In a spirit of self-reflective disclosure, I am a Russian-speaking refugee from formerly Soviet Azerbaijan, and I consider myself lucky not to have Vladimir Putin either as my comrade or my tsar (of Russia). With that, I have three questions about the turmoil in Syria within and beyond its borders?
What Syrian factions do we support? Since the last chapter of the Arabic spring burst in Syria, the U.S. press has echoed the American leadership's validation of several groups as "movements for justice," "opposition," "liberals," "moderates," "rebels." Brewing morning coffee while glancing through the New York Times headlines, I rely on my kitchen practicality. So I picture these "progressive" liberating groups situated geographically and militarily in the midst of the war between two organized forces, Assad's army and ISIL. Not coordinated, these "moderate" "competing rebel factions increasingly attacking each other in a series of killings, kidnappings, and beheadings," supposedly battle both Assad and ISIL. Something here does not add up. My kitchen logic protests against John Kerry's reiterated statement about "the moderate Syrian opposition [still largely undefined] who are fighting both extremists and Assad every day." Indeed the American politicians and press identify "moderates" as anti-Assad groups. But if they fight against Assad, then they assist ISIL. And if America supports these questionable anti-Assad fighters, then we are aiding Islamic State.
My second question involves Russia. How does Syria fit into the escalating discord between Obama's U.S. and Putin's Russia -- too close to the Cold War!? Sipping my coffee, I reflect on recent history. Two autumns ago Obama was prepared to act on his pre-election "red line" by attacking Assad. The day after Obama's Address to the Nation on Syria, Putin wrote an open letter to Americans warning that "US's planned attack in Syria may lead to the escalation of conflict spilling beyond Syria." He also commented on the large presence of outside insurgents among anti-Syrian government forces. Assad, pressed by Russia, agreed to chemical disarmament. The "last of Syria's chemical weapons shipped out in June 2014" when ISIL fighters were already crossing Syrian borders. Russia's negotiation with Syria enabled the US to avoid another disastrous unending war. Perhaps Putin's handling a challenging situation did not sit well with Obama's sense of exceptionalism -- the relations between the two presidents coasting downhill. In the days preceding the last month's United Nations gathering in New York and Putin's visit, "the White House wanted it known that Mr. Putin was not just eager for a meeting [stated Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary], but in fact 'desperate' for one." Various media joyfully reported on Mr. Putin seeking a way out of the isolation, pushing for a meeting with President Obama. The language is clear: Obama resisting, reluctant, takes time considering whether to meet with Putin, while Putin repeatedly requests talks. And while the White House did not rush to respond to Putin's invitation, the Russian press responded with its own version of who invites whom. Perhaps the two, dropping their haughty postures, could focus on combining forces against the common enemy?
That leads to my third question. Who is our enemy? Practically speaking, we can't simultaneously battle the Islamic State, Syria, Russia, and the rest. There seem to be three possibilities for America in Syria with regard to Russia: 1) to join forces with the Kremlin and thus support Assad and clear Syria of ISIL; 2) to do nothing and leave whatever solution to regional forces, Russia, or other players; or 3) to launch an ideological standoff/contest with Russia.
Hundreds of thousands of families have been uprooted and millions more will flee their homes, taking the uneasy path of immigrants, difficult for them and for future generations. Kurds, Shias, Assyrians, Yazidis, Chaldeans, Christian Arabs and other ethnic and religious groups wiped from their historical lands desperately need organized combined forces to end the barbarism of the Islamic State. Why not hold Putin to his words: "Without the partnership with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United States, Iran, Iraq and other neighboring states, our work [defeating ISIL] can't be done. . . If the fighting wing of so call opposition ["moderates'] join the forces against the common enemy - terroristic ISIL, it would lay the ground for political stability"? Russian assistance to Assad angers American leadership. But Assad's apparatus remains the only organized government that stands against ISIL in Syria and the only body that can return order to this land - his rule curtailed by alliance in this war. (By the way, there were no Syrian refugees before the uprising of 2011.) For us to nurture hope for Syrian democratic government is to be oblivious of the ongoing turmoil in Libya and Iraq. A coordinated strategy pursued by President Obama and President Putin would benefit Syria, stop the flood of emigration, and de-escalate the Cold War. Most important, a unified American/Russian policy would counter the Islamic fundamentalism that has made a blood bath of the Middle East and threatens the world.
The second option trumpets Trump's statement: "If Russia wants to go and fight ISIS, you should let them." Putin's military campaign supporting their "long time partner and ally" appears successful -- Russian military report that their "jets have flown more than 600 combat sorties." Obama, a Nobel Peace Laureate who from the first day of candidacy and throughout his presidency has demonstrated disdain for war, could leave the disastrous war to others, instead maintaining sympathetic diplomatic relations with multiple players in the area -- Saudis rivaling Iran, Iran supporting Assad, Turkey leaning publicly in one direction and acting in the opposite. Careful consistent meticulously planned diplomacy could accomplish a lot without sending soldiers to the front. So the second option could be beneficial.
What is impossible is the third, catastrophic possibility. ISIL is not a sport team; Russia is not an obstinate student. The civilized world deals with the horror of Islamic extremism, not a good time to test presidential egos. Not a good time for an ideological war with Russia. The headlines of our press feature chilling handshake, Obama's view of Putin's strategy as a "recipe for disaster, wrong, misguided, politically weak. To be sure, the ideological rivalry is fueled in both countries. This ideological war has unsettling historical precedents of unfolding in real or "proxy wars" as one in Afghanistan several decades ago. The world, turned upside down, is still pay the consequences of this parade of contesting powers. The familiarity of a Russia-U.S. Cold War obscures the real enemy, the expanding horror of Islamic extremism, flood of homeless people, and the globally routine acceptance of the horror of terrorism.
In short, who is with us; who is our enemy; who do we fight against?