Why Russia Could Not Ignore Isis


Muhammad Al-Ghazali



To most observers of global politics particularly its murky and shark infested backwaters of the Middle East, the biggest surprise of the year has been Russia’s sudden and decisive pitch into the deadly confrontation between ISIS, the acronym for the Islamic States in Iraq and Syria; the embattled regime of Bashar el-Assad, with its wider implications for Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq and Iran, not to mention the already existing tensions between Israel and its neighbors and America’s much vaunted war against terrorism whether it is perpetrated by ISIS, or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.


Russia’s decisive entrance into the conflict which commenced with the gradual deployment of military equipment and trainers as well as humanitarian assistance at the request of the Syrian government is particularly perplexing given the fact that its last such major foray into the region left it with a bloodied nose.


In the 1950’s, the Egyptian military regime led by Gamal Abdel Nasser riding on its anti-imperialist policy earned the enthusiastic support of the old Soviet Union. In the same period thousands of young Egyptians trooped to Soviet institutions and military academies. The Soviets also equipped the Egyptian armed forces with the latest military equipment at its disposal. The relationship culminated with the award of the highest Soviet decoration to Gamal el-Nasser during a visit of the rotund Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to Egypt in 1964.


But the cozy relationship between both nations began to unravel with the sudden death of Nasser on the 28th of September 1970 and the elevation of the equally deceased Anwar Sadat to power. By the summer of 1971, Sadat had mended the previously frosty relations between Egypt and America sufficiently enough to sign a friendship treaty with Washington. By July 1972 the entire Russian military advisers still in Egypt were expelled from the country. This was followed by the formal abrogation of the friendship treaty between both nations in 1976.


Given the state of its economy at the moment, observers are also baffled as to the exact reasons for Russia’s entry into the conflict at this material time. Early this year, when the collapse of global prices for crude oil began to create a hemorrhage for nations that depended on the commodity for their export earnings, the London Telegraph reported that the outcome was sure to have a devastating impact on the Russian economy which required a price close to $110 per to balance its budget. At the time the Telegraph made that prediction, the price of the commodity stood at $80 dollars per barrel.

Today, as I write this, the price of crude oil oscillates between $42 and $47. So why did Russia decide to enter the fray despite the obvious state of its economy? Before we address that important question, there is first a compelling need to dwell on the significant lessons of the entire Middle-East quagmire as it has unfolded since the ill-advised invasion of Iraq more than two decades ago today.


The first significant lesson, which is glaring for all to see, is that Western involvement in the domestic politics of the region in the vain effort to enthrone democracy crafted in their own image has led not only to the elimination of dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi, but also, ultimately, the creation of yawning power vacuums which opened the way for non-state actors like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.


The second lesson concerns the obvious limitations of the deployment of air power against insurgents. While air power was decisive in the first Gulf War, it has proved largely ineffective in Afghanistan and Iraq when deployed against determined insurgents encouraged by the deliberate policy of the Obama administration not to put boots on the ground to support the air offensive.


The reality of the first and second lessons have significant lessons for the third. The failure of American foreign policy in the middle-east is easy for all discerning critics of its involvement in the region to see, except if your name is Benjamin Netanyahu. Before our very eyes, we may all be unwitting witnesses to the gradual waning of American hegemony and its impact on global politics faster than we had previously thought of the possibility. The process is sure to be concluded if Americans make the mistake of electing Donald Trump next year.


The final and most decisive lesson is that the West’s long search for moderate governments and Muslims in the region will remain an illusion for eternity for as long as the strategy behind the idea is to ensure only the general security and economic well-being of Israel, and not the collective interests of the Arab governments and people that surround it.


Back to the decisive question of why the Russians have chosen to intervene in the fight against ISIS; one of the most ridiculous suggestions I have read so far, is the notion that Moscow is throwing its weight around in the effort to revive the imperial legacy it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The suggestion is flawed principally because it ignores the important fact that unlike America, the Russians share borders with the Middle East and, as such, has legitimate national security interests in the region. In addition, Russia has a population of 15 to 20 million Muslims.


Even more critical still, Russia has had to deal with its own form of militancy in its restive Caucasus. In the interview he granted CBS television on the sidelines of the recent meetings of United Nations for instance, the Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that his nation could not afford to ignore the unfolding events in Syria because between more than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet Republics are in Syria fighting for ISIS and that the threat existed that those same fighters could return to destabilize their own country.


In conclusion, while America’s esteem in the larger Middle-East has been diminished by the widely reported Islam phobic rhetoric of the leading political contenders for next year’s election from the ranks of the opposition, and obvious bias in the implementation of its Middle-East foreign policy, the Russians have no such concerns. They actually look like more credible arbiters in the raging conundrum while protecting their national interest as well.