Is Russia Actually Helping the West Fight ISIS?

Contrary to what Putin claims, here’s what the Russians have actually been up to in Syria. 

When the Russian bombing campaign in Syria began in late September, Vladimir Putin claimed it was to eliminate ISIS. But it soon became apparent that destroying the caliphate was secondary to Putin’s mission to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in their fight against anti-government rebels.

Now, figures just released by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights seem to confirm that’s the case.

Of the 1,500 people killed by Russian bombs in Syria between September 30th and November 20,  40% were reportedly al-Qaeda militants and opposition rebels, while 32% were civilians, including dozens of children. That means only 28% (or 418) were actually members of the Islamic State. Those numbers have been corroborated by a number of Western officials, who say that the Russian bombing campaign has largely been focused in parts of central and northern Syria that remain under the control of rebel groups with no apparent links to the Islamic State. 

Not surprisingly, Putin still maintains that Russia’s primary mission in Syria is to destroy ISIS. Never mind the fact that the U.S. Department of Defense just confirmed that Russia is now in the process of equipping its bases along the Turkish border with surface-to-air missiles. Such a move can hardly be justified under the auspices of “fighting the Islamic State,” simply because ISIS does not have an air force.

But Turkey, which recently downed a Russian warplane in the first shootdown by a NATO member since World War II,  has an air force worth threatening. And, of course, so does the United States, which has just deployed a fleet of F-15Cs to a base in Turkey along the Syrian border.  Given Putin’s furious rhetoric aimed at Turkey in recent days, the installation of surface-to-air missiles seems more of a deterrent to NATO forces than a strategic move against ISIS.

“Certainly we are aware of what they’re putting in there … it’s a capability that we don’t see as being productive in the fight against [ISIS],” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Monday. 

As he reiterated Monday in Paris, President Obama’s strategy for destroying ISIS and achieving stability in Syria is contingent on removing Assad from power. That, however, doesn’t seem possible as long as the Russians continue to target anti-government rebels and implicitly back the Assad regime. In an interview with back in October, Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, explained that Putin understands this, but doesn’t care. At least not yet. 

“So far, everything’s been going right for [Russia] in Syria,” Galeotti said. “At some point, we’re going to see planes getting shot down, or we’re going to see terrorist-style attacks on their bases. And then the question is do they feel the need to escalate and try and send more troops? This is how you get sucked into these wars — you think you can control them.”