Russia began bombing targets in Syria on Wednesday. Russian President Vladimir Putin has framed his military intervention there as targeting terrorist groups, especially ISIS. And Russia said its strikes today were launched against ISIS.
Don't believe it. The strikes reported this morning aren't happening anywhere near ISIS territory and aren't actually hitting ISIS positions, as a look at the following map from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) should make clear. In fact, Russia is bombing ISIS's enemies in the Syrian opposition — which makes a lot more sense if you understand what Russia is really trying to accomplish.
According to ISW researcher Genevieve Casagrande, a Russian airstrike this morning appears to have hit Talbiseh, a town in the tan rebel-held swatch just north of Homs, in Syria's west. You'll note that this is nowhere near ISIS territory, marked in gray:
"Talbiseh is home to Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, and a number of other local rebel groups," Casagrande explains. These organizations are generally hostile to ISIS. "The airstrike," she concludes, "did not hit ISIS militants."
Michael Horowitz, a senior intelligence analyst at the Levantine Group, says that Russia bombed another town near Homs (Zaafarana) and one (Ltamenah) near the city of Hama, north of Homs. Again, as you can see on the map, none of these are near ISIS territory. According to Horowitz, all of the towns are held by non-ISIS groups.
"Russia targeted only groups that are not ISIS and it may have targeted groups backed by the US," Horowitz told BuzzFeed's Borzou Daragahi. "It’s really clear that the airstrikes were not meant to target ISIS."
This shouldn't be surprising. Russia is in Syria to prop up Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's ally. The main threat to Assad is not ISIS, which the Syrian leader has often tolerated, but rather Syria's non-ISIS rebels — including al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise as well as more moderate rebel groups. These rebel groups (along with the Kurds in Syria's north) are also ISIS's main enemies in Syria.
"ISIS almost never fought the Assad regime," Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me earlier this month. "They were much more focused on fighting other opposition groups and gaining land their opponents had already acquired."
Assad has taken advantage of this, tacitly tolerating ISIS in northeastern Syria while focusing his military efforts on the rebels. This was part of what appeared to be a deliberate strategy to encourage extremism in order to discourage foreign intervention against him.
Both Assad and Putin win, in other words, if the West is forced to choose between Assad and ISIS in Syria. Which is part of why Russian airstrikes appear to be targeting ISIS's enemies in Syria — under the pretext of targeting ISIS.