By Nick Anstett
Russia entered the ongoing conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in a dramatic fashion in late September. Despite previous hesitancy in participating in armed conflict against the infamous terror group, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a series of surprise air strikes on supposed ISIS targets in Syria on Sept. 30. According to Russia Today, the attacks have hit a total of 72 targets as of Oct. 22.
On a surface level, Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict seemed like an unexpected blessing by drastically halting advancement of ISIS forces in the region. However, Putin’s violent reentry into the ongoing conflict in Syria speaks to a growing geopolitical quagmire building in the region that may complicate matters more than help.
Russia and the United States have been at odds when it comes to the Syrian Civil War for years. Following the infamous Ghouta chemical attack of August 2013, both the Obama and Putin administrations found themselves on opposing sides of an international debate regarding the human rights atrocity. Responsibility for the attack which claimed the lives of approximately 1,500 people and injured 3,600 proved more to be a point of debate for both nations. The U.S. followed suit of the European Union and Arab League in the conclusion that the attack had been carried out by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia declared the opposite standing by Assad’s assertion that the attack was in fact carried out by anti-government revolutionaries. The result proved to be an international shouting match that had the U.S. proposing military action against the Assad administration and Putin publishing a condescending op-ed in The New York Times before a diplomatic investigation could be reached.
Despite this, both Russian and U.S. governments have continued to back their respective sides in the continuing civil war in Syria. “Forbes” speculates that Russia’s continued backing of Assad’s regime is primarily due to the fact that his nation is the only one in the Mediterranean region to host a Russian air base. Assad’s potential loss of control of the Syrian government presents a major tactical disadvantage for Putin’s operations in the region. By extension, it is unfortunate but not surprising that, according to The Washington Post, the majority of Russian airstrikes in the region have not targeted ISIS outposts as much as those organizations opposed to the Assad government, including moderate rebel groups. According to CNN, these strikes have also reportedly killed dozens of Syrian civilians and The Syrian American Medical Society have accused the attacks of targeting hospitals. In response, Vladimir Putin has stated that many groups backed by the United States have supposedly aligned themselves or been assimilated by the Islamic State.
Despite mounting tensions between both states, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discuss an attempted diplomatic solution on Oct. 23. The New York Times reports that despite continual disagreements regarding the support of the Assad administration, both governments are in fact in support of a democratic Syria and in stopping the advancement of ISIS.
The political back and forth between both administrations concerning the fate of a Middle Eastern nation proves emblematic of the sort of high stakes geopolitical gambling that the U.S. and Russia have played in the region for decades. While both governments support the concept of a politically free Syria and Assad has even declared that should it prove necessary he is willing to relinquish his decade long rule of the country, it represents a violent distraction from solving continual pressing issues in the region. While Russia’s sudden and apparently self motivated reentry into the Syrian conflict may appear more transparent in its distraction, the United States’ continual support of armed militant groups in a foreign civil war further complicates the matter regardless of past obligations against the Assad administration. The concern is ultimately with ISIS, an organization that continues to grow despite the efforts of Russia and multinational coalitions.