With Russia having started its first airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, creating a global anti-ISIS coalition of the type envisioned by Russia is out of the question, for the simple reason that each country perceives the threat differently.


Syrian military and militias are fighting against ISIS militants on the outskirts of Al-Hasakah in eastern Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russia has conducted its first airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), which once again confirms the Kremlin’s intention to play a greater role in creating a new coalition against Islamic radicals.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 28, Russian President Vladimir Putin focused the world’s attention on combating terrorism in the Middle East, above all the threat posed by ISIS.

To counter the “caliphate,” Russia proposed the establishment of a broad international anti-terror coalition, similar to the “anti-Hitler coalition.” Its key members should be Muslim countries, primarily Syria, Iraq and Libya, which urgently need assistance to restore their statehood.

Putin called the refusal to cooperate with the Syrian army a “profound mistake,” and reasserted that the only forces genuinely opposing ISIS in Syria are the Assad government and the Kurdish militia.

For a different take read: "Efforts in Syria against ISIS won’t bring US, Russia closer together"

However, the UN session clearly demonstrated the lack of consensus among the “great powers” over the threat posed by ISIS.

ISIS not yet perceived to be a global threat

ISIS — with a helping hand from U.S. President Barack Obama — has entered the world’s media narrative as a “global threat to humanity.” A year ago, on Sept. 15, 2014, Paris hosted an international conference on combating the militant group, but the talks failed to produce an anti-ISIS coalition.

A year on, the UN General Assembly has just witnessed a second attempt to establish such an alliance. The great powers are discussing Russia’s involvement in anti-ISIS operations and potential cooperation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It poses an interesting question: “If ISIS is so dangerous, why has it not been eliminated yet?” The barbarity of ISIS (ranging from public executions of hostages to the genocide of the Yazidis and the destruction of museum cities such as Palmyra) beggars belief.

The problem is that each country perceives the threat in its own unique way.

Viewed from Damascus, Baghdad or Ankara, ISIS is certainly dangerous. However, from the safer distance of Moscow, London or Washington, the question is not so straightforward. ISIS is not considered a global threat — not even in Tehran, Riyadh or Tel Aviv. Putting together an anti-ISIS coalition with a common set of goals will be no easy task.

What is the ISIS threat?

ISIS is essentially a radical Islamist group that arose from the flames of the civil war in Syria. According to official data, what is today known as Islamic State was created in the fall of 2006 by radical Iraqi Sunnis, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the Syrian conflict it has positioned itself as one of the main anti-Assad forces.

The congress of the Syrian opposition in Doha (November 2012), at which the Arab League (with British support) took the decision to sponsor any opposition to Assad, was seemingly instrumental in the rise of the militant group.

The documents made no mention of financing ISIS per se, but the statement about funding any opposition to Assad prompted speculation. On Jan. 9, 2013, the group starting calling itself “Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria” or “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” which indicated its increasingly secure foothold in the region.

A split in the Syrian opposition occurred in the fall of 2013. Under the influence of the Geneva agreements on Syria’s chemical disarmament, the European Union and the United States once again recognized Assad as a participant in the political process.

The radical and implacable ISIS tried to create a base in Iraq, including the “Sunni Triangle” — the bulwark of the country’s anti-U.S. resistance in 2004. After winning its first military victory, on June 29, 2014, ISIS proclaimed the creation of an “Islamic caliphate” with a view to uniting all Sunni Muslims.

Its subsequent campaigns, however, revealed the group’s limitations. ISIS failed to take Baghdad Airport and build on its success in the southeast. Iraqi Kurds stopped its advance to the north. Nor did ISIS make any headway in Libya - the unsuccessful siege of Sirte in February 2015 demonstrated its limited capabilities.

Its successes have largely been confined to Syria, where the group has eliminated most of the moderate Islamist organizations. The civil war in Syria has essentially become a fight to the death between the Assad regime and the ISIS-led radical Islamists.

Yet the latter’s military potential remains low. U.S. and British military experts say that ISIS armed groups number around 40-75,000 people. That represents only about 3-5 divisions of the armed forces of any of the world’s leading military powers.

Read Q&A with Columbia University's Robert Legvold: "Syria is now in the middle of a new, more dangerous Cold War"

ISIS has no military industry of its own and no mobilization base to speak of. Its corps of trained fighters hardly compares to the regular armies of the leading powers. By WWII standards, the elimination of a group such as ISIS would have been the task of a single army division.

That said, ISIS enjoys three major advantages that make up for its relative military weakness. The first is the reluctance of the great powers to suffer large human causalities.

Second, ISIS has no such qualms about sacrificing personnel for its cause.

Third, ISIS has a common empathy with a sizeable number of radical Islamists in the Middle East.

It is this latter, internal factor that makes ISIS such a threat to neighboring states in the region.

Who is really threatened by ISIS?

The past year has thrown up another problem: none of the great powers has the stomach to field a proper armed unit against ISIS. The U.S. effort, for instance, is limited to localized air strikes and assistance to Iraqi forces in the defense of Baghdad Airport. And after some vacillation last October, Britain decided not to send in ground troops or Special Forces.

Lacking military might of their own, the Gulf monarchies and Jordan rely solely on U.S. assistance.

The Israeli government, too, remained on the sidelines — either for fear of stoking a new Arab-Israeli war or of completely destabilizing Syria.

Iran found itself in a trickier position. Last fall it seemed like the White House had hopes that Tehran would stand up for Iraq’s Shias. U.S. media regularly served up scenarios of an Iran-ISIS conflict on Iraqi soil.

However, the Iranian government not only declined to send in boots on the ground, but also did not even provide significant military support to the Iraqi Shia. Tehran was loath to get involved in a major war with the Iraqi Sunnis (and potentially with the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf), or simply did not rate ISIS as a clear and present danger. Either way, in November 2014 the question of Iranian intervention against ISIS was closed.

Turkey is in a tight spot. ISIS is no less a problem for Ankara than it is for Syria, Iraq or Lebanon. In terms of numbers, equipment and combat training, the Turkish army surpasses the militants by an order of magnitude.

But since 2007 Turkey has seen the Islamist movement grow stronger inside its own borders, raising questions about its existing secular state model. Ankara has every reason to fear that, in a conflict with ISIS, elements of Turkish society could side with the latter.

For Turkey, the Kurdish problem is equally critical. A war with ISIS would turn the country into an ally of Iraqi Kurdistan, which since 2007 the Turkish authorities have viewed as the greatest threat to the stability of southeastern Turkey.

Ideally, the government of Turkish President Recep Erdogan would like to “mop up” ISIS and Iraqi Kurdistan together. But on July 28, 2015, at the NATO summit in Antalya, the United States and the European Union both rejected the proposed Turkish operation against the Kurds, whereupon Ankara had to wind up its 3-day-old military operation against Syria and Turkey.

The Russian factor

Russia’s possible intervention in the conflict is unlikely to radically shift the balance of power. Western media are full of unsubstantiated information about the presence of 1,700 Russian troops in Syria — roughly the size of about one regiment.

Moscow could certainly supply a certain amount of military gear to the Syrian (and perhaps eventually the Iraqi) army. But a large-scale buildup is unlikely owing to the lack of a common border between the two countries, as well as the highly exposed supply lines via the Bosporus and Dardanelles (Turkey) or Gibraltar (Britain).

Russia’s military mission could perform two tasks. The first is to shore up the naval base at Tartus in the event of ISIS claiming victory in the Syrian conflict. The second is to help the Syrian government ensure that the first task remains a precaution.

Also read Q&A with Carnegie Moscow Center's Alexei Malashenko: "Russia faces tough choices on what to do with Syria and ISIS"

Assad’s army is perhaps the only force able to withstand ISIS in the region should the major powers be unable to commit to a ground war. That is the point that Russian diplomats tried to hammer home on the eve of the UN General Assembly.

Coalition prospects

A global anti-ISIS coalition looks unlikely in the present circumstances. For the United States and its closest partners in the Middle East, the 2012 agenda is still top of mind: How to remove Assad? Meanwhile, the fall of 2015 saw a new conundrum: Assad or ISIS?

The Obama administration seems split over which is the lesser evil. In the meantime, the task of dealing with ISIS rests with the regional powers: the Syrian government under Assad, Turkey, Israel, the Kurds and the government in Baghdad.

But the gaping divisions between them rule out a collective alliance against ISIS. And that is despite the fact that Assad’s departure would almost certainly guarantee the fall of Damascus to the Islamists.

As if that were not enough, a new threat is emerging. The United States and Britain (recently joined by France) have spent the last year striking Syria from the air without permission from the Assad government. The appearance of Russian military hardware in Syria increases the risk of an unintended clash between the protagonists.

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it would oppose Russian aid to Assad. In the current context, that means indirectly helping ISIS. Are Washington, London and Paris really willing to defend the Islamists against President Assad and his Russian military instructors?

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.