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Opinion Obama’s Syria plan teams up American and Russian forces

A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia in 2015 shows a pilot of the Russian air force during a sortie in Syria. (Handout)

The Obama administration's new proposal to Russia on Syria is more extensive than previously known. It would open the way for deep cooperation between U.S. and Russian military and intelligence agencies and coordinated air attacks by American and Russian planes on Syrian rebels deemed to be terrorists, according to the text of the proposal I obtained.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry plans to discuss the plan with top Russian officials in a visit to Moscow on Thursday. As I first reported last month, the administration is proposing joining with Russia in a ramped-up bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syria branch, which is also known as the Nusrah Front. What hasn't been previously reported is that the United States is suggesting a new military command-and-control headquarters to coordinate the air campaign that would house U.S. and Russian military officers, intelligence officials and subject-matter experts.

Overall, the proposal would dramatically shift the United States’ Syria policy by directing more American military power against Jabhat al-Nusra, which unlike the Islamic State is focused on fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While this would expand the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Syria, it would also be a boon for the Assad regime, which could see the forces it is fighting dramatically weakened. The plan also represents a big change in U.S.-Russia policy. It would give Russian President Vladi­mir Putin something he has long wanted: closer military relations with the United States and a thawing of his international isolation. That’s why the Pentagon was initially opposed to the plan.

Yet for all this, it’s not at all clear that the plan will be accepted by Putin — or that Russia will fulfill its terms if he does. Administration officials caution that no final decisions have been made and that no formal agreement has been reached between the two countries. Negotiations over the text are ongoing ahead of Kerry’s arrival in Russia.

Here's a bit of historical context that explains why Russia is fighting to prop up its closest ally in the Middle East. (Video: Ishaan Tharoor and Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The proposed “Joint Implementation Group” (JIG) would be housed near Amman, Jordan, with the mission to “enable expanded coordination between the United States and the Russian Federation beyond the established safety of flight procedures.”

Under the Obama proposal, the United States and Russia would establish separate headquarters at the new operation and a shared coordination office. Each side would be required to deploy at that location “senior national representatives,” intelligence personnel, subject-matter experts and operations personnel “with expertise in national procedures for strike planning, targeting, weaponeering, operational law and other functions.” Both countries would deploy support staff as well, “to manage logistics, force protection, communications and other requirements.” There’s no estimate in the proposal for the exact number of personnel required.

“The participants, through the JIG, should enable coordination between the participants for military operations against” Jabhat al-Nusra, the document states. First, the United States and Russia would share intelligence. Then, if both governments agreed, “the participants should coordinate procedures to permit integrated operations.”

The initial mission would include the United States and Russia developing Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State targets together and then deciding which air force would fly which missions. Later, if both governments agreed, the two air forces could begin “integrated operations” that include assisting each other in the fight.

In exchange for U.S. assistance against Jabhat al-Nusra, the Russian side would be required to limit airstrikes to targets both sides agreed on and also to ensure that the Syrian air force would stand down and not bomb targets in agreed-upon “designated areas.”

The proposal provides some large exceptions for the constraints on the Russians and the Assad regime, however. The Russian air force would still be permitted to strike Jabhat al-Nusra unilaterally if there were an “imminent threat” to their personnel. The Syrian regime would be allowed to bomb Jabhat al-Nusra if the group tried to advance beyond “designated areas” in which they already operate. Also, if Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the regime, even from the “designated areas,” the Russians could come to the aid of the regime, according to the proposal. The details of the “designated areas” are not spelled out in the document.

“All actions should be consistent with the terms of the cessation of hostilities,” the document states, referring the cease-fire. The State Department admits neither Russia nor the Assad regime are adhering to the cease-fire now.

In the second part of the proposal, called the “Approach for Practical Russian-American Cooperation against Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra and Strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities,” the administration spells out details about how it wants the United States and Russia to work together on the ground.

Within five days of establishment of the JIG, the two sides are to come up with a common map of all Jabhat al-Nusra locations and begin sharing intelligence on leadership targets, training camps, logistical depots, supply lines and headquarters. They will then set about developing targets for strikes in the “designated areas.”

“Designated areas include areas of most concentrated Nusrah Front presence, areas of significant Nusrah Front presence, and areas where the opposition is dominant, with some possible Nusrah Front presence,” the proposal states. “The process of target development through the JIG and airstrikes against Nusra targets by Russian Aerospace Forces and/or U.S. military forces will be ongoing and continuous.”

The document concludes by declaring that the United States and Russia should complete another agreement by July 31 on military and intelligence cooperation, a plan for a nationwide cease-fire and a new framework for a political transition in Syria.

One senior administration official described the document as “prudent planning.” “We have long said we would welcome Russia’s increased focus on ISIL and al-Qaida in Syria,” said the official. “It is not surprising that the Department of Defense, as a matter of prudent planning, would devise draft procedures to implement any enhanced coordination.”

Kerry sees the proposal as a way to reduce the violence in Syria and ground the regime’s air force. The risk is that attacking Jabhat al-Nusra in conjunction with the Russians will spur terrorist recruiting, increase civilian casualties and put the United States firmly on the wrong side of the revolution in the eyes of the Syrian people. Also, there’s no enforcement mechanism if the Putin or Assad regimes violate their commitments — as they have consistently done until now.

Even in the best-case scenario, where Russia and Syria hold up their end of the bargain, the result could be major advances for the Assad regime. While Jabhat al-Nusra is a problem, teaming up with the Russian air force might not be the best solution.

Read more about this topic:

Josh Rogin: Kerry touts the Russian line on Syrian rebel groups

Josh Rogin: Obama proposes new military partnership with Russia in Syria

Josh Rogin: The U.S. can’t ignore Russia, or its increasingly horrendous behavior