World to Vlad: Put Up or Shut Up in Anti-Terror Fight
Putin says his main goal in Syria is to defeat the Islamic State. World leaders on Tuesday demanded that he prove it.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says his growing military adventure in Syria is meant to put the hurt on the Islamic State. On Tuesday, exasperated and disbelieving world leaders demanded that he prove it.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday it is time for Moscow to show it is truly committed to taking the war to the Islamic State, which Paris refers to as Daesh, noting that the U.S.-led coalition has so far shouldered the burden of fighting Islamic State extremists.
“The international coalition is striking Daesh, France is striking Daesh, Mr. Bashar al-Assad only a little bit, and for the moment, the Russians not at all,” Fabius told reporters at a news conference at the U.N. General Assembly session. “You have to look at who does what.”
France can now throw stones, since it started hurling rockets. Fabius’s blunt dismissal of Russia’s role in the fight against the Islamic State comes just days after the French government finally entered the war in Syria, launching an airstrike that destroyed an alleged Islamic State training camp near Deir ez-Zor. For the Quai d’Orsay, actions speak louder than words.
“If one is against terrorists, it is not abnormal to strike those terrorists,” Fabius said.
Other countries also called on Russia to use its growing military influence inside Syria to battle the Islamic State rather than just prop up strongman Assad’s embattled regime. “In the new Syria there should not be any place for Assad or Daesh,” said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday.
The call for Russian participation in the war against the Islamic State reflects the deepening recognition that the West is largely powerless to reverse Moscow’s bold play to restore its influence in the Middle East. After almost five years of bloody civil war in Syria, the United States has proved unable to force Assad off the stage — even before the arrival of Russian military aid. Washington and other Western capitals seem equally impotent to stanch the flow of Russian military hardware into the Syrian tinderbox, and they now seem eager to try to find a way to live with Moscow’s fait accompli.
White House officials said late Monday, after President Barack Obama met with Putin for 90 minutes, that they don’t see Russia’s military buildup there as being necessarily negative. If Russian forces attack only the Islamic State, administration officials said, “that might be OK.” But using those forces to strengthen Assad would not be, officials said.
Putin slammed the effectiveness of the anti-Islamic State coalition in front of the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, saying that only Assad’s army and Kurdish fighters have taken the fight to the Islamic State. But the Western governments that have spent the last year launching airstrikes at Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria are deeply irked by Russia’s efforts to paint itself as the paladin of the counterterrorism campaign.
“The reality is Russia has done nothing against ISIS,” said a diplomat whose country is serving in the U.S.-led coalition. “Even the Syrian regime has only begun bombing ISIS over the past few weeks.”
In addition to getting Russia to join the fight against the Islamic State, Western governments have another immediate goal: get Moscow to use its leverage to curtail the worst of Assad’s war crimes. Members of the U.S.-led coalition met behind closed doors Monday morning with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and discussed a proposal to press Moscow to get the Syrian air force to halt its brutal barrel-bombing campaign, according to coalition diplomats.
“There is a conversation about seeing whether Russia can get a commitment from Assad to stop barrel-bombing,” said one European diplomat. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said doing so would demonstrate whether Moscow is prepared to use its leverage in a positive way, adding that such a goodwill gesture could pave the way for efforts to get Russia to fight the Islamic State and work toward a political transition to a post-Assad Syria.
But other countries fighting the Islamic State harbor few illusions about extracting concessions from Syria’s beleaguered regime.
“Assad is the main responsible person for all these humanitarian tragedies in and around Syria,” Turkey’s Davutoglu said. “He used barrel bombs; he used chemical weapons. These are all war crimes against humanity, [and] there cannot be any solution with his presence.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron told CBS This Morning that joining forces with Assad constitutes a “phony solution.” He said it “sounds enticing” to cut a deal with Assad to combat the Islamic State, or ISIL, but that “it wouldn’t work.”
Assad’s brutal slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians has served as a major recruiting tool for extremists traveling to Syria to confront Assad. “That is one of the reasons why people are flocking to ISIL, to fight for ISIL,” he added.
U.S. lawmakers are also eyeing U.S. accommodation of Russian military efforts with unease, citing the Assad regime’s responsibility for the refugee exodus. Sen. Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday, “It’s difficult to understand how working alongside the backers of Assad could in any way stem the flow of refugees who are fleeing from his barrel bombs.”
Russia’s military buildup threatens to further complicate already troubled efforts to create safe zones inside Syria for refugees. That’s because dozens of Russian fighter jets and other aircraft operating inside Syria, in addition to anti-air defenses, threaten the coalition’s ability to create no-fly zones needed to ensure a fire-free safe zone for refugees.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia, despite the lack of reliable troops inside Syria after the spectacular failure of U.S.-trained rebels, have continued to press the United States to expand plans for a safe zone, most recently in a meeting with Kerry on Monday morning. A day later, Fabius said France is working with Turkey and others to see whether the establishment of “one or two or three safe zones” is even plausible.
“We are working on that, but no decision has been taken yet,” Fabius said.
Other Western countries are worried that the rush to create safe zones could worsen the refugee crisis — or lead to even direr outcomes. Some European countries fear that creating safe zones inside Syria could drive Ankara to start sending its own refugees home, sparking a massive exodus west to Europe. Some leaders even fear the safe zones could lead to killing fields.
Speaking in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Tuesday that the establishment of undefended safe zones in Syria could expose civilians to mass killings. “If we were not able to guarantee security, then a situation would arise that would be even worse than Srebrenica,” the largest mass killing in Europe since World War II, Reuters reported her as saying.
Photo credit: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch