August 15, 2017 – By Matti Suomenaro, Ellen Stockert, and Genevieve Casagrande  (ISW)Institute for the study of war

Russia continues to masquerade as an effective anti-ISIS actor in order to lure the U.S. into a counter-terrorism partnership in Syria. Russia seeks to leverage this partnership to expedite an American withdrawal from Syria, removing the U.S. as an obstacle to continued Russian build up and force projection in the Middle East. Russia may achieve short-term territorial gains against ISIS, but will ultimately undermine U.S.-led anti-ISIS efforts in Eastern Syria. The Russian-backed campaign will fail to decisively defeat ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria, however. Russian airstrikes in ISIS-held terrain regularly targeted civilian infrastructure such as mosques, schools, and medical centers from July 17 – August 13, according to local activists. Russian airstrikes also targeted an internally-displaced persons (IDP) camp in Zour Shamar in Eastern Raqqa province on August 23 – 24. Russia’s punitive strikes against vulnerable Sunni populations will exacerbate local grievances, increase sectarian tension, and pave the way for the resurgence of ISIS, al Qaeda, and other jihadist groups in areas recently seized from ISIS. Moreover, pro-Bashar al Assad regime forces’ rapid advance in Eastern Syria may indicate the regime is not allocating sufficient time or manpower to conduct effective clearing operations. Incomplete clearing operations could permit ISIS to leave behind latent attack cells or create ISIS-permissive zones along the Euphrates River Valley. The pro-regime coalition currently lacks the manpower required to secure and hold these areas in the long-term.


Iran and the Assad regime are already exploiting nascent U.S.-Russian cooperation to expand their control into Eastern Syria at the expense of the U.S. and its partners. Russian airstrikes primarily targeted ISIS-held areas from July 17 – August 13 in support of Iranian and Assad regime advances. Pro-regime forces backed by Russia and Iran recaptured Sukhna, which sits on the Palmyra – Deir ez Zour Highway, from ISIS on August 13 following a wave of ISIS counterattacks against the city from August 8 – 10. Russian airstrikes also targeted villages along the southern bank of of the Euphrates River in southeastern Raqqa Province, allowing the recapture of al Numaysah, al Jaber, and al Kumaysah towns by pro-Iranian and regime forces. These gains were facilitated by manpower freed from recent de-escalation zones brokered by Russia in Southwest Syria, the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, and northwestern Homs Province. Russia, Iran and Assad seek to leverage these gains to constrain the freedom of action of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria. Pro-regime positioning along the Euphrates River could block the advancement of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) southeast from Ar-Raqqa City after the completion of Ar-Raqqa City clearing operations. Russia’s gains against ISIS in Syria’s East will ultimately embolden Iran and the Bashar al Assad regime, rather than constrain them.