MOSCOW — As the United States launches airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, Russia is condemning the move, and hedging support for the attacks so long as they proceed without the Syrian government’s consent.
The Kremlin has no trouble with the intended target — like the United States, Russia wants the Islamic State destroyed and thinks it must be defeated in Syria and Iraq.
But as Syria’s unofficial patron and interlocutor in international discussions about how to confront the Islamic State, Russia is insistent that U.S. measures to target militants in Syria lack authority without buy-in from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a point Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon Tuesday.
President Obama is not directly coordinating strikes that are underway against the Islamic State with Assad, although the Syrian army is fighting the group, too.
In the past, competing allegiances in the Syrian conflict have not blocked all cooperation. Last year, Obama and Putin brokered an agreement to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons to international control, narrowly avoiding U.S. airstrikes. But the near-complete erosion of trust between the two countries since then — and pervasive suspicion about the United States’ motives — complicates the chances of a similar breakthrough.
“There’s quite widespread suspicion here that the U.S. will start to bomb the Islamic State but will end up bombing the Syrian army,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Moscow-based analyst and head of an advisory panel to the Kremlin on foreign and defense policy. “Russia is certainly not keen on making the situation in the Middle East more difficult for Americans than it is. But why help them? . . . It doesn’t seem to be in Russia’s interest to get directly involved.”
A spokesman for Putin said the Russian Security Council on Monday discussed potential ways to cooperate with other governments in countering the Islamic State within the confines of international law, a conversation front-and-center at the United Nations as well, as heads of state convene for the General Assembly.
Yet U.S. plans to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels have heightened Russian concerns that using their influence over Assad to help the United States might ultimately make them complicit in overthrowing Syria’s leader. Russia’s thinking is also swayed by strong, we-told-you-so sentiments about U.S. Middle Eastern policy.
At a Paris summit last week to discuss the Islamic State, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded Western countries that Russia has “been talking for a long time” about the potential for terrorism in the wake of the Arab Spring, “when the aim of overthrowing regimes was raised above the common goal of preventing the spread of the terrorist threat.”
In Lavrov’s calculus, the Islamic State is the legacy of years of U.S. Middle-Eastern policy and only the latest evidence that the West never should have tried to distinguish “between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ terrorists” opposing Assad’s rule in Syria — or anywhere else. Russians were surprised and angered when NATO forces authorized to protect civilians in Libya helped to topple dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, and often cite Libya, now a playground for warring militias, as a reason to be suspicious of U.S. actions in Syria.
Russia is not the only country that has questioned U.S. plans for an anti-terror campaign in the Middle East. As U.S. representatives solicited support for a coalition against the Islamic State, they ran up against other hurdles: Turkey would not allow attack operations from its air bases, while Egypt stressed that the focus should not be limited to the Islamic State.
But Russian-American relations have particularly suffered in the course of the ongoing standoff over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and the sanctions Western countries levied against Russia in response.
“The situation would have been dramatically different on Syria had it not been for the conflict over Ukraine,” said Vladimir Frolov, a political analyst based in Moscow. “Ukraine soured lots of Western minds on further cooperation with Moscow on Syria.”
One result of that acrimony is that the temptation to knock the United States down a political peg by holding back Russian help on Syria may have become too great to ignore.
“It would be in Russia’s interests to drag Western countries into a conversation with Assad,” Frolov said. “The United States has underestimated the complexity of the situation before, so let’s just wait until they run into problems. They are eagerly expecting that.”
Although the Islamic State has gripped Russian news media, there is far less public pressure to get involved in eradicating the militant movement than in the United States, where videos of militants beheading captives, including two Americans, dealt a shock to the country.
Yet with a home-grown Islamic fundamentalism problem — the Islamic State has openly threatened Putin and promised to “liberate Chechnya and the Caucasus” — Russia is keen on quarantining the rapidly-spreading Islamic State where it exists.
To that end, Russia signed an international communique in Paris last week pledging to help purge the group from Iraq. Russia is also providing military aid to the Iraqi and Syrian armies fighting Islamic State militants on the ground.
Publicly, that is as far as most expect Russia will extend itself, so long as Assad remains opposed to U.S. plans.
But with the chances of orchestrating a grand bargain between the United States and Assad slim, and the costs of allowing the Islamic State to flourish high, the best solution for Russia might be to work as a quiet go-between — or simply let U.S. fighter planes do their work.
“In a way, it’s easier for Russia if America does it unilaterally,” Lukyanov said. “Russia’s contribution to this has to be realistic. It might be that Russia doesn’t publicly support it but lets it go.