Putin Unlikely to Be Much Help Against Islamic State

Russia’s priority in Syria is propping up Bashar Assad, not defeating the self-styled caliphate.

The leaders of both France and the United Kingdom on Monday urged Russian president Vladimir Putin to join the fight against the self-declared Islamic State (or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

They shouldn’t expect too much help.

“Rescuing” Assad

Russian jets may have been bombing in Syria but their targets are often the less fanatical opponents of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Putin himself has said that the objective of Russia’s intervention in the civil war — which is now in its fifth year — is to “rescue” Assad, his only ally in the Middle East.

French president François Hollande nevertheless called for a united front against the radical Islamist group after it had claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Paris that left more than 130 dead.

In an address to a joint session of parliament, Hollande said, “We must combine our forces to achieve a result that is already too late in coming.”

His government also called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to discuss an international effort against the caliphate.

It is still unclear to what extent the perpetrators of Friday’s attacks in Paris coordinated with the Islamic State’s leaders in Syria.

Cameron meets Putin

Earlier in the day, British prime minister David Cameron told Putin at a G20 meeting in Turkey to stop attacking “moderate” opposition forces in Syria.

“We have our differences with the Russians,” he told reporters ahead of the meeting, “not least because they’ve done so much to degrade the non-ISIL opposition to Assad, people who could be part of the future of Syria.”

The United Kingdom has contributed less to American-led airstrikes against the Islamic State than Cameron would like. Both the opposition Labour Party and some rightwingers in his own Conservative Party are skeptical that this is Britain’s fight.

Assad’s self-fulfilling prophecy

From the beginning of the uprising against him, Assad has said that the opposition is wholly composed of terrorists.

That became a self-fulfilling prophecy when his regime imprisoned dissidents and targeted Western-backed rebels in the south while releasing the fanatics and ignoring their territorial gains in the east.

Putin has nevertheless maintained the same line. As early as 2012, he censured Western countries for wanting to “use militants from Al Qaeda or some other organizations with equally radical views to achieve their goals in Syria.”

In reality, European countries and the United States have largely shied away from arming the Syrian opposition for fear of inadvertently aiding radical Islamist groups.