NORA KALINKSKIJ: Conference on ISIS with MIGMO, Russia – November 12th, 2015
The Wilberforce Society hosted a conference with the Russian State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) last Thursday to discuss “The Threat of ISIS – a regional analysis”. The discussion focused on possible collaboration between the UK and Russia on the path to defeating ISIS.
Britain and Russia share an interest in the Middle East primarily because of oil and natural gas resources. In 2009, Syria refused the construction of a gas pipeline that would enable Qatar to directly supply Europe with gas from Turkey. This pipeline would have levied European dependence on Russia for natural gas resources. In 2012 Syria entered in collaboration with Iran and Iraq to build an alternative pipeline, which could, if extended in the future, provide Iran with a means of directly supplying Europe with gas. The construction of this pipeline would mean the increase of Iranian influence in the Middle Eastern region, extending into Europe, which is against British interests. The UK, on the contrary, seeks to contain the spread of the influence of Iran, a strategic Russian ally. Russia in furthermore interested in Syria because of the military strategic position is holds on the Mediterranean coast: Russia has a military base in the port-city of Tartus. Both the UK and Russia are therefore interested in having an influence in the Syrian region.
The UK and Russia are both interested in defeating the Islamic State, which poses a grave terrorist threat not only to both states, but also on a larger, global scale. Russia in particular is sensitive to the escalation of terrorist activity in the Caucasus, as highlighted by MGIMO, whereas the UK is increasingly concerned with preventing terrorist attacks at home, especially after the recent ones in Paris.
Though both Russia and the UK share the aim of defeating ISIS, they support opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, Russia backing the Assad government, the UK supporting the opposition forces. Since, a month and a half ago, Russia has begun an intervention against ISIS and terrorist cells within the opposition groups, after a request for aid from the Syrian government, the UK finds itself in a difficult position. Backing Assad at this point is not foreseeable, as TWS explained to their MGIMO colleagues. The UK would experience too much public pressure against such a move, but, most importantly, this sudden reversal of position would mean a fall in the UK’s global credibility. In accepting Assad’s government the UK would be perceived as making concessions to Russia.
Supporting the opposition forces, even the ones that the UK considers to be “moderate”, would mean a high risk of clashing with Russian forces on the ground, which could have unforeseeable nefarious consequences. Furthermore, it remains difficult to identify the alignment of opposition groups, to differentiate “moderates” from extremists. Therefore, supporting the opposition means risking indirectly supporting terrorist cells.
There is a need of cooperation between the UK and Russia. To this end, TWS proposed supporting the Peshmerga (Kurdish military forces) in Iraq. The Assad government and the Russians do not view the Kurds as enemies. Therefore, it is foreseeable for the UK to collaborate with Russia on intelligence with the Kurds about Kurdish positions and ISIS targets. In that light, the UK would, TWS proposed, be ready to enter into minimal collaboration with the Assad regime, because of the necessities of war, while still not officially recognizing its legitimacy.
Providing military support to the Kurds would not be perceived as an outright challenge to the Assad government backed by the Russians: in supporting the Kurds, the UK would be intervening against ISIS in the region, where it needs a foothold, without directly clashing with Russian forces.
MGIMO questioned why the UK is unwilling to send troops to fight on the ground in Syria. TWS responded that, besides unfavourable public opinion, there is a risk of entanglement in the region as previously occurred with the Iraq of 2003. If British troops engage on the ground in defeating ISIS, their presence is likely, after ISIS’ defeat, to be determinant in preventing the redevelopment of such an organization in the Middle East. In providing military support for the Kurds, the UK will be empowering local groups to deal with terrorist threat. Suggested military aid would take the form of some light weaponry, and mainly technical and intelligence support, which can be relatively efficiently withdrawn.
TWS acknowledged that relationships with Turkey could deteriorate as a result of the proposed policy. TWS stated that defeating ISIS is a priority for the UK, and a priority for Turkey as well. Supplying military aid to the Kurds is an important step towards achieving this goal of defeating the Islamic State. Therefore, support should be given to the Peshmerga now, with the promise of international negotiations between local powers –Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran in particular – with Kurdish representatives, in order to reach a compromise on relative Kurdish autonomy. Global powers such as the UK, Russia and the USA would be present at these talks. Through this diplomatic strategy, TWS seeks to appease the Kurds in the present, to minimize the risk of the UK’s military assistance to be used against Turkey.
The conference between TWS and MGIMO ended on a hopeful note that some collaboration may eventually be achieved between the UK and Russia against ISIS. Since the conference occurred, there have been further talks between British and Russian leaders on military collaboration against IS.