Who Are the Targets of Russian Airstrikes in Syria?
Russians claim to be targeting ISIS while United States says the strikes are hitting pro-Western rebel forces, but London Metropolitan University’s Sami Ramadani says these two groups are practically one in the same
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
The civil war in Syria is now in its fifth year. The UN estimates that 220,000 people have died in the war, and more than 4 million Syrians have left. But now the war seems to be at a tipping point, with Russian forces participating in a bombing campaign alongside U.S. forces waging air strikes. The Russians say that they are specifically targeting ISIS forces, while the United States says that in reality Russia’s campaign is harming Western-backed so-called moderate Syrian rebel forces.
Here to help us get beyond this fog of war and make sense of all of this is our guest Sami Ramadani. He’s a sociology senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University. Thanks for joining us, Sami.
SAMI RAMADANI: You’re welcome.
DESVARIEUX: So Sami, let’s get right into it. Is the American accusation that the Russians are only bombing non-ISIS anti-Assad forces accurate?
RAMADANI: I don’t think it is, for a couple of reasons. ISIS is very anti-Russian. Amongst its fighters there are people from Chechnya and so on, and so Russia has a deep-seated animosity towards ISIS, number one. Number two, the positions that Russia is bombing in Syria are [inaud.] positions because there is cooperation on the ground between various armed groups. And the two main armed groups in Syria today, opposition armed groups, are ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda in Syria is known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Nusra Front. And these two organizations, these two military forces, control much of the areas that are outside of government controls.
The other armed groups have become diminished, much smaller. And most of them affiliated or went into an alliance with Al-Qaeda, with Jabhat al-Nusra, and they formed a bloc called the Army of Conquest, the Jaish al-Fatah. And some of these groups have been getting direct U.S. support. And for the past six months to a year there has been a process of rehabilitation of Al-Qaeda, in Syria at least, in terms of media, media coverage, mainstream media coverage, in terms of the way Qatar and Al Jazeera TV have rehabilitated Jabhat al-Nusra. And ISIS has become, if you like, the force which we should not deal with, while really on the ground there are no more so-called moderate forces. And Russia has gone bombing all positions that are either ISIS or ISIS in cooperation with Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda, and its other friendly organizations. So there are no real moderates left in this bitter, bitter war.
DESVARIEUX: So Sami, what’s the immediate objective for the Russians, then, in these bombings? And do you see them standing by Assad no matter what? And if not, why not?
RAMADANI: Okay, several issues to sort out there. Number one, the immediate objective, I think, was to stop the formation of a so-called safety zone, which in practice would have been a no-fly zone and potentially a NATO war, maybe, down the line against the Syrian air force and forces. A bit like Libya, because it started with a so-called no fly zone and degenerated into a full scale, not NATO war, on Libya. A similar scenario was being pushed very strongly by regional powers, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Qatar being small but financially very significant within a Syrian context.
So Russia, if you like, feared that the United States was giving serious attention to this idea. Because the United States was cooler on that, because launching a big war on Syria has its very dangerous ramifications for the region, for Iran, for relations with Russia, and so on. But in the few months just before Russia started that attack, there were some circles in the United States suggesting that this idea is being now revived and seriously looked at. And the debate in Britain, as well, kicked off with the British government wanting to enter the fray in terms of bombing raids in Syria.
So this is, if you like, the immediacy. Secondly, Russia is a very close ally of Syria. This alliance has been going on for several decades. From the old Soviet Union days, and there’s a formal treaty of friendship between Syria and the Soviet Union, then obviously Syria and the Russian Federation. And there are specific promises of military aid and cooperation in all spheres. So Syria is the only other country left with such a strong formal alliance with Russia. Russia has a naval base in Tartus, the only naval base in the Mediterranean for Russia. They have military facilities in Latakia and so on nearby.
So Russia is interested in Syria as a state. And this is often glossed over in the mainstream media, whereby it’s all personalized, Assad this, Assad that. For Russia it is Syria, the Syrian state, and any future government in Syria. Russia does not want it to be turned into an enemy of Russia. So this is the strategic underlying motive of Russia.
DESVARIEUX: Okay, so Sami, let’s kind of delve into the realm of predictions here, then. So what do you see transpiring, now that it seems like the war’s really at a tipping point?
RAMADANI: Well, only on the military front. It’s really very difficult to describe it as a tipping point, because we’ve gone through this before as well in the last few years, whereby Assad was predicted to fall within weeks, then months, then within a year and so on. And since this government in Syria, this regime in Syria, has got a powerful base within the military, within the national minorities, religious minorities, Christians, the middle classes of Damascus and other Syrian cities, do not sympathize with the armed opposition. So you don’t have a really tottering, very weak state, which is going to disintegrate and collapse.
But certainly if Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Qatar have their way, then Syria will be open to fall to ISIS. I have very little doubt about it. It will be a big fight between ISIS and Al-Qaeda as to who will control Syria if the Syrian army is to be defeated on the ground. But I don’t envisage that, really, in the immediate future. So a political settlement is very difficult to envisage in the near future.
DESVARIEUX: I was going to say, do you see a political solution, then, being the only way out of this?
RAMADANI: Political solution is the only way out of it. And if we want to look at the region itself, the two biggest stumbling blocks are Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And if you can add Qatar to that you have a triangle there, especially Saudi-Turkey, who are adamant that Syria must fall and that it should become part of the sphere of influence of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Especially with the new king in Saudi Arabia who replaced the old king, who died in January. This new king has rebuild relations with Turkey, with Qatar, with the Muslim Brotherhood. Quite significantly Muslim Brotherhood. Has forces in the opposition, Syrian alliance with Al-Qaeda. And Saudi Arabia has not shifted on the question of Syria.
And it seems the United States is happy to see that situation continuing, otherwise it would have put greater pressure on its allies the Saudis, Turkey, and Qatar.
DESVARIEUX: All right, Sami Ramadani joining us from London. Thank you so much for being with us.
RAMADANI: You’re most welcome.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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