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18 November 2015

Kremlin’s post-Sinai strategy

Has Russia just started a real war against ISIS or is it a calculated move to make the best of the situation?

The destruction of Russia’s Metrojet Airbus 321 over the Sinai Peninsula is a heartbreaking human tragedy. 224 innocent civilians – mostly young Russian vacationers from St. Petersburg – cut down in the prime of life. And as the global media disseminates images of grieving Russians awaiting further news on their loves ones, the human toll should not be forgotten.   

Russia has now acknowledged this was a terrorist act, almost certainly committed by the Sinai branch of ISIS, Wilayat Sinai. This is not surprising. Despite the best efforts of the Egyptian military and security services, the Sinai branch of ISIS remains a powerful and influential force in the sparsely populated peninsula. Given that a £20 bribe is enough to avoid the luggage scanner at the Sharm Al-Sheikh airport, it seems entirely possible an ISIS operative somehow succeeded in smuggling a bomb onto the plane.

While the human dimensions remain paramount, the attack raises a number of security and geopolitical issues for the Russian government to consider. One important question is how the Kremlin frames the incident going forward, especially since ISIS has explicitly linked the attack directly to President Vladimir Putin’s Syrian campaign. On the one hand, the Kremlin might emphasize that the attack demonstrates why the Syrian intervention is needed. Thousands of Russian citizens are fighting with Jihadist groups in Syria, and Putin may follow a “rally around the flag” strategy, emphasizing that Russia must confront extremists in Syria before they return home to Russia. Ironically, the "fighting-them-there-so-we-don't-have-to-fight-them-here" fable was frequently used by the George W. Bush administration to justify its war in Iraq.

Moreover, Putin clearly wishes to use his Syrian intervention to send the message that Russia is again a global power with which to be reckoned. Cutting and running does not fit with this image. Furthermore, Putin has frequently emphasized to Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi that Russia is a dependable ally. By standing with Assad — Russia's closest Middle East ally during the Cold War — Putin's message to states like Egypt is that "unlike those fickle Americans, you can count on us."

By the same token, Putin must factor in the domestic political consequences of the attack, especially given the Kremlin’s initial reticence to acknowledge that terrorism was involved. Already, signs have emerged that some Russians blame Putin for the tragedy, two wooden coffins with the words “For What” and For Whom” spray painted on them appeared in a canal in St. Petersburg. As an editorial in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti noted, “the Kremlin will have to reverse cause and effect here so that its strategy is not seen as leading to civilian deaths.” While Russians have not registered widespread disapproval of Russia’s Syrian intervention yet, the Kremlin remains highly sensitive to Putin’s approval rating, and will surely notice if Russians’ opposition to their country’s military campaign in Syria spikes upward in response to the coming weeks. 

The second question is whether the Sinai attack will alter Russia’s military strategy in Syria? On the other hand, Putin could choose to shift Russia’s strategy in Syria and devote more resources to targeting ISIS. Indeed, domestic politics almost certainly require that Putin respond to the mass slaughter of Russian citizens by directing Russia’s military to increase its attacks on ISIS itself. As a map of Russian airstrikes between October 31 – November 10th  (see below) from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) demonstrates, this is exactly what occurred immediately after the Sinai attack. Russia’s immediate post-Sinai airstrikes hit numerous targets in ISIS-controlled territory, including the ISIS “capital” of Raqqah, Aleppo, several near Palmyra and possibly Deir ez-Zor. Russia also struck ISIS positions near the regime’s besieged airbase of Kuwaris, allowing the Syrian army to kill large numbers of ISIS soldiers while breaking the siege. 

The same dynamic exists with Russian ground forces. The Russian military just established its fourth military base in the Syrian town of Tiyas, close to ISIS-held territory near Palmyra, rather than the regime’s Alawite heartland on the coast. Even United States’ military officials now acknowledge Russia looks set to use its Tiyas base to target ISIS.

By the same token, Putin is also clearly committed to preserving the Assad regime, at least in the short-term. Critically, the Russian intervention is not about restoring Syrian President Bashar Assad's control over a "stable and unified" Syria, but rather to preserve a functioning Syrian state — preferably one that can also protect Russia's interests in Syria. For this reason, Russia also continues to pound non-ISIS targets around the perimeter of regime-held territory.

In sum, while the Russian military is likely to devote more effort to striking ISIS targets, this will not be at expense of Putin’s desire to prevent the collapse of the government in Damascus.   

The final question is whether ISIS’ responsibility for the crash impels the West to work more closely with Moscow, at least in Syria. After the attacks in Paris, the answer already appears to be yes. The day after the Paris attacks, the United States, Russia and other nations met in Vienna to discuss how to bring an end to the Syrian conflict. This was followed up by a meeting between President Obama and Putin on the sidelines of the G20 gathering in Turkey, where the two leaders agreed on “a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition” with the United Nations tasked to mediate a ceasefire between the Assad regime and the opposition.

More broadly, for the first time since the annexation of Crimea, there are numerous signs of a political thawing between Russia and the West. French President Francois Hollande has already argued that Russia and the West – both victims of ISIS attacks – should unite to defeat the terrorist group. While it may be a stretch, Putin dream scenario would be to use Russian cooperation in Syria to induce the West to end its Ukraine-related economic sanctions. The U.S. is unlikely to countenance a direct Syria for Ukraine trade-off, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Europeans might find a face saving way to wind down the sanctions regime.

While Russians continue mourning, Putin will surely try to make the best of the complex post-Sinai political and military calculations he faces.

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