Putin's target in Syria is not the Islamic State

By Marc Champion

(c) 2015, Bloomberg View

Anybody who hoped Russian President Vladimir Putin would have the key to defeating Islamic State or bringing peace to Syria just got their answer: The first airstrikes in Russia's air campaign in that benighted country didn't target the terrorist group at all.

Instead, Putin followed President Bashar al-Assad's playbook. The Syrian leader's forces have rarely taken on Islamic State unless forced to do so. Indeed, Assad has seen the fanatical Islamist force as a useful ally in persuading the international community that Syria's war consists of a choice between him and barbarians, with nothing in between. As Putin put it in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week, Assad is "valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face."

No, he is not. To create the binary choice Assad seeks, and to eliminate any opposition that the U.S. and Europe might consider acceptable, Syria's president has directed his fire power against rebel groups other than Islamic State, making him an ally of opportunity for the terrorist organization. By contrast, the groups that Assad attacks, and which Russia struck on Wednesday, do routinely fight Islamic State.

Some of these are also terrorists, such as the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida's franchise in Syria. Others are not. A number are local militias defending their areas from the depredations of Assad's war machine. Indeed, dozens of such militias are working with U.S. coordinators based in Jordan and Turkey. Russia appears to have struck one of them in its first attacks.

Putin's proposal for the world to join with Russia and Assad to defeat "terrorists" and reconstruct Syria's Baathist state - a construct designed in large part to keep the country's Alawite minority in control of the Sunni majority -- is as flawed as President Barack Obama's ill-fated plan to train and equip an all-new opposition militia. That effort ended for lack of rebels willing to sign up to fight Islamic State only, forswearing their war with Assad.

How this came as a surprise is hard to credit. Assad's forces have used detention, torture, chemical weapons and barrel bombs in their scorched-earth effort to reassert control. The death toll in this conflict is now well over 200,000, twice the number who died in the Bosnian war 20 years ago.

It is inconceivable that Syria's Sunni majority will meekly accept a reimposition of Assad's rule, or see him as a partner in the fight against any greater evil. To the extent Putin succeeds in destroying all other opposition to Assad, Syria's Sunni population will join the only remaining force willing to protect them: Islamic State.

This Putin may well understand. He has formed an intelligence-sharing union with Assad's Alawite-dominated regime and its Shiite allies in Tehran and Baghdad. Such an alliance will merely add a nuclear and UN Security Council superpower to the Middle East's growing sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis. Picking sides in a sectarian conflict is not how you end it. But it would give Russia a substantial voice in Middle East affairs, and more immediately the ability to ensure that Assad survives.

No matter what promises Putin may make to try to get the U.S. and other nations to legitimize his air campaign - such as committing to a power-sharing, multi-ethnic transitional government for Syria once order is restored, or even Assad's eventual departure - that offer will remain hollow until his actions show he has accepted the basic truth of this conflict.

First, Putin needs to acknowledge that Assad is part of the problem; he should start by persuading Syria's leader to end the barrel-bombing.

Second, he should acknowledge the distinction between Islamic State and al-Nusra on one side, and other rebel militias on the other, restricting his bombing campaign to the two internationally recognized terrorist organizations.

Finally, he must recognize that any political settlement will have to place Sunni areas of the country under Sunni or international control, at least temporarily, with or without Assad as president in Damascus.

Without those commitments, Putin cannot be a force for bringing peace to Syria.

— Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.