In all the discussions of possible areas of cooperation between the US and Russia, one stands out because the prospects for it look so straightforward: the joint struggle against Jihadi terrorism.
Both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have repeatedly made clear their utter abhorrence of Jihadi terrorism, and in Putin’s case he has repeatedly made clear Russia’s wish to work alongside other powers to defeat it. Here is what Putin had to say about this in his famous address to the UN General Assembly in September 2015
Power vacuum in some countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa obviously resulted in the emergence of areas of anarchy, which were quickly filled with extremists and terrorists. The so-called Islamic State has tens of thousands of militants fighting for it, including former Iraqi soldiers who were left on the street after the 2003 invasion. Many recruits come from Libya whose statehood was destroyed as a result of a gross violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. And now radical groups are joined by members of the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition backed by the West. They get weapons and training, and then they defect and join the so-called Islamic State.
In fact, the Islamic State itself did not come out of nowhere. It was initially developed as a weapon against undesirable secular regimes. Having established control over parts of Syria and Iraq, Islamic State now aggressively expands into other regions. It seeks dominance in the Muslim world and beyond. Their plans go further…..
Russia has consistently opposed terrorism in all its forms. Today, we provide military-technical assistance to Iraq, Syria and other regional countries fighting terrorist groups. We think it’s a big mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities and government forces who valiantly fight terrorists on the ground.
We should finally admit that President Assad’s government forces and the Kurdish militia are the only forces really fighting terrorists in Syria. Yes, we are aware of all the problems and conflicts in the region, but we definitely have to consider the actual situation on the ground……
What we actually propose is to be guided by common values and common interests rather than by ambitions. Relying on international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind. And of course, Muslim nations should play a key role in such a coalition, since Islamic State not only poses a direct threat to them, but also tarnishes one of the greatest world religions with its atrocities. The ideologues of these extremists make a mockery of Islam and subvert its true humanist values.
Putin’s call for a Grand Alliance against Jihadi terrorism – and first and foremost against ISIS – foundered on the bedrock of Western hostility and Barack Obama’s indifference. Contrast the urgency of Putin’s call for a joint struggle against Jihadi terrorism and ISIS with the relative insouciance of Barack Obama with regard to the threat from ISIS as revealed in one of the interviews he gave to The Atlantic last year
“Isis is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told me in one of these conversations. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” Obama explained that climate change worries him in particular because “it is a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention. It involves every single country, and it is a comparatively slow-moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda.”
By contrast Donald Trump has it perfectly clear that he considers destroying Jihadi terrorism and ISIS his priority. In his interview for The London Times and Bild-Zeitung when asked what his priority as US Commander in Chief would be he answered with the single word: ISIS.
And what’s your priority for the military as commander-in-chief?
That destroying Jihadi terrorism is for Donald Trump a genuine priority finds further confirmation in his Inaugural Address
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.
The Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in September negotiated with US Secretary of State Kerry an agreement which as well as calling for a ceasefire in Syria also agreed joint operations between the US and Russian militaries to fight Al-Qaeda. Had that agreement ever been brought into effect, there is a strong chance it would have been extended into a joint fight against ISIS as well.
This never happened. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter – a neocon – was adamantly opposed to the agreement. The ceasefire Lavrov and Kerry had appeared to agree rapidly unravelled, and a US air strike on the Syrian army’s defences around the town of Deir Ezzor brought the whole process which appeared to have been agreed to a complete stop.
If Donald Trump is minded to revive something along the lines of what Lavrov and Kerry appeared to have agreed in September, then he would be almost certain to find the Russians responsive. Moreover the professional military men Trump has picked for his senior military chiefs – Flynn and Mattis – respectively National Security Adviser and Defence Secretary – on the face of it seem to be the sort of people who might be more willing to contemplate joint military operations with the Russians than a neocon ideologue like Ashton Carter.
A joint US-Russian military campaign against Jihadi terrorism and ISIS – in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere – might also have the advantage of fostering goodwill being the US and Russia, making it easier to improve relations in other areas.
It remains to be seen what if anything Trump and Putin can agree with each other, but on the face of it the political will for such an agreement is finally there.