Current relations between the United States and Russia have been tenser than at any point since the Cold War. With the strife in Ukraine, civil war in Syria, difficult negotiations over Iran, and other geopolitical hotspots around the world, the two powers always seem to be butting heads these days. In fact, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff recently named Russia as the greatest existential threat to the United States.
Because of the stark ideological differences between these two countries, it would appear that there is little hope of mending ties in the near future. Yet there is one profound opportunity for bilateral cooperation between the United States and Russia: Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Past Roadblocks to Cooperation
Thus far, Russia has not been brought to the table in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, despite Russia supporting American efforts. For example, Russia is now supplying arms to the Iraqis, indicating that they are willing to play a larger role in combating this new manifestation of terror. Yet, Moscow has been shunned due to Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, backing for the Assad regime in Syria, and threats to supply Iran with arms—all actions that are in direct contrast to American interests.
Differences have stymied past efforts at bilateral cooperation between the two countries as well. For example, Russia condemned both the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as the NATO operation against Libya in 2011, calling those actions threats to international security.
The two powers have rarely seen eye to eye on global issues because the United States has focused much of their foreign policy initiatives on efforts to facilitate civil and human rights around the world, whereas Russia is firmly rooted in respecting state sovereignty. In spite of these seemingly contrasting viewpoints, leaders of both nations should seek to come to terms on anti-terror initiatives. Any further delays will only prove detrimental.
ISIS As An Expanding Mutual Threat
ISIS is arguably the gravest threat not only regionally, but across the globe. The terrorist group has ravaged much of the Middle East and expanded its activities abroad, inspiring numerous attacks in Western Europe, Australia, and the United States. This scourge of violent jihad has unified a coalition of Western and Arab powers to conduct airstrikes against ISIS.
Now ISIS is making even more enemies. It declared a ‘caliphate’ in the North Caucasus, seeking to expand territory and threaten Russian sovereignty. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that about 2,000 Russian nationals have joined ISIS and are fighting in Iraq or Syria.
Russia has battled Islamic insurgencies in the North Caucasus over the past two decades to create a state of relative stability under strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. However, this peace is fragile and would be seriously threatened if Russian jihadists fighting abroad returned home to establish the newest ISIS territory. Russia will likely do everything in its power to maintain the peace it worked so hard to create.
Because ISIS has vowed to bring harm to both the United States and Russia, it is in the best interest of both countries to cooperate on combating terrorism in the Middle East as a whole.
A Shifting Power Dynamic
Although the major player in the Middle East in the 21st century, the United States has been rolling back its presence in the last few years. President Obama has sought to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq in an attempt to reduce those nations’ reliance on American military power.
The retrenchment of American troops, coupled with the events of the Arab Spring, created a vacuum across the Middle East and North Africa at a level that was unforeseen. Such a drastic change in the balance of power allowed extremist groups to seize control of large swathes of land, threatening the integrity of the surrounding nations. This forced different countries across the region to step up and fill the void or else face greater instability at home.
Turkey, for example, has begun throwing its weight behind attacks, conducting strikes against ISIS. Iran and Saudi Arabia continue their proxy war in Iraq and most recently in Yemen. While it is essential that regional powers work to combat ISIS and other radical groups, major world powers must continue to play a crucial role, namely the United States and Russia, to ensure international security.
New Hope For Cooperation
Numerous roadblocks have prevented cooperation in the past, particularly the Syrian Civil War. But now, although once a staunch supporter of the Baathist regime, the Kremlin is beginning to come to terms with the idea that Assad may fall. Even more frightening is the idea that an extremist group may come to power: A great risk that neither Moscow nor Washington wants to face.
A potential catalyst for bilateral diplomacy in the Middle East came after Assad made a candid admission that caught many off guard, stating that Syrian government forces have been plagued by casualties, desertions, and fatigue. Not wanting a total collapse of power, Russia may now be coaxed even more into letting go of the regime in Damascus.
Another promising sign was the cooperation between Russia and the United States in negotiating the terms of the Iranian nuclear deal. In fact, President Obama had kind words for his Russian counterpart saying:
“I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago and initiated the call to talk about Syria… That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”
It should be noted that in the past following the attacks of 9/11, Russia was supportive of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Over the years, Russia proved to be an ally in providing military supply chains via the Northern Distribution Network.
Although neither side will capitulate and totally abandon their interests, it is beginning to seem more likely that similar greater collaboration may be seen in Syria. A recent example came in 2014, when the two countries made joint efforts to rid the Assad regime of chemical weapons.
It is clear that that both nations can work together when there is a clear, objective outcome.
Opportunities abound for bilateral cooperation to resolve the most pressing needs in the Middle East. Peace talks in Syria should be held, followed by collaboration on counter-terrorism initiatives against ISIS and other extremist groups. All this is possible, but only if the United States and Russia are able to put common sense over divisive politics.
Photo Credit: UN Geneva via Flickr
Bryan Rosenthal is a graduate of The Ohio State University with dual degrees in Russian and History and will continue his studies with the pursuit of an M.A. in European and Eurasian Affairs at George Washington University. He recently interned with the Department of State at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan giving him firsthand experience with U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia.