While Russia and the U.S. agreed to cooperate in future airstrikes against ISIS, there is still very little military communication between the two sides and very little agreement about who should govern in Syria.
In this June 27, 2016 file photo, a member of Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands guard near Islamic State group militant graffiti in Fallujah, Iraq. Photo: AP
On Sept. 9, the Russian Federation and the United States reached a ceasefire agreement in Syria and agreed to focus on target zones for future airstrikes. While their airstrikes appear to be cooperative in nature, the U.S. Pentagon reports that there is no actual military communication beyond these coordinated airstrikes.
Indeed, a communications channel was set up to exchange information on air operations, but the primary purpose is to prevent aircraft from colliding into each other in the skies. That’s indicative of the challenges faced by Russia and the U.S. in Syria. Instead of a unified coalition, there’s an unorganized and sporadic international effort to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
The United States and Russia should overcome their differences on the internal Syrian conflict, and work together to defeat ISIS by engaging in direct military intelligence sharing in the region.
Unfortunately, there are many military and political reasons why this most recent ceasefire agreement seems unsustainable. Primarily, the Russian support for President Bashar al-Assad and the American support for the Syrian rebel opposition are in direct confrontation with each other.
Furthermore, the Russian military also maintains a strategically important facility in Syria — the naval facility in Tartus, which allows access to the Mediterranean Sea.
Finally, the U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement in Syria lacked any enforcement mechanism and relied on the goodwill of rebel groups and the governments to follow the deal to prevent infighting.
The ceasefire agreement goes into effect on Sept. 12 and could fall apart rapidly if the rebels engage Russian or Syrian government forces. A similar agreement in February fell apart several weeks after being implemented over several issues, including Turkish engagement in the area and disagreements over a Kurdish state.
A major reason for the failure was the lack of a comprehensive and detailed definition of what actions were permitted, what groups were terrorists, and continued disagreements over the future of President Assad. The result of the failure was an escalation in the conflict and one Syrian being killed every 25 minutes in April.
What are the alternative military options to defeat the Islamic State? Does this deal help solve them?
The September agreement to implement a ceasefire in the region and coordinate efforts to launch airstrikes on key areas in Syria, unfortunately, contains similar problems as the February deal. While the deal is intended to be more efficient than other agreements in the past, it still contains holes that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted are a source of concern to him. Most notably, some rebel groups may undermine the peace plan.
The fact remains that the deal relies heavily on the goodwill of rebel groups to not attack Russian troops. Indeed, one of the primary objections by the Russian Federation remains the continued affiliation of certain “moderate” opposition forces with Jabhat Fateah al-Sham, a Salafist jihadist group formally known as the al-Nusra Front. The situation remains extraordinarily complex, and the fact that the deal relies on the goodwill of rebel groups remains worrisome.
However, regardless of the outcome on this particular ceasefire, there are still two areas of agreement between the United States and Russia in Syria. Primarily, joint interest in a coordinated effort against the Islamic State, to eliminate the terrorist group’s leadership and create a zone of security around the besieged city of Aleppo.
It would be ideal for the United States and the Russian Federation to continue to take the fight to the Islamic State and put aside the contention about the administration of President Assad for now. Secondly, previous bilateral work in dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons program indicates an interest in non-proliferation efforts and multilateral coordination.
Roadblocks to progress in Syria continue to exist, and the overwhelming majority of the issues stem back to who should govern Syria. But the governments of Russia and the United States have the proven ability to work together and the motivation to do so. Overcoming the roadblock of deciding who should rule Syria should be put off until the Islamic State is defeated by a joint coalition of the two most powerful nations.
On Sept. 10, as the most recent ceasefire negotiations came to an end, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov treated the press pool to a shared meal of Russian vodka and American pizza. A second pizza-vodka summit would be advisable to create a more solidified plan to defeat the Islamic State and create a path towards stability in Syria.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.