Judging from recent statements by Russian officials, Moscow has decided to express cautious solidarity with Washington”s actions to fight against the terrorists of the Islamic State (IS), though there is no talk of any joint effort. Russia supported the latest UN Security Council resolution on the fight against terrorism. Yet, Moscow also continues to see the negative implications of the actions of the coalition led by the United States, bearing in mind that military force alone cannot defeat terrorism. Among those negative aspects is the prospect of an increase in terrorist recruits among those disgruntled with a new intervention by the West. The inevitable “collateral damage” among the civilian population will contribute to this.
Let me cite in this regard Daniel Serwer: “The airstrikes may be creating ungoverned spaces in which we have no means to prevent radicalization and haven for international terrorists.” Terrorist leaders are using the Internet to spread a lot of material, ominously predicting the defeat of the coalition that leads the fight against IS. They maintain that there is no way to defeat them with airstrikes. Addressing President Barack Obama, Sheikh Abu Muhammad ash-Shami asked: 'Have you not realized … that the battle cannot be decided from the air at all? Or do you think that you are smarter than Bush?'”
Moreover, Moscow opposes US missile attacks and airstrikes on Syria without the consent of the legitimate government in Damascus. The violation of Syrian sovereignty — no matter what motivates it — is a matter of concern for the Russian leadership. According to former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, “Not only is this in contravention of international law, but it also raises concerns that, by bypassing the UN Security Council, it would surreptitiously start the ‘bombing out’ of the regime in Damascus. In this regard, the arguments of the US side — expressed in a letter from the US permanent representative to the UN, Samantha Power, to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — are not convincing: namely, that the Iraqi government had requested that the United States carry out strikes in Syria and that “the inability or unwillingness of Damascus to respond to the Islamist threat provides a sufficient basis to execute attacks on the territory of a sovereign state.”
According to an official statement of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sept. 23, to carry out missile attacks and airstrikes on Syria, a formal unilateral notification would be insufficient; instead, the explicit consent of the government of Syria, or the adoption of a relevant UN Security Council resolution, is required. President Vladimir Putin confirmed this position in a conversation with Ban.
Russian officials constantly point out that the victories of the terrorists in Iraq were made possible by the mistakes committed by the United States and its allies after the invasion of Iraq. As Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said, these mistakes were, first of all, the dissolution of the former army as a result of which Iraqi soldiers “fled their homes with guns, and then some of them joined terrorist groups.” And second, that Iraq has failed to create a really strong army: “We should have helped the Iraqis to establish a functioning and effective army long ago”; the old one should have been kept in place and “reinforced with new cadres.” This high-ranking Russian diplomat came to the conclusion that “Syria should not repeat the same mistake.”
It can be inferred that Moscow’s strategy in relation to Washington”s “no-boots-on-the-ground” military operation against IS pursues, at the very least, three objectives:
- First, to provide cautious political support for the operation, which reduces a source of threat to Russia itself.
- Second, to ensure that the attacks on Syria will not be directed against the regime in Damascus and, at a minimum, would be agreed upon with Damascus (and that ideally Damascus would be brought to join in the fight against IS). The Russian media have highlighted — referring to a Reuters dispatch citing a source within Iran's ruling circles — that the United States reassured Tehran that the United States would not attack Syrian government forces during the bombing campaign against IS positions on Syrian territory. It is nonetheless revealing that Bogdanov”s statement, though purely hypothetical, leaves open the possibility of a change in the situation in Syria: “State structures — the army and other institutions — should remain intact and function regardless of whether there will be a change in the political leadership.”
- Third, to improve relations with Washington, which have dramatically worsened in the course of events in Ukraine. As Primakov exhorts: “No dispute, including on the ‘Ukrainian question,’ should interfere in the fight against international terrorism.”
The Russian domestic political debates on this issue continue to witness a clash between two diametrically opposed points of view concerning US actions. In one camp are experts such as Georgy Mirsky, who call for “applauding” Obama. In an article published on the Echo of Moscow website Sept. 11, he wrote: “The Americans never sent suicide bombers to blow up the Moscow metro, whereas the caliphate would send them, make no mistake.” These experts sharply criticize the Bashar al-Assad regime. They are opposed by the “anti-Western” camp, which unites analysts from various political orientations. The former head of the Russian Jewish Congress, Yevgeny Satanovsky, goes as far as denying the alliance between Israel and the United States, saying: “The United States has no allies, no matter what they call their partners. … America has dealt a severe blow to Israel and put it in serious danger on multiple occasions. … In this case, the American leadership decides on its personal interests with its partners, which are those who paid for this operation, namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia.”
One senior Israeli officer, whom I recently met in Moscow, told me that IS does not pose any threat to Israel, whereas Iran does. This echoes some comments by Arab analysts regarding the participation of the Gulf States in the coalition that is waging war against IS. Al-Hayat newspaper's senior diplomatic correspondent Raghida Dergham writes about the radical difference "between the fact that Gulf governments have characterized the [IS] threat as an ‘existential’ one, and the fact that a large segment of the public sympathizes with [IS] and its motives, and sees it as something necessary in the balance of power and the balance of terror.” Moreover, she continues, the Gulf sees IS primarily “as a necessary instrument to confront the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional ambitions, especially in the war in Syria,” rather than as terrorists.
Most local analysts believe that Moscow's position in relation to the events unfolding in Iraq and Syria will remain unchanged, in the short term. The most that can be expected is low-profile involvement in countering IS, primarily by assisting the governments of Iraq and Syria.