Politics

Canada should align with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria, ambassador says

Russia's ambassador to Canada, Alexander Darchiev, says Ottawa should align with Russia in its fight against ISIS. But Western officials say the primary purpose of Russia's military incursion in the war-torn country is bolstering the regime of brutal Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Alexander Darchiev insists his country is focused on defeating ISIS, not propping up Assad

Cellphone video shows Russian and Syrian government forces attacking towns 1:54

The Russian ambassador to Canada is defending his country's new combat role in the Syrian civil war and is asking Ottawa to join its coalition in the fight against ISIS.

Alexander Darchiev said that Canada's participation in the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes — which began more than a year ago — has been a failed mission with few tangible results.

"This undertaking, unfortunately, has proved ineffective and incapable [of stopping] ISIS, so, we truly believe that what we really need in Syria is a co-operative effort, because the terrorists do not distinguish between Russians, Americans or Canadians, they all consider us to be targets," Darchiev said in an interview with Rosemary Barton on CBC's Power & Politics.

"We call everyone to join efforts like we did in the Second World War to fight [our] common enemy."

Russia this week struck at targets in Syria, a dramatic escalation of foreign involvement in the civil war.

The airstrikes began on Wednesday, targeting mainly central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main strongholds. 

Russia's Ambassador to Canada says Canada and Russia should align to fight ISIS in Syria 13:06

The diplomat denied that Russia's sole motivation was propping up Assad's brutal, but faltering regime, as the U.S. asserts.

He said that his country is focused squarely on destroying ISIS and other militant groups like the al-Nusra Front and other elements linked to al-Qaeda.

West 'obsessed' with Assad

Darchiev said that Russia, unlike Western countries, does not have an "obsession" with Assad, who has been one of Russia's closest allies in the Middle East.

"You can't have political process [to end the civil war] unless you defeat ISIS, and Western obsession with toppling Assad was one of the major reasons why ISIS was able to expand so dramatically."

"This [is the] major fallacy in the U.S. policy. You can't fight against two groups: ISIS and against President Assad."

Alexander Darchiev, the Russian ambassador to Canada, says U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have been ineffective against ISIS. (CBC)

But the U.S. State Department today disputed Russian claims that its military efforts are directed at ISIS, and ISIS alone.

"They've been largely against opposition groups that want a better future for Syria and don't want to see the Assad regime stay in power," said John Kirby, a state department spokesman.

Kirby said more than 90 per cent of Russian airstrikes have been directed at the so-called moderate forces, which the West sees as its natural ally in the war-torn country.

But Darchiev dismissed Western efforts to align with secular or moderate Islamist elements in the country.

"There is no such species, militarily, as the so-called moderate opposition. We are asking our American friends to show us who these people are," Darchiev said. "We cannot distinguish between good and bad terrorists, this is [the] wrong strategy.

U.S. efforts to train and equip moderate forces in the country have met with meagre success. The American military has trained only 50 soldiers after spending over $500 million.

In this March 2012 file photo, Syrians hold photos of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian leader Vladimir Putin during a pro-Syrian regime protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Damascus. Russia has been a loyal ally of Assad and the Syrian government throughout the brutal civil war. (Muzaffar Salman/Associated Press)

"The only real forces on the ground are the Syrian government's army and Kurdish troops, and it's only they who can stop ISIS with air support from Russia and the U.S."

Darchiev failed to mention that his country is also fighting alongside the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Iran-backed Shia militias. The Canadian government has declared Hezbollah a terrorist entity, and a dangerous force that seeks to destroy Israel.  

In recent years, these two groups have largely shouldered the burden of Assad's fight against opposition groups. Assad's army has faced massive casualties, and widespread draft dodging, since the conflict began in 2011. 

"Russia had to act and act in an urgent matter to stop terrorists and not let terrorists come to our doorsteps," Darchiev said.

Canada-Russian relations icy

Canadian-Russian relations are at a low-point, fuelled in large part by Canada's opposition to Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. 

Darchiev, for his part, said that Russia will work with any party that forms the next government and hopes to move past the stalemate. 

"We have areas of common interest where we should have dialogue and diplomacy. We have common interests in the Arctic, we're northern countries, we're neighbours across the North Pole. We have a common interest in fighting terrorism … we have business ties … we cannot afford to stop talking."