October 5, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Russian Airstrikes Change the Game in Syria

• Five days of Russian airstrikes in Syria have produced significant repercussions that are fundamentally changing the dynamics of the conflict

• By targeting anti-Assad rebel groups, Russia is forcing a realignment not only among rival rebel groups, but also among their regional and international backers

• Combined with the power of the Syrian military, Hizballah, and possible Iranian troops, sustained Russian airstrikes could stabilize the Assad regime’s hold over a minority—but significant—part of the country

• The United States will have to decide in short order if its anti-Islamic State campaign will broaden into an anti-Assad campaign by arming and supporting rebel groups now under bombardment by Russia and Syria.


With less than 100 airstrikes in Syria, the Russians have significantly changed the internal and external dynamics of the civil war. It remains to be seen how sweeping and lasting these changes will be, though three immediate outcomes are already clear.

The first outcome is that the Assad regime, which had seen its fortunes decline dramatically in the last year, will likely stabilize its tenuous territorial position, and possibly reclaim some lost ground. The Russian airstrikes, initially billed by the Kremlin as an anti-Islamic State and anti-terror campaign, are actually part of a pro-Assad campaign. A small percentage of the airstrikes have targeted the Islamic State; the majority have been against Jaysh al-Fatah, the most effective anti-Assad rebel coalition. Ground forces from the Syrian Army, Hizballah, various militias, and potentially Iranian troops will likely back up the Russian airstrikes. If the airstrikes succeed in reducing pressure on the regime’s coastal stronghold and territory around Aleppo, the pro-Assad coalition might press the fight further, seeking to drive rebels north toward Turkey. The southern battlefield, where rebel forces have had notable success, has not yet been targeted by Russian strikes; proximity to the Israeli and Jordanian borders might be giving the Russians pause.

The second outcome is the lessened strategic value for some rebel groups in being perceived as ‘moderate.’ Now that Russia has essentially declared all anti-Assad fighters legitimate targets, the rebel groups—at least in the northern areas—will likely become more unified, and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra can claim a leading role. Ahrar al-Sham, which had only this summer published an op-ed in the Washington Post proclaiming itself a mainstream rebel group with no connection to al-Qaeda or al-Nusra, has reportedly lost an entire brigade—along with its equipment—to al-Nusra. Meanwhile, Kataib Abu Amara, one of the earliest rebel groups formed in Aleppo, has reportedly joined up with Ahrar al-Sham, blurring more of the lines between the groups. Since Russia is not making a distinction between rebel groups, any differences could take a backseat to the unifying goal of surviving Russian airstrikes.

The third outcome affects the broader U.S. policy regarding support for Syrian rebels, which has so far been built around an anti-Islamic State focus and twin efforts—one run by the Pentagon, the other by the CIA—to train and equip rebel units. The Pentagon effort has suffered from repeated high-profile setbacks and has not produced enough gains to justify its cost, both in terms of money and reputation. The CIA-run effort has been somewhat more successful, but has now reportedly been targeted by Russian airstrikes. Just as the Russians have blurred lines between rebel groups, the U.S. must now decide whether to do the same, and arm strictly anti-Assad rebel groups alongside those focused only on fighting the Islamic State. Russia sees the war exactly as Assad does: as one of legitimate nation-states fighting terrorism. The U.S. and other Western partners, with their focus on the Islamic State, may be forced to understand the fight as regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey do: one of legitimate nation-states (via their chosen rebel proxies) against Assad.


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