Is Vladimir Putin’s objective in Syria to destroy ISIS or to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad? It seems to me that the answer is “yes”.
I’ve read articles criticizing Putin for concentrating Russian airstrikes on rebels other than ISIS. Some of these articles hint that Putin or maybe even Assad are secretly supporting ISIS.
I think this criticism mistakes the nature of air power. Command of the air can be devastatingly effective when used in combined operations with ground troops. But bombing alone, in and of itself, seldom defeats a determined enemy.
What these maps show is that Putin’s air strikes are concentrated on “rebels” not part of ISIS and not part of the al-Nusra front (formerly known as al Qaeda).
There is, however, no clear distinction between ISIS, al-Nusra and generic “rebels”. Individuals and small bands change affiliations according to the situation, and U.S. weapons given to “rebels” are often acquired by ISIS through capture, gift or sale.
Christoph Reuter of Spiegel Online suggested that Assad wants to defeat the U.S.-backed rebels first and ISIS last, because, so long as ISIS is in the field, he can present himself as the only alternative. I suppose this is possible, but the simpler explanation is that Russia is concentrating on bombing the troops that are actually fighting the Syrians.
Putin’s goal is to defend Russia’s ally Syria, which requires the defeat of ISIS in Syria. Obama’s goal is to bring about regime change in Syria, which is in conflict with the goal of defeating ISIS.
President Obama is trying to overthrow Assad’s government while defeating Assad’s enemy of ISIS. He is trying to defeat a jihadist terrorist force while placating the countries from which that force gets its support—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates and Turkey.
This is a kind of foreign policy version of Obamacare. It is too complicated to work.
President Putin’s advantage is clarity of purpose. His government is waging war to save Russia’s ally Assad. In order to accomplish this, it is necessary to defeat all the armies fighting Assad—ISIS, al Nusra and the U.S.-backed rebels. He doesn’t differentiate between good and bad rebels, and he doesn’t make the mistake of trying to fight against both sides in a civil war.
The West’s Dilemma: Why Assad Is Uninterested in Defeating the Islamic State by Christoph Reuter for Spiegel Online.