July 19, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Consequences of U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Syria

• U.S. Secretary of State Kerry met with Russian President Putin on July 15, in what might be a significant shift towards coordinated military strikes against Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State

• The U.S. hopes that any coordination will effectively ground Assad’s air force and help ‘moderate’ rebel groups distance themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra 

• Any clear demarcation between extremists and moderates in a crowded battlefield is unlikely

• The current outlook for the anti-Assad rebels is decidedly more negative than it has been in several years, with Aleppo currently surrounded by regime forces.


In the 1,953 days since the start of the Syrian Civil War, the conflict has steadily devolved into a battle of extremes, and a beleaguered middle ground. The terms used to define aspects of the war—such as ‘ceasefire' or ‘moderate'—no longer maintain their original meanings. Nor are there any remaining off-limit targets such as hospitals, schools, journalists, and doctors. The blurring of the lines is the product of both the deliberate strategy of the Assad regime, and the increasing desperation and extremism of the rebel movement. Relatively moderate rebel groups fight alongside the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra because it is an effective partner in the fight against Assad. 

In an effort to alter the war’s dynamics and perhaps force a clearer demarcation between rebel and terrorist groups, the U.S. has proposed unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation with Russia in Syria. Up until now, the most coordination the two countries have managed is avoiding direct military confrontation in the crowded Syrian skies. In recent months, Russia has even targeted U.S.-backed rebel groups. The Russian military claims it was unaware that targeted units were among those protected under the ceasefire—which now exists only on paper. Despite this, Russia has consistently sought direct military coordination with the United States, both as a means of legitimizing Moscow’s role as a major power in any eventual resolution, and of framing the conflict as one between state actors and terrorists.

On July 15, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry traveled to Moscow, where he met with Russian President Putin. On July 14, the Washington Post published details regarding a proposed ‘Joint Implementation Group’ (JIG) in Jordan, in which military liaison officers would map out Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State locations that would be targeted by one or both of the two countries. Under the terms of the proposal, which has not been accepted or enacted, Russia would limit its airstrikes to those agreed upon by the JIG, with a wide allowance for personnel protection and movements by Jabhat al-Nusra. Russia would also be expected to pressure the Assad regime to stand down its air force—though it is unclear how feasible this provision is. The Syrian air force has seen several of its aircraft, fighter jets and helicopters downed by rebel forces as well as the Islamic State; the Russian air force is far more effective and has helped turned the tide of the war since last year.

The best-case scenario for Syria is one in which Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State are under concerted pressure from two very capable air forces, while anti-Assad rebels avoid airstrikes. In such a scenario, all sides, recognizing the impossibility of military victory, would work towards a transitional resolution. However, such a plan rests on the significant assumption that Russia and the Assad regime will not bomb all rebel groups; during the ceasefire, they have routinely bombed groups included on the no-strike list. In cases like the rebel-held part of Aleppo, now under regime siege, it is impossible to separate rebel groups from Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups. The rebel reaction to U.S.-Russian military cooperation in Syria will likely be quite negative. Such a move will be seen as proof of a vast conspiracy to keep the Assad regime in power—a Russian priority—while striking at Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State—a U.S. priority.


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