Foreign policy experts believe that Russia and the West should give up their differences over the crisis in Syria and start working together, even if it means sacrificing some of their vital interests in the Middle East.

A fighter from the Islamic State group, armed with a knife and an automatic weapon, next to captured Syrian army soldiers and officers, following the battle for the Tabqa air base in Raqqa, Syria. Photo: AP

Shortly after the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, another round of diplomatic talks on Syria took place in Vienna. Then, just a day later, the Russian and American presidents had an opportunity to talk for about 20 minutes on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Turkey, with Syria and terrorism reportedly topics of discussion.

Following these high-profile meetings, the Russian security services admitted that the crash of a Russian passenger airliner in Egypt was the result of a terror attack. Given numerous threats emanating from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) that they will commit even more terror attacks throughout the world, including in Europe and Russia, cooperation between countries to fight terrorism and increase the chances of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict becomes vital.   

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However, skeptics point to the many differences that hamper global leaders’ attempts to come up with a compromise. Even the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, admitted that there is no reason to be overly optimistic about the impact of the brief meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Barack Obama during the G20 summit.

The Middle East has only become more complicated and more unpredictable

The Middle East is so turbulent and brings together a number of geopolitical stakeholders with competing interests, which only complicates the situation and makes it more unpredictable. 

There is a total mess and unpredictability in the Middle East,” well-known Middle East expert, Vitaly Naumkin, the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said during the Nov. 9 presentation of his new book Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow.

Naumkin argues that the world needs new approaches for how to deal with the Middle East and makes no bones about the fact that global stakeholders have been increasingly manipulating the region in their own interests. 

One of Naumkin’s co-authors, Dina Malysheva, an expert from the Russian Academy of Sciences, argues the long history of failed states in the Middle East has brought to the geopolitical scene non-state actors such the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and has created a fertile soil for terrorism.   

“The transnational agenda make these conflicts [in the Middle East] multilayered: they are rooted in local realities, but manipulated by external players and under the influence of transnational ideologies [such as that of ISIS],” she added.

Given the fact the more than 16 million Muslims live in Russia, the problem of transnational ideologies becomes increasingly relevant for Russia, because the ISIS ideology is seen by many Russian Muslims as “a viable idea, said Malysheva, adding that the challenge is not only to destroy physically ISIS, but also to withstand its ideological, economic and political influence.

Two dangerous movements in the Middle East

Today there are too many time bombs in the Middle East, argues Veniamin Popov, an experienced diplomat and former ambassador to Yemen, Libya and Tunisia, who also took the floor during the RIAC discussion.

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According to him, there are two dangerous movements that are driving events forward in the Middle East. The first is the appearance of ISIS as an idea that is impossible to destroy with weapons alone. The second is the political longing of the Kurds, who cannot help jumping at the opportunity to create their own independent state [Kurds are living in four Middle East states: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey – Editor’s note]. But the Kurdish aspirations for independence and their attempts to cerate a state will be very painful, given the fact that not all countries of the region are interested in this.

We’d better be ready for the worst-case scenario of development of events,” warns Popov. At the same time, he proposes promoting Russian diplomacy in the region and using the idea of Russia saving the Muslim world in the Middle East. 

However, Irina Zvyagelskaya, professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences and one of the authors of Russia Direct’s recent report on the Middle East, argues it will be a challenge to persuade many Arab countries now that Russia is saving the Muslim world. She believes that Russia’s policy in this region is very ambivalent, because some Arabic countries are very unfriendly toward Russia. 

“The problem is that we have never fought with the Arab countries,” she said, putting into question Russia’s recent diplomatic and military activism in the region. 

Likewise, another Russian Academy of Sciences expert on the Middle East, Vladimir Akhmedov, sees Russia as a “newcomer in the Middle East,” because it doesn’t know the region well. Moreover, Moscow doesn’t have the experience of the colonial powers, which were fighting for influence in the Middle East. Yet it doesn’t mean that Russia doesn’t project its influence in the Middle East, he concludes. But it should take into account the experience of others.    

Sergei Markedonov, associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, echoes Akhmedov and warns that Moscow should not repeat the mistakes of the United States. That means Russia should shy away from idealism.

“It is necessary to clearly understand certain risks and vulnerabilities,” he said during the RIAC discussion. “If we are talking about a pan-Islamic project without an understanding of the factors that make Muslim ideas attractive, we could make a lot of mistakes. Saving the Islamic world is idealism, but in this situation, one should be realistic. This problem requires a complex approach.”

ISIS and terrorism

The Middle East turbulence is now being echoed in the new day-to-day routines of ordinary citizens in Russia and Europe, as indicated by two recent terror attacks: the crash of the Russian passenger aircraft in Egypt and the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. All this leads to the question: If the influence of ISIS is so great, to what extent does it pose a threat to the world?

Akhmedov argues that the role and the status of ISIS are exaggerated. According to him, ISIS is just a project, with no clear understanding of strategic goals.

However, Moscow Carnegie Center’s Alexei Malashenko believes the ISIS is not just a project - it is a decisive attempt to create a state, a certain structure, which could be attractive for outsiders. And this may pose a serious challenge. According to him, ISIS is a radical idea that poses a global threat and this threat is impossible to destroy with just weapons and military intervention.

“The Islamic State [ISIS] is forever,” said Moscow Carnegie Center’s Alexei Malashenko during a Nov. 10 discussion at the Sakharov Center in Moscow, pointing out that the idea of creating the global caliphate is perennial and “it will never disappear.” As long as this radicalism exists and penetrates people’s minds, it will always be a challenge for governments, which do not have a clear understanding of how to fight it.   

ISIS brings together not only radicals, but also pragmatists, who have aspirations to build the state, said Malashenko. If ISIS is destroyed, its supporters will scatter around the world to implement their ideas, which will only aggravate the Syrian standoff and the problem of international terrorism.

Likewise, Grigory Kosach, a scholar and professor at the Russian State University for Humanities, and Vasily Kuznetsov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), who also spoke at the Sakharov Center, agrees that ISIS is an idea that is impossible to root out in the near future.

The problem is that ISIS presents a robust idea of alternative political governance, argues Kuznetsov. But the paradox is that ISIS embodies the crisis of this political governance in the entire region. As long as the crisis exists, the idea of ISIS as “a sort of black hole will dominate and fill the vacuum,” he said during the discussion at the Sakharov center.   

Cooperation in Syria is possible despite differences    

Despite many challenges between global stakeholders in the Middle East, some experts agree that cooperation between some countries is possible. For example, Kuznetsov believes that nothing should prevent Russia and the U.S. from fighting together against ISIS in Syria, because generally their interests don’t contradict each other.

However, Arkady Dubnov, an international observer who moderated the discussion in the Sakharov Center, points out that the rhetoric between the Kremlin and the White House is not only “discouraging,” but also “shocking,” which might hamper any future cooperation.

Likewise, Malashenko seems to be skeptical about the full-fledged and extensive cooperation in the Middle East between Russia and the West.     

“The problem is that those in Russia who deal with foreign policy, they do improvisation,” he said, pointing out many are under the influence of political rhetoric and not mindful of the implications of such dangerous improvisation. Amidst such ideological confrontation, any partnership is unlikely.      

The challenge for such cooperation is distrust. After all, some Western experts are also raising their eyebrows at Russia’s airstrikes against ISIS and see the Kremlin in this context rather as a troublemaker than problem-solver.

They doubt that Russia is really sincere in its declared goals in Syria to fight ISIS and team up with the West, which hampers the possibility of a reliable and long-lasting cooperation between the Kremlin and the West. For example, Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy Department, argues that Russia's major goal is to back Syrian President Bashar Assad. 

"I don't admire Russia's role in Syria so far," he told Russia Direct. “I think the declared purpose of fighting ISIS is not sincere, and that in fact Russia is interested primarily in propping up Assad… How sad I am over the loss of life resulting from the aircraft bombing.  My thoughts and prayers are with those individuals and their families; this was a terrible tragedy.

At the same time, O’Hanlon admits that, "There may be a way to reconcile Russian and American interests” to find ways just "to minimize the dangers of working at cross purposes with each other, or even coming into direct accidental conflict with each other.”

“It's too soon to know if Russia's role in Syria and also the [Russian] plane crash [in Egypt] can in any way help us towards a resolution of the problem,” he said. “It's possible but hardly guaranteed.”

Robert Legvold, professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute of Columbia University, is also skeptical about cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

Because the United States and Russia are aiding opposite sides in a civil war, mere logic says that their military assistance guarantees that it will make the Middle East violence worse,” he told Russia Direct. “At best, the Russian leadership may calculate that by saving the Syrian regime — if not necessarily Assad personally — they are contributing to a military stalemate that will force the warring parties to the table and start a political process.”

Nevertheless, Legvold believes that the third round of the Vienna process “gives some hope for progress” in boosting U.S.-Russian cooperation against ISIS. Yet it remains to be seen if other stakeholders in the Middle East will be ready to cooperate. 

“While the United States and Russia have now reached common ground on the basic principles to govern the outcome sought, they continue fight over the process by which they get there,” he said. “Add Paris to Egypt and the message is clear: the United States and Russia are in a global war with ISIS, not a regional war where they can afford to muck about in a proxy war over the niceties by which the warring parties in Syria sit down and begin talking to one another. On both the Russian and U.S. sides, refusing to go the extra length to reconcile their positions on Syria—and both have to compromise—is insanity.”