Russia and the Middle East: Diplomacy and Security

Can the United States and Russia Cooperate Against al-Nusra in Syria?

July 3, 2016

On June 30, 2016, the United States announced that it would be open to limited military cooperation with Russia in Syria against the al Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Washington’s cooperation proposal was conditional on Russia pressuring Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to cease military assaults against Syrian rebels the US government does not label as terrorists.


America’s willingness to entertain military cooperation with Russia in Syria was a major rhetorical shift from the Obama administration’s largely critical view of Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war. Despite these diplomatic overtures, major disagreements on the legitimacy of Assad’s government remain roadblocks to deeper cooperation between Washington and Moscow in Syria.


These disagreements are unlikely to be overcome by small-scale counter-terrorism cooperation. It is possible, however, that the United States and Russia could come to a temporary consensus on the need to prioritize counter-terrorism in Syria and avoid a destabilizing regime change.


Taking a historical perspective, Russia’s emphasis on stability in Syria aligns closely with Washington’s historic reluctance to push for regime change in Syria despite tensions with the Baathist regime. While US policy towards Syria has fundamentally changed since the outbreak of civil war, past concerns about a regime turnover still shape US thinking even today. A common fear of Islamic extremism could lead to limited US-Russia intelligence sharing and joint airstrikes on selected terrorist targets that weaken al-Nusra and only minimally assist Assad.


The Synergy Between Russia’s Stability Argument and Past US Policy Towards Syria


Even though the United States and Syria have had strained relations for decades, Washington’s relationship with Damascus before 2011, was characterized by a fusion of containment and limited accommodation. This strategy contrasts markedly with US policymakers’ much more aggressive approaches towards Iran, Baathist Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya. It also has some striking similarities to Russia’s current rationale for avoiding regime change in Syria.


During the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations, US strategy towards Syria shifted from isolating Damascus to striking a delicate, uneasy balance between coercion and diplomacy.  For example, the US included Syria on its state sponsors of terrorism list in 1979 and US Secretary of State Alexander Haig described Syria as the world’s worst sponsor of terrorism in a 1986 CNN interview. This designation explains the United States’ support for Israel’s 1982 war with Lebanon and opposition to Syria’s military presence in that country.


Hafez Al-Assad reacted to US criticisms of his regime by strengthening Damascus’s alliance with the Soviet Union. As the United States did not want Syria to become an entrenched Soviet ally, the Reagan administration had to engage with Assad periodically on Lebanon and counter-terrorism.


US policymakers concluded during the 1980s that instability in Syria would be detrimental for the security of the Middle East. Therefore, the Reagan administration refrained from isolating the Syrian regime through international sanctions or launching airstrikes like the 1985 bombings in Libya. This restraint continued even when Assad sanctioned the 1983 Beirut terror attacks and perpetrated egregious human rights abuses against his own people, like the 1982 Hama Massacre.


Syria’s participation in the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War and opposition to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War caused President George HW Bush to diplomatically engage Assad to a greater extent than his predecessors. The Clinton administration repeatedly attempted to reach out to Hafez Al-Assad during the 1990s as Washington viewed Syrian involvement to be critical in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.


Even though Bashar Al-Assad failed to implement durable political liberalization reforms, strongly opposed the Iraq War and made Syria into a base for Sunni insurgents to destabilize Iraq’s new Shia government, the Bush administration did not push for regime change.


The Pentagon reached out to Syrian opposition figures following the 2005 Rafic Hariri assassination and supported Israel’s 2007 strike on Syrian nuclear facilities. But Syria was noticeably excluded from Bush’s Axis of Evil speech and from his 2005 outposts of tyranny list. This demonstrates that Washington viewed an unstable Syria as an even more dangerous prospect than a borderline failed state situation in Iraq.


The Obama administration thawed relations with Syria in 2010, and was also reluctant to criticize Assad’s repression of the initial Deraa protests in March 2011. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Assad as a “reformer” and was convinced that he would respond appropriately to the demands of his people.


US policy towards Syria rhetorically shifted towards an endorsement of regime change in August 2011. But Obama’s reluctance to militarily intervene against Assad’s chemical weapons use in 2013 clearly indicates his concern that swift regime change could make Syria a nexus for terrorism.


A close examination of the historical record reveals a decades-long mismatch between hostile US rhetoric towards Syria and restrained action. This demonstrates that America’s temporary acquiescence to Russia’s strategy of prioritizing counter-terrorism over regime change in Syria is not as radical a shift in Washington’s Syria policy as many Western analysts have claimed.  


Assessing the Likelihood of US-Russia Cooperation in Syria  


Despite progress towards the goal of US- Russia cooperation in Syria, two major obstacles could prevent it from coming to fruition. The first relates to intelligence sharing. The US proposal for cooperating with Russia has ruled out giving Moscow exact locations to terrorist groups. It has instead focused on providing Kremlin policymakers with geographic zones to keep Assad’s airstrikes from targeting moderate Syrian rebels.


Russia has pushed the United States for more specific information. Thus far, Washington has been unwilling to comply with Russian requests. US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed exasperation with Assad’s frequent ceasefire violations in Syria. Senior Russian policymakers, like head of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, have expressed frustration with the United States’ preconditions for cooperation. As the Obama administration has refused to clearly define which militant groups are terror organizations, Russia feels that it cannot effectively ascertain the extent of Assad's truce violations.  


As lingering distrust between the US and Russia could prevent a compromise on the intelligence sharing issue, Israel could facilitate intelligence cooperation between Washington and Moscow.


To keep Iran and Hezbollah in check, and ensure that Russian and Israeli military efforts do not collide, Israel and Russia have agreed to demarcation boundaries for airstrikes. As Israel and the United States have decades of experience in military coordination, the IDF could act as a middleman to ensure US-Russia cooperation in Syria comes to fruition.


Second, there are significant disagreements within the US military and political establishment on whether joint airstrikes against the al-Nusra Front will be effective in stemming terrorist activity in Syria.


Critics of joint airstrikes contend that al-Nusra has gained considerable popularity due to its provision of food and relief supplies to displaced Syrians. This popularity, combined with al-Nusra’s formidable financial resources, could cause the Syrian opposition to turn against the US for betraying their cause and support Islamic extremism. Building on this logic, the US should refrain from airstrikes against al-Nusra and instead, provide more arms and financial support to moderate Syrian rebels to contain the growth of radical Islam. 


On June 4, Lavrov admitted that US discord on bombing al-Nusra was a major barrier to US-Russia cooperation in Syria. He argued that US opposition to militarily striking al-Nusra was based on fears that “normal” Syrian opposition groups fighting in similar regions could be weakened.


Yet if al-Nusra is not contained, it could pose a major threat to the United States. A January 25 report from the Institute of the Study of War and American Enterprise Institute contended that al-Nusra posed a greater danger to US security than ISIS. The report claimed that while al-Nusra has not carried out a terror attack yet on US soil, it had deftly positioned itself between the Syrian government and opposition and was well-placed to “pick up the mantle of global jihad” in the event of an ISIS collapse.


In light of this security threat, the case for US-Russia cooperation against al-Nusra is compelling. The 2013 Syrian chemical weapons disarmament process proved that the United States and Russia can work together effectively in confronting a common threat. This spirit of cooperation could extend to counter-terrorism. 


Several imponderables still could hinder the process. It remains to be seen whether Russia can encourage Assad to comply with the terms of recent ceasefire negotiations. It is also unclear if the US will eventually be willing to share more specific intelligence with Moscow. But terrorism emanating from Syria has become an issue of such gravity that US-Russia cooperation should be attempted, even if the long-term outcome is unclear. 

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