Five Reasons Why Cooperating with Moscow on Syria is a Bad Idea
As the world’s attention was transfixed on Turkey, where a military coup was violently thwarted over the weekend, the Syrian rebel stronghold of Allepo saw its only links to the outside world cut off. While Assad prepares to deal a body blow to the rebellion, the Obama administration is poised to enhance cooperation between U.S. and Russian military forces in Syria. If implemented, this plan could prove yet another setback not for only the administration’s gravely flawed response to the crisis in Syria, but also for U.S. policy toward Russian aggression more generally.
Reportedly, under the proposed agreement, the United States would share with Russia targeting information about certain terrorist groups in Syria, particularly the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The two countries would establish a joint command and control headquarters, share intelligence, and conduct joint bombing operations.
In exchange, Russia will be expected to persuade the Assad regime to stop targeting those moderate rebel groups in Syria supported by the United States and to possibly ground his Air Force altogether. The thinking is that Russian bombers with American intelligence will cause fewer civilian casualties than Syrian planes bombing indiscriminately. The coordination would consist of a joint integration group (JIG) based outside of Amman with senior Russian and American Airforce and intelligence officials. In essence, the U.S. Air Force will now be flying alongside the Russian Air Force.
Most Americans probably assume this is the best of a range of poor choices. U.S.-backed rebels already have been victims of Russian bombings, not to mention assaults by Assad’s forces. No one wants to exacerbate the bloodshed in Syria or the resulting refugee crisis, and no one wants terrorists to come out on top.
Unfortunately, this deal could actually make a bad situation worse. Here are just a few reasons:
- The United States and Russia are ultimately working at cross-purposes in Syria. U.S. and Russian diplomats and political leaders have done their best to paper over their differences. They accentuate a common interest in defeating terrorist groups, like al-Nusra and ISIL, and working toward a political solution to Syria’s civil war.
Nevertheless, the United States and Russia have fundamentally different visions of what post-conflict Syria should look like. Russia has long enjoyed a strategic alliance with Assad, and Syria hosts Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base. Russia intends to ensure that, regardless of what happens with Assad, Syria ultimately remains allied with Moscow. The Obama administration erroneously believes that it has common interest with Moscow in defeating al Qaeda and ISIL. However, the defeat of those groups is, in the eyes of the Kremlin, secondary to propping up the Assad regime. By sharing the world-class expertise of the U.S. military targeting apparatus with Russia (and by extension to Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah), Washington will be doing far more to help Russia’s goals than its own.
- The Russians may be unwilling or unable to keep their promise. Under the proposed agreement, the United States would specify certain zones in Syria that would be protected from bombing by the Assad regime. At the same time, the United States would not reveal the exact locations of the moderate rebels, presumably recognizing that this would put them in danger.
Even if the White House could thread this needle in a way that didn’t jeopardize the U.S.-backed rebels — which is far from certain — it certainly would change the way other militants behave. Jihadist groups like al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and possibly ISIL would likely adjust their positions to take advantage of any safe zones.
After years of Russia breaking its promises in Syria and Ukraine, it is naïve to think that the Kremlin will hold up its end of the bargain. The reliability of Russia as a partner is in serious question.
The agreement also assumes that Russia would be successful in persuading Assad to lay off the rebels. This may or may not be realistic. Assad correctly sees the rebels as a threat to his legitimacy and Russia has reportedly had trouble reigning him in already. Why would Assad back off now?
- In the long run, the agreement is likely to strengthen Assad’s hand. A more vigorous coordinated air campaign against al-Nusra will take pressure off the Assad regime, which al-Nusra, unlike ISIL, has been targeting. This in turn will make Assad less likely to agree to the negotiated political solution the United States seeks.
Moreover, reducing U.S. Syria policy to an all-out attack on groups like al-Nusra plays into Assad’s (and Putin’s) narrative that the battle for Syria is a choice between Assad and the terrorists. This bodes poorly for the moderate rebels in either a military confrontation with Assad or a political solution in which they occupy a relatively weaker position.
Recognizing Assad’s relative strength, 51 American diplomats recently penned a memo dissenting against current U.S. policy toward Syria. The memo calls for the United States to engage in air strikes against Assad regime assets. These diplomats believe additional pressure is the only way to compel Assad to negotiate a viable political solution — in other words, the complete opposite approach to the one currently being contemplated by the administration.
The conflict in Syria is complicated and has many actors. If the desired outcome is a political settlement in which Assad steps aside and opens the door to moderates, the United States must be mindful of any actions that might make Assad less likely to negotiate.
- The agreement is likely to strengthen Putin’s hand. Russia’s recent military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria are not a coincidence. Putin is orchestrating an adventurous foreign policy as a way of reasserting Russia’s place on the national stage while bolstering his own reputation at home.
Propping up the Assad regime plays into Russia’s overarching strategy of ensconcing itself in the Middle East. If Assad stays in Syria and has Putin to thank for it, Russian influence will be intractable.
In fact, Russia has been seeking enhanced military cooperation with the United States for some time, particularly after Western powers levied sanctions for Russia’s heavy-handed and duplicitous behavior in Ukraine. Cooperation on Syria would take the bite out of the widespread condemnation Putin received for Ukraine.
Putin will relish the proposed cooperation in Syria, the closeness of which was described by The Washington Post as “unprecedented.” He will see the agreement as evidence that Russia is a power to be courted, even by the likes of the United States. Washington can only expect more Russian interference and demands in the future.
- These are not the forces the United States wants to prevail in the 21st century. True, certain U.S. presidential candidates may admire Putin, and some U.S. commentators may view a continuation of the Assad regime as the best chance for stability in Syria.
None of that means the United States should abandon its values by actively allying with such distasteful regimes. Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Assad’s forces were responsible for three-quarters of Syrian civilian casualties last year — vastly outpacing ISIL, al-Nusra, and other belligerents combined.
Syria is joined at the hip to Iran, which continues to top the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror. Iran serves as patron for deadly Shia terror groups in Iraq as well as for Hezbollah, which has a lengthy track record of terrorist attacks around the world. Reports suggest that not only are Hezbollah fighters active in Syria on Assad’s behalf, but they also may be receiving training from the Russians. One can only shudder to consider the effect of such battlefield training in any future confrontation between Hezbollah and its primary enemy, Israel.
For his part, Putin is a despot who works “systematically to harass, discredit, prosecute, imprison, detain, fine, and suppress individuals and organizations engaged in activities critical of the government,” according to the U.S. State Department. Cooperation with Russia to the benefit of the Assad regime would put the United States on the opposite side of the ring from the moderate Syrian rebels it has pledged to support.
There is a viable alternative strategy that would force Assad to the negotiating table without compromising U.S. values: taking military action against the Syrian regime. The United States should focus on the goal of political transition in Syria. This means keeping the pressure on Assad, and even ratcheting it up through strikes against his regime, as proposed by numerous American diplomats in a recent memo dissenting against current U.S. policy towards Syria. Increasing U.S. military action would eventually force a stalemate, giving Assad no choice but to negotiate. That would in turn increase U.S. leverage at those talks and make clear its ability to impose consequences while simultaneously raising the costs for others (Russia, Iran) to continue obstructing an end to the conflict.
The Obama administration should also consider enforcing safe zones along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan to stem the refugee crisis and establish a semblance of trust with the Syrian people. Moreover, so long as Russia fails to live up to its own ceasefire commitments, the United States should not reward Moscow.
Cooperation with Russia to the benefit of the Assad regime would put the United States on the opposite side of the ring from the moderate Syrian rebels it has pledged to support. In the eyes of Sunnis across the Middle East, including our Gulf allies, this cooperation will also signal we have aligned with the Shia against them. Washington will have chosen sides in the Syria civil war and by the extension the sectarian civil war raging across the region. Instead the United States must show it’s committed to ending the horrors this conflict has caused, and not by throwing in the towel and accepting a counter-productive partnership with Russia.
Michael G. Waltz is the author of Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan, a former policy aide to Vice President Cheney, a Special Forces officer, and an entrepreneur. Lorianne Woodrow Moss is a former U.S. Senate foreign policy aide.