by Mark N. Katz
The terrorist attacks that recently occurred in Paris have already resulted in greater cooperation between Russia on the one hand and America and the West on the other with regard to the common jihadist threat. Although initially reluctant, Putin eventually accepted after the Paris attacks Western (and Islamic State) claims that the crash of the Russian passenger jet soon after taking off from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh was the result of terrorism. Both Moscow and Paris have vowed to punish the terrorists responsible for the two attacks and, true to their word, have coordinated air attacks on Islamic State (ISIS or IS) positions in Syria.
Furthermore, Russian forces have reportedly been far more forthcoming about giving advance notice to the US about targets they intend to attack in Syria. Although Western and Syrian opposition sources claimed before the Paris attacks that Russian aircraft were mainly bombing non-IS targets in Syria, since then Moscow has reportedly been launching more attacks on IS.
In addition, there appears to be greater support for the Russian position that IS is the more important problem in Syria. On November 19, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton suggested that she would prioritize the struggle against IS over that of removing Assad from power in Syria.
What happened in Paris and what has happened afterward raise the possibility that Russia and the West can put aside their differences in order to combat a common threat. This prospect raises the broader possibility that the West might reduce the economic sanctions against Russia in the wake of its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Although Moscow might be hoping for such a Western move, serious obstacles to cooperation remain concerning Russian-Western cooperation over Syria, much less more broadly.
Despite the announced coordination between Paris and Moscow in targeting IS in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry on November 20 criticized France for not seeking permission from the Assad regime for its attacks against IS-controlled oil infrastructure in Syria. Moscow clearly wants Paris to seek Assad’s approval—which would bolster Russian efforts to get the West to accept Assad as a legitimate partner in the common struggle against IS.
Further, although attacks against Ukrainian forces from positions controlled by pro-Russian separatists ceased on September 1, they have recently started up again. Moscow allowing this to happen while hoping for Western cooperation in Syria appears highly counterproductive—unless Moscow is calculating that the West now “needs Russia” so much in Syria that it can act with impunity in Ukraine. Reports that the EU is set to renew its sanctions against Russia, though, belie the notion that Europe has forgotten about what Russia is doing in Ukraine in the midst of its heightened concern over jihadist terrorism.
Finally, although Washington may be willing to focus more on combating IS than removing Assad from power in Syria at present, this does not mean that America and the West will accept the Russian position that Assad should be allowed to remain in office. Indeed, just because Russia and the West both prioritize IS as an opponent does not mean that the United States or the EU, much less Turkey or Saudi Arabia, will agree to accept Assad’s continued rule—especially given the Western contention that Assad’s actions have led many Sunni Arabs in Syria to support IS and other jihadist groups.
As has occurred so often in the past when a common threat or interest has arisen, hopes for Russian-Western cooperation in Syria are less likely to be fulfilled than they are to be disappointed.