The Obama administration has proposed a new agreement on Syria to the Russian government that would deepen military cooperation between the two countries against some terrorists in exchange for Russia getting the Assad regime to stop bombing U.S.-supported rebels.
The United States transmitted the text of the proposed agreement to the Russian government on Monday after weeks of negotiations and internal Obama administration deliberations, an administration official told me. The crux of the deal is a U.S. promise to join forces with the Russian air force to share targeting and coordinate an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is primarily fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Under the proposal, which was personally approved by President Obama and heavily supported by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the American and Russian militaries would cooperate at an unprecedented level, something the Russians have sought for a long time.
In exchange, the Russians would agree to pressure the Assad regime to stop bombing certain Syrian rebel groups the United States does not consider terrorists. The United States would not give Russia the exact locations of these groups, under the proposal, but would specify geographic zones that would be safe from the Assad regime’s aerial assaults.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was opposed to this plan, officials said, but was ultimately compelled to go along with the president’s decision. For many inside and outside the administration who are frustrated with the White House’s decision-making on Syria, the new plan is fatally flawed for several reasons.
“One big flaw is that it’s clear that the Russians have no intent to put heavy pressure on Assad,” said former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. “And in those instances when the Russians have put pressure on, they’ve gotten minimal results from the Syrians.”
There’s not enough reliable intelligence to distinguish Jabhat al-Nusra targets from the other rebel groups they often live near, Ford said. And even if the Syrians agreed not to bomb certain zones, there would be no way to stop Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups from moving around to adjust. Moreover, increased bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra would be likely to cause collateral damage including civilian deaths, which would only bolster the group’s local support.
“It makes no sense to me,” said Ford. “If they are trying to destroy al-Qaeda in Syria, do they really think bombing them is the way to do it? F-16s do not solve recruitment problems with extremist groups.”
One administration official complained that the plan contains no consequences for the Russians or the Assad regime if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain. Fifty-one U.S. diplomats signed a dissent letter this month calling on the White House to use targeted military force against the Assad regime as a means of increasing the pressure on Assad and giving the U.S. real leverage.
Kerry has been threatening for months that if Assad doesn’t respect the current cease-fire, known as the “cessation of hostilities,” that there was a “Plan B” of increasing arms to the Syrian rebels. But the White House has now scuttled that plan in favor of the proposed Russia deal, which could actually leave the rebels in a far worse position.
Because most Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are fighting Assad, if the plan succeeds, Assad will be in a much better position. Meanwhile, the other Sunni Arab groups that are left fighting Assad will be in a much weaker position, said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The strategy could allow Assad to capture Aleppo, which would be a huge victory for his side in the civil war.
“If the U.S. and Russia open up on Jabhat al-Nusra, that changes the dynamics on the ground in Aleppo and Idlib,” he said. “It would definitely benefit the Assad regime and it could potentially benefit the Kurds and ISIS.”
For Russia, the deal is not just about Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees increased military cooperation as an acknowledgment of Russian importance and a way to gradually unwind Russia’s isolation following the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. That’s why Carter was initially opposed to the plan, officials said.
“The Russians have made it very clear that they want military-to-military cooperation with the U.S., not just to fight terrorism, but to improve their world standing,” said Tabler. “It is a way to be welcomed back into the fold.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on the specifics of the proposal but defended its basic principles.
“We have been clear about Russia’s obligations to ensure regime compliance with the cessation of hostilities. We have also been clear about the danger posed by al-Qaeda in Syria to our own national security,” he said. “We are looking at a number of measures to address both of these issues.”
For the White House, the priority in Syria is not solving the Syrian civil war, which most White House officials believe is intractable, or forcing the ouster of Assad. Senior administration officials admit that Russia and Assad are violating the cease-fire and failing to show the will to advance the political process. But the White House has decided not to go back to the plan of increasing pressure on the Assad regime.
“Analytically speaking, the path of military escalation by one side or the other is not likely to lead to a final outcome in Syria,” one senior administration official told me. “It’s essentially a stalemate.”
The White House wants to keep the cease-fire in place for as long as possible, despite the violations, and wants to keep the political process going, despite the lack of progress.
“We want to keep the violence as low as possible for as long as possible,” the official said. “What we have to look at is, what is the alternative? And the alternative is either the levels of violence that we saw months ago . . . or we could see the violence get even worse.”
CIA Director John Brennan said Wednesday in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations that Russia is “trying to crush” anti-Assad forces and that Moscow has not lived up to its commitments regarding the cease-fire or the political process in Syria. Nevertheless, Brennan said, the United States needs to work with Russia.
“There’s going to be no way forward on the political front without active Russian cooperation and genuine Russian interest in moving forward,” he said.
If the price of getting Russia on board with the Syrian political process is to further abandon the Syrian rebels and hand Assad large swaths of territory, it’s a bad deal. It’s an even worse deal if Russia takes the U.S. offer and then doesn’t deliver on its corresponding obligations.
The Obama administration is understandably trying to find some creative way to salvage its Syria policy in its final months. But the proposal that Obama offered Putin will have costs for the U.S. position vis-à-vis Russia as well as for the Syrian crisis long after Obama leaves office.