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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
November 19, 2015

Publication: Putin in Syria
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Even ISIS Says Russia Is Not Bombing ISIS As Their Main Target In Syria

As we have been reporting, when Russia said it started its bombing campaign against ISIS in early October, ISIS was not Russia's primary target. The vast majority of Russian airstrikes have hit other rebel groups, including those who are supported by the West and those who have fought against ISIS. Even after Russia admitted that the Metrojet airliner which crashed in Egypt was brought down by terrorism, even after Russia launched cruise missiles into Syria as a response, even though ISIS is being hit, ISIS is still not Russia's main target (see update below).

Now, even ISIS is admitting that Russia is not targeting them, at least not more than their enemies, the Western-backed rebels.

Dabiq, the magazine published in English by ISIS, says that Russia is engaged in a war with the West in Syria, not with ISIS.

In an issue which takes credit for the Paris attacks and which displays pictures, Dabiq says, of the device which took down the Metrojet flight, Dabiq shoots down the theory that Russia is attacking ISIS in Syria (screenshot of relevant text below):

Sham is a term for greater Syria, the last "S" in ISIS, which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham.

Sahwah refers to "Awakening" groups, such as the ones that partnered with the US in Iraq. ISIS uses the term as a catchall to mean all of the Free Syrian Army, the moderate rebels supported by the west; Sahwah necessarily means anti-ISIS forces because the Awakening was about expunging Al Qaeda in Iraq, AQI, the predecessor of ISIS. Wilayah al-Qawqaz is the branch of ISIS operating in the North Caucasus, a good source for ISIS recruits who are fighting in Syria.

In other words,  Dabiq says the US is stumbling into another futile war against it in Syria while Russia is simultaneously bumbling by fighting the West in Syria and ISIS in North Caucasus.

Dabiq goes on to say that despite Russia's efforts, Russian strikes on ISIS positions have not had dramatic effect, and ISIS was still able to bomb the Metrojet flight, and despite Western efforts to combat ISIS, they were able conduct the attacks in Paris 

-- James Miller, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Assad Rejects Vienna Transition Plan As Russia Beckons The West

Despite a declaration in Vienna last week, signed amongst others by his ally Russia, that called for peace talks to begin by January 1 and timetabled free elections, Bashar al-Assad last night dismissed any talk of electoral planning until "terrorism" was defeated. Assad was notably vague, not specifying whether he meant ISIS or other opposition groups, which he routinely brands as terrorists.

Speaking to Italy's Rai TV, Assad said that there could be no scheduling of a political transition or elections while parts of Syria were still beyond his control. 

From an AFP report

"This timetable starts after starting defeating terrorism. You cannot achieve anything politically while you have the terrorists taking over many areas in Syria," he said.

"If we talk after that, one year and a half to two years is enough for any transition." 

Remarks today from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, leave little hope for such a transition plan as he reaffirmed once again Russia's commitment to Syria's "sovereignty" - that is to say Assad and the Ba'ath dictatorship:

"We are ready for practical cooperation with those countries who are part of the coalition and are ready to develop with them such forms of coordination that of course would respect Syria's sovereignty and the prerogatives of the Syrian leadership," Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

Yesterday France's Le Figaro reported that Lavrov had told reporters that it was "unacceptable to demand" the departure of Assad as a "prerequisite condition to any union against terrorism."

Today he reaffirmed this, saying that:

"Assad represents the interests of a substantial part of Syrian society, this is why we will not arrive at a peaceful settlement without his participation."

Since Assad has no interest in the Vienna plan, and the Kremlin shows no sign of waning in their support of the dictator, the timetable drawn up last week is already null and void.

Russia is currently attempting to court western powers, most notably France, where the main opposition part, the Républicains, and the far-right Front National harbour support for both Vladimir Putin and Assad, into greater military cooperation in Syria.

Today the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told state media that he has submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council.

TASS reports:

Churkin said the revised document focusses on "the need to join efforts" in the struggle against the Islamic State.

"It includes both coordination and joint work to locate and bring to justice those responsible for terror acts," he said.

Along with this, Russia’s envoy said that the Russian-initiated draft resolution "clearly articulates a concept of self-defence and Article 51" of the UN Charter.

Besides, Churkin confirmed that the document still includes a provision on coordination of activities with governments of the countries where military operations are carried out.

"It has remained in the text," he said.

The state-owned news agency reported yesterday that General Andrei Kartapolov, chief of the main operations directorate of the Russian General Staff, had announced that Russia will organise joint military operations with the French navy, following the deployment of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.

Meanwhile Assad gave an interview to the French weekly Valeurs Actuelles yesterday, in which he chided the French government for not supporting his regime.

"You cannot fight terrorism if you don't maintain relations with the force which is fighting Daesh and terrorism on the ground."

While Russian jets have devoted more attention to ISIS targets over the last few days compared to earlier in the air campaign, launched on September 30, non-ISIS rebel groups to the west of Syria still bear the brunt of Russia's air strikes.

The latest assessment from the Institute for the Study of War analyzes the claims made by the Russian government that a new wave of attacks will significantly increase Russian airstrikes against ISIS. Though ISW is highly confident that some Russian airstrikes have hit ISIS territory, the majority of Russian airstrikes -- and, importantly, the cruise missiles launched on November 17 -- landed within territory controlled by non-ISIS rebels:

The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, Syrian state-run media, and statements by Russian and Western officials. The recent influx in Russian strikes throughout Syria caused a notable inflection in ground reporting as well as discrepancies within Western and Russian media sources. Those strikes that have been reported inconsistently from news sources deemed reliable within the past 48-hours are represented by an “Unknown Russian Strike” categorization. Instances of cruise missiles are only depicted if reliable picture or video documentation of the missile has been released.

Having already struck rebel-held areas of central Aleppo yesterday morning, inflicting casualties, Russian jets pounded the city in the early hours of this morning.

Journalist Rami Jarrah reported at 4:31 am:

Intense clashes heard in numerous areas of Aleppo right now, an air campaign with continuous strikes has been the situation for the past 2 hours and has just intensified.

This comes after a number of offensives were launched by rebel groups in the area on the southern fronts. The issue with these operations is that most of the time the residents are leaked this information before hand hence it falls into the hands of local spies for the Syrian regime.

Russian bombers then conducted a massive air strike on Kafr Nabudah, in the Hama province - again far from ISIS-held territory.

The Qassioun news agency claims that cluster munitions were used in this strike. While we have seen these weapons used multiple times in the Russian air campaign, we cannot comment as to whether they were used on this occasion: 

In the Latakia province, the Syrian Local Coordination Committees (LCC) report intense air bombardment, in concert with helicopters and artillery, on Jabal al-Akrad, which saw strategic bombing yesterday.

When mentioning artillery, we should note that officials have now confirmed that Russian troops are manning guns.

On November 17 Vedomosti reported that a Russian Ministry of Defence employee had told the paper that the Russian army was indeed providing fire support for the Syrian Arab Army. 

The report noted that a map seen during a broadcast of a meeting between President Putin and military staff had indicated the presence of a unit from the 120th Guards Artillery Brigade in the Syrian town of Mahin, southeast of Homs.

The official who spoke to Vedomosti stressed that the army was not, however, engaging in direct combat beyond artillery support.

-- Pierre Vaux, James Miller