In June last year, a fairly unknown armed group took control of Iraq’s second largest city Mossul. Most people following this development didn’t bat an eyelid. A weak Iraqi government with militias running havoc and a war-torn Syria beside, meant something of this nature didn’t seem absurd at all. This is where several intelligence agencies of the world failed. Their shabby work in assessing the potential of this phenomenon left them red faced as city after city fell into the hands of this group.
There are some regions in the world where militias, governments and warlords fight each other tooth and nail for territory. But the advent of ISIS is a much greater cause of concern than the rest of these conflicts. The attention it receives is not just for the inhumanness with which it treats people or the complete lack of sensitivity towards other or past cultures. It is also for its meteoric rise and its savvy ways of recruitment. This would have been quite impossible if it were just another terrorist organization. The Islamic State is a caliphate. The West didn’t understand the difference, misjudged its implications and was left thoroughly confused.
When the Arab spring spread to Syria, the country fast became another Sunni-Shia battlefield. President Assad was part of the Shia minority that ruled over a five to six time larger Sunni majority. Saudi Arabia, the Sunni powerhouse, was more than willing to help in getting rid of the Shia leader. But unlike the other strongmen who were toppled easily, Assad would have none of it. He stuck to his guns, and quite literally too. Gradually the anti-Assad block, who are referred to as the rebels, began taking up arms. These included disgruntled Syrians and many Sunni militias in the region. It is well known that Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and other Sunni countries backed the rebels financially and militarily. The Assad regime on the other hand was backed by Iran, the Shia powerhouse. This was much before the Iran nuclear deal. At the time, the world powers were polarized too. The Americans were firmly with the Sunnis and wanted Assad overthrown. The Russians were with the Shias and provided Assad’s army with weapons.
ISIS was one of the anti-Assad militias. They had people from former Iraqi president Saddam’s army, people from the Al-Qaeda, other jihadis and rebels. The Americans didn’t seem very concerned with their advances, as long as they weakened Assad. They had a one track aim at the time: get rid of Assad at any cost. The strategy they used, of arming one’s enemy’s enemy, had backfired earlier when Taliban turned into their Frankenstein. But they didn’t have many options this time around. Obama was in the process of withdrawing from the Middle East and the U.S. was making massive financial gains in the process. Only when Jihadi John’s brutal beheadings, rampant archaic-style slavery, Palmyra’s destruction and the influx of youth from all around the world gradually came to light, did anybody actually realize the situation’s gravity. The West, mainly America, was forced to change its stance. The Islamic State and not the Assad-regime were the ones they had to go after.
Meanwhile Putin was being ostracized for his actions in Ukraine. Sanctions were imposed on Russia, though their effectiveness is debatable. But the world’s perception about their role in Syria changed dramatically after the Islamic State’s rise. Initially, when the civil war was being fought only between the Assad regime and the rebels, Russia was perceived as supporting and arming an oppressive dictator. But after the Islamic State became a household name, Russia was just an ally of one of the sides in a triangular conflict. And the Islamic State being one of the sides made everyone else look civil.
Though there was a shift in the American stance, it didn’t amount to much. They still wanted Assad to go, and stationed only five men on the ground. Their airstrikes did no damage. Many think America is indulging in this sort of tokenism because they can only defeat the Islamic State by backing Assad. Since they don’t see eye to eye with him, they haven’t even coordinated with him while taking on the Islamic State. No country would embark on a full-fledged operation knowing fully well that it would fail.
It is in this backdrop that Russia comes into the picture. From supplying arms to the Assad regime, they have now moved on to carrying out airstrikes for them. It would have complicated things a lot had they begun actively helping out the Assad regime a few months ago when the U.S. was in the initial stages of its campaign. But with the U.S. having gone nowhere with its campaign, Vladmir Putin has seized this opportunity to be the world’s knight in shining armor. His timing couldn’t have been better, for this allows him to kill several birds with one stone. It diverts attention from the mess in Ukraine. It reinforces the fact that Russia remains a quintessential world power. It consolidates the position of a friendly regime. Their first airstrikes interestingly, seem to have been against the rebels and not the Islamic State.
U.S.’s staunchest allies, unlike the U.S., are doing whatever they can to get rid of the menace that is the Islamic State. France has launched airstrikes and the United Kingdom it is believed, might even support Russian action if it turns out to be genuine. Liberals like Thomas Friedman are already suggesting that the U.S. should let Russia handle Syria for the time being. On the other hand Republican candidates for the presidential elections are flaying president Obama for indecisiveness and inaction. At no cost do they want Russia to take credit for cleaning up this Syrian mess.
If the Assad regime were to be successful in defeating Islamic State with Russian help, Russia would have pulled off something the U.S. was incapable of. This would legitimize the Assad regime to a large extent, for it wouldn’t be perceived as an oppressive dictatorship but the vanquisher of the barbarous Islamic State. If the Assad regime begins gradually gaining control of Syria in the near future, it would deepen ties between Russia and the Shia countries. What would sweeten the deal further is a divided house of adversaries: the Sunnis and Israel remain miffed at the U.S. after the Iran nuclear deal.
Nothing changed in Syria when the Americans came into the picture. But things look better with Russia, purely from the humane point of view too. Of course, one can never know what Putin has up his sleeve being the wily politician he is. It will depend on how much Russia is willing to invest in this war and how long it is willing to fight it. By the looks of it, the going won’t be easy even for a global power such as Russia.