Members loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) wave ISIL flags as they drive around Raqqa June 29, 2014. Source: Reuters
Forming an international coalition to combat the threat posed by ISIS continues to be complicated by disagreements between Russia and the U.S. On Wednesday, Sept. 24, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a forceful speech at the UN calling for action against Islamic extremists, but at the same time criticizing Russia for its actions in Ukraine. Nevertheless, later the same day, Russia voted in favor of U.S.-backed UN Security Council Resolution 2170, which condemns the action of extremist groups and takes steps to restrict the flow of money and fighters to them.
Russian experts say that Russia’s support of the resolution should not be taken as an indication that Moscow has altered its position on U.S. action in the Middle East. Rather, according to Leonid Isaev, an Arabic Studies scholar and research fellow at the Higher School of Economics, given the successes of ISIS, Russia no longer had much room to maneuver.
“Now the Americans are bombing territory controlled by a terrorist organization, and any criticism of that operation will give rise to questions as to why Russia supports terrorism and the idea of an Islamic State,” Isaev said.
Russian experts took pains to note that the resolution must be considered on its own merits.
Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, said: “By upholding Resolution 2170, Russia has signaled that it is willing to cooperate in the fight against jihadists. But that support should not be regarded as an indulgence in undertaking any steps that run counter to international legal norms.”
Andrei Baklitsky, political scientist, director for information projects at the PIR Center for Political Research, agreed. “It is not Resolution 2170 that provokes Russian criticism, but U.S. actions in Syria. The text of the resolution is completely balanced and is a continuation of similar UN documents on the fight against terrorism,” Baklitsky said.
According to Tatiana Parkhalina, director of the Center for European Security Studies, Russia’s vote for the resolution was a recognition of the seriousness of the threat posed by ISIS, while the debate preceding the vote gave Moscow an opportunity again state its position on U.S. action in the Middle East.
“The Islamic State is a direct threat to the national security of both Europe and Russia. Moscow’s support for the resolution to combat foreign terrorists is the right move for Russian diplomacy,” Parkahlina said. “[Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov’s criticism following the vote was substantiated by the fact that it was important for Moscow to make its position on the U.S.’ continued bombing in Iraq in Syria known. It was important for the Americans to hear our point of view.”
According to Baklitsky, Russia will continue to encourage the U.S. to cooperate with the Syrian government.
“The U.S. must ask President Bashar Assad’s permission to bomb the Islamists in Syria,” Baklitsky said. “Since the Americans do not consider the current Syrian government to be legitimate, they are striking and going over Assad’s head. This is de facto a violation of international law. This is of fundamental importance to Russia. We are once again talking about Washington’s violation of the principle of state sovereignty, even if the targets of the strikes are terrorists.”
Russians are counting on U.S. domestic concerns to limit the scope of the operation. Midterm congressional elections will take place Nov. 4, and, according to Sergei Kostyaev, associate professor at the Faculty of Applied Political Science at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, Democrats are wary of signing on to another war in the Middle East given U.S. President Barack Obama’s low ratings and the possibility that they might lose control of the Senate. “[Republicans] stand to score points on charges against Obama for inconsistency and pandering to a reactionary regime that the president promised to destroy.”
Leonid Isaev thinks that U.S. public opinion will also play a role in determining the size and duration of the American campaign. “It is a very labor-intensive process to destroy the Assad regime. And the U.S. is unlikely to be able to limit itself just to air strikes – it will also need to conduct a ground operation,” Isaev said. “If the Americans don’t manage to raise the combat capability of the Free Syrian Army as soon as possible, then there is a high likelihood that they won’t initiate a campaign against Assad and will avoid a major war in the Middle East.”
Reporting from Galia Ibragimova and Gevorg Mirzayan was used in this story.
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