By Dr. Matthew Crosston, Nenad Drca
Over the years America has made little progress in Iraq and Syria, something Russia is determined to change apparently.
The Obama administration maintains that a lasting political solution requires Mr. Assad’s departure, but facing Russian military involvement, Iranian ground troops, Hezbollah military units, many armed jihadists groups, and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United States is facing a very convoluted and unclear situation that it seems unable to overcome on its own. NATO is concerned with the recent Russian creation of an A2/AD zone (anti access/area denial system) in Syria. This anti access/area denial strategy could severely hinder the ability of the Western alliance to use its military assets in Syria. Moscow’s military moves in the Middle East and its geopolitical positioning around the globe strive to embarrass America’s image as a reliable and confident player when it comes geopolitics and fighting terror. For the most part, this is just Russia employing a ‘turnabout is fair play’ principle, after what it feels is American harassment of Russia on many fronts. What is clear, after a subtle analysis of the consequences of Russia’s entrance into Syria, is an entanglement of enemies that might signal much more chaos before any substantive coordination.
The new U.S. strategy against DAESH in Syria will be backed by special operations forces in Erbil, Northern Iraq, and meant to be strengthened by cooperation with the Iraqi military in retaking key cities, with expanded security assistance by Jordan and Lebanon. This was done to counter the sudden Russian military expansion into the region. Iraqi Shiite politicians were calling for Russians to conduct airstrikes against DAESH in Iraq as well. Following intensive talks between Iraqi and U.S. officials, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the Iraqi government had promised it would not request any Russian airstrikes or military support for operations against DAESH. The United States is trying to engage in very demanding diplomatic talks which include the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, firm supporters of Assad, and nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are opposed to the Syrian Assad regime. Of course, it would have been better if these diplomatic talks took place earlier with more intensity, because it is hard to overestimate just how difficult getting all of these disparate players to cooperate at the negotiating table is.
The complexity of these current diplomatic talks is evident by the fact that are still no agreements to establish areas of collaboration in various air campaigns or even to share intelligence and target information in Syria. The lack of military and diplomatic cooperation between Russia and the United States is pushing both sides to resort to Cold War-style tactics of proxy war. In addition, Russian cooperation in the region with Iran could imply proxy conflict that could create tension with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, UAE, and Kuwait. The United States is walking a fine line by attempting to court multiple sides while ensuring certain relationships do not escalate into something much worse. Indeed, it is proving quite difficult to wage war when ‘allies’ do not agree on the ‘enemy.’
Before Russia’s entrance, America’s Persian Gulf allies wanted to fight the Syrian government but refuse to attack radical Islamic groups. Turkey was against the Syrian regime and DAESH but in reality it wanted to fight and weaken the Kurds, which so far have been one of the few good American allies and effective fighters against DAESH. Another U.S. ally, Israel, is cautiously observing the landscape and seems to be ready to act if any threat materializes against its interests. But other than that, Israel seems intent on remaining outside the fight. In all this it is fair to describe the fight against DAESH not so much a coalition but as a competing potpourri: it is more chaos than coordination. Then Russia arrives with a lean but clear objective of assisting its old Arab ally, Assad, while restoring its national prestige in the Middle East. Russia has received full endorsement to stay in the region from both Syria and Iran. A third party, Iraq, is considering the same. By comparison, U.S. diplomats are facing the very difficult task of appeasing many different allies whose demands seem non-negotiable and not compatible with each other.
Asking Russia to stop its air campaign would play into the propaganda that the U.S. is not interested in defeating DAESH if someone else does it. If Russia is allowed to weaken DAESH in Syria and Iraq then that would be a major blow for the U.S. If the United States chooses to follow Turkey’s example of arming certain militant groups, then the risk is that it could find itself with a group of jihadists who are impossible to control at the end of the conflict. Ironically, this is the original criticism Russia made against the U.S. back when the first opposition groups fought against Assad. Another choice is to join Russia in its fight but that will make the U.S. look like it is endorsing a leader it has accused of dictatorship and oppression. So far, America simply seems incapable of cooperating openly with Russia, even with the terror fight.
Are there any real options for this conflict in terms of diplomatic negotiations and concessions? Realistic electoral transition in Syria cannot take place without advanced talks and a lasting ceasefire, in addition to international observers. Only the combined pressure from Russia and the United States can realistically force those conditions on Syria. Russia can use massive debt to pressure Syria to comply and to promise economic relief once Assad is replaced. The alternative for Moscow is to indefinitely support the Syrian regime and military. That could be something economically unpalatable to Putin. In a show of good will, Europe and the U.S. could suspend their sanctions against Russia and encourage Turkey to remind Russia of its plans to expand trade there from $32 billion to $100 billion dollars in the next five years. The EU can assure the Russians that they will support cutting the weapons flow to jihadist groups throughout the area that often include Chechens. Reassurance from the EU and Turkey about stopping the weapons flow would make Russia feel better about militant groups such as Jaish Al-Muhajireen and Jaish Al Fatah, in addition to DAESH, which all include Chechen fighters. Russia is worried that hardened Chechen jihadists will always return from Middle East battlefields to Southern Russia and launch terrorist attacks against Russian citizens, something that has already played out in the past with both the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.
These diplomatic discussions could potentially bring some militants and government representatives into direct negotiations, which Geneva talks have always failed to accomplish. To this end aid could be provided only to non-Salafist militants who promise a protection of religious minorities. The role of YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Unit) will have to be carefully negotiated with Turkey. In short, there are far more questions than answers involving far more players than most Western media reports seem to realize. This entanglement of enemies is far more complex than a simple reduction to Cold War proxies. Indeed, the world should be afraid when we look longingly at the prospect of Cold War proxy conflicts as an improvement over the current state of affairs.
Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science, Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program, and the Miller Chair at Bellevue University; Nenad Drca is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE.