Lines drawn in imperial scramble for Syria

US Air Force C-17 cargo planes air-dropped arms and other supplies to Syrian rebels on Oct. 13—as Russia continued to carry out air-strikes on Syrian rebels. Media reports are vague on whether the US is dropping aid to the same factions that Russia is bombing. But the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) have announced a new alliance with militias affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight ISIS in the country's northeast. The Pentagon has now officially dropped its failed $500 million plan to train a Syrian rebel proxy force, and will instead use those funds for air-drops to already existing rebel forces.

One faction opposed by both Russia and the US is the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which has responded to the Russian intervention by urging its fighters to escalate attacks on strongholds of the Alawite sect, traditionally the strongest supporters of dictator Bashar Assad. An audio message from Nusra leader Abu Mohamad al-Golani cited Russian bombardment of Sunni villages in his call for retaliatory attacks on villages in the Alawite heartland of Latakia in Syria's west. "There is no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia and I call on all factions to... daily hit their villages with hundreds of missiles as they do to Sunni cities and villages," Golani said. He added a special message for Moscow: "The war in Cham [Syria] will make the Russians forget the horrors of what they faced in Afghanistan." (RudawReuters, Oct. 13; YNet, Oct. 12; WP, Oct. 9)

Ironically if predictably, Russia's cynical strategy of bombing anti-ISIS fighters under the pretext of bombing ISIS, has allowed ISIS to seize new ground and advance into areas previously held by other rebel forces to the west since Moscow's intervention began. "Daesh has exploited the Russian air-strikes and the preoccupation of the Free Syrian Army in its battles in Hama, and advanced in Aleppo," one rebel commander told Reuters, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. (NYT, Oct. 9) Last week, the Pentagon said that the big majority of Russia's air-strikes have not targeted ISIS. "Greater than 90% of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against ISIL or al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists," said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. (The Guardian, Oct. 7)

Russian overtures to the FSA to enter into talks for a possible anti-ISIS alliance have been rebuffed. Maamoun Sweid, commander of the FSA's Central Battalion, told UK-based al-Araby news service: "Our response to the [Russian] offer was what happened today in the Hama countryside, where we repelled an offensive by regime forces supported by Russian warplanes, inflicting heavy losses on them." He added: "Russia is an occupying power and we shall deal with it accordingly. Russia will regret its actions as Iran and Hezbollah did before." An FSA commander identified as Adham Akrad AKA "Abu Qusai" issued a video statement addressed to the Russian people: "Support the revolutionaries of the land. Enough! We do not want Syria to become a second Afghanistan." (Al Araby, Oct. 8)

And indeed, despite Tehran's claim to only have "advisors" in Syria, there are growing signs of a significant Iranian military presence in the country. Iranian media admitted this week that two senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps have been killed in Syria. The commanders are named as Hamid Mokhtarband and Brig. Gen. Farshad Hassounizadeh, who reportedly died while assisting the Syrian government's battle against ISIS (although this may be the propaganda trick of using the acronym "ISIS" to refer to any Syrian rebel force, even those that oppose ISIS). Iranian reports said that Hassounizadeh was in Syria to "defend the holy shrine of Hazrat Zeinab, the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), in the country's capital of Damascus." (Al Jazeera, Oct. 13)

Mounting reports indicate the US is encouraging the FSA-YPG alliance to launch an offensive on Raqqa, the ISIS capital in northeastern Syria, with the support of Pentagon warplanes and aid-drops. (World Bulletin, Turkey, Oct. 5; NYT, Oct. 4) But the Kurds have been more open to Russian overtures than the FSA—because they share a common enemy in Turkey, whereas the FSA views Turkey as  sponsor and ally. If the Kurdish leadership take Moscow's bait, this could put strain on the FSA-YPG alliance—if not shatter it. 

The Great Power convergence against ISIS appears to be breaking down into a Great Power carve-up of Syria. This is already escalating sectarian attacks on the ground, and could weaken the anti-ISIS alliance. Not to mention increasing the likelihood that Syria will be the flashpoint for a new world war.