Could Putin be in Obama's 'broad coalition' against ISIS?

17:24 | 19.09.2014
Could Putin be in Obama's 'broad coalition' against ISIS?

Could Putin be in Obama's 'broad coalition' against ISIS?

Sometimes geography gets in the way of power politics. Just when you thought that Ukraine was miles away from Syria, bang -- you find out that they're actually bordering each other.

Confused? I bet you are. But here's the deal: the civil war in Ukraine, which most sensible people tend to classify these days as a direct stand-off between Russia and the U.S., is now having a direct impact on the conflict in Syria.

The so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS) -- it's better to keep it in quotation marks and add "so-called," so as not to give these terrorists legitimacy -- has emerged as a force that has created a so-called caliphate and vows to spread its borders way beyond Syria and Iraq, where it is currently operating.

Russia is supporting President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, while America and its allies are backing the anti-government rebels there -- some of whom have at some point developed into ISIS and started to get all sorts of crazy ideas.

Since it is Assad's troops who are actually doing the fighting on the ground against ISIS and since it so happens that this new menace is now the number one target of America, it follows that Ukraine is very close to Syria when it comes to international power-play.

This week, out of the blue, the already-disbanded Ukrainian parliament voted to provide special status for Donetsk and Lugansk -- the two rebellious regions in eastern Ukraine -- offering them autonomy for three years and allowing them to hold their own elections for their local authorities, in addition to offering an amnesty for people who have not been directly involved in fighting Ukrainian government troops.

Initially this was received with caution in Moscow -- especially given what has been going on for the past nine months in Ukraine -- but if that is not a signal from Barack Obama that he is ready to play ball with Russia, then I don't know what is.

The view in Moscow is that the Obama Administration is telling the Kremlin that it needs help in dealing with ISIS. But as it can't just say it publicly, it is using Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to do the honors.

I am told that the initial reaction in the Kremlin to Obama's plan to fight ISIS was not exactly a kind one. The suspicion was that Washington, together with its allies, was planning to use the campaign against ISIS in Syria to dispose of Assad through the back door, so to speak. An anti-terrorist operation targeted at ISIS "gets out of control" and all sorts of wrong targets get hit, like, say, Syrian army positions. One thing leads to another and, lo and behold, we have Assad going down the route of Colonel Gadhafi, and Syria descends into the same kind of chaos that is now gripping Libya. But after the "border" between Ukraine and Syria emerged all of a sudden, that attitude is changing.

But the broad anti-ISIS coalition that Obama is hoping to build is not exactly shaping up as planned. Turkey is openly hesitant to get involved, and the Saudis are not exactly over the moon with the whole concept. So Obama's best bet to get the ball rolling, as it is now seen from Moscow, would be to discreetly work with Russia. Although it may be tempting for Washington to overthrow Assad, such a move could backfire on the White House, giving ISIS a boost instead of a kick and turning those pesky U.S. midterm elections into a total nightmare for the Democrats. (Incidentally, Russian experts believe that Obama will lose the Senate and will being to resemble a late-term Bill Clinton, who improved his golf swing dramatically in his last years in office.) So it made sense for Washington to wave the white flag -- albeit a very small one -- at the expense of the Ukrainian regime in Kiev, in order to signal to the Kremlin that it is time to do some business together.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has his own plan for Syria. Sergey Lavrov, his top diplomat, has made a point of stressing the point that without the Syrian regime on board, any attempt to defeat ISIS won't work. A similar scenario to the one that had been used to prevent the U.S. bombing Syria last year is shaping up nicely in Moscow. Russia will ask the U.S. to cooperate with Assad in the battle against ISIS, without the Syrian President having to fear that he might be bumped off along the way. The hawks in Washington might not like this script, but hey, stranger things have happened in power politics in the past.

What will Putin ask for in return for helping to defeat ISIS? That's the question that is probably being mulled over in the White House as you read this. Well, it just so happens that sorting out the mess in eastern Ukraine is Putin's personal project -- just like Syria was last year. He will want some sort of guarantee that Kiev will stick to the new deal about the special status of Donetsk and Lugansk which should help calm things down in the eastern provinces, at least until next spring. That would be a deal that the Kremlin would consider worthwhile.

But the funniest thing of all is that the "broad coalition" Obama proposed may never see the light of day -- and at that point, the only countries that will actually be able to help the U.S. fight ISIS would be Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia, with the latter mostly providing the weaponry to the Syrians. Which is not really all that surprising if you consider how closely Ukraine and Syria are intertwined.



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