Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and US President Barack Obama (right). AP file photo.
The United States has proposed working militarily with the Russians in Syria against a common enemy, the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group.
Washington even proposed establishing a Joint Implementation Group in Jordan, a country with friendly relations with both powers. Such coordination could mark a turning point in the Syrian war as the regime gets the upper hand against its opponents in Aleppo and Islamic State (ISIS) militants continue to lose territory to the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“The US proposal itself is quite similar to Russia’s initial proposal when its intervention began in September, to have a joint coordination cell that shared military intelligence and in effort combine the theaters of operation,” Michael Kofman of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute told Rudaw English.
“Given the primary purpose of Russia's intervention was to save Assad, and defeat forces being backed by U.S. allies on the ground, intelligence sharing and coordination served no purpose other than to provide political legitimacy to the Russian operation. Now the battlefield has changed substantially over the past 10 months. Syrian opposition is foundering, and almost cut off inside Aleppo. They are in a rather weak negotiating position, meanwhile the most substantial enemy for Syrian forces, and by extension Russia's campaign, is now Jahbat al-Nusra,” Kofman added.
Kofman went on to say that Russian action against Islamic State (ISIS), such as joint recapture of Palmyra from those militants with the Syrian military, and its opening of “a new direction of attack towards Raqqa by Syrian forces,”
“Hence, now there is a tangible basis for intelligence sharing and cooperation, or at least to have that conversation in order to determine the art of the possible,” he explained.
There is, however, a caveat:
“The prevailing context is one of absolutely zero trust or belief that Russia would stick to an arrangement. The price John Kerry seems to have in mind is a grounding of the Syrian Air Force, which is responsible for most of the civilian casualties in this war, and no doubt a cessation of hostilities against opposition groups not bracketed as jihadist extremists. It's unclear Russia can deliver the former, and may not be willing to stick to the latter.”
“The question is, what is in all of this for Moscow? The Russian military operation has already successfully shaped the battlefield towards their desired ends, and needs no help from the US. Kerry's envisioned trade is a restoration of sorts in the relationship, a joint Russian-American military operation that would not only confer legitimacy but also equal status to Russia in Syria alongside the US,” he added.
Which is a little bit surprising considering that Washington condemned Moscow’s intervention in Syria on Assad’s side as illegitimate.
Kofman believes that US Secretary of State John Kerry is calculating that working with the Russians could influence them to act in a way more desirable way:
“Undoubtedly there is great dissent within the US Government, and on the notion in general that any cooperation can be had with Russia today. Still it seems Kerry wishes to try, particularly given there are no other practical options on the table to reduce the level of fighting and civilian casualties on the ground. Perhaps the underlying hope is that by taking the Syrian Air Force off the table, and agreeing on strict coordination with the Russian Air Force, he hopes to curtail the leading drivers of destruction on the ground today in this conflict,” Kofman said.
Neil Hauer, an intelligence analyst on Iraq and Syria with the SecDev Group told Rudaw English that there are three main implications to the US and Russia teaming up militarily in the Syrian war:
“The first is a concrete acceptance that Assad's government will remain in power. As we've seen since the Russians intervened in September, Russia can essentially brute-force gains for pro-regime forces when it chooses to by employing overwhelming firepower, such as in north Aleppo in February or Latakia from October through the start of this year. Even in areas like Hama, where the regime had few successes, it at least prevented substantive opposition offensives from emerging.”
“The second result of the deal would be to essentially open up any opposition-held territory to Russian airstrikes. Russia already considers all rebel territory to be Nusra-held or at least Nusra-dominated - this is evident in the maps of Syria shown in Russian media, where the entirety of opposition-held territory in northern Syria is labeled as 'Jabhat al-Nusra.' This may not practically change much, as Russia has consistently labeled its strikes on rebel groups in Hama, Idlib, Aleppo and elsewhere as strikes on ISIS, despite the fact that the group has zero presence in those areas, but it is a tacit acceptance by the US that Russia is essentially going to strike rebel targets with impunity.”
Furthermore Washington’s proposal is a signal to its regional allies and also serves as a reminder that the US has not successfully coordinated with any formidable force in Syria other than the SDF.
“The third result is this proposal, even if unaccepted, sends a clear signal to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Turkey that America is essentially seeking to wash its hands of most of the mainstream Arab opposition and focus fully on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to act as a counterweight to the regime. Knowing that the Russians will ramp up their air strikes to prevent major regime losses in core regime territory (Aleppo, Hama, Damascus), I think the US is now set to abandon that tack entirely,” Hauer explained.
“The fact that Russia was able to so brazenly bomb the New Syrian Army, a group which operates solely against the Islamic State and is not remotely close to regime-held territory, without triggering any substantive American response is emblematic of the sort of policy incoherence and strategic failures the US has experienced with its halfhearted backing of non-SDF rebel factions in Syria,” Hauer added, pointing out that the SDF is an ideal ally for the US in Syria since its seen as a “progress force capable of more-or-less effectively capturing and governing territory.”
The SDF is “also agreeable to the Russians, as Moscow was the first foreign capital to host a Syrian Kurdish representative office, and the SDF themselves have publicly praised the proposal and stated their intentions to honour it.”
“We should keep in mind that Russia’s main strategic objective in Syria is to deepen cooperation with Washington and thus become a crucial stakeholder in the transitional period. This raises a question of the fate of Assad, whose departure has long been a main demand of the US,” Timur Akhmetov, an independent Russian analyst on the Middle East, explained to Rudaw English.
“Within the current bargaining, details of which we can’t know, Russia seems to be willing to play the game but again the real issue is whether Russia does really have capacity to control and influence Assad. In June regime troops attempted to advance toward Raqqa and failed, and this step was undertaken without considerable involvement of Russian military assets,” he added.
“Of course, the agreement on joint operations against Nusra and ISIS is a step forward. Beyond that it must be seen as a stimulus for a renewed political dialogue. Still much depends on Russia’s ability to encourage Assad to compromise,” Akhmetov concluded.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.