The Cable

Top U.S. Diplomat: Putin Risks Enraging ‘the Entire Sunni World’

As Russia continues its six-day old air campaign against rebels in Syria, a senior State Department official warned on Tuesday that Moscow’s actions were not only angering the United States, but the world’s most populous sect of Islam as well.

KIEV, UKRAINE - JULY 15: Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland (C) and Ukraine's Parliement Speaker Volodymyr Groysman (not seen) hold a meeting in Kiev, Ukraine on July 15, 2015. (Photo by Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIEV, UKRAINE - JULY 15: Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland (C) and Ukraine's Parliement Speaker Volodymyr Groysman (not seen) hold a meeting in Kiev, Ukraine on July 15, 2015. (Photo by Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As Russia continues its six-day old air campaign against rebels in Syria, a senior State Department official warned on Tuesday that Moscow’s actions were not only angering the United States, but the world’s most populous sect of Islam as well.

“There is an opportunity for Russia to be a collaborative, cooperative stakeholder in bringing stability,” Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told an audience at the German Marshall Fund. “Or it can go in the opposite direction and it will not just be we who have difficulties — the entire Sunni world will be opposed.”

Russia began a series of air strikes in Syria last week under the stated purpose of fighting the Islamic State militant group, though most of Moscow’s targets have been in territories controlled by other insurgent groups that oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Those groups hit by Moscow strikes have included the Army of Conquest, an Islamist outfit that includes members of al Qaeda’s affiliate, the Nusra Front, and more moderate fighters that have received support from the CIA.  

Russia’s stepped up efforts in the country have infuriated the Sunni Arab governments of the region, which have long called for Assad to step down and pressured the U.S. to bolster support for Syria’s rebels. Many of those countries have contributed money and weaponry to the rebel groups battling the Syrian strongman, a member of the country’s Alawite minority.

Nuland said the U.S. remains open to partnering with Russia on counter-Islamic State efforts but said the U.S. would not help the Kremlin bolster its longtime ally Assad, who the U.S. says must eventually go. Republicans have criticized the notion of working with Putin because of his historical support for Assad.

“If we’re in this to fight ISIL together that’s something we can do as long as it is accompanied by a political transition that meets the needs of the vast majority of Syrians, that helps hold the country together and that over time has to include Assad going,” she said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State. “If, on the other hand, the major motivation is maintaining Assad in power, not only will that not defeat ISIL it will actually make the civil war in Syria worse and cause more refugees to flow up into Europe.”

She noted that four million people are living around Idlib and Aleppo in Syria “where a lot of these strike have been falling.”

“If they start flowing up through Turkey and into Europe the [refugee] problem will get worse,” she added.

As Russia has expanded its military presence in Syria, the U.S. has vowed to continue waging its own air strikes against the Islamic State — a fact that increases the dangerous prospect of an accidental military encounter between the U.S. and Russia. Ratcheting up tensions, a Russian jet entered into Turkey’s airspace on Saturday, which Moscow called an accident but NATO rejected.

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