Analysis: ISIS Is Not Putin’s Highest Priority in Syria

Putin and Assad's Moscow talks were a way to show U.S. President Barack Obama that Russia won’t hesitate to penetrate into areas of American influence in the Middle East.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hand with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015.
AP

There is no longer any doubt that defeating ISIS is not Putin’s highest priority in Syria.

Russian Sukhoi jets carried out 55 sorties east of Damascus on Wednesday. Two days earlier Russian jets attacked targets in the Latakia area, populated mainly by Alawites. The Russian air force was also active in the Homs and Idlib areas. Most of the targets were bases and military installations belonging to rebel groups, with only four attacks directed against ISIS.

If Russia’s intent is to protect the Latakia area from the rebels, attacking areas south of the border with Turkey and close to Damascus pose questions as to Russia’s military strategy. If the objective is to exert pressure on the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey in order to reach a political solution formulated in Moscow, it seems that these attacks are beginning to bear fruit. The working assumption of Western and Israeli intelligence services that Russia is striving for military victory by destroying rebel militias, while it’s clear that this cannot be achieved without effective ground forces, warrants revision. Inviting Assad to Russia is part of these diplomatic moves, and even though the details of the talks between the two leaders were not disclosed, it provided Putin with an opportunity to talk to Saudi King Salman, Erdogan and Jordan’s King Abdullah, in order to “update” them. These talks were mainly designed to show Barack Obama that the exclusive Western management of the diplomatic and military campaign in Syria was over, and that Russia won’t hesitate to penetrate into areas of American influence in the Middle East.

From this strong position, Russian foreign minister Lavrov is expected to present a plan for a diplomatic solution to the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. in Vienna on Friday. The plan calls for an interim government for six months, with Assad still a president but without authority, followed by his departure and elections for a new leadership. Turkey has hinted at its assent, the U.S. has retracted its opposition to any negotiations while Assad is still in office and Saudi Arabia, which had threatened to intervene militarily, is willing to “listen” to details of the plan. Iran supports the plan and the only remaining problem is the rebel militias, who have to agree to negotiate.

Ostensibly, Russian intervention with its potential for international clashes is actually opening a window of opportunity for resolving the conflict. The assumption is that if international support is garnered, Assad will have no choice but to accept the plan, since without Russian and Iranian support his depleted and disarrayed army will not be able to function. The rebels and ISIS will cease fighting when their supply of Arab and Western weapons and ammunition dries up. However, agreeing to talk is far from a breakthrough.

Syria has not been a local arena with two adversaries for a long time. This is an international stage on which powerful players are contending, mainly interested in the day after fighting ceases. There are several collision axes: between the U.S. and Russia, between the Saudis and Iran, between Turkey and the Kurds, and between all of these and ISIS. Any solution will have implications for the security of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. Multiple interests, reflecting alliances and rivalries, make it difficult to reach an agreement, with serious disputes even within each camp. Thus, Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, is worried that Washington is captivated by Iran and will try to ensure compliance with the nuclear accord, leading it to make concessions in Syria. Turkey, also an American ally, is concerned about military aid to Kurds in Syria who are fighting ISIS, arguing that this will reach Kurdish groups carrying out attacks in Turkey. Washington sees the Kurds as vital allies in the war on ISIS.

The Saudi-Turkish alliance has raised tensions between Turkey, Russia and Iran. Erdogan has warned that Russian intervention in Syria will threaten planned Russian projects in Turkey, worth tens of billions of dollars, with a replacement of Russia as a natural gas supplier. This is hard to envisage, with 56% of Turkish gas coming from Russia and Iran not yet ready as a substitute. Iran, which agrees with Russia on propping up Assad, is worried about a Russian takeover of Syria and is unhappy with Russian-Israeli military coordination with regard to aerial activity over Syria.

Meanwhile, rebel groups are trying to consolidate their hold on areas they have captured. They have formed a 50,000-strong new alliance, half of it Kurdish, aiming to conquer Al-Raqqa, the ISIS capital. Other new coalitions have been formed in an attempt to protect areas near Damascus from potential Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah attempts to re-take them. It is unclear what these militias will do if the Russian plan is adopted and if they will unite with Assad forces to fight ISIS after being excluded from negotiations. They have clarified that they will not cooperate with plans that do not incorporate their interests. They prefer to get rid of Assad first.