Can Russia and the United States Cooperate in Syria?

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Thomas Graham

A senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for International Affairs at Yale University, was the senior director for Russia on the US National Security Council staff 2004-2007.

A year ago at the United Nations, President Putin called for the creation of a grand anti-terrorism coalition to defeat extremist forces wreaking havoc in Syria and inspiring terrorist acts elsewhere in the world.  Shortly before, Russia had caught the world by surprise by deploying an expeditionary force to that country in support of the Assad regime against a burgeoning rebellion, in which terrorist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nursa, recently rebranded as Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (after having severed, it claims, its ties to al-Qaida) figured prominently.  Putin met with President Obama at the United Nations to discuss possible cooperation against ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria.

At that time, the most the two presidents could agree to was to have the Russian and American militaries work on “de-conflicting” their operations over the crowded air space in Syria.  Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Kerry were instructed to explore other avenues of cooperation both to defeat the terrorists and to bring an end to the civil war in Syria, in part by creating a forum of non-terrorist Syrian forces and Assad’s supporters to negotiate a political transition to a new popularly backed government.  The US-Russian agreement on a ceasefire agreed earlier this month is the latest effort to reach those goals.  Earlier ones unraveled, and this one now faces the same fate, as Moscow suspects that a US attack on Syrian forces in Deir el-Zour was not accidental as Washington claims and Washington, for its part, accuses Russia of bombing a UN humanitarian convoy outside Aleppo.

Why has it proved so difficult to cooperate against terrorists in Syria, even as both Moscow and Washington insist that defeating them is one of their top goals?

To begin with, the United States and Russia understand terrorism in profoundly different ways.  For Americans, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were the defining moment:  An alien force based abroad (al-Qaida) launched a direct attack against the American homeland as part of a campaign ultimately aimed at destroying the United States as a functioning democratic society.  For Russians, the Chechen conflicts of the 1990’s and 2000’s epitomized terrorism:  a disaffected group of Russian citizens struck Moscow and other cities as part of a larger effort to tear a piece of territory away from Russia to form their own independent state.  For Americans, terrorism represents first and foremost a fanatical assault on American values.  For Russians, it is inextricably linked with extremism and separatism, an assault on a political order and a country’s territorial integrity.

From these differences flow diverging assessments of what the core of a counterterrorism strategy should be.  While the United States is more than willing to use military force to kill individual terrorists, it sees the ultimate defeat of terrorism in the spread of democratic values. President Obama might not speak of a Freedom Agenda as President George W. Bush did, but he still sees the advance of democratic principles as essential to longterm success in counterterrorism.  Russia, by contrast, puts more credence in the harsh suppression of terrorists and bearers of anti-regime ideas and attitudes.  This is the way it prosecuted the war against Chechen rebels, and it is the way it fights isolated extremist cells in the North Caucasus today.  The United States sees and works against an international, mutually supportive, anti-Western network of terrorist groups, whereas Moscow sees global links but tends to focus on groups that pose direct threats to Russia and its territorial integrity.

The divergences are on vivid display in American and Russian approaches to the Syrian conflict, especially in the assessment of the Assad regime.  From Washington’s standpoint, Assad’s brutal effort to crush a legitimate protest movement sparked the violence across Syria and created the conditions in which ISIS and other terrorist organizations could emerge and flourish.  Assad’s continuing brutality against civilians produces a pool of recruits for the terrorists.   For this reason, Washington considers Assad’s removal and the replacement of his

Alawite-based regime with a more inclusive one a condition for ending the civil war and eventually defeating the terrorists.  From Moscow’s standpoint, by contrast, the Assad regime is the only effective anti-terrorist force in Syria.  Its removal would open the way for a terrorist victory throughout Syria.  Consequently, any resistance against Assad objectively supports the terrorists.  For this reason, Moscow has been staunch in its support of Assad.  In short, Washington sees moderate anti-Assad forces with legitimate grievances and illegitimate terrorist forces, while Moscow believes that such a distinction is meaningless and that Washington’s inability to persuade the moderates it supports to separate from terrorist groups confirms its point of view.

Beyond the narrow issue of terrorism itself, two other factors conspire against effective cooperation in Syria: renewed rivalry in the Middle East and pervasive distrust in bilateral relations.

The Syrian conflict is embedded in the greater struggle between traditionalism and modernity and among sects and ethnic groups that has been transforming the Middle East for a decade or more, and most intensely since the eruption of the Arab Spring four years ago.  Moscow might be right that America’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003 lies behind the current troubles in Syria and Iraq, but that does not explain the region-wide upheaval.  More to the point, the upheaval is intensified by a better rivalry among the regional powers, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and, to a lesser degree, Egypt.   Until Russia’s intervention in Syria the United States had been the only outside power with a major role in shaping the balance among these regional powers since Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviet Union from his country in 1972. Russia’s return can only complicate America’s position in the region, as the regional powers explore the benefits they might gain from closer ties with Russia.  Even America’s traditional partners are seeking to use the possibility of improved relations with Russia as leverage in dealing with the United States.

US-Russian competition in the Middle East is embittered by the deep distrust that now permeates relations between the two countries.  That distrust has grown out of the disappointment in both Moscow and Washington at the failures to build an enduring partnership after the Cold War and the tendency in each capital to blame the other for the shortcomings. But it is itself grounded in different worldviews, concepts of world order, and historical experiences that were never honestly confronted and now stand front and center in relations.  And the breakdown in channels of communication after the eruption of the Ukraine crisis only enables each country to nurture its deepest suspicions of the other side, thus amplifying the distrust.

So is there a path to cooperation in Syria that advances the interests of both countries?  Perhaps we could find one if we narrowed our focus to joint efforts against ISIS, to include intelligence sharing and from time to time joint operations against specific targets of concern to both countries.  Or perhaps we could find it in a broader discussion of the future of the Middle East and rules of the road to manage our competition to diminish the risk of serious confrontation.  These are small matters, to be sure, compared to resolving the Syrian conflict.  But doing that  appears to be beyond us at this time.  In these circumstances, small steps forward would be better than continued failure in a grander endeavor.

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