Putin Claims Biggest Diplomatic Victory In Syria Conflict Yet, As Kerry Arrives In Moscow To "Seek Cooperation"

In the latest confirmation that ISIS is slowly but surely losing the land war against a joint front of US-coalition, Russian and Syrian army forces, overnight ISIS confirmed that Abu Omar al-Shishani, also known as Omar the Chechen, who the Pentagon described as Islamic State's "minister of war", was killed in combat in the Iraqi city of Shirqat, south of Mosul.

Shishani ranked among America's most wanted militants under a U.S. program that offered up to $5 million for information to help remove him from the battlefield. Born in 1986 in Georgia, then still part of the Soviet Union, Shishani had a reputation as a close military adviser to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was said by followers to have relied heavily on him.

Shishani once fought in military operations as a rebel in Chechnya before joining Georgia's military in 2006 and fighting against Russian troops before being discharged two years later for medical reasons, according to U.S. officials. He was arrested in 2010 for weapons possession and spent more than a year in jail, before leaving Georgia in 2012 for Istanbul and later Syria.

He decided to join Islamic State the following year and pledged his allegiance to Baghdadi. The State Department said Shishani was identified as Islamic State's military commander in a video distributed by the group in 2014.

As often happens with such events, this is the second time the death of the ISIS militant has been reported. Back in March, the Pentagon said that Shishani had likely been killed in a U.S. air strike in Syria, but this was the first time the group appeared to confirm his death. 

Islamic State supporters exchanged notes of praise and condolence on social media, including pictures of the ginger-bearded fighter, and pledged to launch a fresh offensive in his honor.

According to Reuters, Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based security expert who advises the Iraqi government, said a source in Shirqat confirmed Shishani had been killed there along with several other militants.

Iraqi forces are advancing towards Mosul, the largest city still under the control of Islamic State. They have mostly surrounded Shirqat, 250 km (160 miles) north of Baghdad, and last week retook a major air base from the militants to use in the main push on Mosul, 60 km further north.

The commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, expressed confidence in the intelligence that led to the recent strike on Shishani in the Tigris River valley where Shirqat is located, but declined on Thursday to declare him dead. "We're being a little conservative in calling the ball on whether or not he's actually dead or not. But we certainly gave it our best shot," MacFarland told reporters in Baghdad, joking that Shishani might be the "Rasputin of this conflict."

"(IS) lost something important: the charisma that he had to inspire and seduce Salafists from Chechnya, the Caucasus and Azerbaijan - the former Soviet republics," Hashimi said.

Asked about the potential impact, MacFarland said it could disrupt Islamic State operations if Shishani were indeed dead. "They would have to figure out who's going to pick up his portfolio," he said.

"We're being a little conservative in calling the ball on whether or not he's actually dead or not. But we certainly gave it our best shot," MacFarland told reporters in Baghdad, joking that Shishani might be the "Rasputin of this conflict."

* * *

Rasputin may be dead, but the war against ISIS goes on.

And in an unexpected twist, John Kerry arrives Moscow today to seek closer Russian cooperation in the war against Islamic State in Syria, in what some have dubbed a dramatic shift in US military objectives on the ground, and what to most is seen as the clearest diplomatic victory by Putin in the escalating "new cold war" with the west yet.

Kerry's trip, which State Department officials say is his second to the Russian capital this year takes place as U.S.-Russian relations have worsened with tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, escalating aggressive Russian maneuvers toward U.S. aircraft and vessels and vice versa, and a disregard for a cessation of hostilities in Syria, where Russia has bombed U.S.-backed rebels. Relations between Moscow and Washington also remain strained over the Ukraine crisis and what the Kremlin considers NATO’s unjustified activities along its borders, raising fears that disagreements could escalate into confrontations, either accidental in Syria or the result of miscalculations in the air and naval encounters from the Baltics to the Black Sea.

According to the WaPo, the Obama administration’s new proposal to Russia "would open the way for deep cooperation between U.S. and Russian military and intelligence agencies and coordinated air attacks by American and Russian planes on Syrian rebels deemed to be terrorists, according to the text of the proposal I obtained."

The Obama administration is proposing joining with Russia in a ramped-up bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, which is also known as the Nusrah Front. What hasn’t been previously reported is that the United States is suggesting a new military command-and-control headquarters to coordinate the air campaign that would house U.S. and Russian military officers, intelligence officials and subject-matter experts.

As WaPo adds, "the proposal would dramatically shift the United States’ Syria policy by directing more American military power against Jabhat al-Nusra, which unlike the Islamic State is focused on fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While this would expand the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Syria, it would also be a boon for the Assad regime, which could see the forces it is fighting dramatically weakened. The plan also represents a big change in U.S.-Russia policy. It would give Russian President Vladi­mir Putin something he has long wanted: closer military relations with the United States and a thawing of his international isolation. That’s why the Pentagon was initially opposed to the plan."

Still despite what may be the biggest symbolic victory for Putin since the start of the Syria conflict, it’s not clear that the plan will be accepted by Putin. "Administration officials caution that no final decisions have been made and that no formal agreement has been reached between the two countries. Negotiations over the text are ongoing ahead of Kerry’s arrival in Russia."

“The participants, through the JIG, should enable coordination between the participants for military operations against” Jabhat al-Nusra, the document states. First, the United States and Russia would share intelligence. Then, if both governments agreed, “the participants should coordinate procedures to permit integrated operations.”

 

The initial mission would include the United States and Russia developing Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State targets together and then deciding which air force would fly which missions. Later, if both governments agreed, the two air forces could begin “integrated operations” that include assisting each other in the fight.

 

In exchange for U.S. assistance against Jabhat al-Nusra, the Russian side would be required to limit airstrikes to targets both sides agreed on and also to ensure that the Syrian air force would stand down and not bomb targets in agreed-upon “designated areas.”

Meanwhile, many US-based diplomats are furious at this unexpected olive branch: "It isn't clear why the secretary of state thinks he can enlist the Russians to support the administration's goals in Syria," said one U.S. intelligence official quoted by Reuters. Other U.S. intelligence officers are incensed by the administration's continued overtures to Russia, in part because they say the Russians knew that two rebel camps they bombed this week were far from any Islamic State fighters and housed U.S.-backed rebels or their families.

But the biggest concession by the US would be the admission that Assad can remain in power. Recall that the entire Syrian war, and the creation of ISIS in the first place, were a pretext to overthrow the Syrian president. However, nobody in the US predicted the stern Russian response, which has preserved Assad's power for the past three years.

"The Russians want a settlement that would keep (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or some replacement acceptable to them in power," said a defense official, who like others who discussed the schism in the administration agreed to do so only on condition of anonymity.

"The president has said that Assad has got to go, and our allies, especially the Saudis, hold that view very strongly. In fact, they keep asking us why we’re cozying up to Moscow."Assad said in an interview broadcast on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin has never talked to him about leaving power, despite pressure from Washington for Assad to step down.

Finally, the biggest question is just why did the US expend so much military power and resources over a mission that has led to a dead-end.

"I think quite frankly (Kerry's) visit is a microcosm of the confusion about U.S. policy towards Russia," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. "It's a lot of political capital to send the secretary of state if you don't have a clear objective of what you want to accomplish," she told Reuters.

Actually, scratch that: we know why. As Reuters also reportted yesterday, "U.S. arms sales approvals on track to reach nearly $40 billion." And that makes all the death and suffering worth it.

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