Obama Administration Weighs Partnership with Russia Against Islamic State

CIA director: ‘We’ve been exchanging information’ with Moscow, ‘needs to be enhanced’

Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama
November 16, 2015

The Obama administration is considering ways to form a closer partnership with Russia against the Islamic State terrorist group, including intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation, in the wake of the Paris attacks, U.S. officials said on Monday.

John Brennan, the director of the CIA, said that despite "significant policy differences" between Washington and Moscow on the best method for ending the Syrian conflict, he has continued to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government about how to combat the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). U.S. officials have accused Russia of propping up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and targeting U.S.-backed rebels in Syria with airstrikes, rather than seeking to eliminate the terrorist group.

"I have had several conversations with one of my Russian counterparts over the past several weeks about ways to strengthen U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation, specifically on the ISIL threat," Brennan said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ global security forum.

Following a series of attacks on Friday in Paris when Islamic State militants killed 129 people and wounded more than 300, France President Francois Hollande urged the United States and Russia to cast aside their disagreements and join in a combined alliance against the terrorist group. He said on Monday that he hoped to hold a meeting soon with President Obama and Putin.

"We need a union of all who can fight this terrorist army in a single coalition," he said during a speech to a joint session of the French assembly at the Palace of Versailles.

Brennan appeared to indicate that closer intelligence collaboration with the Russians is a serious possibility. He noted that more than 2,000 Russian nationals from areas in Central Asia, including the Caucuses, Chechnya, and Dagestan, have joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, with some becoming senior Islamic State leaders.

"What we need to do is be able to help Russia prevent the flow of terrorists inside of their territory that are maybe destined to try to carry out some terrorist attacks," he said. "So we’ve been exchanging information. I think it needs to be enhanced."

A potential counterterrorism alliance involving the United States and Russia would mark a significant shift from the Obama administration’s previous opposition to partnering with Moscow. Just last month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the United States was "not prepared to cooperate in a [Russian] strategy" in Syria that is "tragically flawed," a reference to Russian airstrikes that killed civilians and some rebel groups that received weapons through a CIA program.

Additionally, the administration has condemned Moscow for supporting Ukrainian separatists in a conflict that has claimed more than 8,000 lives since last April.

Mark Toner, State Department spokesman, said on Monday at a press briefing that U.S. officials have also urged their Russian counterparts to talk with Assad’s government about no longer purchasing oil from the Islamic State. Though Assad claims to be fighting terrorists in his country’s civil war, his regime is reported to have been a participant in the Islamic State’s oil trade, a lucrative venture that enables the terrorist group to earn millions every year from seized oil fields.

"This is something we've raised with the Russians before because they have access to and can influence Assad," Toner said.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the prospects of further U.S.-Russia collaboration against the Islamic State.

Also on Monday, Peter Cook, the Pentagon’s press secretary, announced that the United States and France would expedite their intelligence sharing.

"Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper have provided new instructions that will enable U.S. military personnel to more easily share operational planning information and intelligence with our French counterparts on a range of shared challenges to the fullest extent allowed by existing law and policy," Cook said in a statement.