Politics creates strange bedfellows, and in this one case, America’s interests seem to coincide with those of Russia, Iran, and Damascus. Going after ISIS with kid gloves means more terrorism and a continuation of the refugee crisis. Assad is a lesser evil than the barbaric Caliphate.
By Pawel Piotr Styrna l October 4, 2016
When it comes to the conflict in Syria and Iraq (“Syraq”), I have long argued that our priority should be the wiping out of the greatest of all evils in the region – the ISIS Caliphate and the al-Nusra Front (i.e. al-Qaeda) – and ditching the “Assad must go at all costs” policy. During the summer it appeared that Team Obama finally realized that its Syraq policy has so far been a giant train wreck. It seemed that the message might finally have gone through to the administration, resulting in a July agreement between Barack Obama and John Kerry, on the one hand, and Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov, on the other, to cooperate in Syria against ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. Now, as the deal and the ceasefire crumble, it is clear that I was naïve.
True, the Russo-Syrian coalition contributed to this outcome by mercilessly bombing the opposition stronghold of Aleppo. At the same time, Team Obama has not particularly exerted itself to unite all the factions in the Syraq war around a defeat-ISIS-first strategy. Reverting to the previous policy of going after ISIS with kid gloves while treating Assad as enemy No. 1 has been all too easy for the current administration. Many of the actions of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are indeed brutal and counter-productive, but it is also obvious that they are primarily an excuse.
Now, a bit of background on the failed Kerry-Putin deal. Kerry initially met with the Russian president in Moscow on the night of July 14. Soon afterward, the two sides announced an agreement calling for “integrated operations” and a joint Russo-American military-intelligence command center to coordinate them. However, according to Breitbart News, Kerry “has refused to make some of the details of the deal public, prompting critics to say the Obama administration has conceded too much.” Given that Team Obama has a long history of what former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, has called “negotiating with an empty holster,” these suspicions will probably prove correct once journalists or historians gain access to all the details. Nevertheless, some of the critics of the agreement opposed it for the wrong reasons.
Opponents of the Kerry-Putin deal brought up several problems. To begin with, they pointed out that Moscow is an untrustworthy partner and that sharing intelligence with the Russians is therefore naïve. This is probably their strongest argument. After all, the post-Soviets did bomb an American special forces base in Syria (near the Jordanian border) in July, most likely to pressure Washington into an understanding. They further complain that the deal is too favorable towards Assad. In the words of Breitbart’s Edwin Mora: “The agreement is expected to benefit the Russian-backed regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his allies, which include Shiite Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah, by helping to take out some of their most effective enemies – the Sunni terrorist groups ISIS and the Nusra Front.”
Concerns over who will benefit from the destruction of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syraq are not groundless, but one can draw a disturbing conclusion from them. For, if ISIS and the al-Nusra Front have been such “effective enemies” of Assad, Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, then why not tolerate their existence as a counter-weight? This is what the Obama administration seems to have been doing so far – while, at the same time, strangely placating the Shia Islamist regime in Tehran – and what some foreign policy establishment wonks affiliated with both parties appear to want us to do.
Yet, it is the threat and presence of the Sunni radical Islamists (ISIS in particular) that has actually served to attract and magnify Russian and Iranian influence. The Iraqi government, desperate to survive, certainly took Iranian aid willingly, particularly since Team Obama has offered very little. Shia southern Iraq may share religious-sectarian affinities with Iran, but, given Arab prejudices against Persians, it is unlikely that Baghdad will simply serve as Tehran’s lapdog once ISIS is gone. Similarly, Assad has benefited from Russo-Iranian backing, but that was the only support he could count on (the West has so far tried to undermine him and supported his enemies). It is understandable that few Americans may wish to fight against ISIS and al-Nusra in the company of such characters as Putin and Khamenei, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. Politics creates strange bedfellows, and in this one case, America’s interests seem to coincide with those of Russia, Iran, and Damascus. Going after ISIS with kid gloves means more terrorism and a continuation of the refugee crisis. Assad is a lesser evil than the barbaric Caliphate.
Discussions of the deal also revealed a significant detail about various groups of Syrian “rebels” that claim to be both anti-Assad and anti-ISIS. During a joint press conference with Lavrov, Kerry admitted that “sometimes (…) members of different oppositions [sic] join” al-Nusra Front attacks against Assad forces. We already knew that “rebels” we trained also gave some of their U.S.-supplied weapons to al-Qaeda, as the Pentagon itself admitted. This willingness to collaborate tactically with radical Islamist terrorists should serve to remind us of how little we know of who is who within the plethora of diverse anti-Assad rebel groups.
The abortive Kerry-Putin agreement seemed like a small step in the right direction. The most likely stimulus was that Barack Obama finally realized that going down in history as the president who enabled the existence of ISIS for two years will certainly hurt his legacy. And, if Donald Trump becomes president and crushes ISIS within weeks or months, Obama’s legacy would suffer even greater damage. Apparently he is fine with that.
Paweł Styrna is a Ph.D student in Russian history at a DC area university. He holds two MA degrees, one in modern European and Russian history (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another in statecraft international affairs (Institute of World Politics in Washington DC). Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.