Regardless of warnings issued by some experts about the increasing threat from ISIS for both Russia and the U.S., neither Washington nor Moscow seems ready to end their confrontation over Ukraine in order to team up and fight against ISIS. 

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Photo: AP

The barbaric execution of American journalist James Foley did not lead to what the Islamic State was seeking – a shift in logic and tactics on the part of the United States. Within days after the release of a video depicting the beheading of one of the two Americans kidnapped by ISIS terrorists (and their promise to do the same to the second captive Steven Sotloff), American fighter jets carried out at least fifteen bomb and missile strikes on the positions of militants of the Islamic State in northern Iraq.

In his speech on this tragic occasion, President Barack Obama said that the United States would be moving against the terrorists of this organization “vigilantly, yet steadily.” He called this organization a “cancerous tumor” that should be “removed, so that it does not spread throughout the region.” Moreover, this should be done, not just by the United States, but also by “the joint efforts of the governments and peoples of the Middle East.” 

Obama’s position can be summarized as the following: ISIS is a problem of the Middle East, but not of the United States. This position was further clarified and developed after the president spoke, by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. She emphasized that the Islamic State is trying to turn the conflict into a confrontation with the United States; as a result, “the Islamic State has demonstrated its willingness to kill, rape and enslave everyone who was in their path, regardless of their citizenship.”

In other words, official Washington does not consider the actions of ISIS insurgents as their problem, and they are unwilling share the responsibility for the appearance of this group. Yet, at the same time, the Americans promise to work together on the eradication of this “cancer.”

Meanwhile, the actions of ISIS on the territory of Iraq (Syria is another story), and the execution of the American journalist, are threatening to become a major domestic political issue for the Obama Administration. The president’s opponents from the Republican Party are seriously determined to use this problem to their own advantage. For example, Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York, in an interview with a number of American publications, said that the beheading of American journalist by the militants of the Islamic State “is equivalent to a declaration of war against the United States.”

“We don’t have the luxury of just saying, ‘The war is over. The war’s not going on.’ There is a war. It’s a threat to the U.S., and we have to fight back,” as the congressman was quoted as saying. “This should be a warning bell to the members of Congress who have not yet realized how dangerous the Islamic State really is. They are a threat to the United States, to American interests around the world, and the safety of Americans around the world.” 

We should explain that the Republicans clearly intend to use the tragedy of James Foley to deny Obama the image of “conqueror of Islamist terrorism,” which was carefully developed and strengthened by the president’s supporters after the elimination of Osama bin Laden. The killing of bin Laden does not mean the weakening of terrorist groups in the Middle East and the world, doggedly assert Obama’s opponents in Washington.

Nevertheless, the Americans, tired of war in the Middle East, prefer not to hear these statements. The execution of Foley could very well make Americans listen to Obama’s opponents, which are presenting this tragedy as a declaration of a new terrorist war on the United States. And the president, they say, should not shy away from this challenge.

Obama also keeps repeating that he does not intend to send U.S. troops back into Iraq to fight ISIS. Washington will likely limit its fight against the Islamists by tactical air strikes and a limited (several hundred) contingent of American advisers. 

The latter have the task of increasing the combat capability of the Iraqi armed forces, which are already well supplied with, primarily, American weapons. At issue, they say, is the state of morale and skills of Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga Forces, which, from the point of view of the Obama Administration, must first stop, and then destroy ISIS.

The landing of American combat units seems unlikely for now. The same line of Washington’s conduct we can also see when it comes to Syria. The fight against Assad’s regime the American administration has delegated to the Syrian opposition, and it has no objection, in principle, to the intervention of Arab military units under the auspices of the Arab League. However, no real help should be expected from the United States, except for supplying weapons, and in extreme cases – carrying out air strikes, as it was announced by Obama in September of last year.

The Russian side is no less concerned about what is happening in Iraq, and which, if we recall, in the early days of the attack by the ISIS, hurried to deliver ahead of schedule, as stipulated by contract, combat fighter aircraft to the government of Iraq. It is clear that this was Moscow’s early engagement against the Islamic terrorists.

The situation in Iraq has become one of the main subjects of discussion during regular contacts between the foreign ministers of Russia and the United States. Lavrov and Kerry agree about the need for joint efforts to fight against terrorism and to counter the ISIS threat. However, after that basic agreement, there appear to be some nuances that lead to differences between Moscow and Washington.

In its statements, the Russian Foreign Ministry emphasizes the need to “avoid double standards in the fight against terrorism,” which can be interpreted as a call to Washington to take an equally strong stand against terrorist groups fighting against the Assad regime in Syria. Nevertheless, in Washington, very few are willing to consider those who are opposed to Assad as terrorists. 

For his part, Kerry is refraining from calling on Russia to increase its assistance to the government of Iraq, and from Moscow becoming directly involved in any form of combat against ISIS. The Obama Administration appears to want to avoid the prospects of a “return of Russian troops into Iraq” under any pretext, in order to have this country remain in the sphere of American military and political influence. That’s true especially now, when, due to the events in Ukraine, Moscow and Washington are more inclined to regard each other as global rivals.

Moscow regards what is happening in Iraq as a manifestation of a terrorist threat on a global scale. To counter this threat, countries need to combine their efforts and work together, in spite of their differences on many other issues.

In Washington, however, they consider the establishment of the caliphate and the atrocities perpetrated by the terrorists as an important and dangerous problem, but still a local one. In America, they believe there is still a sufficient arsenal of tools available to counter this threat (Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and airstrikes by the USAF). Moreover, apparently, they are not willing to overcome their opposition to reaching a compromise when it comes to Ukraine in order to work jointly with Russia against Islamist terrorists in Iraq.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.