- Mandel Ngan/Pool/Reuters
The US will share intelligence with Russian officials about Al Qaeda in Syria if Russian warplanes refrain from launching airstrikes outside certain “designated areas,” according to the preliminary terms of the Joint Implementation Group proposed by the Obama administration last week.
The text of the agreement, first obtained by The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, proposes that Russia and the US expand their military coordination in Syria “to defeat Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh [ISIS] within the context of strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities [CoH] and supporting the political transition process outlined in UNSCR 2254.”
“UNSCR 2254” refers to the United Nations Security Council resolution adopted in December calling for an immediate end to attacks on civilian targets and a political settlement to the Syrian civil war.
The new JIG proposal calls on Russia to limit its air operations to targeting Al Qaeda in agreed-upon “designated areas.” It also proposes that the Syrian army completely halt its aerial bombardments. But the text seems to explicitly allow Russia to “strike in areas where the opposition is dominant,” even if Al Qaeda has only “some possible” presence there.
From the proposal (emphasis added):
“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. Even prior to the establishment of the JIG, technical experts from the U.S. and Russia will plot the geo-coordinates of these designated areas.”
Russia first intervened on behalf of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in late September. Then, many analysts were quick to point out that Moscow was using the real or fabricated presence of some jihadist elements in opposition-held areas as an excuse to attack anti-Assad rebel groups, many of whom are backed by the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
Noticing the trend, Washington called on Moscow to stop launching airstrikes in areas under non-jihadist rebel control. It has continued to do so for the better part of 10 months, largely to no avail.
Responding to criticism over its air raids – which have killed hundreds of civilians living in rebel-held territory, according to human-rights groups – Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month that the “continuing mingling in places of the so-called moderate opposition” with Nusra is “complicating antiterrorist action.”
Since then – likely in preparation for its impending military alliance with the Russians – the US has been urging rebel groups to leave areas where Nusra is present so Russian warplanes can strike these terrorist elements without hitting the mainstream opposition.
- Institute for the Study of War
To that end, some analysts say, the US has demonstrated that it is more willing to work on the Kremlin’s terms than on those of the rebels – and members of the US defense and intelligence communities are baffled.
“Congress needs to take a deep look at the US-RU mil cooperation plan,” former Defense Intelligence Agency official Jeff White, now a defense fellow at the Washington Institute, wrote on Twitter. It’s “a significant commitment of US mil and intel to a very questionable operation,” he added.
Asked to elaborate in an email, White told Business Insider that he “would agree” that the proposal offers a “loophole” for the Russians to continue bombing the moderate opposition under the guise of targeting Nusra – and that, overall, “this is a bad proposal.”
“It’s kind of a diplomatic Hail Mary to rescue the Obama admin’s flailing Syria policy,” he said. “It’s putting us in bed with the Russians, and we’re the ones likely to get screwed. It’s no surprise that there is opposition within the Defense Department – Kerry is asking the military to bail the administration out of four years of failed policy in Syria.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an intelligence official told Reuters that “it isn’t clear” why the administration thinks it can enlist the Russians to support its goals in Syria.
The proposal amounts to “ignoring the fact that the Russians and their Syrian allies have made no distinction between bombing ISIS and killing members of the moderate opposition, including some people that we’ve trained,” the official said.
“Why would we share intelligence and targeting information with people who’ve been doing that?” the official added.
‘Cozying up to Moscow’
Moderate opposition groups have expressed concern that working with the Russians to weaken Nusra, which sometimes coordinates with the non-Islamist rebel groups to fight the regime, will inevitably strengthen Assad.
Washington’s Sunni Arab allies – including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – who arm and support many of Syria’s opposition groups have apparently voiced similar fears.
“The president has said that Assad has got to go, and our allies, especially the Saudis, hold that view very strongly,” a defense official told Reuters. “In fact, they keep asking us why we’re cozying up to Moscow.”
That complaint alone is unlikely to convince the Obama administration that it should not at least try to stall the jihadist group’s momentum. Experts have noted, however, that Nusra’s appeal might only grow if the US allows Russia to continue targeting opposition groups that are the only actors on the ground capable of challenging Nusra’s influence.
There is “no underestimating how much it will, for many Syrians, prove Jabhat al-Nusra’s narrative was ‘right’ all along,” in its doubts that the US was supporting the opposition against Assad, Middle East expert Charles Lister told The Telegraph last week.
Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst at the Henry Jackson think tank, largely agreed.
“The deal is the culmination of the process where the US moves into alignment with the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia in Syria,” Orton told the Telegraph. “The rebellion will feel, not unjustifiably, that this is the US taking sides against them.”
- Hosam Katan/Reuters
Indeed, as moderate rebel groups continue to be targeted, Syrians in opposition to Assad will likely view coordination with more extreme Islamist rebel brigades such as Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham as their only option – especially as they become increasingly disenchanted with the US and its warming relationship with Russia.
“The Americans refuse to strengthen the factions,” Zakariya Malahfji of Tajamu Fastaqim Kama Umrit, an FSA group vetted by the US based in Aleppo, told Charles Lister. “But at the same time, they object to us allowing al-Nusra to help in our battles. This is illogical.”
He added: “It’s likely that we’ll enter into a period of guerrilla warfare – a war of the streets, of bombings and raids.”
White, of the Washington Institute, noted that if Russia “faithfully executed” the scheme as proposed, taregting only Nusra, it might add value to the US’ counterterrorism fight.
“But that’s a big assumption, and there are high risks of being that closely associated with Russian [military operations],” he added. “Russia and the regime fight a different war than we do.”