WHAT a difference a single squadron of military aircraft makes if they are properly deployed. With just this force, Russia has managed to reverse the tide of victories that came the way of ISIS for nearly two years. In contrast, for close to two years the US and some of its allies were indulging in a game of shadow boxing with ISIS, landing a few light punches but refusing to deliver a knockout blow. The reason for this gentle treatment of a deadly foe is the fallacy which has been peddled by US and other think-tanks still fixated on a 1980s world, which is that Al-Qaeda and ISIS are different organisations and that ISIS is not a major threat. Instead, that it is a localised problem that can be eliminated after other strategic and tactical objectives have been fulfilled, such as the removal of President Bashar Assad of Syria.
In fact, ISIS is a huge threat, because of its ability to spread across multiple countries in different continents at the same time. This, plus the ability of this organisation to form itself into small uncoordinated groups, has made ISIS a grave threat that needs to be eliminated before it spreads across so many populations that removal of the virus will take decades. Because it is obvious and demonstrable that individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait have been ensuring a generous supply of cash to anti-Assad fighters in Syria, to admit that there is no dividing line between the “moderate opposition” and Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Al Nusra would be to fuel public anger at home at way in which Washington, London and Paris are assisting those who are certain to come after these capitals once their objective of regime replacement in Damascus is achieved.
Despite, or perhaps because of the torrent of news and information that he or she is bombarded with daily, a voter in a major NATO member-state has been conditioned to look for the most consistent and loudly ubiquitous line, which is almost always that favoured by the strategic establishments of these countries. Amazing as it sounds, among those living in the US who have heard about a country named Syria, most believe that Bashar Assad and ISIS are allies rather than mortal foes of each other, just as they swallowed the falsehood that Saddam Hussein was the principal patron of Al-Qaeda rather than its bitterest foe in the Arab world. Christiane Amanpour of CNN and other such “government-issue journalists” in BBC, Al-Jazeera and elsewhere constantly repeat the fiction that Bashar Assad is responsible for all – or almost all – the deaths that have taken place in Syria because of the war that has consumed the country for five years.
Why the silence by NATO at the regional situation post Arab Spring (which itself was a movement fuelled by policies and programmes sponsored by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton)? Was the extermination of Christians in Syria (and in Iraq) over the past three years ignored by NATO because the Christian church in Syria is Orthodox rather than linked in theology and ritual to churches in major NATO states? To the present, Christians (and Yazidis, and Shia, and non-Wahabbi Sunnis) continue to be persecuted and murdered in areas occupied by “moderate opposition”, even while all such endangered categories are safe in territory controlled by Assad and his military, which is under daily attack by US and its allies through same lavishly funded “moderate opposition.”
Not having a complex of think-tanks funded out of moneys received from the GCC, Russia has refused to abide by the imaginary distinction between “extremist” and “moderate” opposition forces, a division that any individual with experience in those combat zones will testify is illusory. Although the US flailed against ISIS and Al Nusra for two years, it could do very little damage. It was only when Russia entered the war against the extremists that they were placed on the defensive, and began retreating from the lands conquered by them earlier, mostly through the “Afghan” expedient of paying off rival commanders so that they would abandon the fight and concede a walkover, the way so many cities in Iraq fell to the extremists. Despite its limited financial ability and the much smaller size of its military assets in the region, Moscow has reversed the tide of battle.
Of course, those relying on media in NATO member-states will not know this, for almost always the reverses of ISIS and Al Nusra are ascribed to US and allied military strikes rather than to actions carried out by the two most effective combatants against ISIS, Russia and Iran. However, within the region, the fact that NATO’s war on ISIS has been largely a flop show and that it is Russia and Iran than have turned situation around has been well known. The consequence is that throughout Arab world, those sections of population that detest and fear ISIS, Al Nusra and such other parts of the same ectoplasm regard Vladimir Putin as a hero and Obama as a failure.
Had Vladimir Putin not intervened militarily against ISIS and its cousins, Damascus and not Raqqa would have been the headquarters of Al Baghdadi’s men. Across the border, the success of Putin is generating a gust of discontent at the way in which the half-hearted tactics of Barack Obama, David Cameron and Francois Hollande are preventing the takeover of the vast swathes of territory in Iraq that have fallen under the control of fanatics. Should the present desultory campaign in Iraq continue, within six months it is likely that even Haider Al Abadi, who is as obedient to his NATO “friends” now as he was to Saddam Hussein two decades back, may decide that enough is enough, and that President Putin needs to be invited to send another squadron, this time to Iraq.
Once that switch in alliances takes place, it will not be long before other governments in the Middle East consider Russia a more reliable ally than the capitals that jettisoned decades-long allies on a whim since the Facebook-fuelled “Arab Spring” struck. By the time he leaves the White House next January, there may be very little US leverage left in the Middle East, a lack of credibility caused by a lack of will on the part of Barack Obama in using the massively available US military resources in the region to not simply harry ISIS but exterminate the organisation in the style of Vladimir Putin.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.