As is well-known, the ongoing Russian airstrikes, despite Putin’s claim to be carrying out an “anti-ISIS” campaign, have overwhelmingly struck the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other anti-Assad, anti-ISIS fighters, in regions where no ISIS even exists (western Homs, Hama, Idlib, southern Aleppo, and even Damascus and Daraa).
The terrible civilian toll is also hardly in dispute, from bombing nine hospitals (http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/10/23/nine-russian-airstrikes-hit-hospitals), schools, factories (http://syriadirect.org/news/regime-airstrikes-level-%E2%80%98economic-powerhouse%E2%80%99-in-aleppo/), even bombing the revolutionary town of Kafranbel, the high point of ongoing civil opposition to the regime (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-is-russia-bombing-my-town/2015/11/06/e1084ca0-8274-11e5-9afb-0c971f713d0c_story.html), driving tens of thousands more refugees fleeing north from Aleppo (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/20/russia-us-sign-memorandum-syria-bombings-airstrikes).
Indeed, the extent to which this has actually facilitated ISIS advances in the north Aleppo region is a whole story in itself (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/19/russia-bombs-isis-gains.html; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/10/russian-airstrikes-help-isis-gain-ground-in-aleppo; https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/566032-isis-nears-regime-positions-outside-aleppo). The ongoing attack on the FSA and other rebels in southern Aleppo province by an Assad-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah coalition directly facilitated ISIS seizing territory from the rebels in northern Aleppo. The Assad-ISIS relationship, which ranges from minor conflict in certain places through détente in others, is best considered to be strategic alliance in the Aleppo region. The farce of all this was further highlighted when ISIS even returned some territory it had seized from the rebels back to the regime! (https://twitter.com/YallaSouriya/status/653278940711157760).
However, if partly to head off the criticism that its “anti-ISIS” war was targeting anyone but ISIS. Russia did eventually begin to strike some ISIS-controlled territory, overwhelmingly in the form of civilian slaughter. Perhaps some 10 percent of Russian strikes have by now been on such ISIS—controlled regions. In contrast, the year-long US airstrikes have overwhelmingly struck ISIS, though there again, some 10 percent or less have struck other anti-Assad, anti-ISIS fighters, mostly Nusra, but also Islamic Front and even the FSA.
This may be described as one of the tactical differences that exist between the Russian and American approaches to the war in which they have much in common. The other tactical difference is the question of how long Assad himself should be allowed to remain in a “transitional” regime, with the aim of saving the regime as a whole, finding a “political solution” and launching a joint US-Russian-regime-former opposition war against ISIS and everyone else the US and Russia consider to be “terrorists.” The US says a few months, because his divisive presence undermines the task of saving the regime as a whole and widening its base, while Russia says it is not enamoured to Assad, but we need to keep him a little longer to batter down more “terrorists” before ditching him. The final declaration from the recent meeting in Vienna, involving countless imperialist and sub-imperialist powers but no Syrians, made this fundamental agreement rather clear (http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/2015/151030_06.htm).
The article below examines one of the things the US and Russian bombing of ISIS-controlled regions (when the Russian do take a break from bombing ISIS’s enemies) have in common: the callous disregard for civilian lives and/or civilian infrastructure by both, which is actually boosting support for ISIS.
The article focuses on some terrible Russian bombings of civilians in ISIS-controlled Deir Ezzor province in the far east of Syria, and notes that this is on top of the fact that the Assad regime bombings in this region already kill far more civilians than are killed by the ISIS rulers themselves.
But it is not only in Deir Ezzor. According to the anti-ISIS underground activist network, ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’, last week 25 Russian airstrikes on the ISIS capital, Raqqa, hit hospitals, schools, infrastructure, bridges and civilian neighbourhoods https://twitter.com/Raqqa_SL/status/661507443516665856. According to one activist, Hamid Imam, 35 people were killed by Russian bombs and “The city’s infrastructure is almost completely destroyed. Two historical main bridges are gone, and people are currently getting by through small fishing boats. The main public hospital has been bombed. There is no water. ISIS fighters have disappeared and are hiding among civilians. In summary, the target was the life and history of the city (https://www.facebook.com/hamid.imam.1/posts/10207395968833067). Likewise, the Palmyra Revolution site reported on the slaughter of an entire family by Russian warplanes bombing ISIS-controlled Palmyra (https://twitter.com/PalmyraRev1/status/661557079493189633).
Anyway, the excellent article:
Anti ISIL air strikes are in need of greater guidance
November 8, 2015 Updated: November 8, 2015 04:53 PM
Last Thursday, Russian fighter jets carried out devastating raids in the ISIL-held Syrian city of Albukamal, near the Iraqi border. At least 30 civilians were killed in the twin attacks in the city centre. Many more were seriously injured. According to activists who document atrocities, not a single ISIL member was killed in the raids.
Leaflets dropped by the regime also warned this was only the start: “The intensity of the attacks is increasing. The worst is coming. Crushing attacks will be directed to this area.”
The leaflets suggest the raids were not intended to attack ISIL specifically but were part of a systematic campaign against the local population. Also, even before the current intensity of the air strikes increases in Deir Ezzor, the government still kills more than three times the number of those killed by ISIL. According to DeirEzzor24, an organisation whose members inside the province risk their lives to document ISIL’s daily atrocities, 77 people were killed by the regime last month, compared with 25 civilians killed by the terrorist group.
The level of devastation committed by the regime in ISIL-held areas often goes unnoticed. No condemnation was issued from the US-led coalition of the massacre of civilians, which reinforces the feeling often expressed by locals that the regime, Russia and the international coalition seem to be taking turns in attacking residential areas, especially as ISIL has adjusted to the air attacks and evacuated its bases.
If the international coalition believes that ISIL does not command the support of the local population living under it, as officials often claim, then silence over such atrocities cannot be justified. Locals living under ISIL are the international coalition’s safety net against the group and its attempts to ensconce itself in areas under its control, especially in border areas where locals still view it with suspicion.
Silence over such atrocities and failure to distance the anti-ISIL coalition from them only bolsters the group’s claims that there is a global war on those communities. The attacks in those areas, in particular, have no apparent tactical purpose other than to punish the local population.
The Russian planes would have served a military purpose if they had attacked ISIL’s advanced troops that surround and besiege the regime’s strongholds near the city of Deir Ezzor.
For people living under ISIL, the absence of condemnation inevitably makes the devastation caused by Russian or Syrian planes seem part of the overall international offensive, rather than as a continuation of the regime’s military campaign. The international coalition does not have the luxury of remaining quiet about such atrocities while hoping that locals would make a distinction based on the sounds of the different jets above their heads.
As I have written in these pages before, the US-led coalition has already caused suffering for the local population through the targeting of their livelihoods – either by destroying bridges or resources – without disrupting ISIL’s ability to profit. On the contrary, many poor families have allowed their children to join the group to generate income. Since then, similar reports emerged out of ISIL-controlled Iraqi and Syrian areas, such as Mosul and Palmyra, that the poor are drawn closer to ISIL because they were deprived of income as a result of the air strikes.
The arrival of the Russian planes, with their ability to cause more damage, has added to the profound daily suffering of civilians. The intensity of the attacks by different players creates the perfect environment for ISIL to neutralise the population and link communities on the two sides of the border as the victims of one uninterrupted campaign in Iraq and Syria. There is little doubt that locals suffer from the two foreign-led coalitions much more than they suffer under ISIL. How does the anti-ISIL coalition expect that locals will view it as a liberator when its action or inaction is contributing to their daily suffering?
Outsiders normally find it hard to have moral outrage towards atrocities committed in ISIL-controlled territory either because they cannot imagine a worse reality than that of living under the terrorist group or because they suspect civilians are complacent by staying there. But this attitude is dangerous, especially if the cause of that suffering is countries that want to draw a wedge between ISIL and locals as the way to uproot the organisation.
There is also a tendency to think that as locals suffer more as a result of ISIL’s control of their areas, they will somehow reject it. That might be true in some cases, but not when no legitimate and viable alternatives exist and when supposed liberators are conspicuously complicit in the suffering. The current campaign against ISIL lacks many essential ingredients for success – a moral compass should not be one of them.
Hassan Hassan is associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and South Africa Programme, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan