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Barack Obama Faces Down Vladimir Putin in a Cold War Redux in Syria

Three days ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on the world to help arm Syria’s Assad regime against the Islamic State, despite a warning by the State Department on Sept 5th that Russian military build-up there “could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL Coalition operating in Syria.”

According to Lavrov, the government of President Bashar Assad is the best of all the groups not really fighting the Islamic State but Obama’s response was that “The strategy they’re pursuing right now of doubling down on Assad is a mistake.”

Lavrov disagreed, pointedly rejecting Obama’s air-strike-only response to the Islamic state:

“You cannot defeat Islamic State with air strikes only. It’s necessary to co-operate with ground troops and the Syrian army is the most efficient and powerful ground force to fight the IS.”

Russia backed up this call by sending its own help to Assad’s regime, aid which Putin belatedly made public on September 4th, including Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missile systems, sending Russian advisers to teach the Syrians how to use them, and conducting naval exercises off the Syrian coast. They’re even building an airbase in Syria.

Russia has said it is just sending advisers, but a video has emerged showing one of Russia’s brand new BTR-82A armoured vehicles firing at the enemy:

The Wall Street Journal, unsurprisingly, proclaimed yesterday that “Obama’s vacuum helps Russia reverse 70 years of U.S. Mideast policy.” The black and white thinking that permeates the right-wing echo chamber colors the WSJ too, which wants no-fly zones and the US arming Syrian rebels, even though evidence demonstrates that many of these weapons end up arming the Islamic State instead.

However, it is not so simple as proclaiming either Assad or his moderate opponents the obvious hero(s) of this drama. Daniel Byman tells us in his recent examination of the global jihadist movement that while the Islamic State has positioned itself to be opposed to the Assad regime and while the Assad regime should be opposed to trying to overthrow his regime in the name of the “Caliphate,” this is the Middle East, “where strange bedfellows are the norm.”

In other words, it is not a simple matter of arming Assad and then watching the Islamic State get kicked back to Iraq, where is originated as part of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In fact, not only has Assad bought oil from the Islamic State, he has actually avoided attacking Islamic State-held areas, and even created safe avenues for the Islamic State to use to attack the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).

So arming Assad is not really an attack on the people Russia sees as the enemy, unless that enemy includes US-backed enemies of Assad.

What Assad wants, Byman tells us, is to use the Islamic State to destroy the other, more moderate (and secular) enemies of his regime, “to force the world to choose between his regime and the worst of the extremists.” For Russia and the United States then, what is now transpiring between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama seems a ghostly replay of Cold War confrontations between the two countries, with Syria as the battleground.

Andrew Foxall, Director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society, in a New York Times op-ed published this morning, says that central to Putin’s plan is keeping Assad in power. Of course, the United States would like to see Assad go and has been supporting his moderate opponents, like the FSA.

So this current fuss is about much more than defeating the Islamic State. It is defeating the Islamic State on terms acceptable to either Russia or the United States. Both, as things currently stand, is an impossibility. The formal mandate Putin wants from the United Nations Security Council would legitimize the Assad regime, an unacceptable step for the United States.

However, Russia knows the United States will not accept a future Syria led by Assad, as Secretary of State Kerry made this clear last month during talks with Lavrov and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Qatar. The State Department said at the time that,

“All three leaders acknowledged the dangers posed to the Syrian people by the rise of extremist forces and the need for a meaningful political transition to enable a unified fight against ISIL and other extremist groups, to include the important role played by opposition groups.”

Foxall says do not trust Putin, and an administration official said much the same, showing Obama is not fooled: “The Russians’ intentions are to keep Assad in power, not to fight ISIL. They’ve shown their cards now.” But according to Bloomberg, there is some suggestion now that Russia might accept a Syria without Assad in exchange for maintaining its own influence in the Middle East.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that “only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Syria, not some outside countries,” but, of course in the end, Russia is just as interested in having a say in Syria as is the United States, and defeating the Islamic State is not the only factor – or even the most important – at play here in this confrontation between the old Cold War enemies.

Sources: Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2015.

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