When Russia entered the Syrian Civil War last fall, Putin made clear the reason they were there. They were there in support of an ally (Bashar al Assad), not to eliminate the Islamic State. Airpower, when exercised by a country that has both the proficiency and technology can be as precise as a scalpel. In the hands of the Russians, it more nearly replicates the cudgel. Sure, it’s a solid weapon choice, but it is indiscriminate in its choice of targets. You swing it, it hits everything within that arc. In the five months since entering the air campaign, the Russians have killed more than 1,700 civilians. That amounts to almost 40% of their total kills 1. Comparatively speaking, the U.S. campaign (albeit a more restrained campaign exclusively targeting ISIS) racked up fewer than 500 civilian casualties while inflicting approximately 15,000 on ISIS in the first eight months of last year 2.
We all know that the Russian campaign has positively impacted Assad’s ability to gain and hold territory against the various rebel factions. It has been reported time and again that Russia is targeting multiple moderate rebel groups in addition to ISIS targets. As a result, we can assess that Russian presence has been remarkably good for the Assad regime. Government troops have gone from trying to stymie rebel offensives into government held territory a year ago to breaking through and reconquering ground thought lost for good.
Assad's having a pretty good year? Sure, anyone with an internet connection could have told you that. If you’re in a fist fight and getting beat down, but your bigger brother steps in, you will likely have a fighter’s chance to take the bout. Especially if your older brother is bringing large numbers of strategic bombers and attack aircraft with him. Since ISIS is fighting Assad, conventional wisdom would state that there is no way they could be benefiting from the Russian campaign. Wrong. ISIS is not content to sit back in their swath of desert, especially with the enemy closing in on every side. They want to spread their form of fanaticism across the globe. Where are they trying to go? The same place nearly half a million other displaced persons are going: Europe.
Russia has served to further destabilize a situation you’d have thought could not have gotten much worse. As airstrikes increase in intensity and civilian targets continue to be hit, the number of migrants continues to increase. This is the importance of the cudgel reference: it continues to contribute to the migrant crisis at an astonishing rate. Assad is killing civilians. The Russians are killing civilians The rebels are now losing. What is a post war Syria going to look like now? It’s not a place I’d want my family living. As GEN Philip Breedlove of US EUCOM told the Armed Services Committee “…the terrorists and this return of foreign fighters [to Europe] is clearly a daily part of the refugee flow now. Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration… to break European resolve.”3.
Regardless of whether or not you believe it is intentional “weaponization of migration”, one thing remains clear: Russian airpower is contributing to instability and improving the conditions for ISIS terrorists to move into Europe. They continue to play the long game. Ever patient, ISIS knows that it does not need to hold ground to claim victories.