The West has failed in its principal, post 9/11 objective: to deny terrorists sanctuary. Islamic State is a terrorist enclave in the heart of the Middle East. Yet, the West’s response to this has been strikingly, and shockingly, lacklustre, I argue in the magazine this week. Barack Obama’s main preoccupation seems to be stressing that US ground troops will not be sent in to destroy Islamic State. While the British response is even feebler, to bomb Islamic State—but only on one side of the Iraqi/Syrian border. Even, the French who are hitting IS on both sides of the border, aren’t sending in ground troops.
This lack of Western leadership is creating an opportunity for Vladimir Putin. Putin’s initial intervention in Syria had little to do with defeating Islamic State—tellingly, Russia’s initial military strikes were not against Islamic State but other rebel groups with the aim of preventing the fall of the Assad regime. But as Putin is now winning the concessions he wanted on the future of Syria—a veto over the successor regime to Assad and protection of Russia’s Mediterranean naval base and listening posts—the situation is changing and Russia is becoming more involved in the fight against IS.
So how far is Putin prepared to go? With Obama determined not to commit ground forces, one wonders if Putin, who already has tanks in Syria, might see a chance for his troops to take Raqqa. This would be the most potent demonstration of Russian relevance and influence since the end of the Cold War—and a great propaganda coup for Putin. It would enable him to claim, however absurdly, that Russia is now the principal defender of civilisation against extremism.