US, Russia talk Syria, but Pentagon ready to walk
By PAUL MCLEARY | Foreign Policy | Published: September 3, 2016
After more than six weeks of on-again, off-again talks, American and Russian negotiators remain huddled in Geneva, trying to hammer out an agreement on a ceasefire in Syria, and potentially, on coordinating air strikes against jihadist targets there.
But few in the Pentagon, at least, have much faith in Moscow.
"I don't trust the Russians one iota," a senior defense official with knowledge of the negotiations told Foreign Policy. "No one thinks that any of this is actually going to come to pass."
The latest round of talks kicked off on Wednesday with the hope of reaching a preliminary agreement before U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in China on Sept. 4.
On the table is a tough set of conditions that Moscow would have to get Syria to agree to, and uphold, before any U.S-Russian coordination could take place.
First would be grounding the Syrian air force and ending the barrel bombing of cities like Aleppo and Homs in order to allow humanitarian aid to reach millions of trapped civilians. Moscow, which is backing the regime of Bashar al Assad, would also have to stop bombing Syrian opposition forces who are battling Assad. The U.S. — and Russia — would remain free to bomb the Islamic State during the ceasefire, however.
Only after the Syrians and Russians stand down and aid starts flowing would the U.S. consider working with the Russians to target the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's one-time affiliate in the country.
During this latest round of talks, "the message to the Russians does have to be that there's a window closing here, and we need to see that they can reach a real agreement and that they can back it up," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters at the White House Aug. 29.
The proposal hasn't gone over well at the Pentagon, where defense officials have continually blasted Russian motivations in Syria and expressed deep misgivings over taking Moscow at its word.
"The Russians are using these talks in Geneva just as a cover to continue taking Daraya and bombing the crap out of the opposition in southwest Aleppo," the defense official said, "so they can say 'we're talking to the Americans,' meanwhile they're hitting the ground hard." The official added that "we're not falling for this naively, so if they violate its terms, then we just walk away."
The newly installed commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State isn't convinced, either. On the day he took command in Baghdad last month, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said that "as a soldier, I'm fairly skeptical of the Russians," adding that he's hesitant "to believe the coalition can cooperate with them."
Critics have said that if a deal is reached, the United States would risk losing support among the various rebel factions on the ground. Many are already skeptical of the United States, which prods the rebels to fight ISIS, but is less keen to see rebels take on the Syrian government, which is responsible for the vast majority of the 500,000 deaths in the five year-old civil war.
Targeting Nusra fighters without accidentally hitting other opposition forces could prove next to impossible, as the rebel units are mixed together on the ground in a latticework of shifting alliances, said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. And opposition groups that have ties to Western governments have repeatedly rejected appeals from Washington to move out of areas where Nusra is located.
"They're all refusing to do so," Lister said, as "they would see it as effectively ceding territory to the regime."
Even if coordinated air raids against Nusra could be carried out successfully, any deal between Russia and the United States likely would jeopardize Washington's long-term goal of reaching a political settlement to end the war, as it could destroy any leverage the U.S. still had with the more moderate rebels, experts and former diplomats said.
"Trust is already at an all-time low," Lister said, "but there is still a desire within the mainstream opposition to work with the West in general, including the United States. But external intervention like this would be catastrophic in damaging that level of trust."
The former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, agreed.
"The Syrian rebels have looked at the U.S., and particularly this partnership with the Russians, and said 'if the Americans are defending the Russians, then the Americans are not credible,'" Ford said.
The American defense official admitted that "we would have to sell this to the opposition. We want to do something that is in their interest and would create a genuine humanitarian pause."
While the talks continue, American and Russian defense officials — and their Facebook accounts — have become embroiled in a back-and-forth over who really killed Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State's propaganda chief and operational commander, killed in an airstrike near Aleppo earlier this week.
After ISIS announced his death Tuesday and American officials acknowledged that they targeted him in an airstrike, Moscow said that its own bombers had killed the jihadist along with 40 others.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook rejected the claim, telling reporters Wednesday, "we don't have any information at this point to support Russian claims that they carried out this strike." In a shot at Russian operations in Syria, Cook noted that Moscow's aircraft rarely target Islamic State objectives, instead spending "much of its time supporting the Assad regime." Another defense official anonymously called the Russian claim "a joke."
In response, the Russian Ministry of Defense posted a rebuttal on its Facebook account Friday, saying "it is not a surprise that the Pentagon has no information" on the Russian strike, and calling Russian claims a joke "is the sole thing they can say to justify their unawareness."
FP's Dan De Luce contributed to this report.