Thursday, October 01, 2015

Russia bombs Syria

It looks like Russia is doing what Turkey did a few weeks ago. They say they are intervening in the Syrian conflict by talking about the threat ISIS poses to the world, and then instead bomb a different rebel group that is opposed to ISIS, ISIS is not the "enemy," it is the convenient justification for outside powers to do whatever the hell they wanted to do all along. When Turkey started bombing Kurdish groups amidst anti-ISIS talk, I mentioned that despite its the Turk's rhetoric, its actions were actually helping the Islamic State. Russia's action will probably have the same effect. By bombing rebel groups that are not ISIS, it will both help make ISIS the strongest rebel group and further discredit the effectiveness of less religiously radical rebels.

At the same time, unlike just about everyone else, I don't see Russia's new intervention as some unique game-changer. Over the past two years, this conflict has been marked by repeated interventions by outside powers. First, Hezbollah intervened to prop up Assad, then Western powers (primarily the U.S., but with some British and French assistance) started their bombing campaign against ISIS, and then Turkey pretended to join the anti-ISIS campaign, but mostly just attacked the Kurds. Each one of those was a major deal when it started, and yet the conflict continued to grind on. Each one altered the internal dynamic of the conflict, without resolving the overall conflict or bringing it closer to resolution.

I expect the Russian intervention will have a similar effect. All Russia is really doing is giving Assad a more effective air force (just as Hezbollah gave him more effective ground forces). Because Russia is likely to prioritize groups that are most directly confronting Assad, it is not going to fight ISIS all that much (with the big exception of Palmyra, most of ISIS's expansion in Syria has been by taking territory that was already controlled by other rebel forces, not the Syrian government), at least that is how it will work until the increasingly beleaguered non-ISIS rebels cease to be a major factor in the conflict.