By Hasan Selim Ozertem
Changing balances in the Middle East were made more visible after ISIS’s invasion of Mosul on June 12, 2014. Coming to take command of 30,000 militants in such a short period of time, ISIS has transformed from a militia into a full-fledged organization that has come to play the lead role in these shifting balances in the region. Consequently, the issues of Syria and Iraq, which had taken a backseat to developments in Ukraine, were rocketed back to the top of the international agenda.
The shock felt after ISIS rapidly gained control over large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria was to be seen all over the world. Back in January, US President Barack Obama met a question about ISIS with derision: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Maybe it was this type of thinking that led to the statement issued by the White House in the end of August acknowledging that it had not yet formulated any kind of strategy against ISIS.
It was only at the end of the summer that the traces of a US-made strategy became evident. Accordingly, NATO members, and later a variety of Arab states, came together to form a broad coalition to fight ISIS. It was within this context that military air operations targeting ISIS in Syria’s north and Iraq were launched. Though airstrikes accelerated, the US and other Western states repeatedly expressed their unwillingness to deploy ground troops to the region. With this backdrop, the idea of training and equipping local actors gained momentum; after the reestablishment of a functioning central government in Iraq, operations in the northwest of the country were increasingly conducted by the Iraqi National Army, the Peshmerga, and Shia militias. When it comes to Syria, the question of which actors are going to be trained and equipped still remains without a clear answer. The Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD) and moderate opposition forces like the Free Syrian Army are the names that are most often brought up. Nonetheless, when discussing the future of Bashar Assad in this environment, all eyes turn to Russia.
Russia’s changing agenda
Moscow’s approach to the Syrian crisis was apparent from the very outset. Russia firmly indicated its opposition to toppling the Baath party with an operation similar to that seen in Libya while also resisting any and all military options, together with China, in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). At the same time, by supplying the Assad government with military and financial assistance, Russia soon became just as important as Iran in terms of support granted to the Baath regime in Syria. However, when the 2013 use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, was verified, thus crossing a redline for the US, Russia’s introduction of a proposal that would remove these chemical weapons from Syria strengthened its position not only in region, but also in the international arena.
Meanwhile, the unsuccessful attempts of Viktor Yanukovych’s government to quell the demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square forced Russia to concentrate on this crisis nearer to its borders. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the emergence of a profound crisis in Eastern Ukraine, the West’s policies against Russia toughened. Consequently, the topic of Ukraine surpassed Syria and Iraq on Russia’s agenda when the negative effects of disintegrating relations with the West reverberated throughout its economy.
Russia’s doubts about the coalition against ISIS
Despite Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine, it has still actively participated in the rapidly developing disputes on what kind of action should be taken against ISIS. Here, different views on the future of the Assad regime have collided, and it is in this respect that Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s statements clearly illustrate Moscow’s approach to the matter at hand.
Lavrov’s answer to a question posed on the coalition formed in Wales during a press conference with Mali’s minister of foreign affairs starkly indicate the points which separate Russia’s stance from that of the West. Lavrov expressed that Russia had been attempting to draw international attention to the threats posed by ISIS and other radical groups for several years. He then went on to stress the differences between Russia and the West’s approach to the crisis, pointing out that while in the eyes of the West terrorism in Syria has been regarded as an offspring of the Baath government’s policies and therefore necessitates the incontrovertible resignation of Bashar Assad, Russia has urged for a political solution to combat these terrorist groups with the Syrian government, albeit to no avail. Consequently, he criticized the Western view that claimed “these terrorist attacks can only be denounced jointly with the demand that Assad step down”. In the same statement, Lavrov asserted that while the Iraqi government had been asked to approve US airstrikes in the areas controlled by ISIS in accordance with the principle of sovereignty beforehand, the failure to ask for the same permission from Syria conflicts with the norms of international law and action taken in the country has been wrongly justified by the Western states’ desire to overthrow the Assad government. He also mentioned his worries that airstrikes could target not only the areas controlled by ISIS militants but also battalions loyal to the government in order to weaken the position of Bashar Assad in Syria. With this speech, Lavrov delivered an important message to the international community in the immediate wake of the NATO Wales summit, expressing how Russia evaluates the process and illuminating the country’s concerns about the possibility that the Assad government could be targeted during operations against ISIS in Syria.
Lavrov expressed similar positions during a press conference with his Venezuelan counterpart, Rafael Ramirez, in Moscow. Here, he stated Russia’s belief that actions to be taken in fighting terrorism should be based on the solid foundations of international law and proceed, above all, with the consent of the legitimate authorities of the states on whose territory such terrorist threats exist. Lavrov also stressed that it was unacceptable to use antiterrorism slogans to mask the true pursuit of regime change.
In the middle of October, Lavrov had a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris, where they discussed not only the incidents in Ukraine, but also issues related to the fight against global terrorism. After the meeting, rumors spread that Russia had given the green light to sharing intelligence with the US, yet these claims have since been refuted by Lavrov. Here he stated that Russia is not a participant of any coalition and that its aim is to increase the capacities of legitimate governments.
Furthermore, on October 20, Lavrov spoke at a meeting of the United Russia Party where he harshly criticized the West for equipping Syrian opposition with arms. He emphasized that by equipping the actors which it depicts as moderate, the West aims to augment these groups’ potential to topple the Assad government, asserting that if any kind of coalition is going to be established, it should be subject to international law and therefore require a resolution granted by the UNSC.
In his speech at the Valdai Forum held on October 24, Vladimir Putin employed a similar tone to that of his foreign minister. In his speech, Putin declared that necessary steps to combat ISIS were not taken. Conversely, he argued, erroneous policies were pursued such as granting financial and arms assistance to the Syrian opposition. After faulting the West and its allies, Putin questioned the reasons for airstrikes altogether.
What is Russia doing?
As mentioned above, for now, Russia’s priority remains the state of affairs in Ukraine and the economic problems connected therewith. However, this does not mean that Russia is totally indifferent to events in Middle East. Moscow still continues to grant political aid to the Assad government, while at the same time taking some steps to increase the capacity of Iraqi security forces in terms of training and technical assistance.
According to the 4 billion dollar agreement signed between Iraq’s Maliki government and Russia in 2012, Iraq is anticipated to purchase equipment from Russia in order to reconstruct its air force, with the provision of attack helicopters, high-tech fighter aircraft, and air defense systems being an especially critical aspect of the deal. However, the sudden growth and rapid territorial expansion of ISIS in June put Iraq in a precarious position, especially considering that the state hosted an air force that was more-or-less nonexistent. With this in mind, Iraq came knocking on Russia’s door to ask for assistance, to which Russia responded by sending 5 pre-used Sukhoi-25 model jets along with technical experts. It should be noted that these jets became well-known for their use in Afghanistan, where they undeniably eased the burden that had been placed on the ground forces stationed there. Subsequently, since 2013, Russia continues to provide Iraq with multipurpose and attack helicopters, such as the Mi-35 and Mi-28 respectively, which are known for their efficiency in counter-terrorism operations.
Referring to the Lebanon-based newspaper Al-Mustakbel, Radio Free Europe published a story in October that Russia and Iran were to establish a joint base of operations in Baghdad to combat ISIS, where Russian experts would instruct the Iraqi army on how to utilize Russian weapons, train pilots, and provide similar services. Additionally, in a statement released on October 23 by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, it was declared that Russia had provided Kurds in Erbil with humanitarian aid including food, blankets, and electricity generators.
Summarizing these points, Russia’s contributions to the fight against ISIS in Iraq should not be underestimated. Though its name is not mentioned as a partner of the coalition, Moscow has supported the Iraqi central government and the Kurds by employing a strategy that focusses on capacity building and humanitarian aid.
Since September, Russia has continually criticized the strategy of the US-led coalition. For Moscow, it has been the West’s decision to supply the Syrian opposition with arms that is especially seen as a double standard, as it foresees that these non-state actors who receive Western support will ultimately become a threat to the Assad government. On the other hand, Russia has also repeatedly emphasized the need to cooperate with Damascus and thereby to act in accordance with international law and avoid the violations of Syria’s sovereignty that come with airstrikes and the struggle against terrorism in the country. Russia’s strategy in Iraq embraces the most vulnerable part of country, therefore ameliorating problems related to the capacity of Iraqi soldiers and the discipline of the army. With the implementation of current contracts related to the training of security forces and the provision of high-tech weaponry, very important steps have been taken by Russia in improving the Iraqi air force since June 2014. Alternately, by sending humanitarian aid to the Kurds in the north of the Iraq, Russia has actively attempted to mitigate the suffering of civilians in the area. In fact, when you look at the policies that Russia has pursued in Iraq, despite being preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine, the country has gone further than just symbolically showing its presence in the region. In this way, it has also been following a policy that seeks to secure the maintenance of its relations with the government that will come after that of Maliki. In Syria, Russia continues with the policy it has pursued since 2011, characterized by the proclamation that targeting and overthrowing the Assad government would constitute a breach of its redline.
1.For the full transcript of Sergey Lavrov’s press conference with Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, see: http://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/4CD66CC926B83B4C44257D4E006155F4 .
2.For the full transcript of Sergey Lavrov’s press conference with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ramirez, see: http://www.mid.ru/bdomp/brp_4.nsf/e78a48070f128a7b43256999005bcbb3/b4716e465be0051044257d6c001cf86a!OpenDocument.
3. For the full transcript of Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Valdai Forum, see: http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/news/23137/print.
4. “Iraq is Buying, Fielding Russian Weapons Again”, Defense Industry Daily, 2 September 2014; http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/baby-come-back-iraq-is-buying-russian-weapons-again-07571/.
5.Joanna Paraszczuk, “Iranian, Arab Media: ‘Russia-Iran Anti-IS Operations Room’ In Iraq”, RFERL, 23 September 2014; http://www.rferl.org/content/under-black-flag-russia-iran-islamic-state-iraq/26652736.html.