President Donald Trump’s decision to share highly classified intelligence about ISIS with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak continues to spur shock and outrage on Capitol Hill.
Trump thinks it’s really not that a big of a deal for a simple reason: Russia, he argues, is a vital ally in the war against ISIS.
That’s not a new argument for the notoriously pro-Kremlin president. In a Fox News interview on February 5, Trump told Bill O’Reilly that “it’s better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world — that’s a good thing.”
There’s just one problem: Most national security experts believe Russia isn’t remotely as committed to the ISIS fight as the US. In Syria, for instance, Washington’s top goal is to beat back ISIS and retake its self-declared capital of Raqqa. Russia’s top goal, by contrast, is to ensure that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad manages to stay in power.
That at times has led to Russia bombing US-backed rebels the Pentagon was relying on to fight both Assad and ISIS.
Unlike Trump, the Pentagon itself seems to be under no illusions about Russia. Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza, a Defense Department spokesperson, said the Pentagon has "always encouraged Russia to act in accordance with its stated intention of combating ISIS” and still calls “upon Russia to act as a responsible member of the international community.”
Defense officials who served in the Obama administration think that trying to persuade Russia to do more against ISIS is a fool’s errand.
Jim Townsend, Obama’s former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, told me he adamantly disagreed with the current administration’s belief that Moscow would be willing to become a more energetic partner in the ISIS fight.
“NO!!!!!” he said in a written exchange with me after I asked whether if Russia is an ally in the anti-ISIS fight.
“Whatever they do against ISIS is done to protect themselves or to support Assad,” he said. “It's a different kind of fight for them.”
Another former senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that during his time in office “the Russians were working toward their own interests, which occasionally looked like they overlapped with ours but often did not.”
Colin Kahl, former Vice President Joseph Biden’s national security adviser, and Hal Brands, former special assistant to the secretary of defense for strategic planning, wrote last February in Foreign Policy that Russia’s “overarching goal, and one that it has been fairly successful in achieving, is to fortify the Assad regime in power and thereby protect Russia’s strategic position in Syria and the broader Middle East.”
There is also some bipartisan agreement on the Hill that the White House should not hold its breath waiting for Russia to be an ISIS-fighting colleague.
In a press statement, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “the time President Trump spent sharing sensitive information with the Russians was time he did not spend focusing on Russia’s aggressive behavior” or stopping its “slaughter of innocent civilians and targeting of hospitals in Syria.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said through a spokesperson that he “wouldn’t characterize the Russians as allies in the fight against ISIS.”
The spokesperson, Sean Bartlett, added that Cardin “believes [Russian] actions in Syria have exacerbated the conditions that have allowed ISIS to flourish.”
So why do so many current and former government officials disagree with Trump and argue that Russia isn’t a reliable ally against ISIS?
It’s simple — because it is not.
Russia has its own reasons for fighting in Syria. They don’t have much to do with ISIS.
The key thing to remember about Russia’s involvement in Syria is that it’s primarily designed to protect Assad, not defeat ISIS.
A report released in February by the Atlantic Council showed that Russia and Syria continually bombed hospitals in anti-Assad areas, and that Moscow later tried to conceal the attacks.
Russian warplanes joined Syrian ones in bombing Aleppo, killing about 100 people. James Le Mesurier, the head of Mayday Rescue, told the New York Times the scenes were “Dresden-esque,” alluding to the February 1945 Allied bombing campaign of the German city during World War II.
On March 1, Fox News reported that Russia had bombed sites a few miles away from the location of US troops. No US troops were harmed, but American-backed rebel forces were struck. The casualty count was not specified.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who heads US forces battling Iraq and Syria, told Fox News that the bombing only stopped after “quick calls” were made using the communications networks Washington and Moscow use to ensure their forces don’t accidentally hit each other.
Russia also uses air bases in Iran to launch missions in Syria to help the Assad government fight off ISIS and other anti-Assad forces.
There is more to note, but the point is Russia says it is helping to defeat ISIS when it really is not. Instead, Moscow is helping the Assad regime to stay in power because Assad remains one of Putin’s top allies in the Middle East.
This seems painfully obvious to many. But the person who matters most — the president — does not see it that way.