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Hints Emerge That Fight Against IS Moving U.S., Russia Closer On Syria


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks in Paris on October 14 that included discussion of Islamic State.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks in Paris on October 14 that included discussion of Islamic State.

Russia's pro-Kremlin media is making much of the announcement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Washington and Moscow are set to increase their intelligence-sharing about the Islamic State (IS) militant group, suggesting that the move is a sign not only that Moscow is a powerful player in the region (whose influence is essential to combatting IS), but also that Washington is moving closer to Russia's position on the Syrian crisis.

Moreover, Moscow is using the fight against IS to reiterate its position that its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is the proper partner to combat the extremist group.

Following a three-hour meeting in Paris on October 14, Kerry said he and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had discussed whether Moscow could assist Iraqi security forces. According to Kerry, Lavrov had "indeed acknowledged [Russia's] preparedness to help with respect to arms, weapons -- they are doing that now, they already have provided some -- and also potentially with the training and advising aspects."

The Russian government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" presented the news as a diplomatic gain for Moscow, headlining with "Washington Wants To Cooperate With Moscow."

Noting that "Russia and the U.S. agreed to exchange of intelligence on the actions of extremists in the Islamic State group," "Rossiiskaya gazeta" linked the agreement regarding IS to earlier events in Syria, attributing a quote to Kerry that suggested Washington is starting to adopt Moscow's position regarding the Syrian crisis:

"In conclusion," "Rossiiskaya gazeta" writes, "the head of American diplomacy even allowed himself a nod in the direction of Moscow, such has not been observed for a long time: 'We all know that when the U.S. and Russia cooperate together successfully, the world can become more secure, just as it was with the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.'"

"Rossiiskaya gazeta" is referring to the Moscow-led move, initiated in September 2013 following the chemical weapons attacks against several Syrian towns in the Damascus countryside a month previously, to destroy the Assad government's stockpile of chemical weapons. The plan was agreed to after U.S. President Barack Obama ruled out military action against Assad in the wake of the chemical attacks. Moscow, Assad's strongest ally, claims the chemical attacks were carried out by Syrian rebels and opposed any military action against the Syrian government.

Russian news agencies RIA Novosti and TASS also suggested that the United States is starting to move toward Moscow's position on Syria. Both quoted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as saying that Washington was "already not insisting" that Assad step down.

Hinting that the fight against IS had led the United States to "establish separate contacts in Damascus," Medvedev reiterated Moscow's position that any moves to combat IS must be carried out "with Syria's central government."

"There is only one question that is justified here: If such activity [against IS] is required, then a common position must be achieved, as well as the consent of the legal government of Syria. Again, perhaps someone does not like this, someone may have a negative attitude to Assad, they want him to step down, but until this happens, only the central government of Syria bears the sovereignty of the Syrian people. And that's what you need to think about when discussing this issue," Medvedev said in response to a question of whether Russia would join the coalition against IS.

Moscow has insisted that the U.S.-led coalition request permission from Assad to carry out air strikes on Syrian soil, because such a move would be seen as a de facto admission of Assad's legitimacy as president.

Washington has said that it "informed" the Syrian government about air strikes but that it did not request permission.

It is unclear whether intelligence-sharing between Russia and the U.S. on Syria will involve, albeit indirectly, the Assad government. Russia officially denies providing military or intelligence assistance to Assad, and says that it has not violated any laws with arms sales. One report from January claimed that Russian intelligence experts had been operating intelligence UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in Syria to track rebel positions.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Beyond these diplomatic maneuvers, there have been signals in the past weeks that there could be increased cooperation between the United States and Russia regarding the fight against IS.

The United States recently blacklisted three entities in Syria that could pose a threat to Russia, only one of whom -- IS military emir Umar Shishani -- is associated with Islamic State.

The other two blacklisted entities are the Chechen-led faction Jaish Al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and the ethnic Chechen leader of another faction, Murad Margoshvili (Muslim Abu Walid Shishani). Both Margoshvili and the leaders of Jaish Al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar are wanted in Russia.

Jaish Al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar considers itself the official branch of the Caucasus Emirate, a group designated as a terrorist entity by Moscow and which is responsible for a number of deadly terror attacks in Russia. Margoshvili was previously imprisoned in Russia on terrorism-related charges and by his own admission returned to the Caucasus Emirate after his release. Blacklisting these two entities would likely have little effect on U.S. security but would likely benefit Moscow.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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