Fears that Russia's military intervention in Syria would not be confined to degrading the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were heightened on Wednesday, when President Vladimir Putin ordered the first Russian air strikes in Syria. According to the U.S. and Syrian rebels on the ground, Russian warplanes steered clear of ISIL entirely and instead focused on areas held by other rebel factions fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's longtime ally.
Conflicting accounts were still being sorted out on Wednesday night, but analysts said the confusion portends an important reality of Russia's intervention: The U.S. has no means of preventing Moscow from pursuing its own agenda in Syria — and as the four-year diplomatic stalemate over the fate of the Assad regime makes clear, Russia's agenda in Syria is at odds with that of the U.S. and its allies.
On some level, the alleged targets of Russia’s opening salvo in Syria came as little surprise. Moscow, after all, had consistently explained its sudden military build-up in Syria over the past few weeks as primarily an effort to bolster the Assad regime, which Russia considers its last foothold in the Middle East and a bulwark against “terrorism.”
“ISIS was the excuse that Putin has been using to justify intervention because there’s global concern,” said Nader Hashemi, a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, using another acronym for ISIL. “So this was an opportunity for Putin to step in.”
Putin has talked tough on ISIL, but the more imminent threat to Assad in every key battleground of late has been the rebel factions caught in the middle — namely, the powerful Jaysh al-Fatah coalition led by the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. With the Syrian regime depleted of recruits and drained by years of grueling war, Jaysh al-Fatah in April sent tremors through Damascus when it overran the provincial capital of Idlib, in the northwest. Later that month, it crept closer than ever to Assad’s Alawite heartland of Latakia province, by capturing the strategic town of Jisr al-Shaghour.
If protecting Assad's regime was the goal, limiting strikes to ISIL would make little strategic sense. Moscow includes all anti-Assad armed groups as "terrorists" bent on dismantling the Syrian state. “Putin isn’t going to pick and choose between them, he’s not going to partition Syria between Jaysh al-Fatah and Assad,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “In a sense, Russia is setting up a division of labor: The Americans are holding down ISIS, and Russia will go after Al-Qaeda and its allies.”
The biggest surprise from Wednesday, if claims by U.S. officials are correct, is that Russia would strike the non-ISIL Syrian rebels right off the bat. Just last Monday, President Barack Obama and Putin had emerged from a rare meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, proclaiming a shared interest in vanquishing ISIL. Early on Wednesday, hours before the first strikes, a Kremlin spokesman reiterated that Russia was only intervening in Syria to help Assad defeat ISIL. U.S. officials, who reacted to Russia’s strikes with a mixture of outrage and befuddlement, could not explain the apparent discrepancy between that messaging and the strikes that occurred later in the day.
The strikes pose yet another dilemma for an Obama administration that many argue has all but lost interest in dethroning Syria's dictator. Letting Russia have its way in Syria will make the U.S. appear impotent, bolstering the hawkish narrative that Obama has wilted before an imperialist Kremlin in Ukraine and now Syria. Sen. John McCain, R-Az., who has long accused Obama of failing to act forcefully against Assad, was quick to air that line on the Senate floor Wednesday: “Into the wreckage of this administration’s Middle East policy has now stepped Putin. As in Ukraine and elsewhere, he perceives the administration's inaction and caution as weakness, and he is taking advantage."
On the other hand, calling out Putin’s transgressions in Syria would put Washington in the untenable position of defending the factions Russia targeted on Wednesday, which included the local chapter of Al-Qaeda. The Obama administration is still digesting the embarrassing setbacks to its train-and-equip program, which was intended to boost Syria’s dwindling “moderate” rebel factions into a viable counterweight against ISIL and Assad. Instead, U.S.-trained and equipped fighters deployed in Syria defected or donated their weapons to stronger factions such as the Nusra Front.
A growing sense that there is little to gain for the U.S. in Syria has spurred several prominent domestic political voices, including Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, to openly embrace Russian intervention. And this week, a war-weary American public returned its attention to Afghanistan, where, mere months after Obama withdrew the bulk of U.S. troops, the Taliban surged back and briefly re-captured their first major city since the 2001 invasion.
“I’m sure Obama is in many ways gratified by this,” Landis argued. “He doesn’t want to get any deeper into Syria, and here the Russians are ready to jump in for him.”
But while Russia may have outmaneuvered the U.S., the rebels’ more robust backers — the Gulf Arab states and Turkey — are less likely to stand by as Moscow tries to reverse the effects of their five years of political and financial investment to unseat Assad, who is also a client of regional rival Iran. Analysts suspect Moscow is banking that its show of strength on behalf of Assad will erode rebel resolve, or at least accrue negotiating capital for the regime in any upcoming peace talks. Instead, it could escalate the proxy war that has already cost over 240,000 Syrians lives.
“Every action has a reaction in the Middle East,” said William Pomeranz, a Russia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. “And so I don’t think just because Russia has dropped some bombs in Syria that the opposition simply melts away.”