Lack of common cause risks handing Syria to ISIS

Political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov discusses why there is no united front in the struggle against ISIS.

Drawing by Konstantin Maler. Click to enlarge the image

An official representative of the US administration has warned Russia that it risks being isolated if it continues supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Other western leaders are also concerned, albeit rather vaguely – no one has a clear idea of what should be done in the crisis zone. The two camps fall broadly into those opposed to Russian troops entering the conflict and those who think they might just achieve what hand-wringing and western air strikes have failed to.

If we distance ourselves from the ideological preconceptions that colour all views of Russia, we may understand why there is no united front in the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), even though all agree such an approach is desperately needed.

There are a range of basic discrepancies, either stated or implicit. First, ISIS is seen as a terrorist group, which is why everyone is speaking about an anti-terrorist campaign. This is not the right definition.The problem can be traced back to the beginning of the 2000s when the international fight against terrorism, declared by the Bush administration, stimulated processes that culminated in the current chaos.

Also, even if the world is now confronted by terrorism, ISIS represents a new type and level of terrorism. The Islamists headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are overrunning and destroying the institutional structure of the Middle East, intent on rebuilding not only the ideological but also the national and political order.

ISIS deserves to be countered by the most serious measures using the most modern arsenal that countries have at their disposal. The West continues viewing ISIS through the prism of familiar concepts of the fight against terrorism, while Russia is inclined to take up measures that are usually characteristic of interstate wars.

Ideas about Syria’s future also do not correspond. The West’s obsession with Assad is related to the question of who will manage Syria after the conflict. Here, the original meaning of the talks on sharing powers with the opposition, the renewal of the Geneva process and so on, come into focus.

Russia supported the Geneva and the Moscow processes, albeit with its own agenda, but now it is convinced that the challenge is much more acute. The problem is what will happen to the Syria that existed before. The country has practically been divided into zones of control (or lack thereof) and it is difficult to imagine the reconstruction of former statehood. Now, the question is: where will it be possible to dig in to stop the advance of ISIS?

It is clear that the issue of power in a reformatted system, whatever it may be called in the future, will arise. No doubt power will have to be shared, but first it is important to understand what exactly will remain.

As for the present, many in Moscow reasonably believe that a coalition in the conditions of a massive external attack is good only when the various forces, having set their differences aside, sincerely unite against a common enemy. That is not the case in Syria. Both the government and the opposition’s level of obstinacy is close to absolute. And to use force to impose co-operation in such a situation (theoretically external players can try to achieve this) means condemning the coalition to immediate failure with a clear result: the enthronement of ISIS in Damascus.

So despite the above-mentioned divergences, is it possible for the leading players to reach an agreement on joint actions in Syria? The inflows of refugees to Europe and its complete inability to do anything about it is quickly changing the public’s mood in the Old World. Now the mood is dominated by the opinion that, to stop the situation, Europe should do everything possible and not on its territory.

The American position is dictated by a tangle of various motifs, but in general it is no longer monolithic. Public declarations and real views do not always correspond, while opposition to Moscow is determined not by the desire to remove Assad, but by fears that Russia will strengthen its position in the region. But this is an issue of a rational balance of interests, which is always easier to solve (though still very difficult) in comparison to when the situation concerns ideological preferences.

It is clear that by initiating the anti-ISIS campaign and getting more involved in Middle Eastern intrigues, Russia is taking risks. Besides the threat of material and, more importantly, human losses (which cannot be denied, especially considering the inhumane enemy that will be opposed), there are always doubts related to reaching the objective. There are no guarantees of success, especially in this complex situation where everyone is fighting multiple enemies, and so-called allies are stabbing each other in the back. Russian public opinion must prepare itself for various scenarios.

It should also be recognised that Russia’s decision to participate more actively in the Syrian battle is informed by its past experience. In international politics, it is action and not criticism that is valued above all else.

Although it is action that wins points and elevates status, the opposite may occur. However, without risk there is no “Big Game”.

The author is chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

First published in Russian in Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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