Full audio version of Q&A with Dr. Arbatova
RD Exclusive: As a follow up to our RD Brief “The Rise and Fall of US-Russian Counter-Terrorism Cooperation,” Dr. Nadezhda Arbatova answers reader questions about U.S. and Russian efforts to counter the threat posed by ISIS.
Video by Pavel Inzhelevsky
After the publication of our RD Brief on U.S.-Russian counter-terrorism cooperation, we reached out to Dr. Nadezhda Arbatova, the head of the Department of European Political Studies at the Center for European Integration at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), to answer questions from Russia Direct readers. In a video Q&A, Arbatova discusses the rise of ISIS, the role played by ISIS in Syria, and potential opportunities for US-Russian collaboration to address the growing ISIS threat.
Russia Direct: Who is to blame for the birth of ISIS?
Nadezhda Arbatova: ISIS was a creation of 11 terrorist organizations which merged in 2006 with Al-Qaeda cells in Iraq. Ideologically it is very close to the jihadi movement but ISIS has carried these religious beliefs to a higher and more violent level. Interestingly enough, before the U.S. Iraqi operation in 2003, the jihadi movement did not exist in Iraq and Saddam arrested anybody who was viewed as an obvious jihadi. So, from a certain stance, the United States is responsible for the rise of ISIS but, of course, the roots of this phenomenon are much deeper.
RD: Can the intentions of the powers fighting ISIS be trusted?
N.A.: We can trust the intentions of anti-terrorist coalitions, that is, if we learned lessons from our previous experience, namely, from the successful operation in Afghanistan. This operation united whole interested parties, and we remember that in this anti-terrorist coalition were not only Western countries and Russia but also nations such as Iran played a very important role. And we should draw opposite lessons from the U.S. operation in Iraq – we should recognize that secluded coalitions won’t be very successful as we see it in Iraq and even operations on the ground within this secluded coalition can only postpone the threat of ISIS but not resolve the problem.
RD: What percentage of ISIS members was involved in fighting Assad in Syria last year?
N.A.: You know it is very difficult to define the numbers of ISIS fighters. For example, we learned recently that one of the most influential field commanders in ISIS recognized that the Free Syrian Army gave a lot of recruits to ISIS. So, we see that those who were in opposition to Assad last year this year joined the ISIS military formations. But The Economist published some information about the militants in Syria and Iraq and according to this publication – in Syria they have about 3,000 people and in Iraq – 5,000 to 6,000. So, but it is very difficult to identify precise numbers.
RD: Can the fight against ISIS help improve Russia-U.S. relations?
N.A.: No doubt, I think, that the ISIS threat could provide a chance for our ‘reset’ and for our cooperation. Let me remind you that in the time of WWII, the USSR, the United States and the UK formed a joint front against the fascist threat. And in those days, the divide between three states was much deeper than it is now – they were divided ideologically, economically and politically. The USSR and the Western partners belonged to different systems. Now we do not have an ideological divide, our divide is mostly geopolitical. In my view this divide is a result of the lost opportunity to create a genuinely post-bipolar world security architecture.
So, I think that the recognition that this is a common threat, not only a threat for Shiites or moderate Sunnis, but also that the ISIS threat is for Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Jews. And the recognition that something scarier is standing at our gate could contribute to the beginning of this new cooperation between Russia and the United States.
RD: How has Russia responded to the massacres of Yazidis by jihadists in Iraq earlier this year?
N.A.: In the Soviet Union, we had about 40,000 Yazidis and after the collapse of the USSR, we have in Russia also about 40,000 people [identifying as Yazidis]. With the ISIS atrocities against Yazidis in Iraq, Russian Yazidis asked President Putin to support their religious and ethnic brethren. On Aug. 8, the Russian Foreign Ministry published a statement condemning these atrocities and Russia dispatched several – I think more than 12 – fighter jets to Iraq and sent some military assistance to Iraq. So, this can be viewed as Russia’s response to ISIS atrocities against Yazidis.
Read our Brief “The Rise and Fall of US-Russian Counter-Terrorism Cooperation” by Dr. Nadezhda Arbatova.