Military and Police

Putin’s New Axis of Evil

Vladimir Putin is resurrecting the axis of evil.  In spite of Hillary’s Reset (overcharge) button, Obama’s increased flexibility after his reelection, and President Trump’s attempts to establish a working relationship, Putin is choosing the other side.  He is working with North Korea, Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria.  Just as bad, the Russian military in Syria are turning a blind eye to ISIS operations, as long as they attack American interests and allies.  This is Putin’s new axis of evil.

North Korea

Russian oil tankers are smuggling oil to North Korea, in violation of international sanctions.  Russia almost certainly supplied the rocket engines Kim Jong Un used to modernize his ICBMs.  A source close to South Korean intelligence circles told me in October, “The engines are RD-251’s, coming from Russia. Our reports show that they received 20 to 40 engines in just the past year. China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan are helping Pyongyang develop warheads, but our evidence suggests the rocket engines are coming from Russia.”


A strong American policy limited the Russian military in Syria to a tiny token presence for decades.  Obama’s infamous failure to enforce his own red line on chemical weapons opened the door to Russian influence, however, and Putin pushed right through it.  He magnanimously volunteered to destroy Syrian chemical weapons in exchange for a massive military presence in Russia’s client state.

Putin is using ISIS as a blunt weapon to try to force the U.S. out of Syria.

With Russian oversight of most of Syria’s air space, Syria’s other ally Iran has nearly succeeded in building its long-coveted “land bridge” from Iran to Lebanon.  This will enable the creation of a “Shi’a crescent” of Iranian hegemony nearly encircling Saudi Arabia and the countries of the GCC.  Putin’s policy is making it possible, and he is using ISIS as an occasional blunt weapon to force open the way.  A nearly overlooked proxy battle last month illustrates his method.

Russia Blocks U.S. Air Strikes on ISIS

In mid-December, the Army of the Commanders of the Revolution, or Jaish Maghawir Al Thawra (MaT), a U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group, attacked a convoy of ISIS fighters.  The convoy had crossed into a protected area around a strategically located camp occupied by American Special Forces and allied MaT fighters.  At least 20 ISIS fighters were killed, nearly the same number were captured, and most of their vehicles and weapons systems were destroyed.

Putin's New Axis of Evil
Al-Tanf Deconfliction Zone Marked in Light Green Around Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian Border

The U.S.-Russia de-confliction agreement stipulates American air primacy east of the Euphrates River and in a 55-kilometer radius around the strategic al-Tanf camp on the tri-border intersection of Syria, Iraq and Jordan.  Russian forces control the air space west of the Euphrates, except for the al-Tanf area.  This prevents accidental military engagements between Russian and American warplanes, and is as close as Putin has come to coordinating military action against ISIS in Syria.

In the aftermath of the battle, American aircraft used the dedicated hotline to request permission to follow up the attack.  They wanted to destroy the remaining ISIS fighters who had escaped the allied ground forces.  The senior Russian Air Force commander refused, without explanation.

U.S. Frustration at Russian Obstructionism

Russia has refused from the beginning to recognize America’s right even to establish de-confliction zones. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called them “unilateral zones,” as a criticism of American imperialism.  Russia is refusing to attack ISIS near those zones, and is refusing to permit American airstrikes there.

Translation: ‘Russian and Syrian forces are allowing ISIS free movement around American bases.’

The careful wording of the statements by American commanders reveals their frustration with the Russian approach.  Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, the director of operations for the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition, was quoted by CNN. “Despite the presence of Russian-backed, pro-Syrian regime forces in the area, Daesh still finds ways to move freely through regime lines and pose a threat.” Translation: ‘Russian and Syrian forces are allowing ISIS free movement around American bases.’

The spokesman for the coalition, Army Col. Thomas Veale, said, “We will continue active de-confliction with the Russians to ensure safety of forces and achieve enduring defeat of Daesh in the region.  We will also continue to strike Daesh targets wherever and whenever we locate them within our area of operations east of the Euphrates River and in the vicinity of the At Tanf Garrison.” Translation: ‘We will avoid any direct conflict with Russia, but watch out, because we will protect our areas of interest no matter what anyone says.”

Russia and Syria are using ISIS as a tool to try to drive the U.S. coalition from its base at al-Tanf.  Their end goal is to help Iran establish a land route through the deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria.  The U.S.-backed garrison at Al-Tanf stands in the way of the series of checkpoints that would give them control over the route.

Putin presents himself as the global defender of traditional values, and the great Protector of the Christian world against the vestiges of the old Ottoman Empire.  But his only lasting instincts are to block American power, to seize every possible bit of territory, and to use corruption and kleptocracy to enrich himself and his cronies.  In pursuit of those goals, he supports every despot, tyrant, and terrorist that opposes western civilization.  He has demonstrated once again that he cannot be trusted.  It is time that America and Europe take notice.

Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department. He is a director at the Richard Richards Foundation.

Join the conversation!

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.