Donald Trump repeated his suggestion this week that the US should partner with Russia to fight the terrorist group ISIS, but experts say there are problems with this proposal.
“There’s nothing I can think of that I’d rather do than have Russia friendly as opposed to the way they are right now so that we can go and knock out ISIS together with other people and with other countries,” Trump said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with people? Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along, as an example, with Russia? I’m all for it. And let’s go get ISIS.”
It wasn’t the first time Trump had suggested using Russia to help take out ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh). He’s also been often criticised for his perceived praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who isn’t commonly thought to be a friend of the US.
And it’s not just Trump. The US and Russia are preparing to announce a military cooperation plan, known as the Joint Implementation Group. The effort was spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry and will see the US sharing military intelligence with Russia to target terrorist groups in Syria.
But experts say that relying too much on a military solution to terrorism won’t solve the problem in the long run.
“The Islamic State is not only a military problem and it is not essentially a military problem. It’s a political problem,” Robert Ford, a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute and US ambassador to Syria between 2010 and 2014, told Business Insider.
He explained: “It came out of anger and frustration and chauvinism within Sunni Arab communities from Lebanon to Iraq that feel besieged and aggrieved. Partnering with Russia militarily might help cede territory from the Islamic State, but it won’t deal with the underlying grievances. It will turn [ISIS] into an insurgency instead.”
And already Russia hasn’t been reliable on the battlefield against ISIS. Analysts have noted that for months, most Russian airstrikes in Syria targeted moderate rebels that oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“In the fall of 2015, Russia intervened militarily in Syria on the pretext of fighting ISIS terrorism,” Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told Business Insider via email.
“Instead it has focused militarily on Syrian rebel units opposed to both Assad and ISIS, even hitting units equipped by the US to fight the latter. Secretary of State John Kerry is desperately trying to persuade Russia to align its actions with its words.”
Another concern is Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime. If the US were to fully embrace Russia, that could send a message to Syrians that we’re not serious about ousting Assad, a brutal ruler whose forces have been known to massacre civilians.
ISIS uses Assad’s violence to recruit people — the Sunni terror group markets itself as a protector of Sunnis, who are often targets of the Assad regime.
“When the Americans say they’re trying to find a way to get Assad to step aside, that at least undercuts some of the ISIS narrative,” Ford said. “But when you team up with the Russians, that makes the Islamic State narrative look more plausible. It would show Syrians that we don’t really care about their suffering. … It would just show that the Americans lack credibility when they say they are unhappy with the shelling of civilians.”
The Assad regime could also interpret a US embrace of Russia as a tacit message that the US is OK with him remaining in power.
“That may be not what the Americans’ message is intended to be, but that’s how it will be understood,” Ford said.
Still, Trump may be right to say he wants to mitigate tensions between the US and Russia.
“I think all Americans in general would like to have a relationship that’s not confrontational with Russia,” Ford said. “No one wants World War III.”
Hof made a similar point, noting that President Barack Obama made it a priority to establish friendlier relations with Russia when he took office in 2009.
But Ford said “the real question is how do you deter the Russians from plunging into little adventures, probes that end up going very bad,” like the seizure of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.
“I think that there are a lot of questions right now about American deterrent capabilities,” Ford said. “When you then engage in these kind of questionable efforts to cooperate with the Russians who have different strategic objections in Syria, it calls into question your credibility, your willingness to be tough. And there’s a cost to failure.”
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