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    October 3, 2017

    Defeated in Syria, where will ISIS set its sights next?

    October 3, 2017 - Fort Russ - 
    By Eduard Popov - translated by Jafe Arnold - 



    September 30th marked the second anniversary of the launch of a limited Russian troop operation in the Syrian Arab Republic. According to Russia’s General Staff, more than 87% of Syrian territory has since been liberated from the jihadists comprising the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra (a branch of Al-Qaeda in the Levant), and a number of other smaller groups. This figure, however, deserves clarification: this 87% includes territories controlled by Kurdish, Turkmen, Assyrian, and Arab groups, including those organized in the Syrian Democratic Forces and not subordinate to the central government in Damascus.

    Be that as it may, the jihadists currently control only a relatively small portion of territory in the eastern part of the country. It is worth recalling that just several months ago Syria seemed like it would be divided into several parts. In fact, at the end of last year I met with a famous Russian Orientalist scholar who had recently returned from the Syrian Arab Republic. He was firmly convinced that Syria would inevitably be divided into two parts - coastal and desert. The fate of the northern Kurdish and Turkomen parts of Syria remains in question. 


    Now Syria’s future looks completely different. Thanks to Russia’s operations, a large part of the country has been liberated and the jihadists have suffered irreparable damage, albeit not yet dealt a fatal blow. And all of this has been achieved by a relatively small force. Even at the height of the air force campaign, Russia’s aerospace forces in Syria numbered 69 planes. Together with marine units, air defenses, air controllers, and Spetsnaz, etc., the total number of Russia’s group in Syria is still significantly smaller than the manpower and military equipment of the coalition of 60 countries headed by the US. 

    But in addition to the air war and ship and submarine Caliber strikes on jihadist positions, Russian troops have also been involved in equally important spheres, such as training the Syrian Arab Army in individual skills and more complex, coordinated operations. In the opinion of Russian military advisors, in the beginning of the war the Syrian Arab Army was a sad spectacle, poorly trained, and resembled more of an undisciplined militia than a regular army. Now combat training, discipline, and ideological motivation have significantly improved. As far as we can judge according to open sources, not only elite units such as the Tigers, but the whole army now fights immensely more effectively.

    The Russian General Staff’s officers have also engaged in planning and conductive offensive operations. The Russian General Staff might be called the brain behind the war against the jihadists in Syria. The wide range of its officers’ participation, however, has made itself known with the unfortunate death of high-level commanders, including generals. The Russian Ministry of Defense tends to blame the death of Lieutenant General Asapov on the Americans, who relayed information on his location to the jihadists. We believe that this version is in the very least close to the truth. The Americans, after all, prefer to knock off their dangerous Russian competitors in Syria through the hands of jihadists from those organizations that were created with the active participation of the CIA, such as ISIS. 

    The Russian Center for Reconciliation has also carried out peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Russia has wonderfully learned from the mistakes of the USSR in Afghanistan and is not repeating the Americans’ mistakes in Iraq. Instead, Russia has come to the conclusion that the war in Syria cannot be won simply by eliminating jihadists. Thus, while this center’s activities may be less known to the general public and less spectacular than air forces strikes, it is no less impressive in that it is creating the political and psychological conditions for ending the civil war in Syria.

    The General Staff of Russia’s reports in recent weeks have floated the idea of an impending final offensive in the fight against jihadists in Syria. Some experts from Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and other countries of Eurasia anxiously expect a new act in the drama. But where will the death blow to jihadists in Syria reverberate? My close friend and Orientalist scholar who has worked for Russia’s foreign ministry suggested last summer that ISIS would be defeated only for a new global jihad organization to replace it.  

    ISIS’ days in Syria are numbered. The Americans’ helicopter rescue and transfer of leading ISIS cadre from cauldrons organized by the Syrian Arab Army with the participation of Russian General Staff officers launched a heated debate on this matter. Russian officers in Syria and the famous senator and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Franz Klintsevich, have accused the US of helping ISIS. What’s more, this is not the first month that we have witnessed terrorist organizations gradually penetrating Afghanistan and engaging in positional battles with the Pashtun Taliban. After all, it is in the US’ interests to create an arc of tension along Russia and China’s borders, as the Iranian political analyst on West Asia, Davoud Shoja, recently said in an interview for Mehr News. 

    The events of recent months, however, allow us to somewhat correct the views of this renowned Iranian expert. Over the past few months, Russia has seen a number of terrorist attacks being organized by ISIS thwarted by the FSB (Federal Security Service, counterintelligence). Just yesterday, October 2nd, reports appeared that the FSB had stopped Islamic State activities in the Moscow region. “The leadership of this terrorist cell was handled by foreign emissaries. Their activities included citizens of the Russian Federation from the North Caucasus region who are supporters of a violent unification of all Muslims in the aim of creating a so-called World Islamic Caliphate,” the press release run by RT reads. To recall, President Putin has also stated that around 4,000 jihadists in Syria are from Russia. 

    What’s more, the murder of two women at a train station in Marseille by an ISIS supporter can be taken to suggest that ISIS is changing not only its location, but also its tactics. 


    There is nothing new here. The history of the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator Banderite movement in Western Ukraine which I have studied also shows examples of stages in tactical changes. First rather large groups fought against the Red Army in real battle. But the Banderite bands in Galicia and the “forest brothers” in Lithuania could not resist the Red Army and quickly suffered crushing defeat. The next stage was the transition to guerrilla partisan tactics and operations in small units. Here the Banderites could claim more advantages in using the local environment (forest and mountains) and sympathy from the local population. The final phase was terrorist actions involving minimal-sized groups or even lone wolves. Of course, I have somewhat simplified the picture, as different tactics were used in parallel, but I have merely focused attention on when which tactics were most widely used by Hitler’s collaborators in Western Ukraine and the Baltics. We can see a similar picture in other examples. 

    If this conclusion proves right, we will see a gradual attenuation of the “real” war in Syria and a rise in individual acts of terrorism, and in particular a terrorist hunt for Russian officers. In parallel will increase instances of terror far from the Levant epicenter of ISIS. Terrorist attacks will occur only more frequently in Europe and Russia. Perhaps instead of the art of desert war in Syria’s regions, we will see some kind of “urban guerrilla warfare” in Europe involving not only lone-wolf terrorists, but also small groups of jihadists that have settled and been legalized in EU countries. I do not think that the US will be afraid of such mass terrorism, and not only because of geographical remoteness. After all, the umbilical cord connecting ISIS to the CIA has not been cut. 


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