Apparently, it seems that due to the not altogether successful negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry in Jeddah and the relatively unsuccessful international conference on Iraq’s security in Paris, where the key countries in the fight against IS were conspicuously absent (i.e. Syria and Iran), Washington has began to understand that without easing tensions and establishing cooperation with Russia on counter-terrorism issues in the Middle East, the US and its allies will not be able to solve the Middle East crisis. Moreover, in response to the diplomacy of the Americans, IS immediately answered by using chemical weapons (ammunition with chlorine) and launching an offensive against the Iraqi army near Baghdad.
At the same time, the Americans are beginning to understand that the problem cannot be solved solely by carrying out air strikes on the positions of the Islamic militants. Sooner or later the US-led coalition will have to resort to the engagement of ground forces. But the US is reluctant to go back to Iraq, and the process of bringing the Iraqi army to proper fighting form is too long and costly. The only other alternative is to seek help from Iran and Syria, whose armed forces are capable of delivering substantial and painful strikes on Islamic State units.
It’s no coincidence that Washington’s statements regarding Russia have suddenly begun to change. The White House has not ruled out constructive cooperation with Russia in opposing the militants of the extremist movement Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The US President’s Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed this fact on September 15 during his daily press briefing. US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf on the same day announced that Washington was ready to cancel the latest round of anti-Russian sanctions provided that there is compliance with the Minsk agreement on a ceasefire in Ukraine. According to her, “if Russia fully observes the agreement reached in Minsk on September 5, there will be a way forward to recall the latest round of sanctions”. She added: “We have to see whether the Minsk ceasefire agreement and the 12 steps described in the ceasefire agreement are observed”. Of course, it is too early to draw conclusions, but the first cues have appeared.
What is totally different about this situation is that Russia may find it difficult to trust Washington again after all the recent developments regarding Ukraine. However, this does not exclude tactical alliances in order to achieve common goals. The rescuing of Iraq and the weakening of IS on its territory is beneficial to both the US and Russia, including Syria and Iran. While at the same time, it is also clear that Moscow, Tehran and Damascus would not want to see Baghdad become an American satellite, not least because Iraq is a country rich in oil reserves. This means that there are a lot of twists and turns along the way in the battle for Iraq.
In addition, there are still a lot of questions such as who exactly is pulling the strings of IS and why has this group rapidly achieved such staggering success across Iraq in just a few weeks and what are the ultimate goals of this militant group, which has long surpassed in terms of strength and influence Al-Qaeda and its affiliates throughout the Islamic world. Several experts from Western intelligence agencies have taken the view that among the hidden, long-term objectives of IS is to take the place of the Saudi royal family and seize control of Saudi Arabia, and then the whole Persian Gulf region, with all its oil and gas reserves. And this puts the conflict on a global scale and in the long run the US may come into view with its geo-strategic ambitions and political cynicism.
What still remains unclear is the question of who now supports this militant organization. The fact that the Islamic State has not entered into serious conflict with the Kurdish factions and that massacres are mainly carried out against Turkic peoples, Christians and Yazidis gives reason to believe that IS is a multilateral non-uniform coalition of various forces serving as a means to an end for establishing an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. The Kurdish regional leadership, faced with the need to protect its own region from IS, is already acting as an independent in every sense of the word state, and is strengthening the power of its army at the expense of new weapons and ammunition coming from Western countries, including Germany and France. Earlier on, Israel expressed its willingness to recognize the Kurdish state. To say something definite about the topic of conspiracy theories is not possible, because more reliable information is needed. But the question arises – why not in the same way recognize an independent Novorossiya?
All in all, whatever force is behind IS (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), it is obvious that all that has been committed by this militant organization so far is a serious blow to Islam and the Muslims. This has also legitimized in the eyes of many in the world community the possible intervention of the West into the troubled region. In this regard the claim that despite the apparent appearance of IS as an enemy of the West, this group may, in fact, be supported by certain Western structures, may not be all that far-fetched. Especially since the blame for the creation of IS falls on the US and the financial resources of Saudi Arabia.
In the meantime, another pressing issue is – can IS really threaten authorities not only in Baghdad, but Damascus as well? All the more so, because both Russia and Iran support Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It is no secret that Russia has a permanent naval base in Syria’s Tartus. In addition, it is Russia that supplies modern arms to Damascus. It is likely that Syria has Russian military advisers, who may be instructing Syrian armed forces on how to use these weapons (the same applies to American advisers in Iraq, Jordan and Ukraine). These people are not involved in the fighting (again, just like American advisers in Iraq and Ukraine). However, if the Americans start bombing Syrian government and military facilities alongside strikes against IS, it is possible that the Russian prepared air-defense systems and air forces will react effectively. Syria’s air-defense arsenal can in no way be discounted, as was the case in Libya. Muammar Gaddafi had the equipment, but there were no people who could use it and keep it in order. In Syria, the situation is completely different.
At present, only the Americans and their British allies are talking about possible attacks on Syria. And from the international legal standpoint, all this is completely illegal, but has Washington ever thought about the rule of law, unless, of course, it was in regard to Russia’s actions? Indeed, the surgical strikes against targets in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and many other countries by the US are not covert operations.
If the American-British air strikes are limited to the occupied by IS eastern part of Syria, then this may not become a serious problem, because the air defense forces of the Syrian army are virtually non-existent in that area. However, if strikes are carried out closer to Damascus, there will be a greater likelihood of retaliation.
As for the Islamic State, its fighters have received a significant amount of the most modern weapons, seized from the Iraqi army (for many years superbly prepared by the Americans), however, they are unable to utilize the most difficult aspects of the weapons such as the air-defense systems. One of the main weaknesses of the high-tech weapons is that in order to maintain them in operating condition, spare parts and trained technicians are required. The Islamists have neither the former nor the latter. However contractors, including those from the US and NATO, can be engaged provided that they are paid, and IS has a sufficient number of them.
It seems that a new, large-scale war is erupting in the Middle East. And at present it is very difficult to predict how it will end. In any case, Russia, the US, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other international and regional players will have to find a way to interact in order to avoid the chaos which will by all means lead to very grave consequences, given the huge oil and gas reserves in the region and the prospective fierce struggle for them.
Vladimir Simonov, Middle East expert, Ph.D. in History, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”