Russia bides its time as the US tries to deal with Assad

Can Russia help fight ISIL when it supports the Assad regime, and can the US accept Al Assad remaining in power?

The relationship between Syrian president Bashar Al Assad and Russian president Vladimir Putin will be crucial over fighting ISIL. Photo: Sergei Chirikov / AP

Defending his foreign policy last month, US president Barack Obama stressed that in the field of diplomacy “it’s not neat and it’s not smooth”. As he prepares to extend military action against ISIL insurgents beyond northern Iraq and into Syria, Mr Obama is no doubt aware that even if the extremists are decisively defeated, much hard work remains to be done in stabilising Syria and ending its debilitating civil war.

Although Washington has built an impressive international coalition in support of its plans, at some point it will have to contend with Russia, a key supporter of the Assad regime in Damascus and a country in no mood to facilitate an easy victory for the Obama administration.

Even if ISIL is quickly broken up by the coming campaign, a broader settlement for Syria will test the US-led coalition’s resolve and resourcefulness. Citing the Syrian government’s attacks on its own people, Washington has already categorically ruled out any cooperation with President Bashar Al Assad. In response, the Russian foreign ministry has denounced the planned US air strikes on ISIL forces in Syria as “a crude violation of the norms of international law”. For the moment, this condemnation will not cut much ice in Washington, given Russia’s role in fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Aside from the sharp differences over Mr Al Assad, the West and Russia have a shared interest in tackling the extremist menace in the Middle East, not least the danger posed by jihadis seeking to return home. Earlier this month, ISIL released a video of its fighters posing with Russian military equipment captured from the Syrian army and threatening to “liberate Chechnya and the entire Caucasus”. ISIL has up to 200 fighters of Chechen origin and one of its most senior military commanders, Abu Omar Al Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen from Georgia.

In response to the turbulence in parts of the Arab world since 2011, Russia has stressed the danger of political instability giving extremists the opportunity to expand their influence. Vladimir Putin's predecessor as Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, privately warned the US that Al Qaeda would take advantage of the demise of the Gaddafi dictatorship in Libya and that "no one will benefit, including us, because the extremists will end up in the North Caucasus". Moscow sees the rise of ISIL as vindication of its opposition to western intervention in Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, in support of anti-regime forces in Syria.

As a consequence, Russia's strong support for Damascus is unlikely to waver during the military phase of operations against ISIL. Last week, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, insinuated that Washington had a broader agenda of regime change beyond the neutralisation of the extremists. Lavrov said that in addition to strikes on ISIL, "government troops may also be attacked on the quiet to weaken the positions of Bashar Assad's army". With Russia's support, the Syrian regime will hunker down and seek to reinvent itself as a partner in the fight against extremism. Although Damascus will offer formulaic denunciations of US air strikes, it is unlikely to do anything to impede the operations.

Militarily, dealing with ISIL should not be too difficult as they are believed to possess no anti-aircraft capability and occupy territory that provides little natural cover. In building an alliance of Arab states, the White House has spoken enthusiastically of local forces acting as the “anvil” on which ISIL will be crushed by the hammer of US-led air strikes and limited special operations on the ground. In the case of Iraq, reorganised and rearmed Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Army units have already stepped up their operations against the insurgents.

Identifying suitable local forces to assist operations in Syria is less easy. In recent months, internecine fighting has seriously weakened the various anti-Assad groups. Since last Friday, there have been contradictory signals regarding a negotiated peace between ISIL and units controlled by the Syrian National Coalition: it is unclear whether this is a general ceasefire or a temporary local truce. Whatever the veracity of the these reports, they do not suggest that the US and its partners can place much reliance on the fractious Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as their preferred “anvil”.

One significant consequence of all this is that the US Congress could derail White House plans to offer increasing training and arms to vetted FSA units. Without a reliable ally on the ground in Syria, Washington and its allies could face hard choices if the extremists are defeated and dispersed. Assuming the extremist proto-state collapses quickly under heavy air bombardment, it is not clear what will happen to the areas vacated by ISIL. In the absence of moderate anti-regime forces, it is uncertain whether the US-led coalition has the means and the will to prevent Mr Al Assad’s government troops from moving into the vacuum.

The splits among the anti-regime forces in Syria could offer Russia the chance to seize the diplomatic initiative as it did when the US threatened to attack the Assad regime in response to its use of chemical weapons in August last year. If the US cannot see an easy way out of its current adventure, it might have to moderate its opposition to Mr Al Assad. It is unlikely that Mr Obama will be able to walk away after defeating ISIL claiming a “solution” along the lines of the anti-terrorist operations in Somalia and Yemen. A political plan will be needed to counter the dangers of a vacuum of power and further conflict.

As a consequence, Russia is biding its time in the hope that it can play a decisive political role later. While now may not be the time to make a high-profile diplomatic move, the Russians will no doubt be studying US intentions carefully as a prelude to possible later intervention.

Stephen Blackwell is an international politics and security analyst