Writer: Gabriel White
Amid the backdrop of renewed fighting and yet another crumbling ceasefire agreement, Russia, has once again embarked on a concerted effort to fracture the Syrian armed opposition. In a direct challenge to the United States, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently accused the U.S. of protecting the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, and internationally recognized terror group Jabhat al-Nusra, which rebranded in July as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. While the factual basis of Lavrov’s remarks is steeped in absurdity, the accusations perfectly illustrate Russia’s divide et impera strategy. Russia remains committed to severing U.S. ties to the armed opposition, propagating trends of extremist homogenization, and fundamentally recharacterizing the war in northwestern Syria.
A year has passed since Russia’s entry into the Syrian Civil War. It is evident that no side is capable of achieving outright military victory, yet Russia’s sustained air campaign has inflicted a heavy blow to Syria’s beleaguered opposition. To date, Russia has succeeded in both: securing the survival of Bashar al Assad’s statelet and in part, fulfilling the myth of the regime’s characterization of the opposition as a terrorist entity. These objectives have come at the price of heavy casualties, accomplished through brute force and an indiscriminate bombing campaign. As such, Russia’s involvement has catalyzed the opposition’s integration and cooperation with Islamist extremist factions. In turn perpetuating the myth that the regime’s war is a war on terror.
Of course, the trend of moderate integration into extremist elements existed prior to Russia’s entry into the war. The near collapse and subsequent irrelevance of the Free Syrian Army as the leading opposition faction was the unfortunate consequence of a cocktail of foreign backing (or lack thereof), toxic ideology, and circumstance. In its place, a plethora of well-armed and equipped extremist factions emerged, securing some of the opposition’s most notable victories, including the storming of Idlib (2015) and championing the continued defense of Aleppo.
Exploiting this reality, Russia began to lay the foundation of its incrementalist divide et Impera strategy during the February 2016 Munich Cessation of Hostilities agreement (CoH). The agreement, as drafted, presented the moderate opposition, and even some extremist factions, with the illusion of choice. These groups were forced to disavow a mostly trusted long-term partner (Jabhat al-Nusra) or face the possibility of becoming ‘legitimate’ targets of airstrikes. Despite limited success featured in Jabhat al-Nusra’s modest reorganization of forces, the ultimatum failed to yield the sought after American outcome–extremist isolation. The failed partitioning within the Syrian opposition demonstrated that the Jabhat al-Nusra challenge had already metastasized.
The failure of the February CoH agreement not only legitimized Russian and Syrian sorties over opposition held territories, but also raised questions over the boundaries of legitimate targets under the Jabhat al-Nusra affiliated umbrella. Most importantly, however, the agreement presented Russia an opportunity to broaden the base of ‘blacklisted’ groups within the armed opposition. This outcome expanded the number of legitimate targets and permanently alienated key opposition groups from participation in any potential peace agreement.
In late April, Russia submitted a request to the United Nations Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee to issue terrorist designations to Syrian Salafi opposition members: Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, Salafi groups that occupy linchpin positions within the armed opposition. Russia’s motivations to designate these groups are clear— undermine key opposition efforts in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo while simultaneously coaxing rebel forces to continue their combat operations. This outcome strains and limits whatever influence the U.S. holds within the opposition, while negating what the Cessation of Hostilities agreement in its entirety
To further illustrate Russia’s disingenuity with the peace process, at the time these requests were issued, the Syrian High Negotiating Committee was chaired by Jaysh al-Islam leader Mohammad Alloush. Such a move, even if it was bound to be rejected demonstrates Russia’s ultimate aims in changing the course of the war, not in terms of who can achieve a military victory, but rather who the international community will be left to work with.
Real doubt persists as to whether Russia ever had any real intention of adhering to the second Cessation of Hostilities negotiated in September 2016. Neither Russia nor the Syrian regime has demonstrated any interest in yielding back momentum on the battlefield. Building off the success of the recent re-encirclement of eastern Aleppo, Russian and Syria forces continue their bombing campaign, while using negotiations to buy time for further advancement.
Russia has in large part succeeded in its objectives — extremist factions are entrenched within the opposition, the United States opposition strategy is in tatters, and whatever window remains for meaningful U.S. action is closing.
So long as the United States fails to support what remains of moderate partners on the ground, policy makers will be forced to operate within the reality of a predominantly extremist opposition. Inaction will perpetuate humanitarian disaster and violence that has now raged for five years. Should Aleppo fall, the subsequent options for a military solution will require significantly higher levels of risk and a political solution will rely on terms dictated by Moscow and Tehran. Neither situation is desirable.