Russian involvement - a chance to deal a death blow to ISIS - ex-CIA officer

When Russia stepped into the Syrian crisis, the balance of forces in the region shifted again. Now, despite Moscow helping in the war against Islamic State, the West is seemingly unhappy about it. It’s clear that both sides have something more to pursue than just the defeat of jihadists. But will the primary and common cause become truly common? Is there a chance for effective cooperation between Russia and the West? And, finally, with a new player, how will the board change? We pose these questions to a former CIA officer for Near East and South Asia - Graham Fuller is on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Graham Fuller, former CIA intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia, ex-vice president of the National Intelligence Council, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, Russia’s involvement against IS means Russia is now a target. How dangerous can the Islamic State be for Russia?

Graham Fuller: I don’t think the danger for Russia outside of Syria is any greater, perhaps, than before. I mean, Russians are very familiar with the fact that there have been various liberation groups, islamist groups fighting within the former Russian space or former Soviet space - in Chechnya and elsewhere. So, that, I think, could increase, but I think the main danger for Russia is that it could lose support in the Middle East among general population if Russia is perceived as now having supported the Assad regime totally as opposed to helping bringing about the change of that regime.

SS: What I was saying is what about those Russian fighter who turned to ISIS and all the people from the former Soviet Union who went to fight for ISIS - isn’t there a danger now that they’re going all come back to us? 

GF: Well, this is a danger that every single other country in the world is facing, who have population which has gone to Syria or Iraq to fight against ISIS or Daesh - so, yeah, I think Russia will share that particular problem, but as you know, the British, the French, the Americans, the Canadians and others are all concerned about the possibility of returning members. I should add, though, here, that I think it’s quite possible that some of those who’ll leave and go back to home may well be disillusioned with what they have seen there - they perhaps had a romantic and idealistic assumptions about what the nature of ISIS and the Islamic State was; and once they’ve seen that reality, I think they may well change their mind and enthusiasm for it. 

SS: U.S. is saying it has clarity on Russian intentions in Syria - a communication channel on Syria is being established between Moscow and Washington - what does this mean? Is this, like, intelligence sharing, airstrike coordination? What do you see in this? 

GF: I think, in particular, they want to avoid conflict between Russian forces, particularly air forces, Russian aircraft that may be operating in the area along with American aircraft that are operating against ISIS in the area - particularly if Russia’s not focused exclusively on ISIS, but is also focusing on other anti-Assad opposition. So, I think that’s a very good start - it’s just a beginning, there’s has to be much closer political coordination down the road, as to what kind of political solution people want to see emerging in the next year in Damascus. 

SS: Now, Russia, Iraq, Syria and Iran have established a joint information-sharing center in Baghdad to consolidate efforts against IS. On the other hand, you have U.S.-led coalition with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan and NATO countries. Will this campaign be effective with different coalitions fighting the same enemy? 

GF: I think, it’s unfortunate that such a division has opened up, because I don’t believe the problem is really best typified by putting U.S. and the Gulf, Turkey and others on one side and Russia, Iran on the other. Saudi Arabia perhaps is absolutely dedicated to the overthrow of Assad - I think, not entirely for the right reasons, but that’s where they are going. Turkey has been supporting, or at least has been turning a blind eye to much of the activities of ISIS in the border area near Turkey. I think that may be beginning to change now, but nearly everybody in the region has a huge interest in bringing an end to the fighting in Syria. ISIS cannot be defeated as long as there is civil war and civil conflict in Syria and in Iraq. It’s those unstable conditions that really play into...give ISIS the greatest opportunity to exploit the situation. 

SS: Now, U.S. has invested five hundred million dollars in training of Syrian opposition fighters, promising to train 5,000 a year. The result of that so far is 4-5 fighters currently on the ground in Syria. And that’s admitted by a top U.S. general. Where did thousands of fighters go?

GF: I think, there was some reasonable news coverage on this. A lot were captured very early on, they left Turkey and ended up in Syria… whether there were sources in Turkey that compromised them, or whether ISIS has a very good intelligence in the area that was able to stop the arrival of these troops - so, lots were killed or were captured. I believe, somebody has defected, who had no confidence that they can confront ISIS - so, as a result, yes, there are only a tiny handful left. I don’t really think the West is going to be very skilled at training forces that can compete with same kind of zeal and enthusiasm that ISIS has for this kind of struggle. It’s hard to be a militant fanatic-moderate, and that’s what the U.S. is trying to do: it is finding really zealous moderates who were willing to fight to the death. It’s of a contradiction in terms, I’m afraid.

SS: Now, is there really a moderate opposition in Syria, or it’s just something we hear about? Who are these people? Do they have leaders who can negotiate on their behalf?

GF: Sure there are moderates, but the problem in the Middle East over quite some period of time is that moderates represent a rather small part of the political spectrum. This was true in Egypt, this was true in Libya, it was true in most of the Arab Spring. Islamists - I am not talking about jihadis or fanatics or ultra-radicals - I am talking about even some quite moderate islamists, the islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, tended to be better organised, they’ve been around for a long time, they know the political system, they’ve got a lot of support, they’re not viewed as terrorists, and they tend to dominate the scene. So, there are those people in Syria as well, I think, these people would like to bring a new regime, which would be more democratic, more tolerant, to power - but as I say, moderates are not that numerous and they don’t have as good of a track record as field fighters, as much as the militants do, sadly.

SS: Now, the Iraqi army was trained by the U.S. and it collapsed under ISIS. The Afghan mujahideen backed by the U.S. became the Taliban. Now, the Libyan and Syrian rebels, supported by the U.S. are defecting to jihadis. Are long consequences simply ignored for short-term needs?

GF: I’m not sure how many defections that we’re seeing and from what sources… 

SS: Yeah, but do you see a pattern here, right? I’ve just cited many examples of different times in history that sort of end up being against the U.S, and the whole world - so are the consequences just being ignored for short-term needs?

GF: I think the basic problem is that if the opposition - and we’re talking generically now, not specifically now about any specific country, because the problem is relatively somewhat similar - if there are broad social and political and ethnic or sectarian forces active within that country, and they are powerful forces, they cannot be ignored and if the West of, for that matter, Russia, or any country tries to establish some new sources, new fighting forces that don’t reflect deep-seated social and economic, regional, religious, ethnic forces, then they’re not going to work; and, yes, as soon as the West leaves, you’re going to find governments collapsing.

SS: From your observation, why is America allowing itself to continue spending on these kind of operations, when it has failed one after another, like you’ve just said? 

GF: I think, first of all, no military ever likes to say that they’ve given up on their struggle - they always see hope for the future. When the Soviet Union decided to pull out of Afghanistan, it was very hard for the Soviet military to accept the fact that they were not winning. I think this is true for most military organisation, that they don’t want to admit defeat: “all we need is a few more troops, a little more time, a little more money, a few more weapons”. I think that has been a major failure of U.S. policy or Soviet policy earlier - any outside force that has not fully grasped the nature of these political, social, economic, nationalist forces that they’re fighting against.

SS: We’re seeing the Western narrative towards Bashar Al-Assad changing now. Kerry is no longer after his immediate departure, Merkel has announced Assad needs to be part of a Syrian transition. David Cameron said Assad can be part of negotiations. What made them change their minds after pursuing a completely different course for so many years?

GF: Well, there’s nothing like failure to help convince people that they need to change their minds. I and a number of other people have been writing for quite some time that as bad as Assad regime is - it’s been very vicious, it’s killed many-many, tens of thousands of people in the country - as bad as that regime has become, it is not as bad or as dangerous as either an ISIS takeover, Daesh takeover and Al-Qaeda takeover, or even if Assad was to disappear, I think we could be facing a long civil war which would be no better. So, I think that message now is finally getting through, that Assad is better...he’s a least bad solution, let’s put it that way, and Russia, I know, is one of those countries that had that particular point of view and so has Iran. 

SS: So you wrote that the U.S. in Syria has in fact more to do with destroying an Iranian ally in Damascus that the desire to democratize Syria. Is allowing the birth of ISIS worth it? Worth destroying the Iranian ally? 

GF: I don’t think the U.S. “allowed”, as you put it, the birth of ISIS, not at all. I think the U.S. would have been aghast at the idea that they have actually created ISIS - but that is, in fact, what happened, because the destruction of the Iraqi state and the disillusionment of large numbers of Sunni soldiers, Ba’ath party  generals, Ba’ath party officials officials; a lot of skilled technicians who were very unhappy with the new Shia-oriented regime in Baghdad went over to ISIS. That certainly was not the U.S. intention.

SS: We’re not talking about intentions here, but what happened - happened, it may not be intentional, but it is a result of Iraqi war. 

GF: You suggested that the U.S. decided was it worth it for them to do them. I’m saying they did not choose to do that, but that has been the result of it, and it has been a real disaster, and I’m delighted that, finally, there are some signs now in Washington and in Europe that the old policies simply aren’t working.

SS:  So, okay, you’ve just brought up, you know, that what happened is disastrous - do you think Iraq, Libya, Syria is a result of simple poor planning and poor understanding of the region? Lack of concern for what happens after? Or is this part of some greater plan, the consequences were understood from the beginning and we don’t know anything about it - the general public?

GF: I think there’s been a long feeling, and particularly among so-called neoconservative, neocon forces within the U.S. government and also within so-called “liberal interventionists” who want to bring democracy to the region...I think there’s a long belief on the part of many of these people, that if you could simply get rid of the bad governments in their area - and there have been very bad governments in most of the areas - they’ve been dictatorships, incompetent, et cetera, but the belief that if you simply get rid of the bad guys, then immediately you’ll have moderates and democrats and people, who are going be sympathetic to the West, coming to power - now it is very obvious that did not happen with the fall of Saddam Hussein, it has not happened in Libya. It probably has happened in Tunisia, which is the one possible success story, but otherwise, no - I think this has been a very foolish exercise to think that you can change the entire political order and particularly turn it in your favor in with military means. It takes a long, long time for countries to democratise and settle down. Same with Egypt.

SS: Now, apart from Damascus, another force successfully fighting IS is the Kurds. Yet, when they started beating IS back, Turkey bombed them. Why backstab the only force making progress against Islamic State?

GF: The Kurds are highly motivated, they are defending their homeland, they defending their communities that are exposed to ISIS and they know the consequences and what would happen if ISIS took them over. So, I think, that’s… and they have the cohesion of nationalism among them. I think this is one of the huge mistakes of the Erdogan government in Turkey, to decide that the Kurdish movement in Syria was more dangerous to Turkey than ISIS itself. I think, slowly, Erdogan has come around on that point, but this...Erdogan’s policies towards Syria have been a disaster ever since 2011. Before coming to power in 2011, they were excellent policies and working well with Syria, but that all changed after the Arab Spring.

SS: Now, Arab Gulf states have sent a handful of planes to fight IS as well. Yet, for an operation against the Houthis in Yemen - they are fighting Al-Qaeda  - there’s a full-on Arab coalition with all kinds of troops on the ground and in the air and at the sea; Is ISIS less dangerous than we think, if Arab states have more pressing military issues?

GF: I blame in particular Saudi Arabia in this case for introducing the factor of sectarianism in the Middle East with much greater vigour and force. This is a very dangerous move. Of course there are sectarian differences between Shia and Sunni in the Middle East. They have been there throughout history, but usually they’ve been quite under control - under Saddam Hussein it was common to see inter-marriage between Sunni and Shia families. Saudi Arabia has really reawakened and rekindled this thing and attempted to put the entire struggle in the Middle East into sectarian terms. I think, this is a disaster for the area.

SS: But my question was, is ISIS less dangerous than the Shias in Yemen?

GF: To Saudi Arabia or to anybody? 

SS: To anybody, to the Arab coalition - we see Arab coalition forces put together in Yemen?

GF: I don’t think there’s any doubt that ISIS is far more dangerous than what’s going in Yemen. In Yemen, this is a civil war among domestic forces and none of them are fanatics…

SS: So, why are they sending 3 or 4 planes to fight ISIS while they have a full-on military campaign going on in Yemen - as if it was, like, the most dangerous thing in the region? 

GF: Because Saudi Arabia has chosen to interpret this almost exclusively in sectarian terms. In other words, the Houthis, because Houthis are form of Shiism, it’s not the Shiism of Saudi Arabia, it’s Zaydi Shiism, it’s different - but they are choosing to interpret this as encirclement by Iran and a huge Iranian threat and trying to galvanize all the other Gulf States around that.  I think it’s a mistake, I don’t think it’s going to be successful, I think it’s misinterpreting the problem, it’s Yemen is suffering terribly from this as a result. I think Washington is caught between it, because they don’t like what the Saudis are doing, but on the other hand they feel that… 

SS: Well, if they don’t like what they’re doing, why don’t they say something about it? Why are they backing the Saudis?

GF: I’m quite confident that they’re saying things behind the scenes, but they’re certainly not saying much in public.

SS: So, why aren’t they being vocal about it in public? Because, you know, we see heavy civilian casualties in Yemen right now…

GF: Yes, absolutely…

SS: Infrastructure’s destroyed, humanitarian crisis - you know, we don’t hear any of that. It seems, for the general public, it does seem like America is backing these actions in Yemen.

GF: From my understanding, the U.S. is very uncomfortable with this, but they also feel that it would be better for them to be at least working with Saudi Arabia and try to influence this and influence their tactics and strategy, than it would be to fight against them. It’s a very tricky situation and I’m not sure that it was a wise decision. Either way, Washington is handling it,but we’ll see the way it develops.

SS: Now, the rivalry between Iran and the Gulf states, the one that you’ve just mentioned - we feel it in Syria, we feel it in Yemen, in Bahrain. With sanctions on Iran likely to be lifted  - will that lead to more tension or will Iran actually be accepted as a major player in the region?

GF: I’m rather optimistic about the results of this agreement between the P5 and Iran on the nuclear issue. I think that one of the major failures of the U.S. policy for many years have been its unwillingness to deal with Iran - over 35 years, this is unbelievably long time! The problem has not just been on U.S. side, there’s been some serious domestic problems within Iran itself, but anyway, I’m quite optimistic now, that with Iran moving into a more natural position, as a normal state in the Middle East, they will be, basically, a positive force. I would not expect a huge amount of adventurism from Iran; on the contrary, I suspect there will be less, but the Gulf states are going to have to deal with Iran. They can’t hide behind U.S. skirt on this, Iran is the reality.

SS: Now, Islamic State isn’t only about Syria, right? It has, for instance in Khorasan province, a Taliban group in Afghanistan, who declared allegiance to it. Will the influence of IS splinter the Taliban?

GF: I really don’t think so. Certainly, I know there are some ISIS elements within Afghanistan, but I think their relations with Taliban have been relatively hostile. The Taliban are really genuine nationalist group. They represent quite strongly Pashtun nationalism, that has felt  left out of the system for quite some time in the past. I don’t think the Taliban have grandiose global revolution, global caliphate type of ambitions that ISIS does. So, I would suspect that Taliban are going to be the main leaders against the present government in Afghanistan, and I suspect they will probably be fighting militarily with ISIS. I don’t think ISIS has a great future in Afghanistan. I could be wrong, but that’s my guess.

SS: Mr. Fuller thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Graham Fuller,, former CIA Near Eastern national officer, ex-vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council, discussing the situation in the Middle East, the war against the Islamic State and the repercussions of the latest twists and turns of the story. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.