When Putin met Obama recently on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, there were some commentators who believed that they were seeing the beginning of a super-power consensus over Syria and the need to combat ISIS.

However, the Russian Parliament agreed on 30 September to airstrikes in Syria and within a matter of minutes there were reports from non-ISIS rebel groups in Homs and Hama, saying that they were being bombed by Russian planes, with extensive reports of civilian casualties.

The establishment of Russian airbases in parts of Syria and the handing over of increasingly heavy weaponry to the Assad regime has drawn a confused response from the international community. 

Several Putin apologists hailed this move as a decisive step in combatting the threat of ISIS and Islamist extremism in Syria. They claimed that the only way of challenging ISIS was to work with Assad. In fact, the opposite is true.

Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies created ISIS. They needed the bogeyman of “Islamist terrorists” in Syria and they did everything in their power to make this a reality. In 2012 Assad emptied his prisons, freeing thousands of extremists and terrorists. These individuals formed the core of what became known as ISIS in Syria.

The Iraqi groups which preceded ISIS were also largely the creation of Assad, who allowed tens of thousands of foreign fighters into Iraq in the post-2003 period to challenge the American occupiers. Meanwhile Iran was also arming and funding militias to attack American troops and stir up chaos in Iraq.

So at the time of ISIS’s emergence in Syria during 2013-2014, the key figures already enjoyed excellent ties with the Assad regime, and therefore indirectly with Iran and Hezbollah. It is now well-established that the creators of ISIS behind the scenes were Iraqi Baathists from the former Saddam regime, with a similar worldview to the Baathist regime in Syria.

Right up until the present time Assad and ISIS – for the most part – avoided confronting each other, with ISIS filling the void that Assad vacated in central and eastern Syria and both sides turning their fire power on Syrian rebel groups. 

There is extensive evidence that ISIS and Assad coordinated attacks; and that during the organization’s emergence in 2014 ISIS’s emir ordered his foot soldiers not to fire on regime forces. Most of ISIS’s wealth initially came from trade with Assad’s Government, particularly through smuggling oil from captured oil fields.

In short, Assad, Iran and Russia need ISIS to crush the insurgency and bolster Assad’s legitimacy as the only strong man who can stand up to Islamic extremism. In reality, Assad’s weakened and demoralized forces have hardly ever won a fight against these extremist groups, on the rare occasions where they have come into confrontation.

Thus, Russia’s military intervention can only serve to strengthen Assad and therefore strengthen ISIS’s position. As long as Assad remains there can never be a peaceful and united Syria and a huge political void will continue to exist, that ISIS and other extremist groups can exploit.

On the same day that Russia was diverting the world’s attention by bombing rebels and civilians in Homs and Hama, there were several other significant incidents in the region: 

The Saudi-led coalition impounded a ship carrying a large haul of weapons destined for the Houthi rebels in Yemen

At the same time, Bahraini police discovered a huge haul of arms and bomb-making materials in Nuwaidrat, including 1.5 tonnes of high-grade explosives, rifles and hand grenades. The Bahraini authorities noted that the materials were identical to substances of Iranian origin impounded in the recent past and revealed that: “The facility had been adapted to accommodate an elaborate network of hidden underground bunkers and an above-ground manufacturing operation”.

Simultaneously, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was threatening “harsh retaliation” against Saudi Arabia for the recent tragedy in Mecca, in a clear attempt to escalate the rhetoric and inflame regional tensions.

With Russian support in Syria, we are thus seeing Iran go on the offensive on numerous fronts, in YemenBahrain and Syria; while continuing to stir up tensions in Iraq and Lebanon.

The sudden expansion of the Syrian refugee crisis into Europe has produced a confused and panicked reaction from Western nations. The most dangerous and counterproductive impulse comes from those who believe that the Syrian crisis needs a rethink and that Assad, Iran and Russia are the best hopes for defeating ISIS and the extremists.

This is exactly what Iran and Bashar al-Assad have wanted us to believe from the beginning. By escalating his barrel bomb campaigns and forcing hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe, Assad is performing a clever trick of fooling some European leaders into believing that he is part of the solution. We have already seen a softening of language by international diplomats concerning whether or not Assad will have to go as part of a political settlement.

The truth is that ISIS and Iran – along with its puppet, Bashar al-Assad – are two sides of the same coin. Both sides thrive off the instability and fear that the other creates and both need each other to justify their own existence.

The Syrian crisis has been prolonged and exacerbated by five years of international confusion and indecisiveness. Today the crisis stands at a crossroads and we can only hope that world leaders choose not to embrace the parties who are set to make the crisis far worse.

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