The Path to US Cooperation with Russia and the Syrian Regime

The recent announcement that the United States is willing to cooperate with Russia to target the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front puts the country one step closer to directly cooperating with the Syrian regime. The US policy to consider the terrorist problem of Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS) as separate from the larger civil war, while considering any escalation or military intervention against the Assad regime as folly, leads to the tactic of cooperating with any force that will fight terrorist groups.

The United States has been at risk of moving into a non-aggressive, and at some level cooperative, relationship with the regime for some time now. The regime has already been benefiting from US-led coalition’s exclusive bombing of terrorist targets. Although the air strikes are intended to weaken ISIS so US-supported ground forces—the US-supported, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and more recently the New Syrian Army (NSA)—could retake territory from ISIS, the regime and its allies are also using US strikes to drive ISIS back.

The regime’s “liberation” of Palmyra, spearheaded by a motley of foreign forces, was the first example of how US air strikes against ISIS can help regime forces. Operation Inherent Resolve conducted more than 13 air strikes “near Palmyra” against ISIS positions between September 30, 2015 and the time that regime forces retook the city. According to the Department of Defense, a strike might constitute “multiple aircraft delivering dozens of weapons against buildings, vehicles and weapon systems.” The last reported US air strike “near Palmyra” was on March 24, only three days before the Syrian regime had fully recaptured the city.

These strikes were taking place while Russian forces were also providing air support for the regime to retake Palmyra. In the first reported attacks against ISIS in the city, the Russian Defense Ministry said it conducted air strikes near Palmyra and Qaryatyn on November 2, and conducted 14 strikes over the next four months. The strikes intensified as the regime turned its attention to fighting ISIS after the implementation of the February 26 cessation of hostilities—if proved true that Russia pressured the regime to fight ISIS, it would suggest that Russia was already setting the ground work for increased cooperation with the United States. Between March 20 and 23 alone, Russia claimed to have conducted more than 40 sorties against 146 targets near Palmyra.

Russia’s strategy of public deception needs to be taken into consideration when analyzing this information—but even if it conducted less strikes, the fact stands that Russia and the United States were both softening ISIS in Palmyra, and the regime utilized this to retake the city. The United States, though, did not want to publicly acknowledge its role, to avoid further alienating the already-skeptical Syrian opposition.

The regime’s advance into Raqqa province is another example of this de-facto support and raises questions about a potential race to drive ISIS from its capital, between the SDF descending from the north, and regime forces approaching from the east. SDF forces are currently focused on retaking the area around Manbij, the last stretch of territory that ISIS controls along the Turkish border, which will cut off ISIS’s ability to smuggle supplies and fighters in through Turkey. The regime is clearly benefiting from ISIS being weakened, having advanced, with Russian support, as far as Tabqa—just an hour’s drive from Raqqa.

The recently proposed coordination with Russia against the Nusra Front is the result of a policy that does not consider the terrorist threat in the war’s broader context. Looking at Russia’s track record of bombing rebel groups, some which receive US-backing, and its willingness to stand by the regime even as the latter disregards UN resolutions, the policy is unlikely to positively affect the rebel groups and more likely will hurt them. Under the proposed policy, the United States would designate geographic zones where there is no Nusra presence, allegedly making these areas safe from Syrian and Russian air strikes, but agree to coordinate with Russia to expand the bombing campaign against Nusra. The United States is keeping its focus on fighting terrorism, disregarding Nusra’s integration with rebel forces, its ability to relocate its forces into the designated safe areas, and how this cooperation might negatively affect its official policy of reaching a political settlement.

The advance of the SDF and NSA toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, respectively, will raise new questions about how far the current US administration is willing to go in its cooperation to fight ISIS. Will US-backed forces, and the air strikes and special forces supporting them, actively coordinate with regime forces against ISIS, sharing information on targets? If regime forces try to take territory before the SDF and NSA, possibly even opening fire on the proxy forces to keep them from advancing, the proxy forces might fight back, raising the question of whether the United States will continue to support them against a non-ISIS enemy, or whether it will leave them exposed to Syrian regime attacks. Up until now, the United States has not taken any concrete action to protect is proxy forces, only condemning attacks against them. There is little doubt that Russia’s ultimate aim is to present the regime as the bulwark against terrorism after the elimination of moderate rebel groups. As it stands, the United States appears unfazed by this imminent outcome.

It is easy to criticize the potential US-Russian cooperation as it undermines the official US position of reaching a political settlement and implementing the Geneva II accords, but examining the Obama administration’s behavior—the United States appears to have long given up on achieving this policy. Throughout the negotiations, the United States has repeated the same “mistake”—trusting in actors (the regime, Russia, and Iran) that repeatedly refuse to uphold their end of any bargain, implying that the US administration has other goals that are served by working with Russia. Further supporting this idea is an unnamed senior administration official’s recent comment: “Analytically speaking, the path of military escalation by one side or the other is not likely to lead to a final outcome in Syria.”

With military options against the regime ruled out, and fighting terrorism the rising priority, the United States is using the same short-sighted approach that helped set the groundwork for many of the problems that we see today in the Middle East. The end of this path is well known—dictators with no public legitimacy who rely on brute force to crush any dissent, continued instability, and fertile recruiting ground for future terrorist groups. The irony is that, in an effort to avoid the mistakes made during the invasion of Iraq and break away from “the Washington playbook,” the Obama administration is recreating many of the same problems in Syria.

Rashad al-Kattan is a political and security risk analyst, and a fellow with the Centre for Syrian Studies (CSS) at the University of St. Andrews. Hossam Abouzahr is the editor of SyriaSource

Image: Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin prior to a working session at the Group of 20 (G20) leaders summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey, November 16, 2015. REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer/Pool