by Gordon M. Hahn
Readers might recall that weeks ago Russia and Putin personally in a televised interview requested the U.S. share its intelligence so Russian air strikes could target more IS targets. The U.S. refused. Now, IS terrorists have taken down a Russian civilian airliner killing all 223 passengers and hit seven targets in Paris, France killing 129 and wounding more than 300, 99 seriously. Two days later, after French President Francois Hollande said France was at war, French warplanes carried out an intense bombing on IS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. The targets are said to have been selected on the basis of U.S. intelligence. This reflects just how the Paris attack might have been prevented completely–with earlier U.S.-Russian cooperation–or at least delayed or disrupted with more recent cooperation and less emphasis on ‘color revolutions’, Assad’s removal, and support for unreliable Syrian rebel forces.
The following was published more than a year ago–one of my most recent warnings about the impending costs to be exacted by the Islamic State and the global jihadi revolutionary movement and to be paid by the West. The costs–seen most recently over the Sinai and on the streets of Paris– are the direct result of the Barack Obama administration’s failed leadership in neglecting both to address the core issues hampering U.S.-Russian relations (NATO expansion and democracy-promotion ‘revolutionism’ near Russia’s borders) and to form a Western-Eurasian-led grand coalition to fight jihadism. We still have no grand alliance, broad coordination is feeble, and the risk of continuing competition for a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space and in the Middle East risk yet more failure in the war against global jihadism.
[[The following of mine was originally published as “New Cold War makes US, Russian cooperation against ISIS unlikely,” Russia-Direct, 28 August 2014, www.russia-direct.org/content/new-cold-war-makes-us-russian-cooperation-against-isis-unlikely]]
The growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), is galvanizing international interest in countering that threat. In Washington, some conservatives are also calling for a more robust intervention against ISIS. However, the Obama administration’s limited desire to get involved in international conflicts and its policy of “leading from behind” makes any serious effort unlikely for now.
Another damper on any serious U.S. effort against ISIS is the complications posed by the deteriorating U.S.-Russian relationship. A Western-Russian partnership would be an important element in any international campaign to defeat or at least contain ISIS.
However, the collapse in Western-Russian, especially U.S.-Russian relations, over the crisis and civil war in Ukraine casts a dark shadow of doubt over the prospects for such cooperation. The ‘new Cold War’ renders the U.S. less willing to cooperate with Russia on anything.
Any effort to include Russia in a new counter-terrorism initiative poses both opportunities and risks. It is difficult to envisage smooth cooperation between Western and Russian military and intelligence agencies, when NATO is gearing up to increase its presence along Russia’s border and a veritable, indirect proxy war is being supported by Washington and Moscow against each other’s allies in Ukraine.
At the same time, Moscow’s participation could facilitate greater cooperation from Syria. Moscow’s weight in Damascus has only increased over the last year with Russia’s successful intervention preventing a U.S. bombing campaign against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and the resolution of the chemical weapons issue. The Kremlin’s close relations with Assad could facilitate the acquisition of additional intelligence for Western forces engaging ISIS.
On the other hand, it is precisely this close Syrian-Russia relationship that could complicate a U.S.-Russian agreement to cooperate against ISIS. Russia would prefer that any multilateral campaign against ISIS target its forces based in Syria. The West, in particular the U.S. and the Obama administration, would wish to focus more on ISIS in Iraq.
Russia is interested in a Syrian campaign in order to assist the survival of the Assad regime, the survival of which Moscow has put a premium on due to military (naval base), economic (arms sales) and religious (Orthodox communities in Syria and Lebanon) interests in the region.
The U.S. wants to roll back ISIS in Iraq because of the investment in blood and treasure made there in two wars and to prevent the emergence of another haven for international terrorists highly focused on targeting the U.S. and its allies.
To be sure, the Kremlin is interested in weakening or defeating the ISIS and the jihadi threats from the region in general. There close ties were developing between Syrian and Iraqi mujahedin, including the ISIS and the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin based in Russia’s North Caucasus who have carried out more than 2,000 terrorist and insurgent attacks, including 54 suicide bombings, in Russia since its inception in October 2007.
Indeed, one of the most powerful figures in ISIS, military amir Tarkhan Batirashvili (alias Umar al-Shishani or Umar the Chechen) was a member of the CE and was dispatched originally to Syria and financed by the CE along with several other amirs. They were sent there to develop a CE presence in the Middle East and gain military experience and materiel to be brought back to the Caucasus for the CE jihad.
However, the CE’s ties with ISIS and Batirashvili have become somewhat strained since infighting broke out between ISIS, on the one hand, and groups like Al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand. At present, the bulk of CE-tied mujahedin are fighting under the banner of al-Nusra and other jihadi groups in Syria, not under ISIS or in Iraq.
Therefore, even if Moscow and Washington manage to agree in general on joint intelligence and other efforts against ISIS, different interests could confound any real cooperation and might even lead to another spat between Moscow and the West.
Given Washington’s underestimation of the threat and unwillingness to engage militarily abroad, the ‘new Cold War’ and divergent U.S. and Russian interests in the Middle East, any robust Russian-American cooperation in the war against ISIS or jihadism remains unlikely. That may be one of the unintended consequences of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine – an inability to counteract a larger global jihadi revolutionary alliance.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. He has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.