The U.S. government appears to have struck a new and groundbreaking agreement on closer cooperation with Russia in Syria. The deal, reported by the Washington Post on Thursday, was allegedly made June 27 amid other major U.S. diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis in Syria after peace talks failed. Some sources even indicated that Washington facilitated the recent moves to normalize ties between Russia and Turkey, a fraught relationship that has been a source of instability for over a year.
This proposal would reportedly see U.S. forces share information on targets with Russian forces and launch a joint bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra in exchange for an end to Russian bombings of moderate rebel forces. If confirmed, this would be one of the biggest shifts in strategy since the start of the Syrian civil war. The risks of a wider clash with Russia would significantly diminish, and the rebel movement would be weakened. Most important, Moscow would have an opening to both secure its interests in Syria and break its geopolitical isolation.
Washington's top priority in Syria has always been to defeat the Islamic State — this is why the U.S.-led coalition was formed in 2014. That objective remains the primary focus. The U.S. government, however, sees ending the Syrian civil war itself as crucial to achieving this goal and maintaining stability. And Washington sees the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad as the root of Syria's problems and of the war that has fostered extremism. This was the motivation behind backing more moderate rebel forces: to coerce the Syrian government and its Russian backers to accept a transition that maintains the Syrian state institutions and ends most fighting.
For several months, Washington has pushed negotiations in Geneva, yielding numerous cease-fires. The United States also warned the Syrian government to negotiate seriously, threatening a "Plan B" of increased weapons supplies to rebel forces if the negotiations failed. The talks did eventually fail, but with the Russians ramping up their military efforts and targeting of U.S.-backed rebel forces, the United States hesitated to go to Plan B. It feared stymying future peace efforts and risking a direct clash with Russia.
The June 27 proposal is Washington's attempt to redraw the parameters in Syria and avoid further escalation. The proposal offers several concessions to Russia. The first is to actively cooperate with the Russian military, even sharing data on targeting. Moscow has clamored for this measure for some time because it would break Russia's isolation and force a conversation with Washington. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter reportedly opposed the proposal because of this concession, fearing a gradual weakening of the U.S. and allied pressure on Russia over events in Ukraine and elsewhere. The agreement also offers to set up a joint and expanded bombing campaign by U.S. and Russian forces against Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's branch in Syria, which is a principal fighting force in the wider rebellion. This, too, is a major concession to the Russians, who have been pushing the United States hard on the fact that extremist elements are a significant part of the rebel landscape.
In return, the United States has asked Russia to stop bombing moderate rebel forces and to pressure the Syrian government to do the same. Unwilling to trust the Russians with the exact locations of the rebels it supports, the United States has proposed setting up specific geographic non-bombing zones where moderate rebels are active.
Moscow is likely to be pleased with the U.S. proposal, although much depends on the zones chosen for exemption from bombing. Russia and its loyalist allies will indeed need to curtail their targeting of more moderate rebel factions. This will be balanced out, however, as they step up efforts against Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups, some of the strongest components of the rebel movement. This proposal is a golden opportunity for Russia to carry out its divide-and-conquer strategy, defeating rebel groups piecemeal. The defeat of the jihadists would mean a strengthened loyalist position relative to the remaining rebels. From such a position, the Syrian government would have little reason to make concessions to its opponents.
In addition to these built-in advantages, the plan also presents numerous loopholes for Russia to exploit. While Russia is likely to cease bombing in the designated zones, there is no guarantee that loyalist forces will halt their strikes; occasional violations can be expected. Furthermore, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups are so deeply embedded among other rebel groups that it will be difficult to find many areas where non-bombing zones can be set up without a jihadist presence. Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups have proved to be the most effective anti-al Assad forces on the battlefield. When they have been asked to move away from other rebel partners, those partners have quickly crumbled and requested that they return. Without the help of jihadist groups, the so-called moderate opposition will sustain heavy losses. For this reason, it will be difficult for them to disentangle themselves from the jihadists. Finally, there is no assurance that Jabhat al-Nusra will not simply move its forces into the designated zones to avoid the bombing.
The pitfalls in the proposal reportedly divided the White House and necessitated weeks of deliberation. Nevertheless, the shift in strategy is in line with the Obama administration's strategy. Washington's focus has been on the Islamic State, and it has worked to deconflict with the Russians and end the Syrian civil war as part of the overall objective of maintaining stability in Syria. From the administration's point of view, although the overthrow of al Assad is desirable, it is not worth the risk of a wider conflict with Russia. Such a clash would only distract from efforts to defeat the Islamic State.
But the U.S. move will anger regional allies that have been preparing to increase support for the rebel forces. The Gulf states, principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar, will likely see the move as an outright betrayal. Already suspicious of U.S. motives, the Saudis and Qataris may abandon their recent combined effort with Washington in Syria to provide their own weaponry independently, potentially extending to delivery of man-portable air defense systems. In spite of its support for rebel groups, Turkey may be more willing to accommodate the shift given its desire to repair links with Russia and primary focus on containing the Kurdish People's Protection Units.
If the reports of the proposal prove to be accurate, the strategic landscape in Syria is set to shift significantly. With closer U.S.-Russia coordination and a weakened rebel movement, the chances of significant concessions by Russia and the Syrian government will diminish. But by eliminating the risk of escalation with Russia, the deal would give Washington greater latitude in reaching its primary goal: the defeat of the Islamic State.