Russia loudly and quickly condemned the U.S-led airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria this week, but Moscow in fact may stand to benefit from weakening the militants, analysts said.
Moscow was among the first to criticize the strikes, which occurred early Tuesday, and featured U.S. fighter jets, bombers, remotely piloted drones and ship-launched cruise missiles, along with participation of several Arab allies.
"Any such action can be carried out only in accordance with international law," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
"That implies not a formal, one-sided 'notification' of airstrikes but the presence of explicit consent from the government of Syria or the approval of a corresponding U.N. Security Council decision,” it said.
Dmitry Gorenburg, senior fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., noted a shade of schadenfraude in the statement.
“Russia’s reaction, in my view, carries shades of ‘well, we told you so. We warned you that Islamic radicals are benefiting from the opposition to Assad,’” he said.
Pavel Baev, an analyst at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, in Norway, interpreted the Russian reaction differently, saying Moscow was unhappy it wasn’t participating in effort in Syria.
“There’s the feeling in the Foreign Ministry statement that Russia is extremely displeased that these decisions are being taken without it; that, in fact, it is not participating in this game,” Baev said.
“Russia would like to be a serious player, with the ability to influence the course of events,” he said. “But every plot twist shows that the initiative of the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons, which Putin considers his greatest achievement was a tactical turn, an accident, which was used to the maximum. But that’s already in the past, and the conflict continues to evolve. Russia is not to blame.”
Russia’s reaction in this context was indicative of a general lack of understanding of American foreign policy, said Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.
“The Kremlin is absolutely convinced that Washington is following two different goals: airstrikes against ISIL targets and linked that, help for the Syrian rebels, which Russia decidedly does not support, due to its close ties with Bashar al-Assad,” he said.
Berman thinks that Moscow doesn’t fully understand Washington’s position on this question.
“Even judging by the press reports, it seems that the U.S. administration still doesn’t have a consensus as to how to resolve the current situation in Syria. President Obama never wanted to interfere in Syrian affairs, but now, he’s simply obligated to do something, even tactically,” he said. “However Moscow, as before, is convinced that the United States is playing a great game in Syria, and is trying to change the regime there. It seems to me that this sort of interpretation, most likely, is a reflection of the Kremlin’s fears rather than what Washington is actually trying to achieve.”
What sort of perspective is there for Russian participation in the military actions being conducted by the international coalition against the Islamic State?
“Russia was, is, and will be a part of the anti-terrorist coalition, since it itself is seriously suffering from terrorism. Therefore, Russia’s position is unchanged. What sets its position apart from the majority of other nations is that Russia is trying to enter the anti-terrorist activity on a legal basis,” noted Irina Kobrinskaya, an expert at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“In this context, the terrorist angle remains small for Russia. Of more significance for Russia is the complex of problems connected with revolutions, interventions, regime change and terrorism in general,” Baev said. “Today, the priority for Russia is redefining it as an anti-interventionist, anti-revolutionary position, and not participation in some kind of joint effort against terrorism.”
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal “Russia in Global Affairs,” completely ruled out the possibility of Russia joining with the coalition, however for different reasons:
“What for? If you talk about participating in the opposition to the Islamic State, Russia is already doing this, directly supporting the very governments that are being attacked by the jihadists. This is the Iraqi government, and the Syrian government. And with Iraq and with Syria, Russia has good, working, business relationships. Iraq is receiving weapons from Syria, it has always delivered them, not now, but if it’s needed, there probably won’t be anything special about it there,” Lukyanov said.
Gorenberg said he supported the opinion that Russia has ended up in an advantageous opinion, because it can reap the benefits of the (airstrikes) operation directly, without participating in it.
“Russia doesn’t have the need to be a part of the international coalition formed for the fight against ISIL, but Russia won’t be particularly active in its actions opposing the coalition, since the Islamic State threatens everyone,” he said.
“Could Russia join the coalition? In light of recent tensions with the USA, this is problematic," he said. "So Russia won’t be a member of the coalition in a formal sense, but also won’t particularly criticize it. Russia ends up in an advantageous position: the United States has taken on the weight of the fight against ISIL. If it works out, great; and if it doesn’t work out, the USA is to blame, not Russia.”
Lukyanov said he thought that the U.S. airstrikes against ISIL targets won’t affect the overall dynamics of relations between the White House and the Kremlin.
“Russia isn’t giving approval to this act, since it is contrary to the procedure followed by the United Nations Security Council, and doesn’t have approval of the Syrian government. But Russia can’t do anything here, and won’t do anything to interfere in any way,” he said. “Moreover, this is advantageous to Bashar al-Assad.”
Berman suggested that this crisis could lead to a new window of opportunity for improving relations between Washington and Moscow. In his opinion, the most realistic force capable of resisting the ISIL fighters today is the very regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“And this presents Russia with a very interesting dilemma. At the same moment when Moscow and Washington have different opinions on who should remain in power in Syria, and who should leave, they at the very least are tactically united in their desire to provide support to those forces that are fighting with the Islamic State militants,” he said. “And this can serve as a basis for cooperation.”
It’s unclear, however, whether Washington and Moscow will in fact be able to use this opportunity.