DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now in that conflict in Ukraine, Russia and United States are on opposing side. Let's now consider a conflict where they could be becoming closer allies. Syria. Vladimir Putin always warned that the true threat there was not from Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, but from Sunni extremists. And while President Obama is still no fan of Assad, Obama is also speaking of ISIS as the big threat, which makes you wonder if all this has vindicated Russia's president.
MARK KATZ: He predicted that the conflict in Syria was not about democracy. It was a sectarian conflict, in that weakening the Assad regime would lead to the rise of jihadists and that this is what they predicted all along and look what's happened.
GREENE: That's George Mason University professor Mark Katz. He's an expert on Russia's role in the Middle East. And he says he could see a scenario in which the U.S. military targeted ISIS inside Syria with Assad's blessing and Russia's support.
GREENE: One option would be striking the Islamic State or ISIS inside Syria. The Obama White House has not ruled this out. I wonder if something like that would likely require U.N. approval? And is that something Russia would actually support and not veto?
KATZ: Well, I think that it's actually possible that we could get Security Council approval for strikes against ISIS. In other words, if the Russians saw this as useful, if the Assad government saw it as useful, then we probably could. But on the other hand, how is this going to look in the Arab world? In other words, that the great powers are ganging up with a dictatorship that oppresses the Sunni Arab majority. This would be not so good. In other words, we have to strike at ISIS but also do it in a way that doesn't legitimize this Assad regime.
GREENE: It struck me, I wondered if we might look back at this threat from the Islamic State or ISIS - this group as somehow bringing an unlikely alliance together against it and whether we could look back at some point and say that was a positive development in some way.
KATZ: That's possible, but there's an aphorism that I teach my students and that is, when the purpose of an alliance comes to an end, the alliance itself comes to an end. In other words, that if and when ISIS is contained, that's all these parties can agree upon. In other words, there's nothing else that they have in common. And so I think that, yes, it would be useful if we could cooperate together for containing ISIS, but the trouble is that after that point we are in disagreement.
GREENE: Is there a sense that the United States is not playing the leadership role in a moment like this as it used to in the geopolitics and the diplomacy around this threat?
KATZ: Yes, I think for President Obama in particular he has a different vision of what are America's real interests. In other words, up until recently, the Middle East has been considered vitally important because of oil, etc. We're now in an era where we don't need Middle Eastern oil to the same extent that we used to. So why do we need to spend so much effort in an area that's very difficult to manage?
You know, President Obama has been criticized for being naive, for being utopian. In fact, I think there's a prospect that he's actually far more Machiavellian than we've seen in American leaders. You know, who wanted to do right and, you know, America should step up and get involved. But I think that for him it's that, well, if it's not vitally important for us, then why should we get involved?
GREENE: And of course some of his critics would say that that makes the United States look weak.
KATZ: But even that isn't necessarily the worst thing I think for President Obama because if in fact our adversaries become convinced that we are weak, what are they going to do? These are not the kinds of people who cooperate very easily with others. So if they think we're no longer a factor in the picture, they're going to turn on each other. And that, I think, is what we have been seeing, you know, with ISIS having killed a journalist. And then we see the al-Nusra Front releasing a journalist. It's like there competing - no, no, we're the nice guys, we're the nice al-Qaida - that this is a message that they're sending.
So it strikes me that when others feel that the United States is no longer a factor, they're not going to cooperate with each other. They're going to turn on each other. In other words, that this aphorism when the purpose of an alliance comes to an end and the alliance comes to an end, it doesn't just apply to our alliances. It applies to the bad guys alliances as well.
GREENE: Professor Katz, thanks as always for coming in.
KATZ: Well, thank you for having me.
GREENE: Professor Mark Katz teaches international relations at George Mason University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.