Gordon M. Hahn
Gordon M. Hahn is Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C. Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, Monterey, California
As a result of the strained U.S.-Russian relationship caused by the Ukrainian crisis, it now appears unlikely that the West will partner with Russia to intervene against ISIS either in Iraq or Syria.
The growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), is galvanizing international interest in countering that threat. In Washington, some conservatives are also calling for a more robust intervention against ISIS. However,the Obama administration’s limited desire to get involved in international conflictsand its policy of "leading from behind” makes any serious effort unlikely for now.
Another damper on any serious U.S. effort against ISIS is the complications posed by the deteriorating U.S.-Russian relationship.A Western-Russian partnership would be an important elementin any international campaign to defeat or at least contain ISIS.
However, the collapse in Western-Russian, especially U.S.-Russian relations, overthe crisis and civil war in Ukrainecasts a dark shadow of doubt over the prospects for such cooperation.The ‘new Cold War’renders the U.S. less willing to cooperate with Russia on anything.
Any effort to include Russia in a new counter-terrorism initiative poses both opportunities and risks. It is difficult to envisage smooth cooperation between Western and Russian military and intelligence agencies, when NATO is gearing up to increase its presence along Russia’s border and a veritable, indirect proxy war is being supported by Washington and Moscow against each other’s allies in Ukraine.
At the same time, Moscow’s participation could facilitate greater cooperation from Syria. Moscow’s weight in Damascus has only increased over the last year with Russia’s successful intervention preventing a U.S. bombing campaign against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and the resolution of the chemical weapons issue. The Kremlin’s close relations with Assad could facilitate the acquisition of additional intelligence for Western forces engaging ISIS.
On the other hand, it is precisely this close Syrian-Russia relationship that could complicate a U.S.-Russian agreement to cooperate against ISIS. Russia would prefer that any multilateral campaign against ISIS target its forces based in Syria. The West, in particular the U.S. and the Obama administration, would wish to focus more on ISIS in Iraq.
Russia is interested in a Syrian campaign in order to assist the survival of the Assad regime, the survival of which Moscow has put a premium on due to military (naval base), economic (arms sales) and religious (Orthodox communities in Syria and Lebanon) interests in the region.
The U.S. wants to roll back ISIS in Iraq because of the investment in blood and treasure made there in two wars and to prevent the emergence of another haven for international terrorists highly focused on targeting the U.S. and its allies.
To be sure, the Kremlin is interested in weakening or defeating the ISIS and the jihadi threat from the region in general. There close ties were developing between Syrian and Iraqi mujahedin, including the ISIS and the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin based in Russia’s North Caucasus who have carried out more than 2,000 terrorist and insurgent attacks, including 54 suicide bombings, in Russia since its inception in October 2007.
Indeed, the second most powerful figure in ISIS, military amir Tarkhan Batirashvili (alias Umar al-Shishani or Umar the Chechen) was a member of the CE and was dispatched originally to Syria and financed along with several other amirs sent there to develop a CE presence in the Middle East and gain military experience and materiel to be brought back to the Caucasus for the CE jihad.
However, the CE’s ties with ISIS and Batirashvili have become somewhat strained since infighting broke out between ISIS, on the one hand, and groups like Al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand. At present, the bulk of CE-tied mujahedin are fighting under the banner of al-Nusra and other jihadi groups in Syria, not under ISIS or in Iraq.
Therefore, even if Moscow and Washington manage to agree in general on joint intelligence and other efforts against ISIS, different interests could confound any real cooperation and might even lead to another spat between Moscow and the West.
Given Washington’s underestimation of the threat and unwillingness to engage militarily abroad, the ‘new Cold War’ and divergent U.S. and Russian interests in the Middle East, any robust Russian-American cooperation in the war against ISIS or jihadism remains unlikely. That may be one of the unintended consequences of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine – an inability to counteract a larger global jihadi revolutionary alliance.