The Strategic Suicide of Aligning With Russia in Syria
Cutting a bargain with Moscow to cooperate in the fight against the Islamic State would be a disaster for U.S. security and influence.
The Iran conundrum
Moreover, it will be extremely difficult to pursue any sort of partnership with Russia in Syria without cutting across another one of Trump’s oft-stated foreign-policy priorities — pushing back more aggressively against Iran. Last week, both Trump and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn put Tehran “on notice” that their destabilizing activities across the Middle East would no longer be tolerated, and quickly announced new sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program. Yet Iran is aligned with Putin and Assad in Syria, and it has a fundamental strategic interest in seeing Assad’s regime preserved. Iran is, therefore, likely to gain significantly from any situation in which Washington casts aside the Syrian opposition and joins up with Moscow and its allies. In an effort to work with Russia to create a “safe zone” in southern Syria, for example, the United States might find itself in the position helping Iran consolidate its supply lines to Hezbollah and its influence in the Levant — a prospect that the Trump administration, to say nothing of the Israelis, would presumably find horrifying.
The Trump administration could attempt to mitigate this danger by conditioning its cooperation with Russia on it and the Assad regime cutting ties with Iran and Hezbollah and requiring their forces to depart the country. (The Trump administration may also attempt to get Moscow to cut off its military sales to Iran.) A deal like this could conceivably keep Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other regional states “on side” since their opposition to Assad mostly stems from his alliance with Tehran. But there’s a catch: given the broad and deep role Iran, Hezbollah, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias play in propping up Assad’s forces on the ground, it is highly unlikely Assad would jettison this partnership — and, if he tried, Tehran would push back hard. Previous ceasefires cut behind Iran’s back have been scuttled by Iranian-backed forces. Any attempt to completely box Iran out of Syria would go to the heart of Tehran’s interest in maintaining an ability to project power into the Levant and support Hezbollah against Israel. Thus, if Team Trump tries to cut a deal with Putin at Iran’s expense they should expect to see Iran’s well-armed proxies — in both Syria and Iraq — play a spoiler’s role that could undermine counter-Islamic State efforts and incentivize Iranian-backed forces to target vulnerable U.S. forces on the ground in those countries.
For all of these reasons, joining forces with Russia would be a dangerous gambit. The Obama administration understood those dangers when it considered pursuing more limited military cooperation with Russia in Syria in 2016. As was widely reported at the time, the internal administration debate over whether to pursue even minimal military cooperation was one of the most contentious issues of Obama’s second term. Thus, the Obama administration always made any possible counterterrorism cooperation with Russia in Syria subject to strict conditions.
In the summer and early fall of 2016, during the negotiations over a potential “Joint Implementation Center” to conduct coordinated targeting against Nusra and the Islamic State, Obama insisted that Moscow enforce a nationwide ceasefire (including in besieged Aleppo) and ensure unfettered humanitarian access across Syria for the United Nations as preconditions. Obama also required that, if and when the Joint Implementation Center was established, Russia commit to following the laws of war, avoid targeting the moderate opposition, ground Assad’s air force over most of the country, provide the United States a veto over Russian counterterrorism targets, and press the Assad regime back into negotiations on a political transition. Ultimately, the Russians proved unable or unwilling to convince Assad (and Iran) to meet these conditions, and the proposal collapsed.
This should be an obvious warning to Trump. If his administration engages in no-strings attached cooperation with Moscow, it will be complicit in Russian actions fueling the civil war and Islamic extremism. And if Trump attempts to impose meaningful conditions, Putin is unlikely to agree to, or consistently honor, the deal.