The Blog

Russia and Iran Are Not Allies Against ISIS


Co-authored with Mr. Tom Wilson.

Dr Andrew Foxall is Director of the Russia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society, a London-based international affairs think-tank, where Mr Tom Wilson is Resident Associate Fellow at the Centre for the New Middle East.

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In an escalation of the conflict in Syria, Russia's launching of airstrikes last Wednesday was closely followed by Iran's readying of its troops, the next day, for a ground offensive. This came after President Obama, addressing the U.N.'s General Assembly, had described ISIS as an "apocalyptic cult" and announced his willingness "to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran" in facing down the threat it poses.

Although the Kremlin said its airstrikes would target ISIS strongholds, thus far they have largely hit the US-backed Free Syrian Army. As if it were not apparent beforehand, Mr. Obama should question the motives of those whom he has embraced as allies in combating ISIS. In one important regard, their interests run squarely counter to those of the West: they do not want to defeat ISIS.

For the past six years, the U.S. has withdrawn from its role as global leader as Washington has recast how it deals with the outside world. Mr. Obama believes, as he explained in 2009, that "moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon." In America's post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq moment, the President prefers to 'lead from behind', with other countries sorting out their own problems.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Syria. And few countries understand the opportunities Mr. Obama's strategy of retreat and accommodation provide quite like Russia and Iran.

For President Vladimir Putin, the West's impotence in Syria is a reflection of the failures of democratic liberalism, which he seeks to undermine when- and where- ever he senses the chance. Russia's support for President Assad is primarily about securing its own interests in the Middle East -- and with them, the ability to call itself a global power. Mr. Putin's calls for a UN-mandated coalition to fight ISIS, the Russian leader hopes, will end his country's international isolation over Ukraine.

Having already allied itself with Iran and its Shia militias in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, the West is now doing the same in Syria. Tehran has used both its Hezbollah proxies and dispatched its own Quds forces to assist Mr. Assad in slaughtering his own people so as to keep in place the pro-Iranian Alawite regime there. Doing so not only preserves another Iranian satellite but also ensures that the Islamic Republic keeps open its corridor to Lebanon and the Mediterranean.

It is understandable that Washington, having failed to end the war in Syria over the last four years, should now be clutching at straws from Moscow and Tehran. But this is a self-defeating policy.

Earlier this summer, evidence emerged that Russia has helped its citizens join ISIS. Research conducted by the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta suggests that Russia's security service, the FSB, created a 'green channel' to enable jihadists to leave areas in Russia where they were fighting the Russian state and to travel to Turkey and then onto Syria. The FSB's logic, presumably, is that such jihadists are less of a threat to Russia if they are fighting (and dying) in Syria.

Throughout the Middle East, Iran has benefited from the instability of civil war, and has every interest in perpetuating these conflicts. Tehran has consistently hijacked this kind of strife for the purpose of extending its own influence and emboldening local proxies and allies. In both Lebanon and Yemen, we have seen how effectively the Iranians have fomented sectarian conflict as an opening for arming Shia factions and forcing a confrontation with rival powers. The same is now true in Syria.

President Assad, for his part, has strengthened ISIS, as well as other Islamist radicals, at the expense of Syria's moderate opposition. Throughout 2014, Mr. Assad's Syrian armed forces fought other rebel groups more often than they fought ISIS. At the same time, the strategy pursued by Mr. Assad's military has been to hold Damascus and the heavily Alawite territories to the west of the country, rather than recovering ISIS-controlled areas in the east.

Like Moscow and Tehran, Damascus has every interest in keeping the threat of ISIS as a force not only to further their own domestic interests but also to use as leverage in their relations with the West.

Even if Russia and Iran were serious about defeating ISIS, and even if they could deliver on this, the West would then have to confront the reality of a Syria in the clutches of two states hostile to its interests. Both of which would see this as an indication of Western weakness, and would be emboldened to further their ambitions.

It is a reflection of the failure of recent U.S. policy toward Syria that in fighting ISIS, Washington is aligning itself with regimes that do not want to defeat ISIS.

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