Within the Month: Havoc from ISIS

Written 1 October 2015

Russia has been sending substantial military support to Assad and is beefing up its forces in their Tartus naval base to prepare for a long-term military intervention. Images have also been released showing Russian aviation bombing Assad’s opponents along with reports of Russian reconnaissance drones flying in Syria. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin is purporting to build an anti-ISIL coalition, consisting of Syria, Iraq and Iran. Although all of these states have been involved in the fight against the organization, Putin’ support could tip the balance and is certainly helpful.

ISIL is obviously concerned about Russian intervention and as such wants to prevent its own demise. However, ISIL also has a lot of support in the Sunni world (including the Gulf states) and will no doubt play to this. Furthermore, most of the states joining with Putin are Shia, which will only incense the sectarian nature of the conflict. As such, ISIL may recruit in the Caucasus and Central Asia as vengeance for Putin’s intervention, although its main acts will take place in Syria and Iraq.

We can thus anticipate a renewed ISIL offensive in Syria or Iraq — although more likely the former. The organization has clearly been defeated in Kurdish areas, but has made recent successful offensives into central Syria. This is a region where Assad is weak, and ISIL may make further offensives here. As such it is likely to commit atrocities in these areas to strike fear into the Russians (perhaps even encouraging attacks in Russia). A group which is at high risk is the Orthodox Christian minority. These groups will likely be targeted as part of a scare offensive to scare the Russians, who are also Orthodox.

Whether or not this will work in scaring the Russians is unclear, but it does have another effect: if it enrages the Russians into further actions, it will force Muslims to think that Russia may be intervening to save the Christians and thus promote a “Christian crusading” agenda. This will not only drive Sunnis into further support for ISIL, but it may even hurt the Russian-Shia coalition that Putin seems to be clamoring to build.

Meanwhile, Turkey is facing a serious threat. With Russia now in Syria, and the Kurds — including the PKK — gaining strength, Erdogan is being backed into a corner. Further complicating the situation, speculation is growing that the PKK is doing Russia’s bidding in its conflict with Turkey. This relates to one of Russia’s goals in Syria: to pressure Turkey into moving forward with the Turkish Stream project. Although Erdogan will win some short-term political benefits from the conflict with the PKK (by rallying his supporters and by making the southeastern region, where the rival HJP is based, unsafe for voting), the long-term consequences of a powerful Kurdish political force could prove to be his undoing.

Erdogan has to not only stall Putin and Assad from gaining too much power in Syria, he also has to figure out a way to hurt the Kurds. While he will continue his offensive within Turkey, there is little direct action he can take in Syria (or Iraq for that matter). Turkey has in the past been accused of supporting ISIL, however. By discontinuing airstrikes against ISIL and recontinuing the policy of supporting the organization, Erdogan will shift the balance of power into something which could prove more favorable to him. Although it would be absurd to suggest that Erdogan or Davutoglu favor ISIL ideologically, the organization is simply a piece in Turkey’s arsenal which it could play to support its own interests.

It is also important to keep in mind that ISIL is becoming a global organization, carrying out attacks as far East as Bangladesh and is known to have organized groups in the Western Islamic regions of North Africa. Furthermore, ISIL controls territory outside of Iraq and Syria, including in states like Libya, Nigeria, Egypt, and Afghanistan. While I do think ISIL is weaker than it appears (mass atrocities and terrorism are signs of weakness), I do not think its threat should be disregarded. While Putin’s actions may win him many friends in the Middle East, it could also give him some major headaches.