Middle East // Comments

24 october 2014

US-Russia cooperation needed in IS fight

Vitaly Naumkin Director of the RAS Institute for Oriental Studies, RAS Full Member, RIAC member

Fear, in its various forms, has always been at the root of the most tragic events in the history of humankind. Nowadays, fear of the onset of the bloody Islamic State (IS) and the spread of Ebola are having a tremendous impact on the behavior of global and regional players. It is fear that seemingly binds together these two otherwise unconnected threats. According to Jonathan Freedland, "[IS] feeds Ebola, and Ebola feeds [IS] — and our fear feeds them both."

The fight against IS has combined into one its military, oil, economic and financial components. It has already become a familiar argument that airstrikes alone cannot defeat these fanatic hangmen. And as they are suffering heavy losses, if they mix among the local population, most of the casualties of the airstrikes will be civilians, which will serve to dramatically increase the number of supporters of the jihadists. Perhaps with this in mind, the US command has kept the number of sorties on Iraqi and Syrian territory fairly low. According to media reports, over the weekend of Oct. 18-19 there were only a couple of dozen sorties, whereas during the campaign against Serbia in 1999 there were 138 daily. During Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991 there were an average of 1,100 strikes every single day.

At the same time, no one is rushing to engage in direct combat on the ground with an enemy dreaded for its boundless fanaticism and equally boundless brutality. That is, apart from the Iraqi army (which is subjected to derogatory, and perhaps not entirely deserved, criticism), the Kurdish militias and the highly professional, disciplined Syrian government forces, which are forced to fight on several fronts all at once. In a recent confidential conversation, one American colleague told me, "It is clear that, under favorable circumstances, only the Syrian armed forces will be able to defeat the jihadists." However, as they engage in bloody battles with the jihadists — not only from IS, but also with the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups — they suffer heavy losses.

It is a known fact that the Turkish leadership does not want to fight with or even help the Syrian Kurds under siege in Kobani (Ayn al-Arab). It is also well-known that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that his decision rests on the fact that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) leading the fight against IS is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been declared a terrorist organization not only by Ankara, but also by Washington. His stubborn position has seriously strained relations with the Kurdish minority in Turkey and, in case the situation further deteriorates, it may reduce virtually to zero any progress made in recent years by Ankara’s "Kurdish policy." Among the nearly 52% of voters who cast their ballots for Erdogan in the last presidential election, there were also Kurdish ones who today would possibly vote differently. In Moscow, the US decision to airdrop arms, ammunition and military equipment to Kurdish fighters in Kobani is seen as a sort of U-turn in their relationship with a key ally in the region, namely NATO-member Turkey. Russian analysts have also noted that some of their American counterparts have dubbed Turkey a "non-ally state."

The Turkish president’s tough stance against providing help to the Kurdish militias, however, is supported by many of his secular nationalist opponents. A few days ago, I asked one of these people whether it wouldn’t be convenient for the Turkish authorities at least to allow those Turkish Kurds, who want to support their Syrian brethren in the defense of Kobani, to freely cross the border — the same way it was permitted to those who went to fight against Bashar al-Assad. On the condition of anonymity, my interlocutor told me that he agreed with Erdogan, as the Kurds — after fighting in Kobani against IS and gaining combat experience and the ability to use arms — would then return to the country and may turn their weapons against Turkey. He likened these fears to those expressed by Russia and Western countries about the dangers linked to the return of fighters who have gone to wage jihad in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only this past Monday, Oct. 20, did Ankara find a compromise: The Turkish foreign minister announced that Iraqi peshmerga who want to join their Syrian counterparts in the war against IS will be allowed to cross the border with Turkey. Turkey trusts the Iraqi Kurds.

IS could not have succeeded without major economic and financial support. Until very recently, in addition to the war booty, including from Mosul's banks, IS gained handsomely from the smuggling of oil. At present, the US Air Force seems to have managed to destroy a number of oil facilities that had been captured by IS. Yet, donors from the Gulf keep providing funds to it. Qatari citizen al-Nuaimi, for instance, against whom both the American and the British Treasury imposed sanctions, is accused of having transferred about $600,000 to Syrian Islamist fighters last year alone.

For the Russian political class and expert community, it is strange that Moscow’s Western partners, while showing an interest in including Russia in the coalition’s struggle against the common threat of jihadism, are doubling up — or, in any case, show no sign of lifting — the sanctions against it in spite of Russia’s efforts to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Ukraine with Kiev. It is not surprising that, with such worsening relations, more than a few "conspiracy theories" are appearing that, especially if they hold true, would complicate even further the prospects for any kind of cooperation, except within the already existing formats.

Such theories are also put forward by well-known Western analysts. For example, in a New York Times column titled "A Pump War?," Thomas Friedman suggests that the current decline in oil prices is not happening by chance and is instead the result of concerted action between the United States and Saudi Arabia aiming at bankrupting Russia and Iran. In this regard, he recalls how the United States had previously used this same oil weapon to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Some Russian experts on energy issues support Friedman’s view. Commenting in Komsomolskaya Pravda on the fact that oil prices have dropped by a quarter in four months, Evgeniyi Chernykh writes as though, after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on March 18, US President Barak Obama started an undeclared "oil war" against Russia: "Since the end of March, production and export of ultra-cheap Iraqi oil suddenly increased. … Since May, in addition to Iraqi oil, the market has been awash with Saudi oil."

Elena Larina — author of "21st Century Cyber ​​Wars: What Edward Snowden Didn’t Say" — speaks about this in even stronger terms. In her opinion, it couldn’t possibly have been accidental that June 19 was the peak in oil prices in 2014, and already the next day "a managed fall in oil prices in the world [had started]. By mid-October the price had sunk to $84." She adds, "In the 21st century, you don’t need to deploy an army to occupy [a country]. There are more subtle means. But, in any case, the occupation begins by depriving the country of its autonomy and concern for its own interests."

As I am not an expert in the global markets, I cannot judge how valid this point of view is, but the mere fact that it exists attests to the intensity of emotions surrounding Russia’s relations with the West and is based on Obama’s extremely tough anti-Russian rhetoric. It is significant that even those Western experts who believe that "part of the reason oil prices are falling is that world economic growth is slowing," such as Matt Ridley, for instance, note at the same time that "the falling oil price is largely the Americans’ fault." After all, oil production in the United States has almost doubled in the past six years. Given this trend, it is unclear how the United States intends to develop production of shale oil when, according to the International Energy Agency, this is profitable only if the price exceeds $80.

In light of the fact that Russia has recently been included in Obama’s new "axis of evil," next to Ebola and IS, and against the background of the sanctions war, Washington’s desire to put Moscow under even stronger economic pressure is not surprising. Yet it is quite illogical, as Moscow is an ally of the West in the fight against both the other members of the "axis of evil," namely IS and Ebola — given the achievements of Russian epidemiologists and the skills of Russian doctors.

Under the current circumstances, it is hardly reasonable to alienate Russia as a partner, and reducing the price of oil is unlikely to force it to radically change its policy. If the reduction turns out to be steady, Moscow may have to revise its budget in the distant future, as nowadays it is set on an estimated oil price of $96 per barrel. Putin stated as much in a press conference after the meeting in Milan, yet he expressed confidence that the price will normalize. Wouldn’t it be better anyway to give up oil and other "wars of attrition" and constructively cooperate instead in the fight against real evil?
 

Source: Al Monitor

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Vitaly Naumkin, “US-Russia cooperation needed in IS fight,” Russian International Affairs Council, 24 October 2014, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=4670

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