Russia: A Partner in Syria?

By all accounts Secretary of State John Kerry is deeply moved by the suffering of the Syrian people and its negative political, economic, and security consequences for American friends and allies in the region and beyond. It would therefore be not at all surprising if reports that he seeks a deal with Russia aimed at targeting al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists while sparing all others—especially civilians—were substantiated. What would be surprising—a welcome surprise indeed—would be for Moscow to implement faithfully agreed undertakings and to compel the cooperation of its Syrian client. The administration—leverage-free as it is—should avoid any deal it does not intend to enforce.

Obama administration spokespeople continue to point to what they describe as the glaring contradiction between Moscow’s stated Syrian goal of defeating the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) and its actual policy of propping up ISIS’ premier Syrian enabler: the regime of Russia’s client, Bashar al-Assad. The diplomatic task, it seems, is one of convincing Moscow of the illogical nature of its position. Yet all of the evidence accumulated since Russia’s September 30, 2015 military intervention in Syria indicates that Moscow intends to save Assad from his nationalist opponents while leaving ISIS in place: ISIS, the example par excellence of something arguably even worse than Moscow’s mass murdering, war criminal client. ISIS, for the regime and its external supporters, is Bashar al-Assad’s potential ticket back to polite society.

An important enabler of Russian strategy has been the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, an organization which—unlike ISIS—consistently fights the Assad regime. Washington and Moscow agreed that Nusra, which has units scattered across the northwestern Syrian landscape, would not (as a designated terrorist organization) be allowed to participate in a cessation of hostilities (CoH). Russia, quite conveniently, has used Nusra’s exclusion from the CoH and its ubiquitous presence to launch air attacks on nationalist Syrian rebels—some trained and equipped by the United States, and some even fighting ISIS exclusively—and on civilians living in rebel-controlled neighborhoods. ‘Why, we’re just pounding Nusra, don’t you know’ has been the Russian refrain. When Washington objects, Moscow replies that it is up to the United States to reveal who is where in terms of non-Assad ground dispositions.

Moscow, however, is anything but clueless on this matter. As indiscriminate as its air force has been in targeting civilians, it has been relatively precise in hitting non-Nusra Front and non-ISIS units, including some that have received American assistance. No doubt it wishes to perfect its targeting data. Is it the job of the United States to be of assistance? After all, once intelligence is shared, what is to prevent Moscow from using it entirely for the benefit of its client? Is there anything at all in the administration’s policy performance to date that would dissuade Russia from doing exactly as it pleases, and with an absolute sense of impunity?

The Nusra Front is, to be sure, an entity that must play no role in Syria’s future. Had there been, starting in 2012, an effective American-led effort to organize, train, and equip Syrian rebel forces, neither the Nusra Front nor ISIS would today be dominating northwestern and eastern Syria respectively. That young Syrian men focused on fighting Assad would be attracted to a group (Nusra) offering serviceable weaponry and plenty of ammunition is hardly surprising. Nearly four years after a presidential decision overriding the recommendation of his top national security officials, the consequences are dire.

Leaders in Syria’s nationalist opposition—military and civilian—believe they can marginalize the Nusra Front if a genuine CoH takes hold. This would be a tall order. Both Nusra and Assad had to deal with the spectacle of peaceful protests against them when violence did indeed subside in the very early days of the CoH. Neither will want to repeat the experience. And why would Russia cooperate in trying to strengthen precisely the armed elements it has sought to kill? After all, if the only non-regime, non-Russian, non-Iranian, non-Shia militia, and non-Kurdish fighting forces left in Syria are ISIS and Nusra, how will an America rhetorically dedicated to the destruction of al-Qaeda terrorists resist making common cause with Assad? Is it not the objective of Assad and his allies to reduce the political choice in Syria to one of the regime or Al Qaeda?

John Kerry is not to be blamed if his diplomatic labors seem at times to incorporate elements of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the Wizard of Oz. If something like the naval task force patrolling the eastern Mediterranean after the August 2013 chemical red line atrocity were on station now, he might get a serious hearing from those he seeks to persuade with sweet reason. But if he can protect Syrian civilians and thereby enable real negotiations while mitigating a humanitarian and political catastrophe by drawing forth, at long last, from Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime the qualities of common decency and respect for human life he will have performed the ultimate in diplomatic alchemy. 

John Kerry deserves a real chance. He needs real leverage. The danger is that this administration may want a deal—any deal—before it departs. Yet if it wishes to bequeath to its successor and to American friends and allies something other than chaos and disaster in and around Syria, it will instead move to protect Syrian civilians in the west from mass homicide and to defeat ISIS quickly and totally in the east.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: Damaged vehicles are pictured as people inspect a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel held area of Tariq al-Bab district of Aleppo, Syria, July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail