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What’s in a Word? Confusion About U.S. Policy Toward Syria

What’s in a Word? Confusion About U.S. Policy Toward Syria

The United States insists that it’s not helping the Syrian government conduct airstrikes against Islamic State militants by providing intelligence on the fighters’ locations. Such actions, American officials say, would only strengthen a brutal regime that has used chemical weapons against its own people and undermine U.S. efforts to train and arm Syrian rebels trying to overthrow Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

On Sunday, though, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to leave the door open to some kind of interaction between Washington and Damascus, adding fuel to speculation that the two capitals actually are working together in a covert fashion. Some of Assad’s top aides have said that any strikes against the Islamic State in Syria would violate the country’s sovereignty, but they’ve also said they’re willing to work with the United States if the two sides can plan the strikes together.

Asked on CBS’s Face the Nation about whether the United States would "coordinate" airstrikes with Assad, Kerry seemed to equivocate.

"No, we’re not going to coordinate with Syria," Kerry said. "We will certainly want to deconflict to make certain that they’re not about to do something that they might regret even more seriously. But we’re not going to coordinate."

On Monday, reporters asked State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf what Kerry meant by "deconflict," but she didn’t answer the question directly. "As the secretary said during that interview multiple times, we are not and will not be coordinating with the regime," Harf said. "The president has made clear we will hunt down terrorists wherever they are."

"What did he mean by ‘deconflicting’?" one reporter pressed.

"I just made clear what he meant and we have to move on," Harf responded.

Though Harf didn’t say so, "deconflicting" is a technical process with a precise meaning, distinct from "coordinating." And the difference between the two is significant.

"Coordinating means we talk directly to [the] Syrian Air Force and coordinate our attacks against ISIS with their operations against ISIS," Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy, using one of the Islamic State’s acronyms. "That’s not happening, won’t happen." But "deconflicting," Harmer explained, means that the United States will monitor where the Syrian aircraft are flying and stay out of their way, thus avoiding any potential skirmishes. "That way we don’t accidentally intrude on their operations, or they on ours," he said.

Harmer said the United States and Iran followed this protocol during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "The U.S. did not coordinate with Iran, but Iran definitely deconflicted their normal military operations to avoid any unwanted interaction with the U.S., particularly in the Persian Gulf," he said. In that case, Harmer said, the Iranian Navy held back patrol boats that had often harassed U.S. Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz. "They backed way down off of their normal operations in order to deconflict with the U.S. operations," Harmer said.

In the current conflict, the Iranian government has said it won’t coordinate or cooperate with the United States in its fight against the Islamic State. "I said we will not accompany America in this matter because they have got dirty intentions and hands," Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said on his personal website Monday. He mocked the Obama administration’s efforts to build an international coalition to fight the militants as "absurd, hollow, and biased."

Speaking at a conference of coalition members in Paris, Kerry said the United States remained open to talking to the Iranians, and that "having a channel of communication on one of the biggest issues in the world today is common sense." And indeed, the two countries could work together to fight the Islamic State — in Iraq — without formally coordinating their operations. During the siege of the Iraqi town of Amerli, for instance, Iraqi Shiite militias, who are allied with and funded by Iran, relayed their operational plans to Iraqi commanders overseeing the fight, who in turn passed the information to the American officials running the air campaign there. "Any coordinating with the Shiite militias was not done by us — it would have been done by the ISF," a senior administration official told the New York Times in late August, using an acronym for the Iraqi military.

For its part, the government of Syria, which has been bombing Islamic State fighters on its own territory, has offered to stand aside should U.S. air forces care to take a punch at the militant group. But first, Damascus wants a little "coordination" with Washington.

Syria has "no reservations" about dealing directly with the United States on airstrikes, Faisal Mekdad, the country’s deputy foreign minister, told NBC News last week, adding that the countries are "fighting the same enemy" in the Islamic State. "When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences … and forget all about the past," Mekdad said. "It takes two to tango…. We are ready to talk."

The Syrians shouldn’t hold their breath, Obama officials say. And yet rumors persist that there’s a lot more than chitchat about terrorists going on between the two countries. According to a report in the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan on Monday, the United States is giving the Syrians intelligence about the location of Islamic State fighters through a third party, which the publication didn’t name. Haaretz reported that "Western diplomatic sources" had confirmed the intelligence sharing, which includes "movements of Islamic State convoys, meetings of the organization’s leaders, and weapons and ammunitions armories that IS fighters have seized in Iraq or on Syrian territory."

"According to the sources, Washington will ultimately be forced to admit the cooperation indirectly, due to the precise attacks by the Syrian army on [Islamic State] sites, which are hard to find without precise intelligence information," the Israeli publication claimed.

Syrian airstrikes have targeted Islamic State members, but there’s no evidence that the Americans told the Syrians where to aim. A U.S. official, who declined to speak on the record when discussing intelligence matters, dismissed any suggestion that Washington was working with Assad.

Indeed, officials have made no secret about arming Syrian rebels so they can attack both Assad and the Islamic State. "We need to bolster the Syrian moderate opposition to enable it to be able to take and hold ground, pushing out both ISIL and the Assad regime," a senior administration official said last week shortly before President Barack Obama laid out his plan for fighting the group. (ISIL is the administration’s preferred acronym for the militant group.) "That is going to be essential to our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the organization."

Those Syrian rebels will certainly be coordinating with the United States. So will Saudi Arabia, which has agreed to host them at a training facility in the country, so they can then cross into Syria and attack Islamic State militants. The CIA has also been vetting and training rebels at a base in Jordan.

The administration’s rebel-training strategy, and its push to get congressional funding for the effort, appeared to hit a major snag on Friday, when Agence France-Presse reported that Syrian rebels and Islamic State jihadists had agreed to a non-aggression pact. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, "The two parties will respect a truce until a final solution is found and they promise not to attack each other because they consider the principal enemy to be the [Assad] regime."

But the State Department dismissed the report on Monday, ticking off a variety of Syrian rebel groups that denied brokering any truce with the Islamic State, including the Free Syrian Army, the primary group of Syrian moderates. "Not a single U.S.-vetted rebel group has entered into a truce with ISIL," said Harf, the State Department spokeswoman. "The Free Syrian Army affirmed to us that there is no ongoing truce between FSA elements and ISIL. Furthermore, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front issued a statement Sunday confirming it had never participated in any cease-fire with ISIS."

A vote on the train-and-equip program in Congress could come as early as Tuesday, when House lawmakers decide whether to attach it as an amendment to a stopgap spending bill. The House Armed Services Committee is currently drafting language on an amendment that would authorize support to the rebels while requiring the Pentagon to report to lawmakers every 90 days.