A Telling US Outreach to Russia in Syria

As recently as a few weeks ago the United States had repeatedly rejected strategic cooperation with Russia in Syria. Now it is reportedly proposing a limited partnership there, in which the United States would share intelligence and coordinate attacks with Russia against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. In return, Russia will compel the Assad regime to stop launching air strikes on areas controlled by rebel groups the United States does not consider terrorists. Regardless of whether it goes through, the plan’s mere existence confirms the now-complete separation between the United States’ stated Syria policy and its actual one. The plan with Russia should not be judged by whether it helps end the war and achieve a political transition, but whether it advances actual US policy in Syria: selective violence mitigation.

Two weeks ago, fifty-one US State Department diplomats signed a memo essentially outlining tools to accomplish the White House’s stated US mission in Syria. Official US Syria policy is still based on the Geneva II accords, calling for a transitional governing body with full executive power formed on the basis of mutual consent. The logic behind a long-running covert CIA program to arm and train rebel forces—those same ones the United States wants Russia to help protect—was to apply military pressure on the regime so that it would seek a diplomatic rather than a military solution. The dissenting diplomats used the same logic for the same ends, calling for stand-off attacks on the regime. Today, the CIA program continues in theory, but the principle of using military means to achieve diplomatic ends in Syria has been discarded on the grounds of being futile.

It is therefore no longer useful to judge White House policies against official US objectives. As a senior administration official clarified, from here on, US objectives in Syria will be limited to lowering the level of violence as much as possible, for as long as possible. Shaping the war’s trajectory is irrelevant, ending it even more so. This point is analytically important: from now until January 2017, this latest policy proposal and any that follow will not aim to raise the cost to the regime of attacking civilian areas, using besiege-and-starve tactics, or denying humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations; it will not aim to strengthen acceptable elements of the opposition to put pressure on the regime; and it will not seek to protect those hapless Syrians that fall in territory controlled by armed groups that Russia and the United States deem unacceptable. Finally, US plans will most certainly not involve a long term strategy to undermine extremist groups within the insurgency.

With that said, a policy of keeping the violence “as low as possible for as long as possible” is odd—a plan essentially to put the war’s killing, suffering, and destruction in slow motion. Still, even if it has not been officially announced and contradicts the official, highly-visible US position on Syria, it is a clear enough policy. The question is whether the reported US plan to partner with Russia advances that policy. The answer is: Not really.

In many opposition-held areas, the Nusra Front is a key insurgent group. In Idlib and Aleppo provinces, it has a strong presence and fighting role, and frequently cooperates with powerful groups such as Ahrar al-Sham (whom Russia considers terrorists but the United States does not). It is also present in the south, among insurgent groups that the United States directly supports. Using these groups’ presence to outline discrete safe and unsafe zones would be enormously difficult. Of course, the Nusra Front can at any time relocate to supposedly safe areas. That would either ensure its safety or endanger everyone else. In theory, there may be some reduction in violence in some places. In practice, it will be extremely fragile and may well increase violence in others.

These are operational challenges, but there are more serious problems with all initiatives in this war with limited goals decontextualized from the war itself—be they local ceasefires, sporadic humanitarian aid agreements, and so-called cessations of hostilities. They simply push the most confident belligerents—the regime and Russia—to either calibrate their tactics or ignore the agreements altogether. Time and again, the Syrian regime has demonstrated it sees no value in limiting its freedom of action in this war. The regime is behaving rationally. It believes it can win the war militarily and calculates, correctly, that there are no costs for cheating. The regime has invariably ignored demands to allow aid to reach besieged populations, and consistently violated both local and nationwide ceasefires.

Worst of all for the administration’s purposes, the record in Syria shows that Russia is either unwilling or unable to restrain the regime from flagrantly violating agreements backed by Russia itself, and the proposed US-Russian plan does nothing to impose costs on the regime for attacking designated safe areas, which points to either a problem of trust or of Russia’s usefulness. Either way, as things stand it makes agreements of this sort pointless.

There are many other problems with the US plan to partner with Russia, of course: It permits Russia’s indiscriminate bombing in areas where the Nusra Front is present; it shifts the policy focus from ending the war to fighting one group embedded within one side of the war; it likely brings the Nusra Front and other anti-regime forces closer together; it rewards Russia for the regime’s consistent violations and atrocities, essentially blackmailing the United States to get Russia and the regime to comply with agreements they have already agreed to; and it extinguishes serious conversation about political transition and ending the war in Syria.

Through five years of war, the United States has achieved very little in Syria. As the Obama administration’s term runs its course and failures pile up, it is increasingly tempted to eschew long term goals for short term ones. However, it will achieve neither. The regime is not foolish enough to keep its end of these painful bargains, and Russia cannot or will not force it to do so.

Faysal Itani is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Damage is seen inside 'Syria, The Hope' school on the outskirts of the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town, in Idlib province, Syria June 1, 2016. The school is partially occupied and it teaches students until fourth grade. The building that is heavily damaged was used by government forces as a base before the rebel fighters took control of the area. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi