Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has described the fight against the Islamic State (IS) militant group as a “No. 1 task,” using his annual press conference on January 21 to advocate Moscow’s position that dealing with the rise of Islamist extremism in Syria should take priority over removing Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, from power.
“The eradication of terrorism and preventing Syria from turning into a terrorist state and the realization of plans to create a 'caliphate' in this region are infinitely more important than regime change and the creation of some sort of authority just in order to announce that the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, has gone,” Lavrov said.
The Russian foreign minister said that over the past year, the IS group had “posed the main threat” to the Middle East and North Africa region.
However, Lavrov’s comments on “fighting terrorism” imply rather more than just battling the IS group. The phrase and concept has been employed by the Assad government and its two main allies, Moscow and Tehran, to denote the Syrian government’s fight against all armed opposition groups.
This strategy has been ramped up in the last few months, not least as Russia has made great efforts to rekindle failed talks between the Assad government and the opposition. Some opposition factions and representatives of the Assad government are expected to arrive in Moscow on January 26 for four-day talks.
As part of the strategy to promote the concept of the “fight against terror” in Syria, both Iran and Russia have emphasized three key themes.
The first theme is that the United States and its allies are failing in their task to combat the IS group in Syria and Iraq. During a visit to Moscow last month, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian pushed this theme, saying that Washington is “not serious about fighting terrorism” while the “overall policy of Tehran and Moscow, aimed at supporting Syria and Iraq, has been successful.
The second theme is that the United States and its allies created the IS group in Syria, or at least provided the fertile ground for it to grow and flourish, by supporting moderate Syrian rebels against Assad.
The third theme, pushed more strongly by Moscow than by Tehran, is that the U.S.-led coalition against IS in Syria is unlawful because it is being undertaken without the express permission of the Syrian government (a move that would, of course, legitimize the Assad government). The subtext to this theme -- and a reflection of Moscow’s fear -- is that Washington could extend its objectives in Syria to include actions that weaken the Assad government and strengthen Western-backed rebel factions.
Damascus has played its part within this overall strategy by drawing attention to its arguments that its military is successfully combating IS on the ground and via air strikes in Syria.
While focusing on these main themes, Moscow has used the narrative of the “war against terror” to advocate not only for action to be taken against the IS group in conjunction and agreement with Damascus, but also that the peace talks it has gone to lengths to rekindle should not address whether Assad should step down but should instead focus on combating IS and terrorism.
In his January 21 presser, Lavrov went on to say that there was a wider consensus on this issue at the June 2013 G8 summit at Lough Erne.
At Lough Erne, Lavrov said, G8 leaders “called on the Syrian government and the opposition to join forces in the fight against terrorism. At that time, there was no “Islamic State.” The G8 call was not furnished with conditions that someone has to step down and that someone has to replace him.”
The Russian Foreign Minister was referring to the G8 leaders’ Lough Erne communique, Paragraph 86, of which reads as follows:
“We are deeply concerned by the growing threat from terrorism and extremism in Syria, and also by the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict. Syria must belong to all Syrians, including its minorities and all religious groups. We call on the Syrian authorities and opposition at the Geneva Conference jointly to commit to destroying and expelling from Syria all organizations and individuals affiliated to Al-Qaeda, and any other nonstate actors linked to terrorism.”
In support of the argument that the fight against IS should take precedent over calls for regime change in Syria, Lavrov referred to U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech, delivered on January 20.
According to Lavrov, the U.S. president demonstrated in that speech that his “understanding is growing” of the need to prioritize IS.
“Going back to [Obama’s] speech yesterday, that bit about the task of fighting IS was formulated in quite a new way. The task of fighting these terrorists was named paramount compared with the everything else related to overcoming the Syrian crisis. ... The main thing is to quickly translate this into practical action,” said Lavrov.
The Russian foreign minister, however, is cherry-picking Obama’s words rather carefully here.
Obama mentioned Islamic State twice in his address. First, he praised “American leadership -- including our military power” -- for stopping the advance of IS, and then Obama called on Congress to authorize the use of force against IS.
Although it is true that Obama did not mention the Assad government at all, Lavrov did not note that the U.S. president did note that Washington was “supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort [to combat IS].” (Although it is certainly worth noting that Obama mentioned support for the moderate opposition in the context of fighting IS, not fighting Assad.)
Despite this cherry-picking and clever spin, Lavrov is correct to point out that there have been signs that U.S. views regarding how to end the Syrian conflict are changing.
The Russian foreign minister noted a January 19 New York Times report that examined “the West’s quiet retreat from its demand that [Syria’s] president, Bashar al-Assad, step down immediately.”
Lavrov called the report “rather remarkable.”
“If you didn’t read it, I’d recommend it. It’s interesting,” he added. “Maybe it makes sense to translate it into Russian. Perhaps Russia Today will do that?”
Lavrov used the example of the U.S.-led coalition against the IS group in Syria and Iraq to demonstrate his claim that the United States has “come to realize” that its position of “wanting not to be the first among equals but to dominate the world” could not be “maintained indefinitely.”
“They already have to ask for help as they are not able to solve this or that problem alone. The U.S. is forming coalitions as it did in Iraq and as is now happening in their fight against the so-called Islamic State,” Lavrov said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk