After five and a half months in Syria, Russian troops are leaving the country.
In a surprise statement announcing the withdrawal on Monday, March 14, President Vladimir Putin said the objective of the Russian military campaign had been accomplished.
On September 30, 2015 Putin officially confirmed the start of the military intervention in Syria, saying that Russia would be helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his so-called fight against terrorist groups, particularly ISIS.
However, official Russian reports about the results of the military intervention have made few explicit references to ISIS. On Monday, March 14, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu briefed President Putin about “a significant turning point in the fight against terrorism” in Syria. As Shoygu reported,“[t]he terrorist are driven out of Latakia, communication with Aleppo is restored, and we continue fighting against illegal armed groups.”
It would seem these “illegal armed groups” are not limited to ISIS, and include the entire armed opposition, which has been fighting against the Syrian regime over the last few years. While ISIS remains Assad’s biggest enemy, rebel groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, have been an increasing thorn in his side. In addition to the Free Syrian Army, Sunni Islamist rebels groups, like al-Nusra Front and Islamic Front, have been fighting government forces.
For the Kremlin, there is no meaningful difference between these entities and ISIS – they are all considered “illegal,” as opposed to the “legitimate” Syrian government.
As data from the Institute for the Study of War reveals, between September 30, 2015 and March 7, 2016, Russian airstrikes have mostly hit areas that are not under ISIS control. The map below shows that the majority of airstrikes were conducted in northwest Syria, particularly in areas in and around Aleppo that were controlled by non-ISIS elements of the opposition.
As Guardian columnist, Natalie Nougayrède, suggested, the Russian air force played a key role in the government’s assault on Aleppo, which helped drive out rebel groups and return the city to government control. Nougayrède argued that the Aleppo campaign contradicted Putin’s September 2015 announcement about the military intervention’s purpose. “Russia has all along claimed it was fighting Isis – but in Aleppo it is helping to destroy those Syrian groups that have in the past proved to be efficient against Isis,” she argued.
Prominent Western analysts, like Philip Gordon and Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have argued that Putin’s main objective in Syria was to prevent the Assad regime from falling. The fact that the majority of airstrikes targeted areas controlled by anti-Assad, non-ISIS rebel groups supports this conclusion. So do statements made by Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, who said that Russian efforts were helping to stabilize the Syrian military.
Under the guise of fighting international terrorism, Russia has rehabilitated one of the Middle East’s deadliest authoritarian regimes. As Russian warplanes take off from Syria, Aleppo is under Assad’s control again. ISIS is far from being defeated, while the non-ISIS opposition has been significantly weakened. Far from ending one of the most intractable contemporary conflicts, Russian intervention may have prolonged its existence.