Battlefields are chaotic. In the turmoil created by forces in conflict, it is often difficult to discern a clear pattern until the smoke of battle has cleared. The battlefields that are Syria and Iraq are especially difficult to evaluate. Are the US and Russia foes or allies? Implausible though it may seem, they are actually both simultaneously, at least on a tactical level. Strategically, they are poles apart.
Long-standing Russo-Syrian accords have provided Russia with invaluable naval and military assets inside Syria. Protecting them means supporting President Bashar al-Assad, at least in the short term. Assad is fighting two main opponents – his domestic enemies represented by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and Islamic State (IS), the Sunni jihadist organization intent on overrunning the whole of Syria and Iraq. On entering the fray Russia undertook to strike both, though so far it has rather concentrated its firepower against the FSA. According to a survey compiled by the Institute for the Study of War, out of 64 targets attacked in air strikes by Russia during the first three weeks of its campaign, a maximum of 15 were in areas held by IS.
The US, however, entered the Syrian conflict in order to boost the FSA, fight IS in conjunction with them, and overthrow Assad. The US coalition has been supporting FSA military operations with air strikes although, it must be said, to no great effect as yet. With Russia attacking FSA and the US supporting them, the two outside protagonists seem at daggers drawn.
Russia’s clear aim of establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East is certainly not to America’s liking, and doubtless played a part in the recent accord between the US and Saudi Arabia, both concerned about the growing number of Russian air-strikes in support of the Assad regime. On October 25, they announced a joint agreement to boost their military and diplomatic effort in aid of the Syrian rebels.
“They pledged to continue and intensify support to the moderate Syrian opposition while the political track is being pursued,” announced the State Department.
The “moderate Syrian opposition” are precisely the forces being attacked by Russia and Iranian-backed fighters. This enhanced US-Saudi activity must be co-ordinated with the Russians in some way, or the two sides, if only by proxy, could find themselves in active combat against each other.
If they are on opposite sides in this aspect of the conflict, the US and Russia are at one in their opposition to IS and its ruthless drive to extend its power over the region and wider. Even so, Russia’s latest move in this struggle is unlikely to meet with US approval.
On October 26, Russian officials were reported to have been discussing with senior Taliban warlords in Afghanistan the possibility of an alliance aimed at defeating IS in Syria and Iraq. In return Russia’s President Putin would supply the Taliban with heavy weapons and promise to support it internationally should it overthrow the Afghan government and retake control of the country. Pure self-interest on Russia’s part dictates the move. Bringing Taliban fighters into the conflict on its side could avoid the need to deploy Russian boots on the ground.
The Taliban and IS would be well-matched as opponents. They are as fanatical, vicious and inhumane as each other. The record of Taliban rule over Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s is every bit as barbarous as that of IS in Syria and Iraq. Public executions and amputations flourished; men were required to grow beards; women had to wear the all-covering burka; girls were banned from going to school. Television, music and cinema were proscribed.
The Taliban record, however, counts for nothing in Russian eyes, when set against the realpolitik advantages of a Russo-Taliban alliance, although how Russia intends to square this move with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, both committed to overthrowing the Taliban, is anybody’s guess.
The Iranian dimension to Syria’s civil conflict adds a further complication. Iran regards Syria as its client state – an essential building block in the Shi’ite axis it has assembled across the Middle East – and it has supported Assad with money, arms and fighting forces, both its own Revolutionary Guards and scores of thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. It considers Sunni IS its implacable enemy, and directs considerable military effort to countering IS attempts to expand its territorial advances in both Syria and Iraq.
As regards Iran’s role, the US, unlike Russia, is in a morally ambiguous position. It disapproves of Iran’s pro-Assad activities in Syria, but favors its anti-IS activities in Iraq.
In September 2014, while Iran was in the midst of negotiating the future of its nuclear program, the BBC reported that Ayatollah Khamenei had authorised his top commander fighting IS in Iraq to co-ordinate military operations with the US, Iraqi and Kurdish forces. By March 2015, with the delicate nuclear negotiations still under way, the American-led coalition in Iraq launched airstrikes to support Iranian-backed militias and Iraqi troops fighting IS for the key city of Tikrit, which they eventually won back.
And then, on October 24, the Iraqi government announced that it is authorizing the Russian military to use the Al Taqaddum airbase that is also being used by US troops for operations against IS. So it looks as though Russia and the US have become allies of a sort in Iraq.
Iran and Russia appear to be in close accord, but everything in the Russo-Iranian garden is far from perfect. A variety of observers believe that the military alliance between Christian Russia and Shi’ite Iran aimed at keeping Assad in power is fraught with underlying tension. For example, Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a former adviser at the Pentagon, believes that Russian and Iranian long-term interests diverge.
“Russia does not trust Iran,” he says. “Russia doesn’t want Iran to be an equal partner in Syria. Russia wants to rule the roost.” He believes Russia has no wish to see an Iranian-led Shi’ite bloc dominating the Middle East.
If Russia’s strategic interests are indeed out of kilter with Iran’s, the way might be open for the US to seek some kind of deal with Russia aimed at limiting the Shi’ite axis. This possibility, running counter to the whole Middle East approach of the Obama administration, may lie hidden within the present political maelstrom – a prize to be won by a future US president.