shared by some “Islamist Saudi Arabian clerics”, unrelated to the Saudi political authorities, who “called for Arab and Muslim countries to “give all moral, material, political and military” support to what they term a jihad, or holy war, against Syria’s government and its Iranian and Russian backers” (Angus McDowall, “Saudi opposition clerics make sectarian call to jihad in Syria“, Reuters, 5 October 2015).
We thus see the potential for a complex heightening of Sectarian polarization enhanced.
Finally, we should point out that Russia is not even mentioned in the French Dar al-Islam#6, probably because the authors feel either unconcerned by Russia, or believe their target to be uninterested by the issue. Furthermore, the Islamic State continues producing a very large number of psyops products of all types, without dealing extensively with the Russian airstrikes. As an imperfect proxy measure, out of 21 photo reports published between 5 and 7 October and 3 raw video footage between 1 and 8 October, only two products (“Wilayat Halab [Aleppo]: Creation of a new Fire and Rescue team in Manbej”, 5 Oct 2015; “Wilayat Halab [Aleppo]: And Life goes on”, 6 Oct 2015) and one, respectively dealt more or less directly with the Russian strikes. The others emphasised a continuation of life under the Islamic State, from quarry work, to inspection through the killing of apostates, or ongoing fighting. The reason for this absence may be, as mentioned above, because it is too early in the process to see the Russian strikes emphasised, because they do not so much concern the Islamic State, or because the Khilafah tries to minimise the potential negative impact of the strikes, to say nothing of scoring victories despite them.
A changing military strategy in Syria?
If, leaving aside for now the beliefs-based impacts of the strike, we focus on the picture that is emerging out of these perceptions of the Russian operations, it seems that we are witnessing the implementation of a slightly different strategy, compared with the previous and continuing US-led coalition’s approach. Each strategy is constrained by its alliances and aims.
As far as Syria is concerned, the U.S. and its allies exclusively focus on areas almost fully controlled by the Islamic State (from the East of wilayat Halab – Aleppo – to wilayat al-Furat and Wilayat al-Khayr – Deir el Zor). They previously provided the Kurds, in their fight against the Islamic State, with aerial support, as during the siege of Kobane or during the early Summer Kurdish offensive towards Raqqa. However, that aerial support was considerably reduced following Turkey’s move to reopen hostilities with the PKK in August (Roy Glutman, “U.S. Kurdish allies welcome Russian airstrikes in Syria“, McClatchyDC, 2 October 2015; for a backgrounder on the role of the Kurds in the Syrian War, see Helene Lavoix, “The Kurds and Rojava, State-Building in the Syrian War“, 10 Feb 2014; “The Kurds in Syria“, updated 10 Feb 2014; “Facing the Fog of War in Syria: The Tragedy of Kurdistan“, 4 November 2013, RTAS).
Considering, so far, the total inability of the coalition to support and train efficiently any other “moderate” force (e.g. Reuters, “US-trained Syrian rebels in equipment exchange with al-Qaida affiliates“, The Guardian, 26 Sept 2015), the possibility to see local ground troops supplementing the Coalition air efforts seems uncertain. The Pentagon is, however, currently revising it strategy (Missy Ryan, Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock, “Pentagon plans major shift in effort to counter the Islamic State in Syria“, The Washington Post“, 9 Oct 2015).
In Syria, the coalition conducted 2579 strikes up to 29 September 2015 (“Operation Inherent Resolve“, U.S. Ministry of Defense).
For its part, the Russian Federation has been invited by Bashar al-Assad, to support it in the war (Umberto Bacchi, “Russian troops deploy to Syria to intensify Bashar al-Assad fight against Islamic State“, IBT, 30 Sept 2015). As Bashar al-Assad’s government still holds Syria’s seat at the United Nations (see Permanent Mission Of The Syrian Arab Republic To The United Nations), the Russian intervention is lawful in terms of international law. It furthermore benefits from shared intelligence on the ground, which could be enlarged to include Iraq (Associated Press, “Iraq is going to share intelligence on ISIS with Russia, Iran, and Syria“, Business Insider UK, 27 Sept. 2015).
The Russian military, thus, feels free to target any point of the Syrian territory, most probably in agreement with Bashar al-Assad’s government. This allows Russian planes to also act on intelligence unavailable to the U.S.-led coalition, regarding areas that are disputed and where fighting between various groups, including the Islamic State, is ongoing. Thus, Russian forces may also be able to work towards preventing the Islamic State to further expand in some areas, but probably not all, as the ongoing battle around Aleppo shows. However, they are too, meanwhile, probably tilting in some measure the balance of power in favour of Al-Assad, which in turn creates anger among those groups and countries that want to see Bashar al-Assad gone.
As they act in coordination with Bashar al-Assad, then the Syrian Army can act militarily on the ground, although this comes with its own set of problems, as shown in the operation launched on 8 October 2015 (AlJazeera English, “Assad forces stage vast offensive in western Syria” 8 Oct 2015; Sputnik, “Syria Launches a Large-Scale Operation Against the Islamic State” 8 Oct 2015. Furthermore, the Russians have also now the potential support of the Kurds, in exchange for reciprocity (Fabrice Balanche, “Syria’s Kurds Are Contemplating an Aleppo Alliance with Assad and Russia“, Policywatch 2499, The Washington Institute, 7 Oct 2015; Ria Novosti, “The Kurds expect that the participation of the Russian Federation in the fight against the IG in Syria will bring them freedom“, 5 Oct 2015; Amberin Zaman, “PYD leader: Russia will stop Turkey from intervening in Syria“, 1 Oct 2015, Al Monitor; “Russian airstrikes are dividing Kurds and the FSA in Aleppo“, Albawaba, 5 Oct 2015).
On the contrary, the US-led coalition has chosen to consider first the diplomatic and military quagmire in Syria, rather than seeing, for example, that it was aggressed by the Islamic State and thus could act first to defend itself against an enemy. The two are different standpoints. In the first case, the priority is to contribute towards ending the conflict in Syria – and Iraq. One thus tries to help and to find a solution, preferably diplomatic, with as little as possible use of force.
In the second case, one develops a strategy aimed at winning against an enemy, which has declared war to a very large part of the world and to one’s country (see Helene Lavoix, “The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War“, 19 January 2015 and “Ultimate War” 9 feb 2015, RTAS), and one uses all means to achieve victory. Note, if need be, that the latest issue of the Islamic State’s Dar al-Islam continued to make very clear that they were at war and “had to fight infidels on their own land” (“La seule manière d’échapper au châtiment d’Allâh est de combattre les mécréants dans leurs propres terres”, p. 34, Dar al-Islam #6, 27 Sept 2015) with then an illustrated training session on how to use firearms from the AK47 to “grenade F-1 Russian” through pistols (Ibid: 35-40).
Thinking one is at war and wanting to defeat one’s enemy does not mean not to think about the complexity of the situation, of alliances and of the various clashes of beliefs, on the contrary. This means developing a comprehensive strategy.
Considering its choice of understanding of the situation and related objectives, the U.S.-led coalition must first conciliate many countries with different positions regarding an alternative government to Bashar al Assad’s (see Syrian actors, the NC). They have then to do with being fundamentally unsure of potential allied groups on the ground, witness the 2013-2014 hesitations to deliver weapons as those could then easily find their way to Islamist groups (Ibid.; Tara McKelvey, “Arming Syrian rebels: Where the US went wrong“, BBC News, 10 Oct 2015). The Western countries, part of the coalition, are also taken in a mental straitjacket built since at least World War II, where war is always bad (and not only illegal when aggressive – see UN charter), where life must be easy, where individual rights prime over collective ones, where death and violence including at war are denied, and where “the West” is always afraid to be seen as “imperialist” and “colonialist” (especially for European countries).
As a result, the U.S.-led coalition cannot afford to act in such a comprehensive way as the Russians, assuming it has the information necessary to do so. Furthermore, as pointed out by Ryan et al.’s article (Ibid.), human marking of targets on the ground is necessary for some of the most sophisticated airstrikes to take place.** Not having such human support on the ground thus also limits what one can do from the air. The coalition’s capacity to strike – and act – is, as a result, de facto limited. Consequently, the war against the Islamic State has so far been conducted in a less than optimal way and had started being perceived as having stalled, as became clear throughout September 2015, with the enquiry into U.S. tampered intelligence reports on operations against the Islamic State (Eli Lake & Josh Rogin, “Investigations Into Islamic State Intel Scandal Expand“, BloombergView, 24 Sept 2015).
Yet, the Islamic State remained a threat, growing, with time playing in its hands.
If the Russian operations thus bring changes, they are also not without disadvantages, some of them shared with the previous phase, others specific to its premises, notably the potential heightening of sectarian Shi’a-Sunni tensions as already mentioned here. On the positive side, we may already note, that, ironically, Russian involvement may have hastened or prompted the beginning of a revision of strategy in Washington and probably in other countries of the U.S.-led coalition. We shall turn next to these potential risks and impacts, notably regarding the Islamic State.
*Turkish and Russian translations and analyses of the Islamic States’ Konstantiniyye and Iztok would be welcome.
** Communication from Dr JM Valantin regarding space power and airstrikes.
Featured image: Photo 1/14 from the series by the Russian Defense Ministry “Flights of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ aircraft from the Khmeimim airfield (Syrian Arab Republic)” – Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.