The hideous massacre in Paris seems to be galvanizing a global anti-ISIS alliance, and a weak U.S. president means that alliance may well have Russian leadership.
The Wall Street Journal suggests the new alignment between France, Russia, and the United States could be the beginning of the “grand and single coalition” called for by French president Francois Hollande.
At the moment, however, it seems more like a case of each party reiterating its long-standing demands and waiting to see if the other gives ground. President Obama said that “we very much want to see” Russia change its focus from bombing the Assad regime’s other adversaries to tackling ISIS, which is exactly what he has been saying since the first Russian bomb dropped on the heads of U.S.-sponsored “moderate” Syrian rebels.
The Russians, for their part, have consistently portrayed all enemies of the Assad regime as “terrorists,” which is, not coincidentally, what Bashar Assad calls them. The Russian game plan involved hammering the rebels backed by Western powers desiring regime change in Damascus, leaving the West with little choice but to finish off the rebellion by destroying its most combat-effective element, the Islamic State.
Moscow is feeling pressure to do more against ISIS – that is one reason they were so reluctant to admit the destruction of their airliner over the Sinai was an ISIS terrorist attack. When it became impossible to deny that awful truth, Russian warplanes joined French jets in the skies over Raqqa, with President Vladimir Putin swearing bloody revenge for the carnage in Egypt. As the WSJ notes, the Russians gave Washington advance notice of their bomber and cruise missile attacks against ISIS on Tuesday, the first time they have extended such a courtesy since their campaign in Syria began.
That is progress, but this emerging alliance shows every indication of leaning more in Putin’s direction than President Obama’s. Putin can stick to his line about how Western powers exacerbated the ISIS threat by sustaining the Syrian rebellion, portraying the Americans as coming to see things his way.
H is already reaping geopolitical benefits from the new realignment, with the Wall Street Journal judging that he looks “less like a global pariah, and more like the indispensable man for a combined global effort to tackle the Islamic State.” It wasn’t long ago that Obama was talking about isolating Putin to punish him for his adventures in Crimea.
The new spirit of cooperation saw Russia announcing on Tuesday that its missile cruiser Moskva would cooperate with the French military, which is bringing its aircraft carrier task force into the Mediterranean. Even as the Associated Press reported this encouraging news, it quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticizing the United States for its “contradictory and confusing policy in Syria”:
In remarks in a Russian TV documentary shown Tuesday, Lavrov said that analysis of U.S. attacks on Islamic State militants in Syria over the past year indicates that the attacks are sparing the IS units that would pose the most threat to the Syrian army and Assad. The U.S. wants to see Assad removed from power.
Lavrov said this means that Washington is effectively “sitting on two chairs.”
President Obama is, frankly, delusional if he thinks he can get out in front of this realignment and control it with smarmy declarations that the Russians are finally doing what he wants them to do. The fact that major ISIS targets are only now being hit, after years of Obama’s “degrade and ultimately destroy” strategy, supports Russia’s view of the conflict. Moscow is doing a pretty good job at this very moment of portraying Obama as indecisive and confused, far too slow to embrace Russian cooperation against a common enemy that Russian politicians are comparing to Nazi Germany in World War II.
The Wall Street Journal also sees some fraying around the edges of the American coalition in the Middle East, noting that countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar still insist Assad must go, whether Russia likes it or not, while “other American allies, including Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, have become more accepting of the role Russia is playing.” King Abdullah of Jordan even called Moscow the “key” to a political solution in Syria.
President Obama has given Egypt and Israel plenty of reasons to distrust him. At the same time, his enthusiasm for building Iran into a hegemonic regional power is marginalizing Tehran’s adversaries, who know they will be facing a nuclear power in a few years. The WSJ indulges in some wishful thinking about Russia and Iran coming apart over the fate of Bashar Assad, but at the moment that difference of opinion seems more like the Russians being somewhat more willing to rhetorically entertain a brokered transition out of power for the regime.
The story most likely to be told about the demise of ISIS across the Middle East will be Russia and Iran doing what Obama could not, with the help of formerly enervated Europeans energized by brutal Islamic State attacks on their soil. If the Syrian civil war ends with Assad still in power – as Russia wants, and Iran insists on – no one will be talking about successful American strategies.