Mend U.S., Russia divisions for forceful response

Dina Badie
Dina Badie

If the danger that ISIS poses to the global community was once ambiguous, the threat was made abundantly clear after the horrific 11/13 attacks in Paris.

Not only has the militant group been able to consolidate power over a brutal caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it has successfully targeted Turks, Russians, Lebanese, and now, the French in ominous, premeditated attacks.

And these are not “lone wolf” attacks. Intelligence increasingly points to closely coordinating cells whose tentacles all lead back to ISIS’s locus of power. Unlike the aims of its terrorist predecessors, they make no political or religious distinctions between their victims. Anyone perceived to stand in their way is made a bloody target. That includes Westerners, Easterners, and Muslims -- including Sunnis.

While the Obama administration has been slow to respond to the growing threat, a few promising signs have emerged from Washington. The first was the decision to end the failed rebel-training program. Ill-conceived from the start, the strategy not only failed to produce enough anti-ISIS fighters, some of the trainees and weapons ended up on the wrong side of the fight.

The second positive shift was President Barack Obama’s authorization to send 50 Special Forces to “advise and assist” in combat missions. While this does not constitute a major escalation, it does suggest a response to ISIS’s increasing capabilities.

With France now mobilizing rapidly, the time is ripe to forge a broader coalition that includes countries of all stripes who are threatened by ISIS. That coalition must include Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s open support for Syria’s besieged leader runs counter to Obama’s calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down. Russia has built up its Syrian presence in an effort to prop up Assad, or at least to maintain its presence in a post-Assad Syria.

As Russia’s only offshore military base, preserving influence in Syria is crucial to Putin. In his own words, his strategy has been to conduct airstrikes against a variety of targets -- of which ISIS is only one. After the bombing of the Russian airliner, it will not be a hard sell to refocus Putin’s efforts on targeting the militants first, and dealing with other anti-Assad forces later. After all, for ISIS, Assad is enemy No. 1.

Given the current situation and increased pressure on Putin, the U.S. must overcome its aversion to working with Putin, its fixation with opposing Assad, and its principled objection to fighting alongside Iran. ISIS is a far more serious problem than Russia, Iran or Assad.

Working with Russia to defeat ISIS now does not preclude us from opposing their actions later. During WWII, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were able to put aside differences to successfully fight and defeat Nazi Germany, then quickly resorted back to a forty-year long Cold War. There is no reason to believe that such a coalition can again be amassed and can again succeed.

For all of Assad’s faults, ISIS is a bigger threat to the country, the region, and increasingly, to the international community. It is impossible to successfully combat ISIS without prioritizing its defeat. The U.S. cannot crush ISIS, force Assad to step down, condemn Russian combat missions, and isolate Iran simultaneously.

The division between the American coalition and the Russian coalition advantages ISIS as each side carefully tiptoes around the other to avoid accidental confrontation. Coordination by American, European, Russian, and regional partners would create a fighting force against which ISIS could not compete in the long run.

Additionally, a coalition that includes Russia, Iran, and other Arab partners would blunt criticisms of another Western war in the Middle East that fuels anti-Western sentiments in the region. France is unlikely to unilaterally invoke NATO’s collective security agreement, but even if Hollande decided to do so, it would still pose a Western coalition against ISIS. Including a broader range of countries would also diversify tasks and increase burden-sharing, since at some point, boots will have to be put on the ground. The passive voice is deliberate since those boots do not necessarily have to be American. ‘

The domestic debate is too narrowly focused on whether, or how many, troops the U.S. needs to deploy. By creating an expansive working coalition, the U.S. can rely on American, French, Russian, Iranian, Kurdish… and so on… expertise instead of taking on all the tasks, and risks, associated with defeating ISIS.

Amassing such a coalition will not be an easy task. Concerns may overlap or compete. But to claim the mantle of global leadership will require the U.S. to look beyond comfortable allies and to instead embrace the strange, yet multiplying, bedfellows that all seek to destroy ISIS.

Dina Badie is an assistant professor of politics and international studies at Centre College.