American President Barack Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will provide air cover for rebels fighting in Syria has elicited mixed responses from the international community. Russia has panned Washington’s decision, claiming that any support given to the Syrian rebel outfits only serves to further exacerbate the strife and violence in the country. Russia has asserted that America’s actions amount to interference in Syria’s internal matters and are a violation of the latter’s sovereignty.

Russia Condemns American Support For Syrian Rebels, Backs Ally Assad

Moscow has also criticized the United States’ latest decision as a roadblock in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts against fighting ISIS[1] terrorists.

Russian spokesperson Dmitry Peskov[2] was quoted in the press as having said that, “Moscow has stressed multiple times that helping Syrian opposition, let alone helping with financial or (military) technical means, would lead to a further destabilization of the situation in the country”.

Obama Authorizes Airstrikes To Protect Syrian Rebels

President Obama has given the green signal to U.S. forces to commence airstrikes and protect rebels fighting on the ground in Syria. The American troops have been instructed to shield the rebels against attacks by both ISIS and Syrian President Assad’s forces.

The rebels, trained by the U.S. military forces, have been fighting on the ground to defend the territory against ISIS extremists.

The primary reason for Washington’s involvement is to provide the troops cover against Islamic State terrorists. As part of its ongoing defensive cover, the U.S. is also invariably looking to foil any attacks from other sources, including the state’s own forces, though this is not an explicit part of its agenda.

The U.S.’s decision to recruit and train the fighters has met with criticism from the get-go, but Washington maintains that its primary agenda is to equip the Syrians to continue the battle against ISIS and other militant outfits such as the al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot) operating in Northern Syria.

The U.S. administration currently aims to offer extensive tactical, logistical and military support to the troops on the ground. Alistair Baskey, the National Security Council spokesman for the White House, did not disclose specific information regarding the U.S.’s mandate and rules of engagement for the mission, but shared that the purpose is to empower the U.S.-trained fighters to continue their assignment safely, through mechanisms such as “defensive fires support to protect them”.

The driving principle behind Obama’s decision to train and support military groups has been to empower local actors to act against militant extremists and existential threats without requiring formal U.S. troop deployment to the battlefields. In an attempt to minimize direct American involvement and inspire ownership, Obama launched the military training program in May. The air support has come as a successive step in the same direction.

The Russian Critique

Unsurprisingly, Russia has criticized the American action in support of the Syrian rebels. A longtime supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Russian government has blamed United States for interfering with Assad’s regime and further complicating the fight against ISIS.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, on 3rd August 2015, spoke to the media about Russia’s displeasure at Washington’s decision to back the Syrian rebels. Mr. Lavrov was quoted as saying, “We say that this position is a violation of international law and represents an obstacle on the road to forming a united front to fight terrorism, including Islamic State and al-Nusra Front”.

Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has been one of Syrian President Assad’s chief allies through the four years that the country has been ravaged by civil war.

America’s stance against the Assad regime and the long history of American-Russian tensions have been widely documented in media all around the world; the traditional rivalries and differences, however, have become complicated in light of a new common enemy: ISIS.

President Obama Calls For Turkish And Russian Support Against ISIS

American President Barack Obama has expressed that the menace posed by ISIS to Syria can be satisfactorily resolved only without the full participation of Russia and Turkey. Obama also stated the need to engage with other states like Iran and others invested in the Syrian issue, stressing that a diplomatic and political solution to the problem must be found without resorting to armed conflict.

“In order for us to resolve it, there is going to have to be agreement among the major powers that are interested in Syria that this is not going to be won on the battlefield,” President Obama said.

Turkey, which shares its border with Syria, has been collaborating with the United States against ISIS. Turkey has opened its borders to millions of Syrian refugees through the civil strife and is teaming up with the U.S. to thwart the ISIS militants near its borders.

Pentagon Clarifies U.S. Support Agenda: Defensive and Anti-ISIS

The United States has maintained that the airspace activity is only a defensive tactic aimed at protecting the recruits on the battlefield, and the U.S. is not seeking to engage with the Syrian forces. The target is, and will continue to be, ISIS and ISIS alone.

Security advisors and strategic experts have commented that even though Assad’s forces do not attack the coalition aircrafts fighting against ISIS, an inadvertent attack on the rebels on the ground might complicate matters. Washington has maintained its faith that the Syrian state is not likely to engage directly with the U.S.-supported Syrian rebels on the ground.

Commander Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, has clarified that the current prerogative of the United States is defeat the ISIS extremists “first and foremost”. The Pentagon has acknowledged that the multilayered nature of the political situation and the different forces at work make the operation complex, but the focus remains firmly trained on battling the threat posed by ISIS.

John Kerry Meets Russian, Saudi Counterparts In Doha

In the first gathering of its kind, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Doha in the first week of August 2015 to discuss the ISIS threat and reexamine options for cooperation.

Even as the countries remain steadfast on their trademark positions- America critical of Putin’s support for Syria and Russia of Obama’s authorizing cover for Syrian rebels- the purpose of the meeting was to discuss potential solutions for the conflict in Syria.

The three leaders revisited the need for presenting a unified front against ISIS and recognized the grave dangers facing the Syrian people. The discussion underlined the need for engaging with all concerned parties in order to find a democratic solution to the Syrian problem.

Russia and U.S. remain at odds over their respective approaches and positions on the Syrian domestic issue but are agreed that combatting ISIS must take center stage.

Defeating ISIS Is Top Priority

Despite the interplay of age-old rivalries and complex dynamics, there is some reassurance to be found in the fact that all the states in question are devoted to destroying the threat from ISIS.

News channel al-Jazeera broadcast Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assertions that Russia remains committed to aiding both Syrian and Iraqi efforts against ISIS. “We provide military and technical support to the Syrian government to fight this danger (Islamic State), just as we provide this support to Iraq to fight Islamic State,” he is quoted to have said.

Even though the United States remains firmly against Assad’s regime of “brutality” and Russia continues to be critical of Washington’s decisions, ministers of both states have stressed that the need of the hour is cooperation. It is incumbent upon the states directly affected by the regional violence as well as international players like Russia and the U.S. to find a politically viable solution to the threat.

Russia Recommits To Supporting Syria

Russia has provided diplomatic, military, financial and technical aid to Syria throughout the latter’s experience with internal civil war, a pledge it intends to continue fulfilling.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told the media “I got a promise of aid to Syria – politically, economically and militarily”, at a press session following a recent meeting with the Russian President.

Moscow has gone on record reaffirming its support for Damascus, stating that the Russian government firmly stands by its original position that any change in the Syrian government will only serve to worsen the situation in the country.

Interestingly enough, the pro-democracy rebellion in Syria that found support in the United States has fast become a stronghold for some of the most puritanical Islamist groups- a development that many have noted puts the U.S. in a strange position.

Russia alleges that unsettling the Assad regime will only allow radical Syrian Islamists to seize control of Syria and further destabilize the country and the region.

What Does This Mean For U.S.-Syria Relations?

While all the major players in the Syrian issue have acknowledged the need for cooperation against ISIS extremists, political pundits don’t expect conventional stances or relationships to change anytime soon. The Obama administration remains committed to supporting Syrian rebels fighting ISIS militants in Syria. Washington continues to maintain its criticism of Assad’s ruthless regime, stating that the government’s cruelties against the Syrian people contributed significantly towards generating sympathy and recruitment for ISIS.

In his interactions with his Saudi and Russian counterparts, John Kerry stated in no uncertain terms that the U.S. continues to hold fast by its belief that Bashar al-Assad cannot be allowed to play a role in Syria’s future. He echoed Washington’s sentiments that foreign participation in ISIS has been largely induced by Assad’s reign of extremities against the Syrian people.

The U.S. Government is of the opinion that solutions to the Syrian civil war as well as the external threat cannot be found without inviting the participation of opposition factions and engaging with the Syrian people as a whole and other key players in the issue.

Despite its critique of the Assad regime, the U.S. is currently prioritizing meeting the ISIS threat head-on. Alistair Baskey has also expressed the sentiment that the U.S. action is only a defensive move against ISIS and not aimed at the Syrian government, stating “We view the Syrian forces trained and equipped by the Department of Defense as partners in the counter-ISIL effort”.

[1] Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant- an extremist militant outfit referred to interchangeably as ISIS and ISIL. ISIS/ISIL recognizes itself as an Islamic state and caliphate.

[2] Dmitry Sergeyevich Peskov is a Russian diplomat who has been serving as the press spokesperson and aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin since 2012.