As Russia deepens its military footprint in Syria, the country's dizzying constellation of rebel groups are scrambling to adjust — and it's not clear who will come out on top.
The Islamic State insurgency (IS) has taken advantage of Russia's airstrikes to expand its territory, al Qaeda-aligned groups at war with IS are positioning themselves as the best hope of expelling the new foreign invaders, and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) may be flirting with a Russian alliance.
"It's Game of Thrones on crack," said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior editor of the website The Long War Journal. "It's becoming harder and harder to keep track of the strategic imperative of each group."
Russia's intervention in Syria came in late September, just as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faced a critical shortage of manpower and desperately needed air power to push back rebel forces.
"Now that Assad has more firepower, it's puts some steel into the back of his supporters," said Aron Lund, a Syria researcher and editor of the "Syria in Crisis" webpage at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Russian intervention has also created openings for Assad's opponents. While IS is bracing for a Kurdish-led attack from the West, the Russian intervention has yet to deal a serious blow to the group, despite the fact that Russia has repeatedly used the presence of IS in Syria as the justification for its intervention in the first place. Over the past month, under cover of Russian airstrikes, the radical Islamic insurgency managed to amass more territory from rival rebel groups around Aleppo province. Over the weekend, the group seized from the regime a key road linking Hama to Aleppo — the last major supply route to funnel pro-government troops to the front lines around Aleppo.
At the same time, the al Qaeda-aligned al Nusra Front has formed a new coalition to fight the Russians in the countryside outside Damascus. On October 21, three non-IS jihadi groups — al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham, and Ajnad al Sham — announced the creation of Jund al Malahim ("Soldiers of the Epics"), a joint operations command to respond to Russia's "blatant" intervention into the Syrian civil war.
Earlier in the month, groups aligned with al Nusra labeled the Russians "infidels" and and began lobbying rockets into Latakia province — a stronghold of the Assad regime and home to a major Russian-used airfield. It also issued bounties for captured or killed Russian soldiers.
Al Nusra, along with an alliance of Islamist rebel groups, already controls the Syrian province of Idlib, a strategically key zone that's within mortar fire of Latakia. Earlier this month, the group's leader called upon Muslims in the Caucasus to attack targets inside of Russia proper — a move that Aron Lund said could "add a whole new global element" to the conflict.
"In some ways al Nusra and its allies are trying to harness the effort against Russia to build more momentum for their movement," Joscelyn added. "They say, 'We are taking the fight to the Russians.'"
Lund cautions against giving Russia too much credit for shifting the balance of forces among rebel factions.
"Sure, they all hate the Russians.... Syrian rebels of all stripes have been burning Russian flags for years," he said. "It's possible that Russia's stepped up involvement could push people into more radical positions and galvanize opposition."
On the ground, however, rebel factions are so far as divided as ever.
Even Jund al Malahim, the newly formed coalition to fight the Russians outside of Damascus, excludes the major rebel group operating in that area: the Saudi Arabia-backed Army of Islam. In fact, Lund sees the whole formation of the anti-Russian alliance as a tactic designed not to fight the Russians, but to edge the Army of Islam out of the Damascus countryside. It's leader, the Saudi-backed Zahran Alloush, is a major rival of al Nusra.
While al Nusra and IS have both declared jihad on the invading Russian Army, Russia is extending an olive branch to the Western-backed rebels in the FSA. On October 26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country would help the group if it stopped trying to topple Assad and joined forces against IS. Russian news outlets circulated rumors that a "Free Syrian Army representative" had agreed to enter into talks with the Russians. But that representative, Fahad al-Masri, "actually has no relationship with the FSA," Lund said. "He's just some guy they found in Europe."
A spokesperson for the FSA who is actually based within Syria rebuked the Russian offer on Monday, but kept the door open for a possible alliance — as vivid an acknowledgement as any that Russia's intervention is to be reckoned with.
"Their words are not like their actions. How can we talk to them while they are hitting us?" said Issam al-Rayyes, spokesman for the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army. "We don't need the help now. They should stop attacking our bases and then we can talk about future cooperation."
The first round of Russian airstrikes launched a month ago targeted FSA positions around Homs and Hama, devastating FSA groups that received funding and support from the US and its allies. The proposed alliance is a Machiavellian calculation designed to back the FSA into a corner, according to Michael Kofman, a Russian expert at the Wilson Center.
"What the Russians are pitching to the FSA is: Plan A, we wipe you out. Plan B, you change sides and fight the jihadists with us," he said.
By driving a wedge between factions, Russia is doing its best to cement its longtime ally Assad as the country's only viable leader, forcing Syrians to choose between jihadists and the regime. It's a risky move, said Lund.
"A lot of people like to think of Putin as some sort of cool-headed geopolitical chess player," he added. "But I don't think Putin has a better grasp of the chaos than anyone else."
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