Russia’s stepped up military intervention in Syria could force the U.S. to re-think its strategy for battling ISIS. Uniting with a Russian-led anti-terrorist coalition might be its best option.

Syrian civilians found their homes destroyed during clashes between the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army and Syrian soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad, in the town of Hejeira in the countryside of Damascus, Syria. Photo: AP

For a very different take read: "Efforts in Syria against ISIS won’t bring US, Russia closer together"

The term “hybrid warfare” was coined at the end of the 20th century in the United States to describe a military strategy that combines a conventional, limited war with the involvement of armed militias and cyber or information warfare.

After the dubious outcome of the U.S.-led military operation in Libya to overthrow the government of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which resulted in the near total destruction of this North African state, the term was substantially revised. It began to mean a “proxy war” in which the major countries conceal their direct involvement in the hostilities under the guise of, for instance, military aid to “opponents of Assad’s bloodstained regime.”

The example of Syria is apt, since the conflict there is indeed a “hybrid war” with a number of distinctive features.

Washington decided not to force the overthrow of the legitimate government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, since it was sure that it would collapse under the onslaught of the armed opposition. When this did not happen, the chemical attack in August 2013 in Ghouta near Damascus (in which, it turned out, the Syrian authorities were not involved) was cited as a replacement pretext.

But Russia’s intervention prevented the inevitable missile strikes and convinced the Syrian government to abandon its stockpiles of chemical weapons. This, however, did not bring peace to the country, since Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States, France and others continued their efforts to overthrow the Assad government through sponsoring the armed opposition.

In June 2014, after the capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul by radical Islamists, the world was introduced to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), which quickly expanded its borders, including inside Syria. According to some estimates, this radical organization now controls 40 percent of Syrian territory, with the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Dzhabhat, ruling another 15 percent. This means that more than half the entire country in total is ruled by either ISIS or Al-Qaeda.

The Syrian National Army holds only 20 percent of the country (where 80-85 percent of the population now resides). The Kurdish militia controls 15 percent. The remaining desert areas are under the control of local tribal militias, which are closely linked to various sides of the conflict.

Is the West’s anti-ISIS coalition up to the task?

The anti-terror coalition created by the United States to fight ISIS has been ineffective so far. One reason is that its efforts have been limited to air strikes against highly maneuverable and well-trained combatants. Hopes that the moderate opposition, trained by U.S. instructors in Jordan and Turkey, would take the fight to ISIS also lie in tatters.

Aslo read Q&A with Robert Legvold: "Syria is now in the middle of a new, more dangerous Cold War"

In actual fact, the so-called “moderate” opposition is currently being soaked up by the radical Islamists. As a result, Damascus is now under mortar fire — something that was previously averted by an agreement with the armed opposition, whose units in the suburbs of Damascus are now being supplanted by ISIS.

This summer, Syria faced the real possibility of a repeat of the Libya scenario, but even uglier given the presence of not only Sunni Arabs, but also Alawites, Shias, Ismailis, Christians, Druze and other religious minorities, as well as Kurds, Turkmen, Circassians, Armenians, Assyrians and Palestinians.

In view of the radicalization of the Syrian armed opposition, it cannot be ruled out that the Islamist takeover will lead to the mass annihilation of religious and ethnic minorities in the country along the lines of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire (1915-1922).

The nature of Russia’s military assistance to Syria

Russia was forced to intervene in the situation, which now looks desperate for the Syrian people. Mass supplies of weapons have been shipped to the Syrian National Army, along with technical experts and advisers.

But that is not enough to deter the radical Islamists, who are already encroaching on the densely populated areas of the country. Therefore, Russia is considering the option of providing air support to the Syrian National Army and deploying warships from its Black Sea Fleet, which is stationed off the Syrian coast. It is clear, however, that the Russian military will not conduct ground operations against the radical Islamists. This role will be the sole preserve of the Syrian National Army, whose success will largely determine the very possibility of peace ever returning to Syria. The peace process itself (which includes the planned Geneva III talks) cannot survive otherwise.

Hybrid war in Syria: Who is really involved?

Returning to the hybrid war in Syria, it should be noted that in reality the sole players are the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf through their vast financial resources and media control.

On that latter point, Saudi Arabia has complete control over 80 percent of Arab media, and another 5 percent belongs to Qatar. Hence, it is a simple matter to wage information warfare against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, deliberately distorting the facts and figures as required.

Of course, Damascus is fighting back with the help of the self-styled Syrian Electronic Army and other outfits. The Syrian capital is also supported by Moscow and Tehran, but Western media are still demanding the departure of President Assad, despite the lack of a viable alternative. Such maneuvering is unwittingly playing into the hands of the radical Islamists.

The US needs to coordinate its actions with Russia’s new coalition

As a consequence, the United States finds itself in a tight spot. Its half-hearted struggle against ISIS and other radical organizations has forced Russia and Iran into taking a more active part in the Syrian armed conflict.

This is leading to the creation of a real coalition between the Syrian and Iraqi national armies, the Kurds and other aligned armed groups (including the moderate opposition) against the radical Islamists.

With the support of Russia and Iran, this coalition could, if not vanquish, then at least severely curb ISIS and Al-Nusra Dzhabhat in Syria.

Recommended: "Russia raises the stakes in Syria"

Washington faces a stark choice - either continue the losing battle against these militant structures or coordinate its actions with Russia’s anti-terrorist coalition within the framework of the “new” hybrid war.

The latter implies not the overthrow of the legitimate government in favor of its own national interests, but the creation of a new Syria, one in which the president is chosen by Syrians themselves.

In this hybrid war, there can be no information campaign to conceal the crimes of so-called moderate Islamists, and the United States will be forced to open its eyes to the close links of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar’s to radical nationalists.

Otherwise, Europe will have not thousands, but millions of Syrian refugees on its doorstep — with all the negative consequences that will ensue.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.