Russia launches airstrikes against ISIS in Syria; US promptly freaks out. That's the story in the Washington Post this morning. One particularly fun quote within is when John Kerry says he considers the airstrikes to be "not helpful." This is a bit strange since we've also been using airstrikes (or cruise missiles) in Syria, against ISIS and Al-Qaeda, since last September. But coincidentally, John Kerry is probably right. They weren't real helpful when we did it and there's no reason to think Russia will have much more success.
Here's the story. I've also given some more context below because the
discussion in this article leaves a lot to be desired.
The obvious question here is why? If Russia and the US share a common goal
of defeating IS (and Al-Qaeda though they get less press), why are we possibly
upset that they want to share the load? The reason, in my view, is simply
public relations. Starting in late 2011, the official position of the US has
been that President Bashar al-Assad must go. This decision was made in the
context of the rising Arab Spring, at a time when the US was emerging as the
clear villain in that narrative. You may recall that there were massive, highly
publicized protests in Egypt against their US-backed dictator back then, and
the US kind of stayed on the fence while it proceeded. Additionally, some of
the protests were violently suppressed by the government with tear gas, and
wouldn’t you know it, the tear gas canisters said “Made in the USA” right on
them. It was poetic and tragic, and really, really bad press.
Anyway, Syria presented a chance for the US to be unambiguously on the side of
“the people” instead of a dictator for a change since Assad was never a close
ally of ours. (And in fact, Assad was allied with Russia and Iran, which means
opposing him was kind of a political slam dunk for a Democratic president
that’s constantly being heckled for not being strong on national security,
whatever that means.) So we opposed Assad and indirectly backed some of the
extremist factions against him. That’s part of the story of how the civil war
got to where it is today. Now, whatever moderate elements once existed in
Syrian society have been pretty much wiped out, and we’re left with a
stalemated 4(ish)-way civil war between the Syrian government, ISIS, Al-Qaeda
(also called Al-Nusra), and the Kurds* in the north. And while no one thinks
Assad is a good guy, the fall of the Syrian government would give even more power
and influence to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Even our Kurdish allies in Syria fully
acknowledge that the collapse of Assad would be a disaster right now, but the
US is unwilling to publicly change its stance. That’s what this particular spat
between Russia and the US is about. Russia is attacking ISIS and Al-Qaeda with
the explicit aim of bolstering the Syrian government in the short-run, and the
US remains committed to a policy of opposing three parties of the civil war
simultaneously (the government, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda), no matter how unreasonable
or unsuccessful that has proved.
This interview with the leader of Syrian Kurds is invaluable reading for
getting a local perspective on the regime change question and the general
hopelessness of the situation:
*The Kurds are a different ethnic group that’s
present primarily in parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Some of them have
long ties to the US, mostly because we helped support the Iraqi Kurds in 90s
against repression from Saddam. Thus, they were a natural choice in the battle
against ISIS, and they have been our most effective partners on the ground.
That said, they are a small minority in all of the states I mentioned above and
so they aren’t a viable option for say, replacing Assad in Syria.