- - Sunday, June 7, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The situation in the Middle East is unstable and unpredictable. And one of the dominant trends is the ongoing offensive by radical Islamic and terrorist groups, which are a danger to both Russia and the United States.

Russia and the U.S. have asymmetric positions and interests in the region. The U.S. (and its allies) is a major buyer of oil in the Middle East. Some regional countries are U.S. strategic allies or have bilateral defense and security agreements with Washington. Lastly, the U.S. has several military bases there.

Russia has none of these, but it has been cooperating with several regional countries that have strained relations with the U.S. It maintains close ties with some U.S. partners in the region, for example, Turkey. Overall, Moscow has no vital interests in the region. Accordingly, there are no insurmountable differences between Russia and the U.S., even though they have different views on certain governments and events. Hypothetically, this could be good for Russian-U.S. cooperation in the areas where they have converging interests.

What interests do they have in common? First of all, both countries recognize the need to fight against international terrorism and extremism. According to the Russian media, Secretary of State John F. Kerry indicated to President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a recent meeting in Sochi that Washington was willing to coordinate its fight against ISIS with Russia. The West needs Russia as an experienced and reliable partner to combat terrorism and extremism.

Both Russia and the U.S. want stability in the Middle East. Many people in Russia suspect that Washington has been trying to create controlled chaos in the region, but I don’t think this is in Washington’s long-term interests. The overthrow of unfriendly governments or regimes that the U.S. did not control has created more problems than benefits for Washington. When will Libya become governable again, and who will govern it? Not the U.S. Realistic U.S. political figures such as Henry Kissinger have criticized the U.S.’ reckless interference in the affairs of regional countries. It would be great if Russia and the U.S. could cooperate to restore stability in Libya.

Unfortunately, Russian-U.S. cooperation has been hindered even in areas of converging interests. The biggest obstacle is the deplorable state of bilateral relations and deep mistrust between governments, which is unlikely to improve considerably even if a settlement is reached in Ukraine.

First, the U.S. supports what it deems “moderate” Islamist groups in the Arab countries that are fighting ISIS, al Qaeda and other radical terrorist groups. Russia believes that these “moderate” groups are only slightly less dangerous than, for example, Jabhat al-Nusra, and that terrorists must not be divided into “good” and “bad.” And second, the U.S. has refused to cooperate with the Syrian government, which Moscow regards as a major partner in the fight against terrorism.

Even if Russian-U.S. counterterrorism cooperation were advanced to a level commensurate to the terrorist threat, Russia would never join a U.S.-led coalition, and the U.S. would never share leadership. I believe that Russia has learned the lessons of America’s and its own experience, and would never, under any circumstance, become involved in hostilities, not even air strikes, in Arab countries. Moscow would also insist that the use of military force be debated at the U.N. Security Council and that such operations be collective and conducted under UNSC mandate.

I wonder if serious cooperation in such a delicate area of national security is possible when there are no regular mechanisms and channels for it.

Anyway, Russia is willing to cooperate with Western and regional actors in fight against terrorism, but it has always preferred to cooperate with legitimate governments. After ISIS terrorists massacred civilians in Palmyra, the Russian Foreign Ministry again urged international and regional actors to work with the governments of the countries that are waging a bloody war against this evil. Moscow is especially worried about the growing number of jihadis recruited from Russia and Central Asia to fight for ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. The International Crisis Group estimates that around 4,000 Central Asians have joined ISIS in Syria. I’ve also heard that the news that Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the head of the Tajik OMON special police, swore allegiance to ISIS has had a big impact on the public.

I hope that the imperative of confronting terrorism will encourage Washington and Moscow to join forces. However, considering the obstacles I’ve cited, any cooperation would most likely be low-profile. At best, the sides might coordinate their actions and share information, acting independently or possibly on parallel tracks. Still, even this level of cooperation would improve bilateral relations.

Vitaly Naumkin is the director of Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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