The Ukrainian crisis has been detracting from the potential of U.S.-Russia collaboration in fighting ISIS. However, now there are some signs that Russia and the West can finally find common ground.
Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
Both the U.S. and Russia should take the threat posted by the Islamic State into account in their long-run foreign policy strategy. And there are signs of that already happening. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently announced Russian support of a French initiative to create an international conference on Iraq, as well as Russian support for any UN resolutions authorizing the U.S. to carry out air strikes in the Middle East and North Africa.
Today the Islamic State is emerging as a very serious threat for both the United States and Russia, regardless of some experts’ opinions that this threat has been unduly exaggerated. The Islamic State controls about 30 percent of Syrian territory, which together with the Iraqi area under its control, is a territory as big as Belgium. The militants of this jihadist movement have already voiced threats towards the U.S. as well as the Russian Federation.
The Islamic State – which used to be called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – emerged from the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda Middle East. The U.S. intends to call on the international coalition it is creating, including some states in the Middle East, to fulfil the task of weakening or eliminating this terrorist threat, which probably means delegating the ground operations to coalition partners. There is a risk of severe losses, since the Islamic State now possesses armed units with up to 90,000 people.
This is a considerable military force, rigidly structured and fanatically loyal to the leadership. It is also well financed with about $2 billion at its disposal. Its militants are merciless, and the videos with kittens in their hands posted on the Internet seem to be poking fun at the rest of the world.
Why the U.S. cannot help responding to the Islamic State threat
America is facing the question whether it is ready to engage all its forces and resources to deal with the acute conflict that has emerged in Iraq as well as the ongoing conflict in Syria. Obama has voiced the stance of the American establishment that the task is to attempt the clamp down on the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and ISIS-controlled Syrian territory using limited resources. That is, by carrying out air strikes.
The TV footage of Islamists killing Americans; scenes of looting near the American embassy, whose diplomatic staff were evacuated in good time; and videos of public executions of U.S. citizens deliver a bitter insult, and American politicians can’t leave it unanswered.
According to mass media reports, 61 reports of Americans support Obama’s decision on a military operation by the American forces in Iraq and Syria, since the President’s statements meet their expectations. They would never forgive another insult to their country.
Even now the Americans can’t afford to send many ground troops to Iraq and Syria as it would require significant funding that the U.S. Congress might not be ready to allot. Obama made it clear at the end of his address that the U.S. would rather not be dragged into another drawn-out conflict.
The Obama administration doesn’t know what will happen in Afghanistan after NATO and the U.S. withdraw their troops from there at the end of 2014 and how the Americans are going to protect their interests in Afghanistan. It’s not clear either what will happen in Syria where the U.S. would still like to see a change in leadership. The paradox is that it is the professional army led by Bashar Assad in the tug of war with the rebels that could help the Americans clamp down on the ISIS militants.
How ISIS pervades social media to indoctrinate Russians
The ISIS militants are a threat not only for the U.S. but also for Russia because both Iraq and Syria – unlike the U.S. – are geographically much closer to Russia than to the U.S., which is thousands of kilometers away.
The ISIS threats and claims that it would “liberate Chechnya” and would wage a war in the North Caucasus are now being put into practice. ISIS is actively engaging with the users of the main social networks to promote its ideas, and the Russian social network VKontakte is the key platform.
As is known, the key audience of the global social networks are young people 14 to 25 years old – the people who are also most susceptible to this sort of propaganda, especially Muslims (but not exclusively). This is where the ISIS leaders recruit their followers and adherents.
In fact, the ISIS leaders seem to have well assessed the efficiency of social networks and other Internet tools, both of which were key in the course of the Arab Spring (and the ensuing Arab riots), which in 2011-2013 led to the change of the old regimes in some of the MENA countries (Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya).
According to global media reports, ISIS recruits well paid IT experts who upload the ISIS propagandist videos as well as post calls to action and propagandist materials in the global social networks.
Young people were the key driver of the “Arab revolutions.” There is evidence that such materials are being posted in VKontakte too. These are brand new methods of leading a terrorist war using top new information tools; these are tools that Al-Qaeda did not use on the Internet some 15-20 years ago. And this is one of the major threats posed by ISIS.
A woman holds a sign calling to "Stop ISIS" during the demonstration called by Kurds in support of the Yezidis and the Christians in Iraq, in Arnhem, The Netherlands. Photo: AFP
How Russia and the US can find common ground in fighting ISIS
As for the other countries’ support for the American actions mentioned by Obama, despite the Ukraine crisis where Russia and the U.S. are on opposite side of the barricades, cooperation between Washington and Moscow on fighting ISIS is possible and necessary. This is, first of all, due to the fact that the terrorist activities of the Islamic State go beyond the scope of a regional threat.
With its ideas of the Pan-Caliphate and the export of the terrorist war onto other countries’ territories, including the U.S. and Russia, ISIS could become a global problem if generously funded on top of its own resources and illegal oil trade.
There are a few options here for cooperation of the military agencies and special services of both countries, ranging from intelligence exchange on ISIS to exercising influence on the countries affected by the war with ISIS. Besides, even in the case of U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria, Washington will still refrain from doing away with ISIS and Bashar Assad in one go despite the great urge to topple Assad in Syria.
Air strikes in state-controlled Syrian territories are fraught with the risk of huge civilian damage as well as destruction of important industrial sites and nuclear facilities. From the political point of view, even though the U.S. takes unilateral decision on bombing Islamists in different places in the world without UN approval, it would still require at least minimal consent of the international community.
Therefore, for the above-mentioned reasons, the American and Russian stances are close since only two biggest world nuclear powers are able to fight efficiently the Islamic State.
This does not, however, mean that Moscow could send its troops as part of the international coalition to fight ISIS. It is more probable that Russia will use its influence on Bashar Assad to force its army to act more decisively against ISIS militants on Syrian territory. This is how Syria could support Washington in its fight against ISIS.
Iran, Syria’s ally, should not be dismissed either. Tehran has already sent a few hundred fighters from the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps to Iraq to fight off the ISIS attacks. Iran’s aid to Washington could be forthcoming, especially if an agreement is reached on Nov. 25 on settling Iran’s “nuclear problem” and the U.S. sanctions are lifted.
Moscow could use its partnership relations with Iran here too, to back the U.S. in the war with ISIS. But any U.S. attempts to use the operation against ISIS to topple Assad’s regime could hamper potential American-Russian cooperation.
The Ukrainian crisis has been detracting from the potential of U.S.-Russia collaboration in fighting ISIS. However, now there are some signs that Russia and the West can finally find common ground, as indicated from Russia's recent readiness to support the U.S. operation of carrying out air strikes in the Middle East and North Africa.
Similar to the Ukrainian case, U.S. and Russia top-level bilateral diplomatic talks are necessary on the ISIS issue as well as the potential resumption of cooperation between the two countries’ agencies on fighting global terrorism, despite the negative general background of current Russian-American relations.
As a result, instead of mutual accusations of supporting the illegitimate regime of Bashar Assad in Syria and of U.S. arming and financing ISIS to fight the regime at some point, both sides could agree on concrete ways of cooperation to fight ISIS.
Finally, in the short-term, the U.S. can be expected to start bombing the ISIS militants’ positions in the next few weeks, which won’t, however, solve the ISIS problem completely.
Then Washington will expect military support from some Middle Eastern countries participating in the created international coalition to launch a ground operation. It is important to understand that the U.S. operation against the ISIS will be long-term, at least a few months or possibly even a year.