Does Russia-U.S. Disagreement Over Assad Benefit ISIS?

Sergei M. Plekhanov, Associate Professor of Political Science at York University, says regional solutions are only possible if Russia and the United States stop pursuing their respective Middle East interests as a zero-sum game

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Russia and the U.S. have come to an agreement that they say will prevent incidents between one another during their respective bombing campaigns in Syria, an understanding which they are claiming does not amount to strategic coordination. Let’s have a look at what Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook had to say about the agreement and what it won’t be doing.

PETER COOK: The MOU does not establish zones of cooperation, intelligence sharing, or any sharing of target information in Syria. The discussions through which this MOU was developed do not constitute U.S. cooperation or support for Russia’s policy or actions in Syria. In fact, far from it, we continue to believe that Russia’s strategy in Syria is counterproductive and their support for the Assad regime will only make Syria’s civil war worse.

PERIES: The news comes on the same day that the U.S. joint chief of staff arrived in Iraq to assess the campaign and their fight against the IS there. And this is days after reports have come out that more U.S.-made weapons are flooding into Syria from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to resupply rebels opposed to Assad.

Now joining me to discuss these developments is Sergei M Plekhanov. He’s an associate professor of political science at York University and a former deputy director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies in Russia. Sergei, thank you so much for joining us today.

SERGEI PLEKHANOV: Thank you.

PERIES: So give us an assessment of why this particular memorandum was required and what you make of the agreement.

PLEKHANOV: Well, there was an acute, there is an acute practical need to avoid possibility of direct clashes between Russian air force and U.S. air force. It’s a small place. They fighter planes fly very fast. And we’ve seen a number of incidences in recent weeks when there were dangerous situations. You know, alleged incursions by Russian planes into the Turkish airspace. A drone was downed a couple of days ago. It’s not clear who it belongs to but it was definitely made in Russia. So both Russia and the United States operate their air forces in the air space above the battleground in Syria. And since both sides have an interest in defeating ISIS, even though they also have opposite goals in other respects, they need to have at least a minimum of coordination, at least communication, in order to be able to avoid inadvertent direct clashes.

So from the military standpoint it’s a good thing, because it makes the situation somewhat less dangerous. I must say that it was the Russians who were actually advocating some forms of coordination and cooperation between the militaries of [the other] side. So finally some agreement has been reached, but it’s interesting that the Pentagon is emphasizing how it is actually not cooperating with the Russians even though in fact [they’re taking] first step to cooperate with them. I know if ISIS had [inaud.] they must be [bracing] and [inaud.], saying oh, we thought the Russians and the Americans were joining forces against us. Now it turns out they’re not, they’re just minimizing the possibilities of war between them.

PERIES: Now, you may have seen a Washington Post article last week that was alleging that these heavily equipped tanks that the United States was providing to the rebels on the ground in Syria was being taken out by the Russian bombs. What is that dispute all about, and why were the Russians taking out these tanks?

PLEKHANOV: First of all, what’s really happening on the ground and what we read about it in the media may be two different realities. So it’s very difficult to comment on reports about events on the ground, given the fact that there is a situation where information warfare is just as acute as the real warfare. But it seems that the Russians are on the one hand trying to defeat ISIS, and being rather effective. They’ve actually, their planes have flown something like 300 [sorties], maybe more, hitting area targets belonging to ISIS, but also targets belonging to other jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which is competing with ISIS, which are primarily about overthrowing the Assad regime.

Now, the United States also has an interest, and in fact has been trying to accomplish the goal of removing Assad from power and replacing him, replace him with some other regime. And expected to be pro-American. But problem with that has been that every time the Americans tried to conjure up, invoke, or support some kind of so-called moderate opposition to ISIS–Assad, it turns out that the arms tend to get into the hands of another radical Islamist group. And so the real fighting is done not by the shadowy moderate groups, but the jihadists, radical jihadists. That’s how ISIS became as powerful as it was, and that’s how it managed to gain so much territory, taking advantage of the United States’s continued policy to overthrow the Assad regime.

So the Russians got involved because the Assad regime, in fact they have a kind of an alliance relationship, or at least a quiet relationship with the Assad regime. The Assad regime asked Russia for assistance. The Syrian government, [inaud.] outside regime, that’s the Syrian government, which is recognized by other countries and which has a legitimate status in the country no matter what the nature of that regime is.

So Syria asked Russia for military assistance. The Russians have rendered that assistance by deploying the air force there. And they’re doing that because their main goal is to prevent the formation of a [base] for radical Islamist, jihadist activity, which is now organized primarily under the rubric of ISIS, which would be threatening the southern areas of Russia as well as central Asian states. [Inaud.] Afghanistan, by the way, where ISIS now has a base, too.

So as far as fighting ISIS is concerned, Russia and the United States have a common interest. Problem is that because their interest with regard to the Assad regime are not the same. In fact, they are at odds with each other. They cannot cooperate effectively enough. So that creates a situation which only helps ISIS.

PERIES: Now, if the objective of the Russians is really to fight ISIS and other rebel forces on the ground that is threatening the geopolitical stability of the world at this moment, if that’s the real objective here then why aren’t they in greater cooperation, like even after signing this agreement, both sides issued statements on what it does not contain. Not, you know, addressing what is necessary at this point, a real collaboration in terms of bringing about a solution on the ground, a regional solution to the issue of Syria.

PLEKHANOV: Well, the main bone of contention is of course the fate of the Assad regime. Putin offered Americans a deal, let’s have, let’s construct an anti-ISIS coalition in the Middle East. So a broad-based coalition which includes both Russia’s friends and America’s friends in the Middle East, and let’s defeat ISIS. And in the meantime let’s work on the political transition in Syria. Russians are not beholden to the Assad regime, but currently that’s the regime that is fighting the Islamists and ISIS [first place], and so helping the Assad regime is absolutely necessary in order to defeat [inaud.]. Military actions in Syria hitting both groups which the United States does not regard as bad guys. In fact, some of them might be pro-American good guys.

From the point of view of the Syrian government and the Russians they are bad guys. So there is a big disagreement as to who to hit and who not to hit.

PERIES: Now, if you were to take into consideration the real safety and security of the Syrian people, and you want to bring about a solution to the refugee and the migrant crisis in Syria, what’s wrong with at least temporarily removing the Assad factor in order to bring about some common stability on the ground?

PLEKHANOV: You remove the only government that exists in order to provide the conditions for stability? We’ve seen it in Libya, we’ve seen it in other places. This government still has control of a large part of the country. By the way, when they show you on the map that half of the territory or even more is under the control of ISIS, shouldn’t forget that 90 percent of that territory is desert. Whereas the majority of the populated areas of Syria are under the control of the government in Damascus. And it has an army, and that government also has recently been more successful in pushing back its opponents, and ISIS in the first place.

So it is totally unrealistic to expect that if we have a deal now where we tell [inaud.] have to go. That means [inaud.] will have to go, then security forces will have to go. ISIS will be applauding, because yeah, sure, yeah, give us the vacuum. We’ll just move in. And then there’ll be an even bigger flow of refugees now, from the remainder of Syria. And [inaud.] no, no, you need the proper government in its fight against the most dangerous force that has emerged out of the chaos of the Middle East over the past years. And for that, and that does not make you beholden to this regime, because it’s obvious to anyone that there will have to be a lot of political change in Syria. Maybe some kind of federation will be created in order to accommodate various diverse groups over the Syrian population. Some kind of a regional [pact] will be concluded between the countries which are now at odds with each other.

But all that can only be done after this malignant tumor has been removed. The tumor is called ISIS, or ISIL.

PERIES: Now, some legitimate social movements and organizations in Syria are alleging that Assad is responsible for the death of over 200,000 people. Now, what is Russia doing with that information? Are they ignoring it?

PLEKHANOV: First of all this is an allegation, not information. Again, this is information warfare. It could be more, it could be less. This government has been–this is a dictatorship in Syria. Right. Does it mean that every dictatorship that exists, even though it is involved in this kind of a civil war, that it must be overthrown because it’s a dictatorship? I don’t think that this kind of blind approach to any kind of a civil war or domestic conflict that exists, especially in a country in the Middle East, should evoke automatic responses, let’s go and overthrow them. We’ve seen the [inaud.] the West has done where it sends, 2003, with disastrous results. George Bush had not overthrown the Saddam Hussein regime. And that was a bad regime, which was using chemical weapons, terrorizing its opponents, and invading Iran, by the way, with an American backing.

So that was a bad regime, but–okay, we overthrew it. Do we have a flourishing democracy in Iraq? Northern Iraq has turned into a massive [place] for a new form and more dangerous form of radical jihadis. And we’ve seen the same in Libya. And we are now seeing the same in Syria. And we’re not learning any lessons. I mean, are we pursuing human rights agenda in a situation which totally does not fit that agenda?

PERIES: And as, Sergei, your Russian colleagues, you have many over the years that you’ve been studying Russian foreign policy with, what are they saying about a potential solution for the conflict in Syria?

PLEKHANOV: The solution that there is, a sequence, it all depends on where one stands politically. And in Russia you have a political [inaud.]. And there are bitter opponents of the Putin regime who are now criticizing him for getting involved in Syria. There is a possibility of [inaud.]. The Russian public opinion is definitely not in favor of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. They say, why should we be there? Why should we care? And so on.

So there are critics of the government. There are some think tank people who are warning against dangers of involvement in Syria. It is a risky game for the Russian government. But those who support the policy of the Russian government, what they are saying is the top priority is defeating ISIS. And in fact, there is a wide area of common interest in both, between Russia, the United States, Western Europe, [inaud.] state in the Middle East. Including Sunni state, the [inaud.] Sunni state. For instance, for Egypt–the Egyptians have not criticized Russia’s actions in Syria because they share concern about the growth of a new form of radical Islamism in the region. They have been [battling] radical Islamists in their own country for quite a while. And they [immediately] [inaud.] some groups, ISIL-connected groups, which have been operating.

So the idea is, create some kind of a coalition, at least temporarily, in order to deal with this threat. Defeating it [inaud.]. there is no way. You cannot negotiate with them. You cannot have a truth and reconciliation commission between the opposing sides in the conflict. So in the meantime, one should prepare, start negotiations or continue negotiations and discussions about some kind of a political transition in Syria, which would help bring more sources of the conflict, of the civil conflict, that exploded the region because of the way the Syrian government responded to demonstrations against it.

So there has to be a sequence of priority. First you resolve the military problem, then you begin with political revolution. I think that some kind of a regional pact to stabilize Syria and make sure that–by the way, also Iraq. Because Iraq has been affected by this crisis in a big way. It’s not just about Syria. We’re looking at the wide territory in the Middle East which has been affected by this crisis. And so there have to be some regional solutions which are only possible if a major player, such as Russia and the United States, operate with a reasonable degree of cooperation. Not treating it as a zero-sum game where they pursue opposing goals. Because otherwise only ISIS will win.

PERIES: All right. Sergei, we would like to take that issue up of what a regional solution would look like in our next segment with you.

PLEKHANOV: Okay.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

Part 2

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER,T RNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. I’m speaking with Sergei M Plekhanov. He is an associate professor of political science at York University and a former deputy director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies in Russia. In segment one we tried to address the current memorandum of agreement that’s been signed between Russia and the U.S. over the airspace and potentially trying to address avoiding getting in each others’ way.

But in this segment we’re going to take up the issue of what a regional solution to Syria might look like. Sergei, so what does a regional solution to the conflict look like?

SERGEI PLEKHANOV: Regional solutions are notoriously hard to achieve, because usually in the region there are competing forces, competing interests. And we all know what that competition’s all about in the Middle East. There are several axes of conflict in that part of the world. And apart from everything else, the capacity of the United States to maintain a balance of power as the dominant force in the region has drastically declined as a result of major strategic blunders made by the United States.

The United States is less capable of manipulating the big players in the Middle East. And that’s a new situation, because since the Camp David accords of 1973 when Egypt and Israel normalized their relations, which was a drastic change in Middle Eastern politics, the United States was the main power there. And Russia was marginalized. Soviet Union at the time was marginalized, and it lost its position in Egypt. And then the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved and Russia completely withdrew from any kind of active participation in the Middle East. So the United States as one hegemonic power was trying to manipulate the situation.

Remember what plans the United States had at the time. Greater Middle East, transforming the entire [inaud.] Muslim states from the Mediterranean all the way to Afghanistan. Transform those states into entities which would be formerly more democratic, pro-Western, and stable, and so on. Safe for Israel, and so on and so forth. And of course it was obvious that it was a pipe dream, that no such plan could be implemented. But they started boldly and confidently in Iraq. And they got stuck. Afghanistan was somewhat different because there there was a United Nations authorization for some kind of an action against the Taliban regime, for the [inaud.] regime. And besides, there were signs that the Taliban were directly responsible for enabling the attacks of 9/11.

But then this plan, this plan led to tremendous destabilization of the Middle East, on the one hand. On the other hand it enabled Iran to increase its regional inflow enormously. In fact, think of where Iran was before 2001, before 9/11. it had one enemy on the western front. There was Iraq. Bitter enemy. And on the eastern front [inaud.] had Afghanistan, the Taliban regime, which was strongly anti-Iranian. And so thanks to the United States, both those enemies were slain. [Have] replaced the enemies with greater instability and chaos. But Iran was now capable of now spreading its wings and establishing itself as the most influential regional power.

And the Americans then said, okay, what do we do now? Let’s invade Iran. That was the idea. And the mid-2000s, around 2005-2006, the Americans were trying to find ways of collecting Iran’s [inaud.] whereas Iran was suggesting to Americans, hey, we seem to have common interests, so let’s normalize relations. And even the question of relations with Israel was on the table. But the response from the United States was, we don’t negotiate with evil. We destroy evil. Okay. It’s, you know, try. Go ahead and try. And of course nothing came out of it. So under the Obama administration they shifted to negotiations with Iran, trying to resolve the issues and take advantage of the fact that Iran is a rising nuclear power.

Now, to the credit of the Obama administration they managed to accomplish some kind of a resolution of the nuclear issue involved in the negotiations that gave us the deal with Iran. Really valuable. And they contributed to normalization of relations in the region.

PERIES: So Sergei, this current situation we have is actually even better in terms of coming up with a regional solution. At least the nuclear factor in relation to Iran has been removed. It’s being negotiated. Which makes it a more of a possibility that you can bring Iran to the table, along with the other partners, in addressing a regional solution.

PLEKHANOV: [Offer] a comment on that because it’s not up to the United States now to curtail all the players to kind of fall in line with the new policy. Because the United States then, the moment the negotiations produced a deal, there was an upsurge of criticism and concern from the major Sunni provinces in the region, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and so on. They said, what the hell is going on? You are now helping Iran extend its influence and increase its influence in the region. And you know there are bigger enemies. So the Shia-Sunni cleavage in the Middle East immediately came to the fore.

So then the United States began to reassure its Sunni allies–and those Sunni allies are actually actively trying to overthrow the Assad regime. In a way what the United States–the reason why the United States cannot stop trying to overthrow Assad is because they want to remain on the good side with the Saudis and others, the Turks, and so on, because they cannot control the players. The players have their own game, have their own interests.

So now the challenge is to try and create a political format within which the diverse players, and in the first place Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and so on and so forth, would be able to consult on stabilizing the region. Because all of it, all of the key players, are threatened by the new force that has been produced by the chaos, and that is ISIL. So is it possible or not, it is extremely difficult. That’s the only solution that anyone can think of. Because if we yield to the logic of the Shia-Sunni conflict, if we say okay, we agree with Saudi Arabia that it’s extremely important to prevent Iran from further increasing its influence, okay. Then we will be helping the Sunni bloc to–in its conflict with Iran. Which could, by the way, lead to a war between Iran and the Sunni [inaud.], which then could start over conflict in Iraq, [and] Shia are in direct conflict, or in Syria.

Now, would that be in anybody’s interest? Would that, the United States, be able to say okay, that’s not a bad thing. But they’ve just been trying to normalize relations with Iran. How can you do it at the same time? You are trying to normalize relations with Iran. And at the same time you are trying to help overthrow a regime in Syria which is supported by Iran. You’re trying to cooperate with Russia on fighting ISIS and at the same time you’re trying to confront Russia over Syria.

I don’t know. There are too many balls in the air that they are throwing. I don’t think that they can very well play with that. So they keep dropping the balls here and there. And the result of the policies is more and more chaos. I would like to draw your attention a remarkable article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal by Henry Kissinger, who is suggesting that the United States should get serious about the failure of its policy in the Middle East about the deepening destabilization in the region, which is extremely dangerous, and accept the fact that Russia’s interests are such that the United States can and should cooperate with it, in defeating ISIS and agreeing on a number of missions in the Middle East which could help stabilize the region. He thinks, and it’s possible–his big concern is Iran, by the way. More than Russia. He’s not particularly concerned about Russia.

He thinks that Russia’s acting out of its own national interests, which are legitimate. Russia is not trying to dominate the Middle East. And so Russia is open to all kinds of regional arrangements. Iran is a different story. But then even on Iran he thinks that with proper diplomatic activity and a proper combination of various methods the United States can bring Iran to agreeing on such a resolution which would be acceptable to other [players]. It’s easier said than done.

But what is required above all is clarity of vision. I think the United States has to decide what its goals in the region are. Because you have conflicting statements coming from different people, and priorities which are at odds with each other. And that’s not a sign of a policy which is going to be successful.

PERIES: All right. Sergei Plekhanov, thank you so much for joining us today, and we look forward to having you back.

PLEKHANOV: Okay, thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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