by Gordon M. Hahn
Even as US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow ending the isolation that never was—continuing sanctions notwithstanding—Obama administration officials and its affiliated media continue to propagandize the lies that Russia is not bombing the Islamic State (IS) mujahedin and that the others fighting in Syria are not overwhelmingly jihadi in nature.
US Defense Secretary Ashton B Carter continued reiterating the false characterization of Russia’s air strikes in Syria and its stated position on why it had intervened in Syria at a 1 December 2015 U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing. He said:
“What they (the Russians) say and what they do are two different things. What they said they were going to do was fight ISIL and pursue a political transition and not support Assad endlessly but instead try to pursue a political solution. What they have done militarily has had the effect of supporting Assad, no question about it. And they haven’t gone after ISIL, they have gone after moderate. That’s our source of disagreement. We’re having that disagreement and trying to get them to come around. That is what Secretary Kerry is doing to a more reasonable and constructive position” (www.c-span.org/video/?401241-1/ashton-carter-joseph-dunford-testimony-military-operations-isis&start=10592).
Every point in this comment is false.
As I have shown previously, Putin did not say that they would only be fighting IS (ISIL), he said they would be fighting all terrorists – i.e., jihadists. At the time some 20 percent of Russia’s air strikes were hitting IS, and most of the remainder were hitting Al Qa`ida-allied groups such as Jeish al-F ateh, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrara al-Sham, and others, including Russian/North Caucasus mujahedin allied to these groups, including AQ ally, Imarat Kavkaz (the Caucasus Emirate) and the IS affiliate in Russia, the Vilaiyat Kavkaz Islamskogo Gosudarstvo (the Caucasus Governate of the Islamic State) or VKIG (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/22/more-distortions-of-russias-military-intervention/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/03/russia-is-targeting-jihadi-terrorists-in-syria-including-the-islamic-state-and-russians-approve-of-putins-military-intervention-against-isis-update/).
More recent figures reported indicate that, as Voice of America’s Russian-language service noted, “only” 30 percent of Russian air strikes are hitting IS targets. VOA also noted: “US Special Representative Brett McGurk, who met on Wednesday (December 9) in Baghdad with the military leadership of the United States and Iraq, said that 70 percent of Russian air strikes are against the opposition” (www.golos-ameriki.ru/content/cn-russia-syria/3094989.html). Here the lie continues, but the figures are useful, demonstrating an increase in Russian sorties hitting IS.
Putin has been pursuing a transition. Russia has said that they support a transition and new elections, and Russian officials have clearly stated that Assad does not necessarily have to remain in power but should be involved in negotiations on the process of transition. In an interview on CBS’s ‘60 Minutes’ Putin emphasized that Russia was supporting Assad and the Syrian army and state because without them not a transition will occur but rather an IS-led revolution, as I noted in a previous article. The transcript of the full discussion on Syria reads:
Charlie Rose: So you would like to join the United States in the fight against ISIS? That’s part of why you’re there. Others think that while that may be part of your goal, you’re trying to save the Assad administration because they’ve been losing ground and the war has not been going well for them. And you’re there to rescue them.
President Putin: Well, you’re right. We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism. But, at the same time, urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.
Charlie Rose: As you know some of the coalition partners want to see President Assad go first before they will support.
President Putin: I’d like to recommend to them the following. They should send this message to the Syrian people. It’s only the Syrian people who are entitled to decide who should govern their country and how.
Charlie Rose: President Assad, you support him. Do you support what he is doing in Syria and what is happening to those Syrian people, those many millions of refugees and the hundreds of thousands of people that have been killed, many by his own force?
President Putin: Well, tell me, what do you think about those who support the opposition and mainly the terrorist organizations only in order to oust Assad without thinking about what will happen to the country after all the government institutions have been demolished? Today, you have repeatedly said that Assad is fighting against his own population. But look at those who are in control of 60 percent of the territory in Syria. It’s controlled by either ISIS or by others–
Charlie Rose: Al-Nusra?
President Putin: –such as al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations. They are recognized as terrorist organizations by the United States, by other states and by the United Nations.
Charlie Rose: Are you prepared to put Russian combat troops on the ground in Syria if it’s necessary to defeat ISIS?
President Putin: Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don’t plan on it right now. But we are considering intensifying our work with both President Assad and with our partners in other countries.
Charlie Rose: I come back to the problem that many people look at. And they believe that Assad helps ISIS. That his reprehensible conduct against the Syrian people using barrel bombs and worse is a recruiting tool for ISIS and that if he was removed, transitioned, at some point, it would be better in the fight against ISIS, al-Nusra and others.
President Putin: Well, speaking in a professional language of intelligence services I can tell you that this kind of assessment is an “active measure” by enemies of Assad. It is anti-Syrian propaganda.
Charlie Rose: Much is being read into this including this, that this is a new effort for Russia to take a leadership role in the Middle East and that it represents a new strategy by you. Is it?
President Putin: Not really. No. More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and Ex-Soviet Republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us. So instead of waiting for their return, we are better off helping Assad fight them on Syrian territory. So this is the most important thing which encourages us and pushes us to provide assistance to Assad. And, in general, we want the situation in the region to stabilize. (www.cbsnews.com/news/vladimir-putin-russian-president-60-minutes-charlie-rose/)
Since then, Russia has been in contact with the Free Syrian Army and has stated it agrees its representatives and other truly moderate opposition forces should be included in the transition talks with Assad.
In fact, it was the West’s, in particular, the Obama administration’s belief that the Muslim Brotherhood and other ‘moderate’ Islamists should be supported in Egypt, Libya and Syria in their quest to seize power (and carry the jihad further) that led to the rise of IS.
On the very same day that Secretary Carter made his obfuscatory comments, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken recently said something much different. Blinken argued that Russia’s military intervention in Syria has actually helped push the negotiating process forward, with Moscow’s airstrikes, weapons supplies, and financing in backing Assad strengthening “Russia’s leverage.” This implied that Russia’s increased leverage and diplomacy were facilitating the alleged breakthrough (http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/12/01/top-u-s-diplomat-political-solution-to-syria-civil-war-now-in-sight/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=New%20Campaign&utm_term=%2ASituation%20Report). Whether the different lines being promoted by the US Defense and State Departments reflect a disagreement, lack of coordination, or a ‘good cop-bad cop’ routine is hard to tell. But it appears that they are not on the same page.
That may be good. Perhaps, the Obama administration has finally—at least in this case—decided its policy has failed and might lead to catastrophe and so it is time to back off the lie, at least in part. This does not mean that I am optimistic. It will be extremely difficult to overcoming IS and the tens of other jihadi organizations on the ground not just in Syria but also in Iraq and across an arc stretching from Morocco to AfPak. This requires a global coalition against the global jihadi revolutionary movement. Otherwise, the once dreamed of common European home from Vladivostok to Vancouver will be replace by a common global caliphate from North Africa to northern India and beyond.
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; a Contributor for Russia Direct, www.russia-direct.org; 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. Dr. Hahn 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. He also 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. His website is http://www.gordonhahn.com.