The strategic suicide of aligning with Russia in Syria
By HAL BRANDS AND COLIN KAHL | Foreign Policy | Published: February 11, 2017
Donald Trump wants to make a partner of Russia in Syria. One of Trump's most consistently expressed foreign policy ideas, both during the campaign and now since his election, is that the United States and Russia are natural counterterrorism allies, and that the obvious place to begin such cooperation is in Syria, against the Islamic State. Both the United States and Russia are waging war against the Islamic State, Trump's reasoning goes, so the best way to hasten the defeat of that organization, and perhaps to launch a broader U.S.-Russia rapprochement, is by bringing Russia into the counter-Islamic State fold and undertaking more coordinated military action targeting the group. In a recent Fox interview, in which Trump controversially drew a moral equivalence between the United States and Vladimir Putin's Russia, he said "it's better to get along with Russia than not and if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world, major fight, that's a good thing."
Trump's sentiments on this score are not new. But in the past four weeks, there have been repeated hints that such cooperation might simply be part of a larger U.S.-Russia "grand bargain," in which Moscow agrees to provide enhanced cooperation on counterterrorism and counter-Islamic State operations, and Washington does away with economic sanctions related to Russian aggression in Ukraine. On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence suggested that the Trump administration's decision on sanctions would depend on whether "we see the kind of changes in posture by Russia and the opportunity perhaps to work on common interests," including making common cause against the Islamic State.
This idea fits squarely within the overarching themes of Trump's grand strategy, which we described in a previous article. The idea that the conflict with "radical Islamic terrorism" is all-consuming and existential; the willingness to cut transactional deals with any actor with whom the United States shares even the most passing interests; the aspiration to get other countries to do more in the world so that the United States can slough off some of the burdens of superpowerdom – all of these concepts are at play in Trump's advocacy of a counterterrorism partnership with Putin. But hopping in bed with Russia in Syria is an ill-considered and potentially dangerous proposition, and trading away Ukraine-related sanctions for this cooperation would be an even worse idea, for several reasons.
Contrary to what Trump has often asserted, the fact is that Russia's military campaign in Syria – the campaign that Trump essentially wants to marry with U.S. military efforts against the Islamic State – has never actually been about counterterrorism. Its overarching goal, and one that it has been fairly successful in achieving, is to fortify the Assad regime in power and thereby protect Russia's strategic position in Syria and the broader Middle East. This means that the vast majority of Russian airstrikes and other operations have not targeted extremist groups, whether the Islamic State or the Nusra Front (al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, which now calls itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham). Rather, Moscow has most aggressively targeted the non-extremist opposition to Assad (and civilians in opposition-held areas), in an effort to eliminate any sort of politically plausible and internationally acceptable alternative to the regime. From the outset of the Russian intervention in September 2015, in fact, as much as 85-90 percent of Russian airstrikes have targeted this moderate opposition. Russia is fighting a war in Syria, all right, but it certainly isn't our war.
Cooperating with Russia would also likely mean allying with Assad – Russia's junior partner in the conflict – and thus partnering with a regime that is responsible for the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. Just this week, Amnesty International reported that 13,000 people have been hanged in Saydnaya military prison since 2011, in addition to countless others who have died from torture or inhumane conditions. This probably doesn't bother Trump – he has asserted (mostly erroneously) that "Assad is killing ISIS," and he has made clear that he believes the United States needs to be willing to play rough, perhaps to the point of committing war crimes, in the struggle against jihadist terror groups. But the dangers of allying, whether explicitly or tacitly, with Assad go far beyond humanitarian concerns.
If the United States casts its lot with forces that are killing countless Syrians, mostly Sunnis, in the context of the Syrian civil war, that will only foster more extremism – directed at America – over the long-term. The next time Russia and Assad pull an Aleppo (in Idlib province, for example), by bombing and starving a vulnerable civilian population into de facto surrender, the United States will be complicit, and it will eventually reap all the ideological blowback that comes with such complicity. Moreover, it will also be complicit in behavior that is likely to worsen the ongoing migration crisis, which continues to destabilize Europe politically, and which Trump himself has blamed for the spread of Islamic radicalism on the continent.
That's not the only way in which partnering with Russia and Assad will undercut, rather, than enhance, U.S. counterterrorism efforts. This approach is likely to alienate precisely the Middle Eastern allies the United States needs in the counter-Islamic State fight. If Trump wants to intensify the campaign against the Islamic State, he will need Saudi Arabia, the other Persian Gulf monarchies, and Turkey to intensify their own efforts. But many of those countries loathe Assad – so much, in fact, that they have been supporting Syrian opposition forces for several years. If the United States effectively joins forces with Putin and Assad in Syria, it runs the risk of undercutting cooperation with these Middle Eastern partners. If a U.S.-Russian partnership in Syria also leads to a further weakening of the non-extremist opposition – as it almost certainly will – the Gulf countries and Turkey (which already back a number of hardline Islamist opposition groups) might also respond by becoming even less discriminating with respect to which groups they support in Syria, thereby fueling rather than extinguishing the forces of extremism in that country.
As this danger implies, the most likely beneficiaries of a U.S.-Russia compact are the exact same extremist groups against which that partnership would ostensibly be directed. For if the remaining moderate Syrian opposition groups perceive that the United States has abandoned them and made common cause with Moscow, they will have no incentive to resist aligning with Nusra and other extremists, if only as a means of survival. The result is that Nusra and other extremist groups will become even more deeply woven into the fabric of the Syrian opposition than they already are, giving them greater political and military leverage down the road. Extremist groups are most easily targeted and defeated when they are isolated; partnering with Moscow would have precisely the opposite effect.
Moreover, it will be extremely difficult to pursue any sort of partnership with Russia in Syria without cutting across another one of Trump's oft-stated foreign-policy priorities – pushing back more aggressively against Iran. Last week, both Trump and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn put Tehran "on notice" that their destabilizing activities across the Middle East would no longer be tolerated, and quickly announced new sanctions related to Iran's ballistic missile program. Yet Iran is aligned with Putin and Assad in Syria, and it has a fundamental strategic interest in seeing Assad's regime preserved. Iran is, therefore, likely to gain significantly from any situation in which Washington casts aside the Syrian opposition and joins up with Moscow and its allies. In an effort to work with Russia to create a "safe zone" in southern Syria, for example, the United States might find itself in the position helping Iran consolidate its supply lines to Hezbollah and its influence in the Levant – a prospect that the Trump administration, to say nothing of the Israelis – would presumably find horrifying.
The Trump administration could attempt to mitigate this danger by conditioning its cooperation with Russia on it and the Assad regime cutting ties with Iran and Hezbollah and requiring their forces to depart the country. (The Trump administration may also attempt to get Moscow to cut off its military sales to Iran.) A deal like this could conceivably keep Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other regional states "on side" since their opposition to Assad mostly stems from his alliance with Tehran. But there's a catch: given the broad and deep role Iran, Hezbollah, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias play in propping up Assad's forces on the ground, it is highly unlikely Assad would jettison this partnership – and, if he tried, Tehran would push back hard. Previous ceasefires cut behind Iran's back have been scuttled by Iranian-backed forces. Any attempt to completely box Iran out of Syria would go to the heart of Tehran's interest in maintaining an ability to project power into the Levant and support Hezbollah against Israel. Thus, if Team Trump tries to cut a deal with Putin at Iran's expense they should expect to see Iran's well-armed proxies – in both Syria and Iraq – play a spoiler's role that could undermine counter-Islamic State efforts and incentivize Iranian-backed forces to target vulnerable U.S. forces on the ground in those countries.
For all of these reasons, joining forces with Russia would be a dangerous gambit. The Obama administration understood those dangers when it considered pursuing more limited military cooperation with Russia in Syria in 2016. As was widely reported at the time, the internal administration debate over whether to pursue even minimal military cooperation was one of the most contentious issues of Obama's second term. Thus, the Obama administration always made any possible counterterrorism cooperation with Russia in Syria subject to strict conditions.
In the summer and early fall of 2016, during the negotiations over a potential "Joint Implementation Center" to conduct coordinated targeting against Nusra and the Islamic State, Obama insisted that Moscow enforce a nationwide ceasefire (including in besieged Aleppo) and ensure unfettered humanitarian access across Syria for the United Nations as preconditions. Obama also required that, if and when the Joint Implementation Center was established, Russia commit to following the laws of war, avoid targeting the moderate opposition, ground Assad's air force over most of the country, provide the United States a veto over Russian counterterrorism targets, and press the Assad regime back into negotiations on a political transition. Ultimately, the Russians proved unable or unwilling to convince Assad (and Iran) to meet these conditions, and the proposal collapsed.
This should be an obvious warning to Trump. If his administration engages in no-strings attached cooperation with Moscow, it will be complicit in Russian actions fueling the civil war and Islamic extremism. And if Trump attempts to impose meaningful conditions, Putin is unlikely to agree to, or consistently honor, the deal.
If going all-in with Russia in Syria is thus likely to prove counterproductive, the irony is that it is also unnecessary. Trump often alleges that the counter-Islamic State campaign is failing, and that Russia can bring a great deal of counterterrorism capability to the table. But neither assertion is true. On the few occasions when Russia has actually targeted the Islamic State, it hasn't done that well. In fact, one of the few areas in which the Islamic State has gained territory in the past 18 months has been against Russian and Syrian regime forces around Palmyra. Nor can Russia bring much effective military muscle to a campaign to liberate Raqqa; its forces are largely committed to fighting the opposition and stabilizing Assad's regime in western Syria, far from the de facto capital of the Islamic State.
Most importantly, the counter-Islamic State campaign is not failing; it is progressing steadily and is now on the verge of success. U.S. and U.S.-supported operations have significantly reduced the Islamic State's manpower, territory, combat capabilities, financial resources, and morale – especially since the campaign was intensified in mid– and late 2015. The Islamic State has not taken significant territory from U.S.-backed forces since the fall of Ramadi in May 2015; it has lost control of cities from Fallujah and Ramadi in Western Iraq, to Manbij and Jarabulus in Northern Syria. Operations to retake Mosul and Raqqa – the geographic hubs of the so-called caliphate, and the last major population centers under Islamic State control – are underway; approximately half of Mosul has been retaken and Raqqa is being encircled by a U.S.-backed coalition of Syrian Kurds and aligned-Arab forces. Even if Trump does nothing new to augment the counter-Islamic State campaign, those cities are likely to be liberated in the next several months.
To be sure, there are still very tough issues that have to be navigated in these fights – including post-liberation governance challenges in Mosul and managing tensions between Syrian Kurds and NATO ally Turkey in the context of Raqqa. But deeper cooperation with Moscow would do almost nothing to address these lingering challenges.
Looking beyond the Islamic State, potential external operations by Nusra represent a threat that will likely grow in the years ahead. But this threat will be made worse – not better – if Trump aligns with Russia in a manner that pushes more opposition groups into Nusra's clutches. To address this threat, it would be better for the United States to work with all parties to advance a political settlement that reduces incentives for opposition groups to cooperate with Nusra, while intensifying its unilateral operations against that group's external operators.
Last but not least, if the idea of lining up with Russia against the Islamic State isn't bad enough, the notion of trading away Ukraine-related sanctions relief to obtain such cooperation is even worse. The Trump team may view such a deal as a shrewd bargain that exchanges something the president doesn't care about – Ukraine – for Russian cooperation where the United States needs it most. But in reality, this would be a needless giveaway. The one thing that became very clear to us in working on this issue in 2015-2016 is that Russia wants counterterrorism cooperation in Syria as a goal in and of itself. Putin sees such cooperation as a way of legitimizing his pro-Assad campaign and breaking Russia's diplomatic isolation. In other words, there is no need for any unrelated side payments to sweeten the deal. If Trump executes such a "bargain," then one imagines that there will be a lot of quiet Kremlin gloating about "the art of the steal." The only thing throwing Ukraine under the bus would accomplish is to gravely damage U.S. credibility in Europe, unnerve other anxious front line states along Russia's border, and embolden further aggression by Moscow.
We suspect that none of these issues may be enough to dissuade Trump from pursuing a Russian gambit. Trump has consistently demonstrated that his geopolitical illiteracy knows few bounds. Senior advisors like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, likely understand the risks – but the president's reasoning is frequently impervious to contradictory information or expertise. Still, the very real dangers attached to a U.S.-Russia partnership in Syria really ought to give the president and those around him some pause. Trump wants a stronger and more effective counterterrorism strategy – but playing Russian roulette in Syria is not the right answer.