The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, Nov. 18:
How much do we trust Vladimir Putin? Not at all, even when he does the right thing.
Russia on Tuesday launched cruise missiles toward Syria from the Mediterranean, but it seemed a good idea to double-check reports that the target was an Islamic State stronghold. The missiles easily could have been meant for U.S.-supported militias on the ground, since Putin’s hit them as well.
The reports were true, though. Russia went after numerous Islamic State positions, as did French warplanes. The U.S. Defense Department said the Russians even followed safety procedures by giving notice before launching the missiles, as they had promised. Putin also ordered a missile cruiser to cooperate with the French “as allies” on Syria operations.
Vive les frenemies!
The teamwork, however long it lasts, is a direct response to terror. The French are bombing Islamic State territory in retaliation for the Paris attacks. On Tuesday, Russian officials confirmed that an explosive hidden on board took down a Russian jetliner over Egypt on Oct. 31, killing all 224 passengers and crew. Islamic State’s Egypt branch had claimed responsibility. Russia did not name Islamic State as the culprit, but within hours Russia was firing missiles toward its headquarters in Raqqa.
“We will search for them everywhere, no matter where they are hiding,” Putin said of the perpetrators. “We will find them at any point on the planet and punish them.”
If the U.S., France and other allies end up fighting alongside the Russians to take down Islamic State — in partnership again as in World War II — that would be gratifying and logical. It also would be … weird. Out of character, at least, given Putin’s rogue ambitions.
In Europe, let’s not forget, the U.S. and its NATO allies are trying to figure out how best to contain Russia in the wake of its seizure of Crimea and adventurism in Ukraine. In Syria, the Russians quietly took over an airfield in territory controlled by the besieged madman President Bashar Assad. Putin indicated his forces would support Assad, an ally, by targeting Islamic State. Soon it became clear Islamic State was an afterthought: Mainly the Russians have been firing at areas held by anti-government rebels — our friends.
Putin’s main reason for being in Syria is to protect Assad and project Russian power. Russia is still at odds with President Barack Obama because the U.S. wants Assad out. Assad’s a brutal dictator who slaughters his own people. We saw the first slight signs of a shift on this point at Syrian peace talks in Vienna, where the U.S. signaled some patience on the subject of Assad’s future. Putin, with his forces in the air and on the ground, forced the point.
No one envisions the Vienna talks going anywhere quickly, but Islamic State’s horrible deeds have retribution on the minds of friends and frenemies alike. Russia is an American adversary but also a victim of terrorism. At the G-20 summit in Turkey over the weekend, Obama and Putin spent 30 minutes in conversation. That doesn’t happen very often.
My enemy’s enemy is … in this case, my enemy. You go, Vlad.
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