The U.S. and Russia are still acting in parallel in Syria, even if only by accident. There is still a good opportunity to turn an incidental cooperation into a purposeful one.
Syrian and Lebanese wave and flash victory signs as convoys carrying wounded Syrian opposition fighters leave the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, Monday, Dec. 28, 2015.
The U.S. and Russia, to put it mildly, do not see eye-to-eye on Syria. Regime change in Damascus has been a U.S. goal since 2011, and the TOW missiles that it has supplied to the Syrian rebellion, in particular, are currently a major problem for Syrian President Bashar Assad, having even killed one of his Russian allies. In contrast, Russia has consistently worked to save Assad’s regime by blocking UN resolutions, brokering chemical weapons deals, supplying arms to Damascus, and now directly intervening in the conflict, including with strikes against groups receiving U.S. aid.
Nevertheless, Washington and Moscow have so far prevented the situation in Syria from becoming much worse, which it easily could be. U.S. President Barack Obama has resisted calls for no-fly-zones, attacks against Russian forces and even ground invasions of Syria. Likewise, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his partner-client in Damascus make no attempt to block U.S. aerial and special operations within Syria and have concentrated on fighting the less palatable elements of the Syrian rebellion, leaving the Kurds and, for the most part, the Southern Front (the rebel group that is most moderate and closest to the U.S.) alone.
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Beyond just avoiding escalation, however, peering behind their often-hostile rhetoric reveals that Washington and Moscow have actually helped more than harmed one another in Syria, if only by accident.
The U.S. war on ISIS
Though the U.S. has been unable to fully defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), it was nevertheless instrumental in denying the terrorist group greater success in its 2014 blitzkrieg invasion of Iraq, and is now key to Baghdad’s grinding counteroffensive – inflicting, for instance, most of the casualties sustained by ISIS at Ramadi. Combined with strikes on ISIS infrastructure, leadership, oil industry, and more, this has deprived ISIS of resources and forced it to reallocate those it retains from Syria to its collapsing fronts in Iraq.
Since the Syrian regime is fighting ISIS along a front stretching from Turkey to Jordan, weakening the terrorist group benefits Assad just as much as it does his non-ISIS opposition. In fact, ISIS is now at war in Syria principally against the Syrian government and the Kurds, if only because it is hardly in contact with any rebel territory, having already conquered most of it.
Therefore, besides weakening a common enemy of Washington and Moscow, the U.S. campaign against ISIS also unavoidably aids Assad, and thus Russia, as well.
Russian support for Assad
For the same reason, Russia also inevitably harms ISIS by aiding Assad. Some Western observers have claimed that the two are effectively allied, and Obama once alleged that Russia’s Syrian intervention would aid ISIS.
Nevertheless, since the Russian campaign began, the Syrian regime has repelled ISIS assaults on surrounded Deir ez-Zor, a city in Syria, driven the group back to the gates of Palmyra, and rescued its soldiers trapped by ISIS at Kweires airbase before expanding its salient there, pressuring ISIS’s positions around Manbij and indirectly supporting the Kurds’ successful and ongoing trans-Euphrates offensive.
The number of ISIS fighters killed directly by Russian airstrikes, which started on Sept. 30, 2015, is uncertain, ranging from “hundreds” killed in the first two weeks, to 655 by the end of the year, to 600 in just a single October attack. Regardless, it is clear that, despite the arguments of Senator John McCain and others that Russia’s airstrikes target CIA-backed rebels, Moscow is attacking ISIS directly, and doing real damage, as ISIS itself confirmed with its retaliatory attack against Russian vacationers flying over the Sinai.
Yet besides attacking, directly and via Assad, the common enemy of Moscow and Washington, Russia’s support for the Syrian regime also benefits the U.S. in a broader sense, though Washington may not fully realize it.
As members of the Defense Intelligence Agency have apparently understood since mid-2012, the bulk of Syria’s opposition is Salafist and hostile to the West. Because of this, Russia’s pro-Assad intervention is, first, inevitably at the expense principally of Salafists, and second, supportive of the only realistic alternative to their ultimate victory.
The U.S., Russia and the Kurds
Besides indirectly supporting Assad by weakening ISIS, the U.S. also benefits Russia through the most successful component of its anti-ISIS campaign: support for the Kurds of Iraq and Syria, which – consisting principally of supplies and airstrikes – has been critical to their survival and expansion.
Absent the summer 2014 U.S. intervention that may have saved the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, Iraqi Kurds might now be fighting merely to hold or retake its capital from ISIS, rather than threatening Mosul after conquering Sinjar, another Iraqi city.
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And without the devastating U.S. air campaign at Kobani, a Syrian city, which just barely saved the Kurds at their last stand in central Syrian Kurdistan, and aerial support for the Kurds’ campaigns thereafter, the Syrian Kurds would have faced more obstacles in the their struggle against ISIS and failed to succeed.
In terms of Russian interests, the Kurds’ success means a weaker ISIS, and even a weaker Syrian opposition. Their expansion inevitably reduces the resources available to the opposition. Furthermore, while Syria’s Kurds are by no means enthusiastic supporters of the Assad regime, they will probably consider its postwar survival necessary to ensure that a collapsed or majoritarian, radically Sunni Syria does not threaten a new Syrian Kurdistan.
Most importantly for Moscow, a quasi- or fully-independent Syrian Kurdistan will inspire Turkey’s own Kurdish minority to seek autonomy or independence, as it has already begun to do. It will provide a safe haven for groups pursuing that goal. In the event of continued rebellion or instability in eastern Syria, Syrian Kurdistan provides, via northern Latakia, an outlet to the Mediterranean for Iraqi (and, hypothetically, Turkish) Kurdistan.
This will alleviate the latter’s reliance on Turkey (and Iran, which itself possesses a large Kurdish minority and may not wish to support the Iraqi Kurds’ independence from its Baghdad ally) for oil export and general contact with the outside world.
In short, the birth of Syrian Kurdistan is a major blessing for the Kurds as a whole, and thus a disaster for Turkey, as its president has acknowledged – and therefore it could be a blessing for Russia. Turkey’s recent attack on Russia’s Su-24 has reawakened public hostility between the two countries, but in reality they have always been fundamental rivals at best, recent pragmatic cooperation notwithstanding. Any development that so seriously weakens a historical foe, NATO member, champion of Sunni Islamism, meddler in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and check on Russia’s southern flank could be welcomed in Moscow.
Russia and the U.S.: From accidental to deliberate cooperation?
On balance, then, U.S. intervention probably helps Assad more than it hurts him, and has won far more territory for the Kurds (who ultimately will probably be far more useful to Moscow than to Washington) than Russia has won for its ally in Damascus. Russian intervention, meanwhile, has focused on the more radical Syrian rebels and, according to a proper understanding of U.S. interests and the situation in Syria, ultimately benefits Washington by supporting Assad against a Salafist-dominated opposition.
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It is unclear if both capitals actually realize this, but it would explain their relatively restrained approaches to what was supposed to be a proxy war. Most recently, the U.S. has drawn nearer to Russia’s position on a resolution to the conflict and expressed its readiness for a compromise by deferring its differences with the Kremlin over Assad. Meanwhile, Russia seems to have eschewed retaliation for U.S.-supplied rebels killing one of its marines.
However, it is also unclear if there is any opportunity for the U.S. and Russia to deliberately cooperate in Syria. In principle, both powers would benefit from ending the conflict sooner and pushing their respective clients to work out a resolution that would be beneficial for both the U.S. and Russia. So, it will remain critical that Americans and Russians alike remember that they are still acting in parallel in Syria, even if only by accident.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.