FPI Bulletin: U.S.-Russian Cooperation Would Exacerbate Syria Conflict

July 28, 2016

Despite Moscow’s record of bad faith and outright deception, Secretary of State John Kerry is aggressively pursuing a deal to share intelligence and coordinate airstrikes with Russian forces in Syria. By violating multiple cease-fire agreements with Washington over the past six months, the Kremlin has exploited negotiations in order to secure de facto U.S. approval of Damascus’ territorial gains. Rather than rely on a mendacious regime that seeks to undermine the U.S. goal of removing Assad from power, the Obama administration should implement its so-called Plan B by increasing its support for Syria’s moderate rebels, who — unlike the Russians — actually oppose Assad.

The Obama-Putin Plan

According to a draft text of the proposal, the United States and Russia intend to establish a military command-and-control center in Amman, staffed by personnel from both countries, to share intelligence and coordinate an intensified air campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh. In exchange for U.S. cooperation, the Kremlin would prevent the Syrian regime from attacking so-called “designated areas” that both countries agree should remain unharmed.

Foggy Bottom has defended the prospective deal by arguing that it could induce the Kremlin to leverage its relationship with Damascus in order to spur a nationwide cease-fire and ultimately a political settlement. As State Department spokesman John Kirby said on July 11, U.S. officials “look to the Russians to make a greater use of the influence that we know that they have” to stop Assad’s aggression. Secretary Kerry contended on July 15 that the agreement is “not based on trust,” but based on “defined specific, sequential responsibilities all parties to the conflict must assume” to stop the Assad regime’s bombing and defeat al-Nusra, a group Washington now considers potentially as dangerous as the Islamic State.

Pentagon and intelligence officials, however, have expressed concern about the plan, noting that Russia has serially flouted past cease-fire accords. “The secretary of defense,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook on July 14, “has been clear that he has been skeptical of Russia’s activities in Syria and we have reason for that.” In a July 20 interview, Ashton Carter acknowledged that Moscow previously “said they were going to fight the terrorists, but that’s not what they’ve done. They’ve instead propped up Assad in fighting the moderate opposition.”

Some defense officials told the Daily Beast that they will lobby their superiors to share as little intelligence with Moscow as possible in order to prevent the Russians from using it to bolster Assad. The agreement, they noted, would legitimize the Kremlin’s air campaign and reinforce the belief of many Syrians that America effectively sides with the regime, despite its nominal support for Assad’s ouster. Perhaps more seriously, according to CNN, Secretary Carter doubts that the Kremlin will honor any commitment it makes to spare Syria’s moderate opposition.

Russia’s Record of Bad Faith

U.S. and Russian goals in Syria differ dramatically: Whereas Washington seeks the defeat of Islamist terrorist groups, the empowerment of the moderate Syrian opposition, and the removal of Assad from power, the Kremlin aims to preserve the Assad regime by destroying moderate forces and other groups opposed to Damascus. In so doing, Moscow aspires to project power in the Middle East, combat Western influence, and to undermine American global leadership.

Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 constitutes the primary reason that Assad remains in power today. At the time, a weakened Syrian military faced the growing prospect of defeat in the face of dramatic territorial gains by the Islamic State and rebel groups. In this context, Moscow claimed that it sought to target only ISIS. Instead, it heavily bombed Syria’s moderate rebels and conducted only a handful of airstrikes against ISIS, thereby helping turn the tide in Assad’s favor. In a July 13 interview with NBC News, Assad acknowledged his debt to the Kremlin, noting that Russian support “tipped the scales against the terrorists. It was the crucial factor.” Moreover, he asserted, Syria’s alliance with Russia “is not based on making deals — it’s based on values.”

Russia’s exploitation of negotiations with Washington to consolidate its gains on the ground appears to validate Assad’s statement. Over the past six months, Moscow has used talks as a cover to continue its attacks against moderate rebels, taking advantage of its position on the battlefield to help set the terms for successive arrangements. For example, the Kremlin utilized a provision in a February cessation of hostilities agreement that permitted attacks against ISIS and other terrorist organizations as a fig leaf to continue striking moderate rebels, which it also regards as terrorist groups.

On other occasions, Russia more openly and unambiguously flouted its commitments.  In May, Moscow’s air force, along with Syrian warplanes, violated an agreement to cease hostilities in the key rebel stronghold of Aleppo by bombarding the city and its supply routes. As a result, Aleppo’s 300,000 inhabitants now face the prospect of mass starvation. “We can keep going for two to three months, but then people will starve in large numbers,” said Brita Haji Hasan, leader of the Aleppo city council. “We are facing a major humanitarian crisis and nobody is helping us. Everyone is just watching. Most of the civilians already dying now are women and children.”

In June, Russia provoked the United States even more directly by targeting a garrison housing 200 U.S.-backed rebels on Syria’s side of its border with Jordan. U.S. military and intelligence officials subsequently disclosed that the attack, which risked killing U.S. and British forces, aimed to pressure the Obama administration to cooperate militarily with Russia’s air force. If the White House ultimately finalizes a deal that does just that, Moscow will receive a dangerous message that it can bully the United States into supporting its malign objectives.

Time for Plan B

The Obama administration has offered no compelling reason to presume that Moscow seeks to halt attacking Syrian civilians or to change the Assad regime’s objectives. “Any estimate of whether or not we can work with the Russians,” said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, “depends on an assessment of their intent, and their intent does not look like it can synchronize with American goals of prioritizing the fight against extremism.” Frederic C. Hof, a former special advisor for transition in Syria at the State Department, expressed similar sentiments. “Are [U.S.] diplomats,” he asked, “carefully measuring the potentially catastrophic impact on Washington’s reputation of such an unholy alliance? Are they taking into account the recruiting bonanza that would accrue to al-Qaeda in its various manifestations?”

In May, Secretary Kerry said the United States, if Syria’s warring parties failed to reach a political transition agreement by August 1, would provide substantial military support to moderate Syrian rebels pursuant to its long-discussed Plan B. On Tuesday, however, Kerry expressed “hope” that the United States and Russia will finalize its military cooperation deal “somewhere in early August in the first week or so,” suggesting that Washington has abandoned any effort to enforce the deadline.

Such a decision would constitute a mistake. Instead, the Obama administration should abandon the agreement with the Kremlin and immediately implement Plan B, the only strategy that stands a meaningful chance of turning the tide of the war. If Washington accedes to Moscow’s demands, Russian aggression against the Syrian people will likely endure, further threatening hundreds of thousands of lives and ensuring the Assad regime’s ultimate victory.

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