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.