Russia wary about American intentions in Syria

U.S. President Barak Obama addressed the nation on Wednesday, saying that the U.S. is going to expand the air campaign against ISIS

Maria Dubovikova

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U.S. President Barak Obama addressed the nation on Wednesday, saying that the U.S. is going to expand the air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He said he would not hesitate to authorize direct strikes against the militant group and its fighters in Syrian territory.

This decision, despite the demonstrated enthusiasm and assertiveness of the U.S. president, is very unlikely to be effective and could even worsen the crisis, pushing the situation to the point of no-return.

First of all, the Syrian government sustainably strikes the positions of the rebels, including ISIS, with relative success. Thus it is quite evident that airstrikes are not effective in fighting ISIS. According to the fighters’ revelations, they know where to hide in the case of airstrikes as they have gained experience in the years they have been fighting against Assad’s forces. This is common for both moderate Syrian opposition fighters and ISIS. Despite the will not to put boots on the ground, the U.S. has no other option if they intend to lead the international coalition. Moreover, it’s impossible to create an effective coalition and battlefront if Iran and Syria are not to be included.

No clear strategy

Obama has no clear strategy to fight ISIS and the terrorist group does not consider him a threat. It took a long time for Obama to admit that ISIS is a terrorist organization and a true threat. It took the beheading of American citizens to make Obama publically realize this.

There are deep concerns that the U.S. will bomb not only ISIS positions in Syria, but also the Syrian government forces

Maria Dubovikova

It appeared to be a strong enough argument to start thinking about what should be done to stop the threat. For a rather long time, ISIS fighters were opportune terrorists as they were fighting against Damascus. The policy of dividing the terrorists into good terrorists and bad terrorists seems like a bad joke by the White House.

The decision announced by the U.S. president cannot be taken out context of America’s intense tensions with Russia. Russia was the third country to criticize the U.S. decision to bomb ISIS terrorists on Syrian territory, after the Syrian and Iranian governments. It’s not the best company to keep when opposing Obama’s decision in terms of international prestige and perception, however, it was to be expected.

The criticism came both from Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin and from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.

The criticism is based on one key point: without the Syrian government’s agreement and a UNSC mandate, the U.S. strikes in Syria would be a gross violation of international law and should be considered an act of aggression. Moreover, Moscow didn’t pass over in silence the double standard approach of Washington, as while helping Iraq to fight the terrorists on its territory, the U.S. president called for approval for more funding of the so-called armed opposition in Syria. Also, recent revelations by fighters in the pages of the Western press purport that the moderates in Syria are absolutely demoralized, weak and their ranks thinned out as the fighters join ISIS. In light of such reports, it is not clear which party Obama is going assist in this case and how his calls correspond to the real situation on the ground.

Heightened U.S. awareness

In general, Russia welcomes heightened U.S. awareness of the crisis – it is better late than never. Minister of Foreign Affairs Serguei Lavrov even criticized the U.S. on September 10 over its supposed double standard approach, saying that “the Americans are bombing them (ISIS) on Iraqi territory, but they do nothing with them in Syria.” Russia would even approve the U.S. strikes against ISIS fighters in case of Washington’s cooperation with Damascus on the matter.

But now there are deep concerns that the U.S. will bomb not only ISIS positions in Syria, but also the Syrian government forces. These concerns can be explained by the fact that evidently the strikes against ISIS could play into hands of Damascus and this doesn’t correspond with the U.S. interests. Taking into account that during all these years of the Syrian war the U.S. could have been trying to realize its plans to bomb Syria, they could take advantage of this situation.

If the U.S. bombs the positions of government forces, by mistake or with malicious intent, this would have doubly unpredictable consequences, both at the international and regional levels.

For sure, this will trigger a new crisis with Russia. The crisis of credibility in bilateral relations will reach the highest point. Russia will ultimately respond to the possible aggression. But how? It’s a big question with a difficult to predict answer. Moreover, possible strikes against Damascus’ forces will blow up the remains of credibility of international law, international systems and institutions. After the meeting over Iraq in Paris on Monday, Russia’s foreign minister stressed that the international community should build common action “on a solid foundation of the United Nations Charter and U.N. counter-terrorist instrument and mechanisms.” The call to respect the U.N. Charter is clear and logical, however its solidness, as well as that of the U.N. system in general, is already in doubt. Any further violations of international law and U.N. principles will definitely be the last straw, leading to international chaos.

Regional level

On the regional level, the U.S.’s possible bombing of Damascus’ forces could strengthen ISIS. Relations with Iran could become more exacerbated, that could worsen the cooperation with it on other vital issues such as its nuclear program. The Iranian rejection of cooperating with the U.S. against ISIS is already an unpleasant turn, mostly conditioned by already an committed mistake – Iran was not invited to the international conference on Iraq in Paris.

If the U.S. only strikes ISIS positions on Syrian territory and refrains from bombing Syrian government forces – this would be better for stability and be more predictable in terms of consequences, however it would never resolve the ISIS problem. Airstrikes are inefficient. A full-scale intense ground operation is needed. A true strategy is required, not a strategy of clichés, useless declarations and beautiful words for the ears of American citizens.

Moreover, it should be remembered that ISIS is primarily an idea, an idea making even Europeans and Americans leave their homes and join the group. Ideas cannot be defeated by bombs, actually, bombs make them stronger.

U.S. involvement in the anti- ISIS drive is indispensable, both in Syria and Iraq, especially taking into account its military capabilities. However, it is only positive as part of a sophisticated strategy approved by the international community. It is time the international community elaborate on the strategy to deal with ISIS.


Maria Dubovikova is a co-founder of IMESClub (International Middle Eastern Studies Club), IMESClub Executive Director and member of the Club Council, author of several scientific articles and participant of several high level international conferences. She is a permanent member of the Think-tank under the American University in Moscow. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia) (honors diploma), she had been working for three months as a trainee at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris. Now she is a PhD Candidate at MGIMO (Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy of Russia). Her research field is Russian foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, the policy of France and the US towards the Mediterranean, theory of international relations, humanitarian interventions and etc. Fluently speaks and writes in French and English. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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