Syria’s civil war is anything but predictable. Russian air strikes have targeted the Islamic State’s bases in Aleppo and Raqqa governorates, but many others have pounded Hama, Homs, Idlib and Latakia governorates.
In those latter areas, Islamic State has few fighters, but the Syrian opposition — including the Free Syrian Army — has many.
Russia’s air campaign is straightforward in a way the Western coalition is not. The Kremlin supports the Syrian government against its enemies, which includes weakened FSA units trying to fight on three fronts against the regime, Islamic State and Jabhat Al Nusra. Further, Russia has attacked rebel groups backed by the CIA, according to the Wall Street Journal.
I wanted to know what Syrian rebels thought about this situation, so I contacted the Homs Liberation Movement, an Islamist brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
The rebels promised revenge.
“The goal of the airstrikes was to expand Iranian influence in Syria,” Capt. Rashid Al Hourani said. “Russia began military strikes against the rebels and the Syrian people to weaken the moderate opposition and strengthen extremist groups.”
Islamic State has long tried to enter rebel enclaves in the northern countryside of Homs governorate, and the Russian strikes may provide it with the opportunity. When Syrians feel like the international community has abandoned or betrayed them, jihadist groups can exploit these feelings to attract recruits.
The governorates where Russia has focused its attacks contain supply chains linking the capital, Damascus, with Latakia — the heartland of Syrian government supporters in the northwest. After four years of civil war, the Syrian army has lost the ability to defend many of these supply chains, particularly in recent months.
“The army in particular and the regime in general are worn out,” Al Hourani told me. “The regime’s air force has suffered large losses because the rebels have shot down many planes and seized many air bases and airports.”
The Islamic State is squeezing another two air bases, one near Aleppo and the other near Deir Ez Zor. Russia has intervened, in part, to relieve the Syrian air force. Iran and Hezbollah are reinforcing Syrian soldiers on the ground.
“The alliance between Iran, Russia and Syria is a temporary one out of self-interest,” Al Hourani claimed. “Russia is raising [Syrian Pres. Bashar] Al Assad after having sponsored him for 40 years.”
This relationship could prove counterproductive, however. Syria Direct noted that many government supporters have asked why the Syrian government treats Russian soldiers so well when Syrian soldiers receive so little clothing and food. The Syrian army has long struggled with soldiers deserting their posts, defecting to the rebels or fleeing the country to avoid conscription.
“You’ve been giving us a headache with all this talk about Russia — have you forgotten about how many martyrs we’ve given?” one Syrian soldier complained, according to the website. Another argued, “That’s how an army that wants to win treats its men, not like ours, corrupt to the bone and starving to death.”
Iranian officers have also struggled to control Syrian soldiers.
As Iran and Russia attempt managing their awkward coalition, the Syrian opposition is planning counter strikes. “In response to the Russian air strikes, we plan to increase the number of fronts against the regime and conduct operations behind enemy lines,” Al Hourani said. “We have medium-range missiles to hit the regime and increase pressure against it among its loyalists.”
Russia’s bases are in Latakia, which the Syrian government prizes and the Syrian opposition has been planning to assault. However ambitious these plans may be, the Kremlin has entered a civil war in which the factionalism that had divided the rebels is starting to disappear.
The Army of Conquest, or Jaish Al Fatah, has united the jihadist Jabhat Al Nusra with moderate Islamist and secular units of the FSA. They rebel groups have fought one another before, but Russia has given them one more reason to fight together.
If Western airstrikes failed to slow the Islamic State, Russian air strikes may do little better against Jaish Al Fatah.
The Homs Liberation Movement is one of 41 rebel groups that has “vowed to attack Russian forces,” according to The Guardian. “The Russian military aggression on Syria is considered a blatant occupation of the country even if some claim it was done with the official request of the Assad regime,” the rebel coalition said in a statement. “Those who lost legitimacy can’t offer it.”
The coalition even requested support from countries aiding the Syrian opposition. “This new reality requires the region’s countries and the allies in specific to hasten in forming a regional alliance to face the Russian–Iranian alliance that occupies Syria,” the rebel statement declared.
This request referred to the countries participating in Inherent Resolve. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey will likely respond by strengthening the Syrian opposition. But of the United States, Al Hourani had come to hope for little.
“America’s lack of strategy in the region has merely led to chaos,” he told me.