Russia has offered to assist the U.S. in the final stages of the fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Iraq after Moscow declared total victory against the jihadis in neighboring Syria.
Russia has long questioned the effectiveness and intentions of U.S. forces in the Middle East, especially in the fight against ISIS, which both Washington and Moscow have vowed to destroy. With the militants’ self-proclaimed caliphate collapsing, Russian First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov said Wednesday he stood ready to assist the U.S. in Iraq after the two countries waged separate, at times competing, campaigns in Syria, where he accused the U.S. and its coalition allies of focusing on building bases rather than putting an end to the conflict.
“The attention of the international counterterrorism coalition should be focused on how to destroy militants in Iraq’s western regions in order to prevent the comeback of ISIS to Syria and how to exclude the revival of the Islamic Caliphate there, but not on the deployment of its own military bases in Syria,” Gerasimov said, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency.
“We are ready to hold dialogue and join our American counterparts in solving this issue,” he added.
Despite still facing pockets of ISIS resistance in eastern Syria, Gerasimov declared Wednesday that “all ISIS formations in Syria have been defeated. Syria has been liberated from terrorists,” citing confirmation from the Russian Defense Ministry. The announcement came more than two years after Russia first intervened directly in the war-torn country at the behest of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose embattled armed forces were struggling to quell a 2011 uprising by insurgents and jihadis.
Since then, the Syrian military and allied militias, including Iran-backed Shiite Muslim movements such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have dominated the battlefield with Russian air cover, overcoming prior territorial losses to rebels and ISIS. The U.S., which once backed Syrian opposition forces, ultimately switched its backing to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities. Both campaigns have claimed to be the more effective anti-ISIS force in Syria and have raced across the country to defeat their common foe.
At the same time, the U.S.-led coalition also assisted the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to destroy ISIS in its country of origin. ISIS developed out of jihadi movements such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion that ousted President Saddam Hussein in 2003, and spread to neighboring Syria a decade later. While Russia largely stayed out of the fight, its ally Iran has played a leading role in supporting mostly Shiite Muslim militias fighting alongside the Iraqi military, despite its relationship with the U.S. After helping to wipe out some of the last ISIS strongholds in Iraq, these militias crossed the border last month to assist the Syrian military take out the last of the jihadis there.
As the battle against ISIS wound down in both countries and the militants’ territory was reduced to a mere pocket along the Syria-Iraq border, Russia and Iran have sought to use their sweeping military victories to oust the U.S. from the region, where its forces have fought for 14 consecutive years.
President Donald Trump also alienated his allies in Iraq when he announced Wednesday that he would officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, despite Palestinians also claiming the holy city as their capital. Iraq has been a traditional supporter of an independent Palestinian state and has fought wars against Israel in support of it. Under Hussein, Iraq backed a number of Palestinian nationalist groups and even after the leader’s fall, both Sunni and Shiite Muslim Iraqis have largely supported the Palestinian cause, widely seen as threatened by Trump’s controversial decision.
“We caution against the dangerous repercussions of this decision on the stability of the region and the world,” an Iraqi government statement said, according to Reuters.
“The U.S. administration has to backtrack on this decision to stop any dangerous escalation that would fuel extremism and create conditions favorable to terrorism,” it added.
The head of a powerful Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite Muslim militia recently designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba’s Akram al-Kaabi, also reportedly condemned the decision, saying it would give his men “a legitimate reason to target American forces.”