When Russia first intervened militarily in Syria, it did so by taking aim at Syrian rebels that most threatened Bashar al-Assad, groups that the US had backed in the Syrian civil war. Barack Obama at the time suggested that Russia needed to take aim at ISIS rather than Assad’s opponents, but Russia and Iran continued to focus on propping up their client. After ISIS took down a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai, their focus has shifted from other rebel groups in the west to ISIS in the east, and they want a Russo-American alliance to wipe out the terrorist quasi-state. Today, Obama welcomed that idea … as long as the Russians take care of the Syrian civil war first:
The Russian prime minister said that the best way to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is to unite with the West, and Russia is already coordinating airstrikes with France.
While President Obama seems to agree, he said there is a catch: Russia must first help end the Syrian war. Just days after Russia launched its first significant strikes against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, President Obama extended an offer.
“If we get a better understanding with Russia about the process for bringing an end to the Syrian civil war, that obviously opens up more opportunities for coordination with respect to ISIL,” Mr. Obama said, using another acronym for ISIS.
That is certainly an interesting priority rank. Ask American voters which problem needs resolving most, and it’s highly doubtful that they would rank the Syrian civil war over the much more acute issue of ISIS. In fact, after Paris, it’s not likely that anyone with even the most tenuous connection to reality would choose settling Assad’s fate over that of dismantling what has now become a potent force in international terrorism.
Plus, there’s the wee little problem of the preferred resolution to the Syrian question. The US wants Assad out, full stop. The Russians, who have watched the region disintegrate during the last four years of Obama’s “smart power” foreign policy, want their client in place at least for a while to restabilize a significant portion of the region. So do the Iranians for other reasons, and thanks to the US deal with Tehran on nuclear technology, they have the cash and the influence to keep Assad in place as a bulwark against the Sunni extremists, which includes ISIS but also Jabhat al-Nusra and other smaller groups.
If Obama wants to fight ISIS, will he give up on demanding Assad’s ouster? Because with Russia and now France eclipsing the US in Syria, that’s going to be the price. What’s more, the remnants of our putative allies in the anti-Assad front know it, and know Obama’s not going to have much choice but to retreat. As the Wall Street Journal’s analysts conclude, Vladimir Putin and not Obama has become the indispensable man in the fight against ISIS:
But among the signs of potential progress, Russia gave Washington advance notice of its airstrikes Tuesday—the first time it had done so since the Russian bombing campaign started Sept. 30. U.S. officials said Russia conducted between 12 and 20 strikes Tuesday—some cruise missiles from Russian ships and some strikes by TU-22 backfire bombers.
Moscow’s determination on Tuesday that a bomb had destroyed a Russian jetliner last month over Egypt accentuated the appearance of common cause.
Mr. Putin now is looking less like a global pariah and more like the indispensable man for a combined global effort to tackle Islamic State.
Russia will not be content to let Obama sit on the sidelines, however. CBS catches a note of disgust from the Russian foreign office about Obama’s refusal to tackle ISIS more directly:
Coordination may increase after the French president travels to both Moscow and Washington next week. But it is clear that tensions remain. On Wednesday, Russia’s top diplomat compared the U.S. reluctance to send ground troops to a cat who wants to eat a fish but refuses to get its feet wet.
It’s not just the feet, either. Here’s a question that has been bubbling up ever since France began volleying attacks into Raqqa. If our intelligence had identified these targets, why haven’t we been hitting them all along?