So John Kerry’s come out posing a “question” (which no one is genuinely asking) of whether Russia is there to help Assad (which is what it directly declared) or to fight ISIS. Of course, Russia;s airstrikes are overwhelmingly aimed at the enemies of both Assad and ISIS, a strategy which has led to the biggest ISIS advance in North Syria for more than a year, and indicative of the KGBite mentality of setting up a showdown between Assad and ISIS that the world will have to choose from, removing anything (which happens to be the main insurgency against Assad) in between.
ISIS is not an insurgent or rebel group – it intentionally (and accurately) does not define itself as one. It is not defined by a specific opponent it is up against, as a rebel group is by nature, by a regime it seeks to overthrow, but is defined by its main function – to set up an immediate new state, without having to wait for whatever regime there is to collapse. Regimes are fought as obstacles in the way of the expansion of the state, not as an ideological end aim of itself.
In other words, whilst rebels seek to overthrow a regime, ISIS seeks to eat up its (and others’) territories.
However, being fought is not just a privilege reserved for the regime, but for any groups in the way of that new state. This is why ISIS has targetted rebel groups more than it has the regime. Whilst inter-rebel conflict has existed amongst opponents of Assad, between such groups as the FSA and Al-Nusra, etc., this is an entirely different paradigm from that which exists vis a vis ISIS. Disunity and division may be preponderent, but active clashes between rebel groups are very rare. This is not the case with ISIS – making it an entirely seperate side in the civil war (unlike the FSA vis a vis the Islamic Front say, or Nusra, who despite problems and very occasional flare ups are on the same side).
Its political programme is not first and foremost to free Syria of Assad, it is first and foremost to set up a global state – Assad, like Abadi, Merkel, Cameron or Obama are simply obstacles in the way, to be countered in order of the strategic priorities of who’s standing in the way. This is why ISIS did not target the regime (and vice versa) during its period of ascendence (2013 – mid 2014) until it had secured enough core territory in Syria from rebel forces – the strategic geographical priority at the time was not the regime in this case, but rebels. This was in turn consolidated (or justified) to is followers by a perverse distortion of an Islamic Shari‘ principle, or war maxim, that it is a priority to fight apostates (originally meant to refer to defectors/treason) before fighting infidels. ISIS views the regime as infidels, alike to the US, France or Russia. It does not view the Sunni rebel groups that have refused to pledge allegiance to it however as infidels, but as active traitors – apostates.
Furthermore, whilst apostates are traitors who no truces can be made with (since that would imply recognition), truces can be made with infidels (a la two states at war, but not a state with a breakaway component, like the South during the American civil war) due to the different nature of that state of enmity.
This was directly explained by one ISIS fighter to a rebel in a famous walkie talking argument, where he stated that fighting him was a legal priority before fighting the kuffar, or infidels. Thus according to a Syrian rebel commander in the Islamic Front, ISIS “believe that if they were to enter Israel going through Palestine, they would fight Hamas before Israel, because Hamas are apostates whilst the Israelis infidels, and it is more prior to fight the apostate before the infidel”.
But we digress.
The purpose of Kerry’s statement is to say things in a way that the Russians could read in between the lines. Although the reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria to back Assad is such a plain, uncontroversial reality, one which Russia has even admitted, with Putin stating that Russia’s military operations would only end with the progress of the Syrian Army, and which therefore even the most staunch pro-Russian does not deny (they also do not find it embarassing), in choosing to pose a non-existing “confusion” conundrum Kerry is essentially sending a message in political/diplomatic language code.
In diplomatic language, obfuscation is how rivals convey their tacit “non-mindedness” (for lack of a better word) to the geopolitical actions taken by another. Indeed, obfuscation is often not necessary, since inter-state understandings are not done through the following of media statements given by politicians, but through contacts between the various intelligence and policy-making agencies between the two states. Kerry’s statement is not coincidental, it can’t be, considering that it is established beyond any doubt that Russia’s presence in Syria is to support the regime – not least because Putin has himself stated this. To think that it is would be a hopeless height of naiveté.
Russian policy makers know what US positions are not from what they hear from faces of the administration (whose main purpose is to play to a domestic audience, in this case appearing as anti-Russia/ not Russia’s bitch) but from real centres of decision making, intelligence agencies and departments, etc.. Such statements by Kerry therefore are “sugar on top”. Public statements that serve the aim of obfuscation thus resemble not ambivalence, since this could be done even with critical statements, but active cautionary advance.