IMAGE: Chechen fighters celebrate capture of a hilltop in northern Latakia Province, March 2014
Russia’s current political-military campaign to keep President Assad in power is its most intense in Syria’s 4 1/2-year conflict, matched only by the effort in autumn 2013 to prevent punishment of the Assad regime for its chemical weapons attacks near Damascus.
The Russian build-up of equipment and supplies in western Syria has already succeeded in capturing international media. And there is evidence that its proposal of an international conference to keep Assad in power during a political transition has made headway: Germany’s leaders have indicated that the initiative must be pursued, and the British Foreign Secretary has indicating a willingness for Assad to remain for “up to six months”.
Moscow’s campaign rests on a central message to turn Western nations from opposition to Assad’s rule into a “coalition” working with the President and the Syrian military. The primary threat is not the regime — despite hundreds of thousands killed and 11 million Syrians as refugees or displaced within the country — it is the Islamic State.
If you look carefully, the argument is shaky. Russia’s deliveries of military equipment, supporting both air and ground forces, are not for a fight against the Islamic State. They are to prop up a Syrian military which has been defeated by rebels across northwest Syria and is now threatened in the Assad “heartland” of Latakia Province in the west. Assad does not have a track record of challenging the Islamic State: to the contrary, his 2011 strategy of releasing “extremists” from prison — to “poison” the Syrian opposition — and fragmentation of Syria provided fertile ground for the spread of the militant group.
But, of course, you are not supposed to look carefully. Instead, you take the statements at face value, such as Assad’s declaration to Russian State TV, broadcast on Wednesday: “Who are ISIS? And who are these groups? They are simply extremist products of the West.”
“Chechen Islamic State Terrorists”
Writing for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Joanna Paraszczuk offers a snapshot of how far the campaign extends — not just for an international audience, but for the Russian population — and how much it relies on deceptive claims:
Two weeks before these reports [of Russian military intervention in Syria] broke, Life News, a tabloid-style Russian website with links to the security services,…warn[ed] of the threat posed by the Islamic State…in Latakia.
And in an emotional appeal to its Russian readers, it framed the “War on Terror” in Latakia as an extension of Russia’s own struggle against Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus.
Life News said the Islamic State dispatched “natives of Caucasus republics” to Latakia: “Among them are militants who took part in actions against the Russian Army during the Chechen campaigns, and then fled from Russia. Their skills aid in the development and implementation of operations in the Latakia heights.”
Investigating the claim, Paraszczuk notes that three of the several Chechen groups in Latakia Province have fighters from the insurgency in the North Caucasus.
However, none of the three groups is connected with the Islamic State. Instead, they are fighting along Ahrar al-Sham — which is part of the rebel coalition at war with the Islamic State since January 2014 — and the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra, which split from the Islamic State in spring 2014.
No matter. Life News’s false portrayal feeds the image of the Islamic State — not the rebels, who have been the successful force — marching across Syria if it is not checked. The Chechen-led groups have advanced into Latakia from Idlib Province, it says, and they will move “into Hama Province” to the east.
And that in turn bolsters Moscow’s wider message to the West: you have a choice between opposing Assad and letting the Islamic State take over Syria, or standing with Russia and Damascus to stop a threat not just to the country but to the world.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday, “The need of uniting the efforts in the struggle against terrorism is undoubtedly coming to the foreground. It is impossible without this to solve other essential and intensifying problems, including the refugee problem.”
Or, in the blunt words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday, “Excluding the Syrian Army from the fight against the Islamic State is absurd.”