Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: U.S.-Russia Cooperation in Syria

France renewed its war efforts in Syria in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. In so doing, France entered an environment already dominated by the US and Russia. How does this effect the already complicated balance between Washington and Moscow? What role did Paris have in initiating the Russo-American ceasefire agreement? Leksika's Sean Crowley offers an in-depth examination. 


Background

On 15 November 2015, French warplanes penetrated Syrian airspace, roaring across the country’s desert landscape on a mission of retribution. When they reached the country’s eastern region, the French strike fighters rained down countless bombs upon the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). French airstrikes destroyed over 20 targets including a command post, a training camp, and a recruiting office. The sorties also claimed two civilian lives.

The military assets used in this eye-for-an-eye air campaign had been on station in the Middle East for over a year. In September 2014, France deployed 12 fighter jets along with Dassault Aviation Atlantique 2 spy planes and a United States-made Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker to two air bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. It was from these bases that France launched the 15 November airstrikes. The spearhead of France’s air campaign against the caliphate was the Dassault Rafale multirole fighter jet. With a name that literally means “a gust of wind,” the Rafale is one of the newest and most advanced fighter jets in the world. The pride and joy of a Rafale pilot’s arsenal is the BLU-126, a newly-designed French 250-kilogram bomb meant specifically for use in crowded cities. The bomb is compatible with Global Positioning System (GPS), laser, and infrared guidance. It also has a smaller blast radius than other munitions. Rafale pilots, however, were not the only French aviators seeking vengeance on 15 November. Joining them in the sky were those piloting the Dassault Mirage 2000N and Dassault Mirage 2000D, both older model multirole fighters. At the time, France had three Mirage 2000Ds and three Mirage 2000Ns stationed in Jordan along with six Rafales stationed in the U.A.E.  

The French had good reason to seek revenge against the caliphate. Only two days earlier, on 13 November 2015, France had experienced the deadliest terrorist attack in its history and the bloodiest day in French history since World War II. On that night, attackers armed with Kalashnikov rifles and wearing suicide vests struck multiple soft targets in the heart of Paris as well as a stadium on the city’s outskirts. Attacks occurred at such symbols of Parisian culture as the Bataclan Theater, Republic, Les Halles, Paris 10, Paris 11, Belleville, and Stade de France. One hundred people died in the stadium attack alone

“I am from ISIS!” yelled one of the attackers at the Bataclan Theater, using an alternative acronym for IS meaning “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” The attacks were reportedly coordinated with IS command in Syria in what the caliphate would call its “Blessed Paris Invasion.” The attackers were not only inspired by IS, but also trained by the caliphate. A total of eight jihadists were involved in the attacks which killed 132 people and wounded 352 more with 99 of those in critical condition. French President Francois Hollande declared three days of national mourning. Pope Francis described the situation as “a piece” of a piecemeal Third World War. Events in the coming days would prove the pontiff more right than perhaps he intended.

President Hollande – who was present at the Germany-France soccer game when a jihadist detonated his suicide vest outside the stadium – called the attacks “an act of war committed by a terrorist army” and promised a “merciless” response. He even cancelled his trip to the G20 meeting in Turkey, and scheduled a defense council meeting at the presidential palace to discuss military options. On the domestic front, President Hollande declared a state of emergency and mobilized the military. France deployed over 1,500 of its own soldiers to Paris while authorities shut down the Paris metro system and the Paris Orly Airport. Only outbound travel was restricted from the airport. This was the first city-wide curfew since 1944. France also raised its national security alert to its highest level. Among the forces deployed following the attack was the French Foreign Legion. The French military was eager for retribution. One French special operator remarked, “I am ready to kill somebody. We all are. We are like caged animals…The whole of France wants revenge.”

There were also reports that President Hollande planned to invoke the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Article V to rally cooperation in the fight against IS. Article V stipulates that if one NATO member state is attacked then the entire Alliance must come to its defense. Though originally meant to counteract a Soviet offensive, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. were the only occasion that a NATO member state invoked Article V, prompting the deployment of Alliance forces to Afghanistan. Ultimately, France never invoked Article V.

France did, however, invoke the European Union’s mutual assistance clause – Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty – which obligates that member states use “all the means in their power” to aid another member state if it experiences armed aggression on its territory. France asked its partners to provide military aid for its operations not only in Syria and Iraq but in other areas of the Middle East and Africa. All 28 EU member states accepted France’s request for assistance, and Paris called for a grand coalition to destroy IS, calling on them to put aside their “sometimes diverging interests.”

France launched a devastating air campaign against Raqqa on the heels of a Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed offensive against the IS capital that began even before the Paris attacks. France also expanded its military presence in the Mediterranean by moving its only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, off the coast of Syria to reinforce the air contingents conducting sorties from Jordan and the U.A.E. This marked the de Gaulle’s second deployment to the Syrian coast as part of Operation Chammal, France’s anti-IS campaign. The de Gaulle carries 12 Rafales and nine older-model Dassault Super Etendard Modernise (SEM) strike fighters along with support planes. The de Gaulle is also the only modern aircraft carrier outside of the U.S. Navy that is equipped with catapults. These allow the ship to launch planes with full loads of weapons and fuel, enabling them to maximize their range and firepower. Aircraft launched from the de Gaulle can theoretically fly as many as 12 strike missions every day for months. With its ground-based fighters and those aboard its aircraft carrier, France could have more manned combat aircraft in Syria than the U.S. The de Gaulle also joined the Cassard, a Cassard-class guided missile destroyer, off the coast of Syria with the latter supporting the French air campaign against IS using its sophisticated radar.

France’s invocation of the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 42.7 along with worldwide sympathy insured that it was not alone in its anti-IS efforts. British Prime Minister David Cameron convened an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss additional targets. Afterward, British Royal Air Force (RAF) Panavia Tornado multirole fighter jets attacked IS jihadists targeting Kurdish forces, killing more than 30 mujahidin. According to U.S. President Barack Obama, the Paris attacks were an “attack on all humanity and the universal values that we share.” He offered France the U.S.’s full support. French officials confirmed that the U.S. had stepped up its intelligence sharing with France for the strikes.

Friends in Unexpected Places

France’s air campaign against the caliphate also received aid from a far more unexpected partner. On 17 November, Russia launched its own airstrikes against targets in Syria. These were a dramatic escalation from the airstrikes that Russia launched against Syrian rebels beginning on 30 September 2015 given that they involved Russian strategic bombers. For some Russian bombers, these sorties marked their very first combat deployments. Russia also used these bombers to launch several new cruise missile variants. The strikes were likely an attempt by Russia to demonstrate to the West its military capabilities. The first wave of Tupolev Tu-22M3 (NATO reporting name: “Backfire”) bombers hit targets in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. A second wave of Tu-95MS (NATO reporting name: “Bear”) and Tu-160  (NATO reporting name: “Blackjack”) bombers concentrated on targets in the Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

Russian bombers fired 34 air-launched cruise missiles at 14 IS targets on 17 November. The Bears used Kh-555 (NATO reporting name: AS-15 “Kent”) cruise missiles. The Blackjacks, meanwhile, launched Kh-101 stealth cruise missiles (which use the same NATO reporting name as the Kh-555) in what became the missile system’s first combat deployment. The Backfires dropped OFAB 250-270 unguided bombs stored in their internal weapons bays. Russian strike fighters such as the Sukhoi Su-25 (NATO reporting name: “Frogfoot) and the Su-34 (NATO reporting name: “Fullback”) joined the attack with Su-30SM (NATO reporting name: “Flanker-C”) air superiority fighters (ASFs) flying sentinel. Unlike the strategic bombers, these warplanes deployed with the initial air task force that Russia sent to Syria.  

Later, Russian and Syrian planes launched close to 50 airstrikes against IS in the Deir al-Zor province, which links the caliphate to its stronghold in Raqqa. The raids killed eight civilians, among them four women and three children. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu stated afterward that Russia had doubled its number of sorties. The bombers that did not strike Raqqa focused mostly on non-IS rebels in western Syria. It was an interesting move considering that Russia blamed IS for the downing of one of its civilian jetliners over Egypt in October 2015, an act that the caliphate claimed responsibility for and that Russia used as a pretext to escalate its air attacks in Syria.  

United by a desire for vengeance, the combined French and Russian airstrikes against IS targets in Raqqa killed 33 jihadists and destroyed arms depots, barracks, and other sites. The strikes lasted 72 hours, left dozens wounded, and created a mass exodus of civilians. However, the number of dead jihadists paled in comparison to what it could have been. Reports indicate that IS only positioned guards around depots and barracks. Most of those killed died guarding checkpoints and many of the fighters’ families retreated to Mosul in Iraq. Most of the IS bases were in fact empty with IS fighters taking shelter in civilian homes instead.  

In a move that surprised many observers, France and Russia agreed to coordinate their military and security forces to fight IS. Russian President Vladimir Putin even instructed his forces to work with the French “as allies” having agreed on coordination during a phone conversation with President Hollande. Russia announced that the Moskva, a Slava-class guided-missile cruiser, would cooperate with French forces fighting IS in Syria. President Putin announced that a French aircraft carrier task force would approach the Moskva and that the cruiser would “cooperate with them as with allies.”

Interestingly, Russian pilots have even shown solidarity for the Paris attack victims by writing “For Paris” on bombs that they would later drop on IS – and other rebel – targets. Another message stenciled on a Russia bomb read, “For our guys.” The caption on a Russian Ministry of Defense video showcasing this activity read, "Pilots and technicians of Hmeymim airbase have sent their message to terrorists by priority airmail.” The footage appeared as the Russian government announced that it wanted to find common ground with the West in the fight against the caliphate.

President Putin also said, in an address to Russian military forces, “By conducting military missions in Syria, you are protecting Russia and her citizens, our air campaign in Syria must not only be continued, it must be boosted.” He added, “Retribution is inevitable.” Regarding Russia’s strikes on Raqqa a French official said, “At this moment, the Russians are in the process of strongly hitting the city of Raqqa, which is proof that they too are becoming conscious [of the threat from the Islamic State].”

Russia’s soldiers were not the only of its citizens to show sympathy for the Paris attack victims. Russian citizens stacked two piles of flowers, each about four feet high, in front of the French Embassy in Moscow. The makeshift memorial also featured candles and notes some of which were written in French. One message read, “Our thoughts are with you on this tragic day.” At one point, over 100 people gathered around the memorial.

A senior Russian official stated on 18 November that Russia wanted to cooperate with the West on fighting IS in Syria. The official in question was the Russian Federation’s permanent representative to NATO, Ambassador Aleksandr Grushko. He insisted that there was a “common agenda” to combat and defeat IS, preserve the integrity of the Syrian state and its military and security forces, and to support the Syrian people in a political process to decide their own future. Ambassador Grushko also denied that Russia’s goal was to prop up President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s current head of state. “It is up to the Syrian people if Assad stays in power,” he said. The Kremlin was quick to insist that the Paris attacks should serve as a turning point in East-West relations. Islamism is a common enemy, Russian officials said.

The Paris attacks presented a considerable opportunity for Russia. The U.S. welcomed Russia’s increased targeting of IS over other rebel groups, but it still had reservations. Even after the Paris attacks, the majority of Russian airstrikes targeted non-IS anti-Assad groups. The U.S. was concerned that Russia’s use of strategic bombers could increase the risk of collateral damage, and State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the U.S. was clear with Russia about avoiding civilian casualties.

Other observers even saw the Paris attacks as a step toward a fully-unified coalition. The attacks created a tactical opportunity for President Putin who for months had been trying to form a coalition with the U.S. and Arab states to combat IS. Russia hopes that cooperation in combating IS could convince the West to lift sanctions placed on it in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and subsequent activities in the country’s eastern Donbas region which included support for separatist groups and direct albeit covert military intervention. As a result of the sanctions, Russia is experiencing low oil prices, a weak ruble, and dwindling reserve funds. By seeking cooperation in the fight against the jihad, Russia likely wishes for the West to see it as a valuable partner and to stop isolating it.

So far, this strategy appears to be making some progress. President Obama called President Putin a “constructive partner.” President Putin also softened his stance on the U.S., saying that both sides must “stand together.” President Obama even raised the idea of military cooperation with Russia. President Hollande promised to visit both Washington and Moscow. Cooperation with the West could also allow President Putin to improve his country’s image after the Ukraine crisis. Though both the U.S. and Russia refuse to link Syria with Ukraine, the U.S. remains adamant about not lifting sanctions on Russia. European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker wrote to President Putin suggesting closer ties between the 28 members of the EU and a Russian-led economic bloc. This could lead to progress in resolving the Ukraine crisis.

However, as the bulk of Russia’s forces withdraws from Syria with Moscow stating that it wants to focus primarily on the diplomatic side of resolving the Syrian Civil War, many Western commentators have scoffed at Russia’s involvement in the conflict. U.S. media has for the most part dismissed the Russian effort in the Syrian Civil War as a short-lived, selfish attempt to prop up a puppet state. While there is some truth to such analyses, the role that Russia has played in resolving the conflict should not be so easily dismissed and neither should the greater albeit obscure history of post-Cold War U.S.-Russia military relations.

The Enemy of My Enemy…

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have maintained a relatively constructive military relationship, one that the U.S. media often underreports. After 1991, the U.S. spent billions of dollars in order to secure Russia’s nuclear arsenal. This effort included a highly-classified joint operation to remove weapons-grade uranium from unsecured depots in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. For the next two decades, both states participated in joint programs to monitor the security of weapons-grade nuclear materials. Following the 9/11 attacks, Russia provided overflight rights for U.S. cargo and tanker aircraft flying into Afghanistan. It allowed for the flow of weapons, food, water, and ammunition that U.S. forces in the region needed. Russia also provided the U.S. with intelligence on the location of then-al-Qa‘ida leader Usama bin Ladin, and secured U.S. rights to use an air base in Kyrgyzstan, another ex-Soviet republic.

The U.S.’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the President’s senior military advisers, have kept in touch with their counterparts in the Russian General Staff throughout the Syrian Civil War. Former Chairman of the JCS (CJCS) General Martin Dempsey (USA, Ret.) made a point of this during a retirement ceremony at the headquarters of the Irish Defence Forces in Dublin. He mentioned that he had kept in close contact with his former counterpart, Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valeriy Gerasimov. “I’ve actually suggested to him that we not end our careers as we began them,” remarked General Dempsey.

Both Generals Dempsey and Gerasimov got their start in armored warfare during the Cold War, serving on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. General Dempsey served as the executive officer (XO) for the West Germany-based 4th Battalion, 67th Armor, 3rd Armored Division from 1988 to 1989. Concurrently, General Gerasimov served in platoon, company, and battalion leadership positions in the Far Eastern Military District after graduating from the Kazan Higher Tank Command School in 1987.    

President Putin was also very interested in fighting jihadists in Syria given that many of the top IS commanders in Syria cut their teeth fighting Russian forces in Chechnya. “Russia knows the Isis leadership, and has insights into its operational techniques, and has much intelligence to share,” says one JCS adviser. The U.S. in turn has years of experience training foreign fighters in the War on Terror, experience that Russia lacks. The U.S. also has the ability to provide sums of money to rebel militia leaders in exchange for targeting data.

Sources within the U.S. intelligence community state that Russia had “similar nightmares about different places” in terms of the War on Terror. Russia feared that Chechen jihadists would carve out an amirate in Chechnya, and Russia’s concerns about the jihad became especially apparent after the Metrojet bombing and the Paris attacks. President Putin also reportedly did not want President Assad to suffer the same fate as Libya’s Colonel Mamaar al-Qidhafii. President Putin supposedly watched the video of the late Libyan despot being sodomized with a bayonet three times. The Russian president blamed himself for not lobbying the United Nations enough to deter U.S. and NATO military action against Libya in 2011. The subsequent Operation Odyssey Dawn deposed Colonel Qidhafii and transformed Libya into a failed state ruled by rival governments, militias, and jihadist groups. President Putin was determined not to see a replay of this in Syria.

Russia also took issue with the Obama administration’s policy of arming “moderate” Syrian opposition groups and the White House’s insistence on removing President Assad from power, concern that the JCS shared with the Kremlin. According to the former JCS adviser, “The Joint Chiefs believed that Assad should not be replaced by fundamentalists. The administration’s policy was contradictory. They wanted Assad to go but the opposition was dominated by extremists. So who was going to replace him? To say Assad’s got to go is fine, but if you follow that through – therefore anyone is better. It’s the ‘anybody else is better’ issue that the JCS had with Obama’s policy.”

Believing that directly challenging the Obama administration’s Syria policy would be ineffective, the JCS sought other means to circumvent the White House. The JCS reached out to the intelligence agencies of other states, operating under the assumption that the information that they provided would be passed to the Assad regime and used to target groups such as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa‘ida’s affiliate in Syria. States involved in this secret information sharing arrangement included Germany, Israel, and Russia. Germany was concerned about the influence an expanded IS could have on its population of six million Muslims, Israel about its own security, and Russia about the threat to its one client state in the Middle East and its naval facility at Tartus. The former adviser nevertheless insisted that the JCS was not deviating from the Obama administration’s official stance. Providing the Assad regime with better operational and tactical intelligence could lead to significant gains in the fight against global jihad. The former adviser also insisted that no president has ever known every action taken by the JCS.

Once this began, Germany, Israel, and Russia provided information to Syria on the whereabouts of various jihadist groups as well as estimates regarding Syria’s future prepared by U.S. contractors and war colleges. In turn, the Assad regime provided information on its own capabilities and intentions, though the U.S. and Syrian militaries never had any direct contact. The former adviser said, “It was a military to military thing, and not some sort of a sinister Joint Chiefs’ plot to go around Obama and support Assad. It was a lot cleverer than that. If Assad remains in power, it will not be because we did it. It’s because he was smart enough to use the intelligence and sound tactical advice we provided to others.”

The JCS also wanted to make sure that President Assad agreed to four conditions before they began cooperating with him: restrain the Lebanon-based Shi’a militant group Hizbullah from attacking Israel, resuscitate negotiations with Israel over the long-disputed Golan Heights, accept Russian and other outside military advisers, and agree to hold elections after the war with multiple factions involved in the process.

President Assad told the JCS that he needed to consult with senior military and government officials in Syria’s ruling Alawite community before agreeing to cooperate. The Israelis – who approved of the JCS plan – were a major concern for him. He did not want them to agree to this information-sharing regime and then back out when the time came for real negotiations. In 2012, President Assad approached Israel via a Russian contact with an offer to reopen negotiations about the Golan Heights, but Tel Aviv rejected the proposal. 

Other U.S. officials are also disappointed with the Obama administration’s stance on Russia’s intervention in Syria. Many, especially those in the JCS, believe that President Obama is too focused on confronting Russia and is stuck in a Cold War mentality. They believe he does not realize that both states have a vested interest in defeating IS. According to one retired U.S. diplomat with experience in Russia, “Ukraine is a serious issue and Obama has been handling it firmly with sanctions. But our policy vis-à-vis Russia is too often unfocused. But it’s not about us in Syria. It’s about making sure Bashar does not lose. The reality is that Putin does not want to see the chaos in Syria spread to Jordan or Lebanon, as it has to Iraq, and he does not want to see Syria end up in the hands of Isis. The most counterproductive thing Obama has done, and it has hurt our efforts to end the fighting a lot, was to say: ‘Assad must go as a premise for negotiation.’”

Russia is also doubtful of the U.S.’s quest to find “moderates” in the Syrian opposition. President Putin himself said at a press conference on 22 October 2015, “There’s no need to play with words and split terrorists into moderate and not moderate.” Russia sees these supposed “moderates” as no different than the jihadists fighting for IS and al-Nusra. Interestingly, the JCS shares a similar view as President Putin. Many American generals see the “moderates” as exhausted militias that have been forced to make concessions with groups such as al-Nusra and IS. A German reporter who spent time in IS-held territory reported that top IS commanders “are all laughing about the Free Syrian Army. They don’t take them for serious. They say: ‘The best arms sellers we have are the FSA. If they get a good weapon, they sell it to us.’ They didn’t take them for serious. They take for serious Assad. They take for serious, of course, the bombs. But they fear nothing, and FSA doesn’t play a role.”

Most of President Obama’s generals kept their opposition to the President’s Syria policy low-key, but Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (USA, Ret.), the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), proved to be an exception. “Flynn incurred the wrath of the White House by insisting on telling the truth about Syria,” said Colonel Walter Patrick Lang (USA, Ret.), who served as a top civilian DIA official for the Middle East. “He thought truth was the best thing and they shoved him out. He wouldn’t shut up.”

General Flynn also admitted that his frustration with the administration involved more than just the White House’s Syria policy. “I was shaking things up at the DIA – and not just moving deckchairs on the Titanic. It was radical reform. I felt that the civilian leadership did not want to hear the truth. I suffered for it, but I’m OK with that.” In an interview with the German magazine  Der Spiegel, General Flynn actually encouraged U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria “We have to work constructively with Russia,” the general said. “Whether we like it or not, Russia made a decision to be there and to act militarily. They are there, and this has dramatically changed the dynamic. So you can’t say Russia is bad; they have to go home. It’s not going to happen. Get real.” Coordination remains limited given President Obama’s decision to suspend formal U.S. military cooperation with Russia.

On 20 October 2015, however, the U.S. and Russia signed the so-called "Memorandum of Mutual Understanding between the Defense Ministries of Russia and the United States on preventing incidents and providing for aviation flights during operations in Syria” (often referred to simply as the “Memorandum of Understanding” or MOU). The Russian MoD hailed it as a positive step stating that the document “has important practical value. It regulates the actions of manned and unmanned aircraft in the airspace above Syria. The Memorandum contains a set of rules and limitations aimed at preventing incidents between the air forces of Russia and the US."

With the agreement’s enactment, both Russia and the U.S. established 24-hour communications channels between each other. The U.S. also agreed to convey the agreement’s details to its allies to ensure that they follow it. Russia stated that the MOU was strictly “military and technical,” but that it also represented greater steps that Washington and Moscow have taken on counterterrorism operations. Russia is also urging the U.S. to participate in joint rescue efforts for any pilots downed in Syria, but the Pentagon appears reluctant to cooperate. Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian MoD, said, “First of all, we are talking about rescue operations of any pilot involved in military commitment in Syria. This won’t be a matter of hours or even minutes but of seconds and the pilot's life will depend on our teamwork.” The MOU also outlined the radio frequencies that both sides could use, set up a ground hotline, and established an ad hoc working group to deliberate on future talks.

Russian and U.S. pilots even carried out a “planned communications test” in the skies over Syria. The test lasted about three minutes and was meant to “validate the safety protocols” agreed on in October 2015, according to U.S. officials. The test was conducted in “south central Syria” and “assured that the first time this mode of communication was used would not be during an unplanned encounter,” said a Pentagon statement. According to a senior Russian military official, the test’s purpose was “to train crews and ground services for incidents of dangerous proximity of aircraft.” Still, the agreement stipulates that U.S. and Russian planes should keep out of each other’s airspace.

Russia also stated that its planes hit some targets with the aid of “opposition representatives” who supplied coordinates. This marked the first time that Russia announced cooperating with the opposition. The Pentagon made an announcement of its own hours after this stating that U.S. fighter pilots communicated directly with their Russian counterparts in Syria. Russia and the U.S. also exchanged lists of groups in Syria that each state considered terrorist organization; the lists overlapped considerably. Russia also believes that certain Free Syrian Army (FSA) members should be brought into the political process. This is according to deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov. While President Putin stated that Russia has bombed targets in Syria provided to it by the FSA, the U.S. and the FSA insist that Russia has at the same time bombed FSA positions. Russia has also provided lists of the opposition figures it is working with to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

It is likely that President Obama’s decisions to send 50 Special Operations troops to in December 2015 Syria was a response to Russian actions in the country. While the Pentagon has publicly stated that U.S.-Russia cooperation extends only to flight safety rules, the Pentagon recently announced that the U.S. has provided Russia with the locations of its Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Syria. “We provided a geographical area that we asked them to stay out of because of the risk to US forces,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. Cook maintained that the agreement’s purpose was to maintain the safety of SOF personnel “in a dangerous situation.” The agreement was also outside of the scope of the MOU and Russia “has honored this request,” according to Cook.

High-level DoD officials shared the special operators’ locations with Russia MoD personnel in an unofficial meeting. Lieutenant General Charles Brown, Jr., the chief of U.S. Air Forces Central Command (USAFCENT), also said, “The Russians have actually outlined some areas — some of the airfields that they're worried about, that they don't want us flying close to, and really, typically, we don't fly there anyway. So, that hasn't been an issue.” The U.S. will not publicly admit where its SOF personnel are in Syria for reasons of “operational security” (OPSEC).

While the U.S. government was pleased with Russia for targeting IS, the two states officially never cooperated on targeting. The coordination agreement’s only purpose was to avoid pilot accidents. U.S. and Russian pilots operated in mostly separate regions of Syria, and communication was adequate enough to avoid close-calls. The U.S. has emphasized that it only engaged in talks with Russia on a technical basis to ensure that both sides’ pilots stay clear of each other.

Moscow also warned Washington of its strikes on Raqqa following the Paris attacks so that U.S. aircraft would not get in the way. The Pentagon maintained that this warning was not necessary. Reportedly, the aftermath of the Paris attacks marked the first time that the U.S. and Russia exchanged military information regarding IS targets in Syria. Russia’s warnings allowed U.S. Air Force commanders in Qatar to track Russian cruise missiles that targeted Raqqa in order to ensure that no U.S. aircraft interfered.

Nevertheless, U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Peter Cook still insisted, “We are not coordinating or cooperating with the Russians in terms of targets but we are taking these important steps to make sure our pilots, and the Russian crews for that matter, do not come into conflict with one another.” Another U.S. official stated, “While we do not coordinate or collaborate in any way with Russia on its activities in Syria, I can confirm that the Russians did provide us notice prior to conducting these strikes, via the Coalition Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, in accordance with the safety protocols agreed to in October.” The notification was meant to help avoid accidents. Russian airstrikes had no effect on coalition airstrikes. This was also the first time that the early warning system developed in October 2015 was used.

The JCS has not been the only U.S. national security entity seeking cooperation with Russia. During an interview with the CBS news program 60 Minutes, Director of the CIA (DCIA) John Brennan revealed that he has served as a back channel to President Putin by communicating with Russian intelligence. DCIA Brennan stated that he had contacts in the Russian intelligence services and was working with them to cooperate in certain areas. He said that the primary issue was counterterrorism, but he also spoke with Russian intelligence on events in Syria. One of his contacts was Federal Security Service (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii; FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov who then passed DCIA Brennan’s concerns to President Putin.

Desperate Gambit

On 24 November 2015, President Hollande flew to Washington to discuss the situation in Syria with President Obama. At a press conference, President Obama stated that he and President Hollande agreed that “Russia’s strikes against the moderate opposition only bolster the Assad regime, whose brutality has helped to fuel the rise” of IS. President Hollande did not take that tone but did state that negotiations in Vienna would “lead to Bashar al-Assad’s departure” and that “a government of unity is required.” 

Presidents Hollande and Obama said that they were willing to include Russia as part of their coalition if Russia shifted its focus from helping President Assad to fighting IS. President Obama also called Russia “the outlier” in the war against IS. He placed Iran in a similar category and boasted of the U.S.-led, 65-state coalition fighting the caliphate. President Hollande said that “Bashar Assad cannot be the future of Syria.” The U.S. sees President Assad “a magnet for the foreign fighters” in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry while President Putin insists that the SyAA is the only effective fighting force in the civil war.

President Obama nevertheless insisted that “if Russia fully commits to a political solution in Syria, we want to gather all countries, all those willing to find and implement a political solution.” He maintained that the U.S. and France “didn’t want to exclude anyone” from the coalition. In other words, the U.S.’s attempts to resume diplomatic talks with key players in the Syrian Civil War would require Russia.   

Secretary Kerry expressed confidence that a ceasefire could be reached between President Assad and the rebels. Minister Lavrov wanted to involve Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, the U.A.E., and Iran in the peace process. Iraq too sought to cooperate with Russia. Minister Lavrov also suggested that the EU should play a larger role. Meanwhile, Moscow pushed especially for increased Iranian involvement, something that Secretary Kerry has not ruled out. Despite a recent nuclear deal, the U.S. remained – and still is – hesitant to cooperate with Iran in Syria. However, it would be difficult to resolve the Syrian Civil War without Iran’s input. Moscow and Tehran pushed for terms that would leave President Assad in power for 18 months or longer until elections were organized and the new constitution was drafted.

At the Vienna peace talks, up to 19 states including bitter adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia signed a United Nations statement supporting a 1 January 2016 deadline for talks to begin between the rebels and the Assad regime. The objective was to reach a ceasefire by 14 May 2016 and free elections the next year. The U.S. and U.K. stated that they were willing to allow President Assad to remain in power during a transitionary period, but he would have to step down after that. Russia says that whether President Assad remains in power is up to the Syrian people. Iran also insists that President Assad must be part of future elections. The Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC), however, refused to take part in the negotiations unless an agreement was reached that removed President Assad.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was asked during an appearance on the radio program Ekho Moskvy whether it is critical that President Assad remain in power. “Absolutely not,” was her response. “We’ve never said that.” Later she said to another outlet, “I can confirm that Russia’s position on resolving the Syrian [crisis] has not changed.” Nevertheless, President Putin has previously insisted that Syria can only be stabilized if President Assad is in power. President Assad represents order, making him a good short-term option for Syria. He may also be more open to Saudi and U.S. suggestions that he step down if there remains an Alawite presence in the new government.

President Putin’s influence over President Assad  made him vital for the peace process.

The U.S. worked with Russia on the Iran nuclear deal and President Obama has thanked President Putin for his “important role” in it. Presidents Putin and Obama were even seen leaning in close at a coffee table during the G20 meeting and were later seen at the meeting grinning as they casually chatted. If given a role in choosing President Assad’s replacement, President Putin could drop his support for the Syrian leader. Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Russia wanted Syria to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections. These comments came after an unannounced visit to Moscow by President Assad.

The surprise visit occurred on 20 October 2015 when Russia arranged for an Ilyushin Il-62 (NATO reporting name: “Classic”) jetliner outfitted with a special communications array to ferry President Assad to Moscow from Syria’s Basil al-Assad International Airport (named for President Assad’s brother who died in a car accident in 1994). The Classic took off on 19 October and flew through Iraqi and Iranian airspace and then over the Caspian Sea. (Russian aircraft headed to Syria usually flew this route in reverse order.)

President Assad’s flight to Moscow represented his first trip outside of Syria since the Civil War began in March 2011. Some experts speculated that certain of President Assad’s inner circle would use his absence to seize power. This did not transpire, however, likely because President Assad’s high-profile meeting in Russia actually gave him increased political clout. The visit was also supposedly the first meeting between Presidents Putin and Assad since 2007. Diplomats stated that there was little chemistry between the two men. President Putin informed President Assad that Syria’s political and military situations were linked. President Assad thanked President Putin for his military’s assistance in Syria, and assured him that once the military situation was addressed, discussions regarding a political translation could begin.

No state-controlled media reporters were informed of President Assad’s sudden visit to Moscow. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitriy Peskov only informed the public of the meeting after President Assad had departed Russia. The Russian government only released footage and transcripts of a meet-and-greet between Presidents Putin and Assad. Only a few photos were made public of the three-hour dinner that included Presidents Putin and Assad as well as Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev, Foreign Minster Lavrov, and Defense Minister Shoygu.

The U.S. Embassy was also caught off guard. President Assad could have gone to Russia for symbolic reasons to show that Russia was the place to host consultations with the Syrian leader and that the U.S. would have to consult Russia before removing him from power. It is also interesting that President Assad visited Moscow before Tehran and left his country in the midst of a massive civil war. This only reinforces the idea held by many that President Assad is a Russian puppet. If Syrian does lose the counteroffensive, Russia’s support for President Assad could wane. Russia could even blame President Assad for the loss.

In February 2016, the U.S., Russia, and a number of other warring factions in Syria finally agreed to a ceasefire. The agreement became official at midnight Damascus time on 27 February. Those groups that have registered to participate will have to announce 12 hours before the ceasefire takes effect that they cease hostilities. They have to inform either Washington or Moscow. The ceasefire obligates all participants to “cease attacks with any weapons, including rockets, mortars, and anti-tank guided missiles” and “refrain from acquiring or seeking to acquire territory from other parties to the ceasefire.” All parties must also allow “unhindered and sustained” access to humanitarian assistance missions and employ only “proportional force” in self-defense against those not party to the agreement. Groups such as al-Nusra and IS are not parties to the ceasefire and still subject to attack.

Washington and Moscow also agreed to work together to “exchange pertinent information.” This information includes up-to-date maps showing which sides are complying with the ceasefire and their locations. President Putin said that he would do “whatever is necessary” to ensure that President Assad abided by the ceasefire. "We are counting on the United States to do the same with its allies and the groups that it supports," he added.  

On the political side, President Assad could remain the leader of Syria until 2017 and even after. Elections are set to take place in April. After the truce was announced, President Assad issued a degree for parliamentary elections to take place on 13 April. The last elections were held in May 2012. Most of the 250 officials elected were from the ruling Ba’ath party.

Additionally, a truce coordination center was established at Russia’s Hmeymim air base in Latakia. The center will monitor the various factions’ compliance with the ceasefire. According to General Igor Konashenkov, the center allows enables communication between the opposition and the government. General Konashenkov stated that the center will “render maximum assistance” to any faction to whom it applies. Opposition groups can apply to the center 24 hours per day via telephone. The center will also assist in delivering humanitarian aid. Moscow has also reached out to Washington to establish a hotline. Washington agreed.  The 22 February ceasefire agreement was called the “Terms for a Cessation of Hostilities in Syria.” The ceasefire took effect on 25 February.   

However, there are still concerns ceasefire’s durability. Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov admit that the peace talks are only on progress on paper. Some diplomats have remarked that “it's not worth the paper it's printed on". Secretary Kerry even referred to the plan as “ambitious.” Nevertheless, the U.S. appears to be less willing to overthrow President Assad. The White House believes that President Assad will finally step down as president of Syria in March 2017. This is according to an internal U.S. government document. The Obama administration believes that it would be difficult to overthrow President Assad while he is supported by Russia and Iran. 

Even so, the U.S.’s hostility toward Russia has actually remerged with the appointment of a new CJCS, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford. The Devil Dog officer’s harsh rhetoric on Russia stands in sharp contrast to the cooperation encouraged under General Dempsey’s tenure. In one briefing, General Dunford remarked, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia.” The leatherneck added, “If you look at their behaviour, it’s nothing short of alarming.” In October 2015, General Dunford dismissed Russia’s anti-IS campaign as a façade claiming that the Kremlin was more focused on supporting the Assad regime.

General Dunford also encouraged the U.S. to “work with Turkish partners to secure the northern border of Syria” and “do all we can to enable vetted Syrian opposition forces” to fight the extremists. While the general was correct to state that Russia bombed mostly non-IS groups, this is because these groups posed a greater tactical threat to the Assad regime. The caliphate is preoccupied consolidating rule its rule within its territory.

Now, that Russia has successfully protected the regime heartland in Latakia from a rebel takeover, a reinvigorated SyAA can launch an offensive against IS using tactics and weapons provided to it by Russian military advisers. The U.S. would be wise to support such an offensive. Russia’s intervention in Syria also saw Moscow deploy numerous weapons systems that appeared to be better suited for fighting NATO forces than anti-Assad rebels. Many of these assets, some deployed in combat for the first time, are superior to their NATO counterparts, and though the likelihood of Syria becoming a flashpoint for a U.S.-Russia conflict, the U.S. still maintains a more belligerent stance towards Russia in other parts of the world. It would be unwise for the U.S. to heighten tensions with Russia lest it risk finding out if the aforementioned Russian weapons systems are indeed superior to their U.S. counterparts.

Concluded in Part II

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons