Millennium Post

US forces fighting Assad, not ISIS

A new age of democracy as envisaged under the Arab Spring did not descend on West Asia. Instead, Russia and the USA are confronting each other on the issue of fighting the common enemy ISIS and al-<g data-gr-id="80">Nusraa</g>. With the USA continuing to patronise and arm the rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian forces taking on the ISIS, Syria is in the midst of the worst form of civil war.

With the USA opposing Russian military intervention in Syria, its NATO allies are getting ready to confront and counter Russia’s move. At a meeting in Brussels, the defence ministers from NATO countries  resolved to counter Russia by increasing their response force. The NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said; “any adversary of NATO will know that we can deploy.”

It is worth mentioning that Russian intervention came at a time when NATO Patriot anti-aircraft missiles were being withdrawn from Turkey. A US battery was shipped back to the US for “modernisation”, Germany withdrew its battery partly in protest at Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish groups in Syria, and Spain is not expected to keep its missiles in Turkey beyond the end of the year.

Saudi Arabia, a leading supporter of Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, was also getting ready to step up its support. Even ministers from Qatar and Turkey, the Saudis’ partners in the fight against Assad, are holding talks on their next move. Meanwhile, a group of 55 leading clerics and Islamists of Saudi Arab have urged the “true Muslims” to “give all moral, material, political and military” support to the fight against Assad’s army as well as Iranian and Russian forces.

What is indeed surprising is most Muslim countries strongly oppose the Russian initiative and support the Syrian extremist even after being aware of the ground realities; the ISIS mercenaries have killed lakhs of Syrians, a sizeable population has turned homeless and are seeking refuge in the EU and other countries. It is an irony that these countries are badly <g data-gr-id="88">split on</g> sectarian lines — Shia and Sunni. The view of the Muslim world finds resonance in the Qatari warning: “Everyone will go to fight, even Muslims, who sit in bars. There are 1.5 billion Muslims. Imagine what will happen if 1% of them join.”
Germany’s defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has cautioned Russia that if it targeted opposition groups in Syria that are fighting ISIS, then “Russia will simply strengthen ISIS which will be neither in the Russian interest nor our interest”.  The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, said Russia’s intervention was making “situation in Syria much more dangerous”. Interestingly even 50 Labour MPs are prepared to defy their leader Jeremy Corbyn by backing military action to protect civilians in Syria. Corbyn has consistently made it clear he is opposed to British military involvement in Syria. Most of the recent fighting is concentrated in Hama, a central province with a Sunni majority. American air attacks are targeted at pro-Assad forces and not at ISIS fighters.

Incidentally, this is the first time Russia has launched major military action outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. Russia had earlier made clear that no military action in Syria can be legal without the approval of the Syrian government, notwithstanding the US, UK and France rejection of the regime’s legitimacy.

The chances are bleak that the two powerful countries could converge on an agreed proposition. The main disagreement was on the future role of Assad. The statement by France, Turkey, the United States, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Britain expressed concern that Russia’s actions would “only fuel more extremism and radicalisation”. However, Russia insists it is only bombing ISIS and other “terror” groups.

In the present situation, the Obama administration is on the backfoot. It is feared that the US programme to “train and equip” a Syrian force to fight ISIS – not Assad – is moving agonisingly slowly after its launch in Jordan. Britain backs that effort as well as maintaining financial and political support for the opposition Syrian National Coalition. But the SNC’s unceasing demands for a no-fly zone or a safety zone to protect civilians from the regime’s barrel bombs and chlorine gas, are getting nowhere. The fundamental problem is that ISIS is waging war across two countries in a single interconnected crisis that is sustained by Sunni anger and the perception that the US and the West are content to look on as a confident Iran backs Shia groups in Iraq and beyond for its own strategic and sectarian reasons.

In a significant development, Obama has decided not to confront Russia directly over its new air offensive in Syria, believing that President Putin will soon find himself in a Syrian “quagmire”. But at the same time, the President also approved proposals to strengthen the U.S. fight against the militants.  Obama holds: “We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be a bad strategy on our part”. Obama nursed the view that Russia would alienate Syria’s Sunni majority and the Sunni-ruled countries in the region. Nonetheless, the Obama administration is culpable for a lack of decisiveness. The Obama administration has not yet responded to Russia’s attacks on U.S.-supported rebels. Obama said he believed in continuing the fight against the Islamic State and other extremist groups, but said the civil war “will only go away if we’re able to get a political track and a legitimate, inclusive government inside of Syria.”  But his actions indicate that the US Government is more interested in replacing President Assad rather than fighting ISIS extremists. 

(The views expressed are strictly personal)    
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