by Lincoln Pigman, a student of War Studies at King’s College London and an organising member of KCL MENA Forum.
Nine months after Russia took the West aback with its entry into the Syrian conflict, the United States finally changed its tune, proposing an unprecedented level of military cooperation with Russia: coordinated attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra in exchange for the grounding of Syria’s air force. The offer, it seems, has been received warmly. Some in the West will welcome U.S.-Russian partnership in Syria, including prominent scholars and former U.S. diplomats. However, Washington’s reversal may prove counterproductive and even disastrous.
Committed to ousting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the Obama administration long maintained a position of disapproval, condemning Russia’s contribution to the refugee crisis and accusing it of ‘directly enabling’ Islamic State. Given the notable decline in refugee arrivals to the E.U. since December, the former may no longer hold true, while the latter is challenged by Professor Max Abrahms of Northeastern University. In Abrahms’ view, which he shared in private correspondence, that ‘unoriginal and never documented’ accusation reflects an ‘ideological’ refusal to acknowledge ‘Russian contributions against Islamic State.’ Even so, other objections to Russia’s conduct in Syria remain valid, and give cause for reconsideration of closer ties.
One of the most obvious is Russia’s unfaltering deception. The Kremlin’s main lie concerns the aim of its intervention. Although coalition voices quickly realised that Russia’s principal target in Syria was the opposition, not Islamic State, Russia continued to state otherwise. In October 2015, Sergei Ivanov, chief of Russia’s presidential administration, promised that Russia was simply ensuring that ‘no ISIL members were left to travel to Russia, and that all fighters would end up lying in the ground in Syria.’ Crucially, Ivanov neglected to mention which fighters.
Five months later, Putin unexpectedly declared Russia’s withdrawal from Syria. Since then, Russian involvement in Syria has expanded from air strikes to special operations and demining efforts, while reported Russian casualties near Palmyra and Raqqa point to increased ground presence. Russia’s tireless disinformation efforts, always accompanied by calls for U.S.-Russian cooperation, offer no grounds for trusting Putin to enforce the stillborn cessation of hostilities or pressure the Assad regime to ground its air force. (That the proposed agreement mentions no compliance mechanisms makes Russian non-compliance even more likely.)
Two grave problems doom such a demand. The first is the condition of Russian ‘pressure’ on Assad. Rather than insist that Moscow force Damascus to stop targeting rebels, making clear that only an end to attacks on the opposition can satisfy the agreement, the proposal’s language is moderated to such an extent that Russia could feasibly do nothing and claim that it had. Mere pressure does not equal success in bringing Assad to heel, and can amount to nothing more than a diplomatic slap on the wrist should Assad persist in his suppression of the opposition. Unless the U.S. operationalises pressure, specifying what forms it is to take, it may as well abandon the condition altogether.
Worse still, it is possible that ‘pressure the Assad regime’ is all that Moscow can do, making the U.S.’ demand impossible to satisfy. Some Syria commentators question whether Russia truly dictates developments on the ground, dubbing it Assad’s ‘hostage.’ A growing consensus admits that Russia seeks a diplomatic resolution to the conflict: one preserving Syria’s current government institutions but not necessarily Assad himself, as reasoned by the Carnegie Endowment’s Aron Lund. Now emboldened by Russia’s decisive intervention, Assad clearly refuses to accommodate Russia’s diplomacy and its post-conflict plans for Syria, violating the cessation of hostilities in April 2016 and defiantly insisting on retaking ‘every inch’ of Syria in June 2016. Both positions reflect maximalist goals and a rejection of Russia’s relatively limited objectives, an intransigence that would surely apply to demands that Assad cease targeting rebels.
The demand’s second flaw lies in its identification of roles in Syria. By exclusively attributing complicity in the targeting of rebels to Assad, the U.S. tacitly denies Russia’s role in bombarding the opposition. According to Airwars, a project that consults open source intelligence to map the impact of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, Russian air strikes have inflicted up to 5,686 civilian casualties as of July 4th. Russia maximises the lethality of its air strikes by targeting densely populated areas and hospitals, and using incendiary munitions: weapons whose use against and around civilians is prohibited by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, to which Russia is a signatory. The portrait of the war painted by Washington erases these casualties, and enables Russia to continue attacking rebel groups and non-combatants alike with impunity. U.S. silence legitimises Russia’s many transgressions, and is irreconcilable with a purported concern for Syrians’ welfare and advocacy of a rules-based international order.
In light of Russia’s disregard for collateral damage, Syrians will inevitably see U.S. support for Russia’s intervention as a betrayal. The first such betrayal, Obama’s failure to enforce his ‘red line’ after the sarin gas attacks of August 2013, ‘boosted Islamists … devastated the credibility of [opposition] officials who had tried to work with the West,’ and conveyed a clear message to Syrians: ‘No one’s coming to save you, not in any circumstances,’ writes Robin Yassin-Kassab in Burning Country. Similarly, today, supporting a belligerent viewed as ‘a colonial invader,’ Yassin-Kassab remarked over email, would consolidate the U.S.’ image as ‘another imperialist supporter of the regime which is tormenting [Syrians].’ Any peacemaking legitimacy possessed by Washington would forever vanish, in no small part thanks to its main concession to Russia: coordinated air strikes against al-Qaeda affiliate and anti-government militia Jabhat al-Nusra.
Although Russia and the U.S. both list the Islamist Nusra as a terrorist organisation, the intensity with which the two intervening powers attack it has differed greatly, creating a conflict of interests best highlighted by vocal complaints from Moscow. The U.S.’ new proposal to bilaterally coordinate air strikes against the organisation could be aimed at narrowing the diplomatic chasm between Russia and itself. Alternatively, its rationale could be restoring coherence to the U.S.’ position as an enemy of terrorism, removing all doubt by visibly targeting Nusra.
However, a policy of partnership is unlikely to improve diplomatic relations with Russia. Despite Russia’s stated interest in continuing bilateral cooperation on issues such as counterterrorism, no peripheral concession can resolve the fundamental disagreement over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which will continue to define U.S.-Russian relations until a consensus on the future of Ukraine’s security is reached. Coordinated air operations in Syria alone cannot cancel out the diplomatic hurt caused by years of sanctions, and are near useless as a diplomatic bargaining tool.
Nor will the proposed U.S.-Russian partnership advance Washington’s fight against terrorism. In fact, attacking Nusra with Moscow could prove completely counterproductive. Those suspecting the U.S. and Russia – widely viewed as having appeased Iran’s nuclear programme and given it free rein in Iraq and Syria – in backing the Shia side of a perceived geopolitical-sectarian confrontation are likely to see joint attacks on the Sunni Nusra as yet another sign of a seemingly pro-Shia Western agenda. Consequently, ‘many … who previously tolerated Nusra for pragmatic reasons … will become more sympathetic to the group and its ideology,’ warns Yassin-Kassab, adding that ‘the U.S.-Russian coalition will undoubtedly provide a boost to Nusra’s recruitment and help it to embed more deeply in Syrian society.’ At the tactical level, striking Nusra only to bolster it is a waste of military resources. However, at the strategic level, transforming an actor in Syria so powerful that it currently controls entire swaths of territory is reckless. In the succinct words of Yassin-Kassab, it threatens to ‘greatly influence the future trajectory of violent jihadism on a global level.’
The proposed U.S.-Russian partnership in Syria brings to mind a number of outcomes. These include Russia duping the U.S.; Assad continuing his attack on the opposition; legitimisation of Russia’s transgressions; discrediting of the U.S. among anti-regime Syrians; and empowerment of Jabhat al-Nusra. Pursuing a military victory against the al-Qaeda affiliate without considering the partnership’s political ramifications reflects nothing less than the absence of a U.S. strategy in Syria.
If the U.S. is to work with Russia at all, it should focus on securing the Kremlin’s assistance in combating Islamic State, a peripheral matter to Russia, rather than make concessions on the vital interest that is the Syrian opposition—especially if there is no visible benefit in doing so. As Islamic State greets ‘the beginning of the end,’ weakened by over seven hundred days of coalition bombardment, the U.S. should not court disaster by entering into counterproductive unions. The future of Syria demands it.