Putting Differences Aside to Face Common Threat

Strategic Culture
by Andrei AKULOV

On November 19, the United Nations Security Council issued a 2,730-word presidential statement on the growing terror threat focusing on the Islamic State (IS, the former names – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-ISIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-ISIL) and al-Qaeda affiliates. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop chaired a special meeting of the UNSC to urge strategic international approach to tackling terrorism. The statement is built on the Security Council’s special summit in September which explored ways to combat citizens heading abroad to fight alongside militants in the Middle East. As Ms. Bishop put it, «ISIL and its ilk are an affront to Islam. All of us, including Muslim communities themselves, must do more to negate the violent extremist narratives of terrorists and denounce radical preachers of hate in our midst». She added that every country has an obligation to prevent terrorism. «This statement reaffirms the international community’s unflinching resolve – we must starve terrorist organizations of fighters, funding and legitimacy. We must act decisively and together».

In a unanimous statement the Council stressed the need «to improve the visibility and effectiveness of the UN’s role in countering the spread of violent extremist ideologies that are conducive to terrorism».

True, with its ideas of the Pan-Caliphate and the export of the terrorist war onto other countries’ territories, including the U.S. and Russia, the IS has become a global problem for the world to face. 

The militants of this jihadist movement have already voiced threats towards the U.S., Europe, including Vatican and Rome, the Russian Federation, China, as they are already fighting the rest of Muslim world.

The Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups have further strengthened as a result of glaring blunders committed by the US flawed Middle East policy. American anti-radicals war effort has been a total failure so far with the main US coalition partners being IS main allies initially and still supporting the radicals. Turkey, for instance, has become a jihadist highway. The recruits transit its territory going into Syria with indirect help of the Turkish government which has helped the IS network in its efforts to topple the Syrian government and destroy the Kurdish self-administration. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have promoted the jihadist course. 

The problem now is that the US is unable to deviate from boycotting the Syrian government. It badly needs boots on the ground – a move to be vibrantly opposed by a large part of US voters. 

The only viable option would be to coordinate with the Syrian military, the only force willing to pay the heavy price of fighting tens of thousands of IS and other jihadists. Syria has lost more than 70,000 soldiers fighting mostly the radicals groups since the war started in 2011. No matter that, the US has done everything to reduce the influence of Syria, Iran, Russia and China, which happen to be the most qualified potential partners for the campaign on terror. If it really wants to turn the tide, the US should change its allies to fight terrorism and to join forces with Russia, China, Iran, Syria, the principle country concerned in this war. 

The radical group controls about 30 percent of Syria, which together with the Iraqi area under its control, is a territory as big as Belgium. Now it possesses armed units with up to 90,000 people. This is a military force to reckon with, rigidly structured and fanatically loyal to the leadership. The IS got US weapons left on the battlefield by fleeing Iraqi regular forces. The group has added to its inventory fighters and tactical ballistic missiles and 40 kg of radioactive material captured at Mosul University Laboratory (Iraq) to make real the threat of using dirty bomb contaminating vast areas around. And it also has all major attributes of a state: a caliph, advisers, army, police, jails, governorships, Sharia law, a system of collecting taxes and financial, military material aid form Qatar and radical groups of Persian Gulf and captured oil wells and refineries to export energy. The IS has experts to launch cyberwars, use cutting edge technology and weapons of mass destruction. So far the air strikes launched against the IS have not been effective and inflicted no heavy losses while the coalition has no forces on the ground. The militants learned the art of waging combat actions being bombed by enemy’s aviation.

The IS warriors are merciless, they post decapitations on Internet and make subject to genocide the civilians residing in the areas under their control. Its religious fanaticism, severe discipline and brutality can overshadow anyone, even their ally Al-Qaeda. The ongoing military advance and expanding turf in Iraq has become more obvious, its ambitions to establish a caliphate in the Middle East starts to look like a reachable goal with prospects, perhaps more dim ones, for spreading activities to Europe as well. It is also well financed with about $2 billion at its disposal. 

There are three scenarios for the events to unfold: 

– The creation of caliphate. Iraq would be divided into separate parts like a Shiite state and Iraqi Kurdistan. It would oppose Iran to meet the interests of Persian Gulf monarchies. The Islamists would be preparing for a major war. The first targets are everyone’s guess – nobody is excluded. 

– The war would be continued without stop to grab new lands, including Bagdad and Damascus. It would require more vibrant joint efforts to counter the expansion. 

– The internal divisions may aggravate as resistance gets stronger entailing telling losses. The «caliphate» would be dismemberment into enclaves mired in turf wars turning into the second Somalia – a real headache for world community for years to come. 

All scenarios make it a universal threat. 

The IS uses social networks as platforms for spreading their radical ideas. As it is known, the key audience of the global social networks are young people 14 to 25 years old – those who are most susceptible to this sort of propaganda. This is where the IS recruits its followers and adherents. It seems to have well assessed the efficiency of social networks and other Internet tools, both of which were key in the course of the Arab Spring (and the ensuing Arab riots), which in 2011-2013 led to the change of the old regimes in some of the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya. The group recruits well paid IT experts who upload the IS propagandist videos as well as post calls to action and propagandist materials in the global social networks. 

The looming threat of IS and international terrorism for Russia, the U.S., Europe and China seems like it has the potential to bring them closer together. 

Speaking at a ceremony during which he received the credentials of foreign envoys, including John Tefft, the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia is ready for cooperation with the United States so long as Washington treats Moscow as an equal, respects its interests, and refrains from interfering in its affairs. According to him, «We take the view that Russia and the United States of America bear special responsibility for maintaining international security and stability and combating global threats and challenges. We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in all different areas, based on the principles of respect for each other’s interests, equality and non-intervention in domestic affairs».

One day earlier Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the relations between Russia and EU can still improve, «We hope that the «point of no return» has not yet been passed», Lavrov said at a joint session of collegiums of Russian and Belarusian foreign ministries. Lavrov stressed that Russia considers the EU as its major important partner. «We are interested in a progressive development of cooperation on an equal and mutually beneficial basis», he said.

Amid the stand-off over Ukraine the issue never left the agenda. For instance, in late September President Putin discussed with his Security Council working with international partners to take on Islamic State militants. (9)

During a meeting in Paris on October 16, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed cooperation against the group. No matter the differences over Ukraine, Moscow and Washington agreed to increase the exchange of intelligence to better confront the threat of IS. 

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Speaking to the United Nations at the session of 69th General Assembly in late September US President ranked international threats with deadly Ebola virus followed by Russia and the Islamic State only third. It was not only that vision of threats that sounded rather bizarre but also Mr. Obama’s affirmation that the world has become «freer and safer».

The Cold War relationship serves the interest of those who pose global security threats with the IS as the most spectacular example. 

The sanctions war between Russia and the West triggered by the Ukrainian crisis is what puts at stake the global counter-terror efforts. It creates a lose-lose situation. There is no method in the madness of fighting the common threat on parallel independent tracks.

U.S.-Russian interaction against the Islamic State might inspire other countries to do more. It may have the further important benefit of getting Western and Russian officials to lessen the heat and cool it off to some extent. No doubt, tensions are doomed to persist for a long while to come, but the interaction against radical Islamic terrorists might help to turn things around at least a bit. There are a few options here for cooperation of the military agencies and special services ranging from intelligence exchange on IS to exercising influence on the countries affected by the war with the group. Air strikes in state-controlled Syrian territories are fraught with the risk of huge civilian damage as well as destruction of important industrial sites and nuclear facilities. Iran should not be dismissed either. Tehran has already sent a few hundred fighters from the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps to Iraq to fight off the IS attacks. Iran’s contribution is a possibility, especially if an agreement is reached on settling Iran’s «nuclear problem» and the Western sanctions are lifted.

The Ukrainian crisis has been detracting from the potential of large coalition including the West and Russia in fighting the IS. Similar to the Ukrainian case, U.S. and Russia top-level bilateral diplomatic talks are necessary on the IS issue as well as the potential resumption of cooperation between the two countries’ agencies on fighting global terrorism, despite the negative general background of current Russian-American relations.

With the Cold War in full swing and ideological differences seemingly an insurmountable hindrance on the way of rapprochement the Soviet block and the West separated human rights and other dividing issues into a basket to launch the détente process. In the heat of Cold War stand-off the US and the Soviet Union signed the Prevention of Incidents at Sea Agreement to be followed by SALT treaties key to the process of curbing the nuclear arms race. The USSR and the US had many problems to face in the days when Reagan and Gorbachev eventually concluded the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement and established the foundation for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which was concluded in 1991. The milestone Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came into force in 1970, the Helsinki Act made Europe a much safer place in 1975. The original Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) was negotiated and concluded during the last years of the Cold War. The disagreements on Ukraine may be put aside with an understanding to agree to disagree while the efforts are joined to accomplish the paramount global security mission. History provides ample evidence it can be done to benefit all and make lose only one – the common enemy. 

Strategic Culture