If you’ve followed the incessant back-and-forth between Washington and Moscow over the course of the proxy wars raging in Ukraine and Syria, you know that the Kremlin is without equal when it comes to describing US foreign policy in a way that is both succinct and accurate.
This was on full display earlier this year when Vladimir Putin’s Security Council released a document that carried the subtle title "About The US National Security Strategy.” We’ve also seen it on a number of occasions over the past several weeks in the wake of Russia’s stepped up military role in support of the Assad regime at Latakia. For instance, last week, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova delivered the following hilariously veracious assessment of how Washington has sought to characterize Moscow’s relationship with Damascus:
"First we were accused of providing arms to the so-called 'bloody regime that was persecuting democratic activists, now it's a new edition - we are supposedly harming the fight against terrorism. That is complete rubbish."
Yes, it probably is, but let’s not forget that Russia hasn’t exactly been forthcoming when it comes to acknowledging that, like Washington, Moscow’s interest in Syria is only related to terrorism to the extent that terrorism serves as a Western tool to destabilize the Assad regime which, you’re reminded, must remain in place if Putin intends to protect Gazprom’s iron grip over Europe’s supply of natural gas.
Of course what that suggests is that even as Russia uses ISIS as a smokescreen to justify sending troops to Syria, the Kremlin is by definition being more honest about its motives than The White House. That is, ISIS has destabilized Assad and because Russia has an interest in keeping the regime in power, Moscow actually does have a reason to eradicate Islamic State. The US, on the other hand, facilitated the destabilization of the country in the first place by playing a role in training and arming all manner of Syrian rebels, and to say that some of them might well have gone on to fight for ISIS would be a very generous assessment when it comes to describing the CIA’s involvement (a less generous assessment would be to call ISIS a “strategic CIA asset”). That means that the US will only really care about wiping out ISIS once Assad is gone and it’s time to install a puppet government that’s friendly to both Washington and Riyadh and at that point - assuming there are no other regimes in the area that the Pentagon feels like might need destabilizing - the US military will swiftly “liberate” Syria from the ISIS “scourge.”
To be sure, Russia is well aware of the game being played here and if there’s anything Vladimir Putin is not, it’s shy about calling the US out, which is precisely what he did on Tuesday at a security summit of ex-Soviet countries in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Bloomberg has more:
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the fight against Islamic State should be the global community’s top priority in Syria, rather than changing the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s necessary to think about the political transition in that country” and Assad is willing to “involve healthy opposition forces in the administration of the state,” Putin said. “But the focus today is definitely on the need to combine forces in the fight against terrorism.”
Countries need to “put aside geopolitical ambitions” as well as “direct or indirect use of terrorist groups to achieve” goals that include regime change, in order to counter the threat of Islamic State, Putin said. “Elementary common sense responsibility for global and regional security demands the collective effort of the international community.”
The first thing to note there is that Putin has essentially called the US out for using terrorists to destabilize Assad. So for anyone just looking for the punchline, that was it. Everyone else, read on.
At this point what should be obvious is that Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Syria are anything but unclear. Russia is openly supplying the Assad regime with military aid in an effort to prevent terrorists and extremists (some of which were trained by the US and received aid from Qatar) from facilitating the strongman’s ouster. It’s that simple and frankly, the only two things Russia hasn’t made explicitly and publicly clear (because this is international diplomacy after all, which means everyone is always lying about something) are i) the role that natural gas plays in all of this, and ii) that the Kremlin will seek to prevent anyone from overthrowing Assad, so to the extent that there are any real, well-meaning “freedom fighters” in Syria, they’ll find themselves on the wrong end of Russian tank fire just the same as ISIS.
As clear as that is, the US must stick to the absurd notion that the Pentagon just can’t seem to get to the bottom of what Russia is doing and to the still more absurd idea that Russia - who seems to be the only outside party that’s actually interested in fighting ISIS as evidenced by the fact that there are Russian boots on the ground - is somehow hurting the very serious effort by the US and its allies to defeat Islamic radicals in Syria. Here’s Bloomberg again:
Russia’s intentions in Syria are unclear and it’s important for U.S. diplomats to understand them, Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Tallinn, Estonia, on Tuesday. While Putin’s said it wants to prevent Islamic State’s expansion, “explaining the purpose and seeing how it actually evolves on the ground are two very different things and we will be working on that,” Dempsey said.
Right, “explaining” that your “purpose” is to take your very powerful military and defeat what amounts to a large militia that’s woefully under-armed and under-trained by comparison “and seeing how it actually evolves are two very different things.” If you buy that argument, then you are buying into the patently ridiculous idea that if the US and Russia were to bring their combined military might to bear on ISIS in Syria, that somehow the outcome of that battle would be in doubt.
The Pentagon knows that notion is silly, but what it also knows is that once American troops are on the ground, there’s no not routing the other militants while you’re there, so what would happen in relatively short order, is that the opposition would be all gone and then, well, what do you do with Assad?
The much more straightforward way to go about this (unless of course you have a 9/11 and a story about WMDs buried in the desert as a cover that makes an outright, unilateral invasion possible), is to allow for the entire country to descend into chaos until one or more rebel/extremist groups finally manages to take Damascus, at which point you simply walk in with the Marines and remove them, then install any government you see fit. In the meantime, you just fly over and bomb stuff (hopefully with a coalition that includes Europe) in order to ensure that the situation remains sufficiently unstable. But now this plan won’t work, because unless we see a replay of the Soviet-Afghan war, none of Syria’s rebel groups are going to be able to rout the Russian army which means the US is stuck doing exactly what it’s doing now: trying to explain why it won’t join Russia in a coalition to eradicate ISIS while working to figure out what’s next now that the Russians are officially on the ground.
We'll close with the following from Alexander Golts, a military analyst and deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal who spoke to WSJ:
“The idea of this is…to show Russia as part of the alliance of civilized nations that are standing against barbarism. But that idea won’t have much of a chance, because the U.S. and the Saudis and others consider Assad the source of the problem.”