Letting Putin Get Away With It
Allowing Russia to set the agenda in Syria will eliminate our last, best hope for defeating the Islamic State and restoring peace: Sunni Arabs.
In late 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron surprised Parliament when he announced the presence of at least 70,000 "moderate" rebels in Syria who were prepared to join the emerging coalition in the fight against the Islamic State. He had reason to be optimistic: Groups like the Islamist Jaish al-Fatah and the largely secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) have both fought valiantly against the Islamic State. U.S. officials, as well as those formerly in Barack Obama's administration, such as retired Gen. David Petraeus and Leon Panetta, concurred with Cameron’s premise that there are potential partners among the rebels -- in particular, among the Sunni Arabs, who could siphon legitimacy from the Islamic State. Regional allies have also highlighted the necessity of such a force, with the Turks last week shopping to the Pentagon a bid to train Sunni forces inside Syria.
In late 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron surprised Parliament when he announced the presence of at least 70,000 “moderate” rebels in Syria who were prepared to join the emerging coalition in the fight against the Islamic State. He had reason to be optimistic: Groups like the Islamist Jaish al-Fatah and the largely secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) have both fought valiantly against the Islamic State. U.S. officials, as well as those formerly in Barack Obama’s administration, such as retired Gen. David Petraeus and Leon Panetta, concurred with Cameron’s premise that there are potential partners among the rebels — in particular, among the Sunni Arabs, who could siphon legitimacy from the Islamic State. Regional allies have also highlighted the necessity of such a force, with the Turks last week shopping to the Pentagon a bid to train Sunni forces inside Syria.
But the anti-Islamic State bona fides of various Sunni rebels matter little in a Syria where Russian President Vladimir Putin gets to decide who is a terrorist, choosing which rebels to bomb based on their commitment to fighting the regime rather than on any allegiance to the Islamic State. In practice, this means that the Russians have adopted the tactic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of brutalizing Sunni communities, dropping indiscriminate ordnance into densely populated urban areas supportive of Sunni Arab rebels. Even as U.S. officials speculate that there may be some overlap between Moscow’s and Washington’s goals, the Russian campaign alienates Syrian Sunnis from the West and the world.
In the early days of its intervention last October, Russia began bombing the West’s desperately needed partners, killing key FSA leaders in Daraa and Hama. This should have come as no surprise: Putin has endorsed Assad’s notorious strategy of eliminating moderate revolutionaries in Syria in a bid to cast himself as the only opponent to the Islamic State left standing. In northern Syria, where the rebels of Aleppo are fighting desperately against the Islamic State, Russian planes continue to target them regularly. The Russians have also targeted civilian infrastructure that could make life less miserable in rebel-held areas, including hospitals and schools. On Jan. 9, the Russian bombing campaign struck the humanitarian field office of my own organization, the Syrian Emergency Task Force, in Idlib, as reported by Foreign Policy. Although it is possible that the office, which was supplying aid from the U.S. government, was targeted inadvertently, it is also plausible that given our positive relationship with the armed opposition, the office was hit intentionally.
In another attack on the opposition, on Christmas Day, a Russian airstrike targeted and killed Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaish al-Islam, a major rebel battalion fiercely committed to keeping the Islamic State out of Damascus. Upon learning of his death, the Islamic State celebrated. This enthusiastic reaction reveals that the Islamic State, like the Assad regime and Russia, is most afraid of other Sunni groups that stand in its way. It is also worth noting that Jaish al-Islam was a part of the peace process, agreeing to the basic premise of an international cease-fire at the opposition conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In the wake of Alloush’s death, the group’s commitment to the process is less clear.
Russia’s targeted assassinations of the very rebels who had demonstrated their commitment both to fighting the Islamic State and to a serious cease-fire make clear that Assad’s most formidable backer has no interest in bringing an end to the violence. But even more troubling is the United States’ apparent inability to protect the Sunni Arab coalition that remains our best hope for defeating the Islamic State. As the United States struggles for purchase in negotiations, the Russians will continue to slowly eliminate the moderate Sunni stakeholders who would sit across from them at a negotiating table in Vienna. Not only does this imperil the (perhaps doomed) Vienna process, but it will further diminish the chances of a partnership between the United States and Sunni ground forces under the next presidential administration.
Washington, for its part, has consistently feigned confusion over the purpose of Russia’s intervention in Syria, referring to Putin’s motives as a mystery. In reality, the Obama administration understands his intentions perfectly well: protect the regime in Damascus, secure assets within the country, and project power across a rudderless Middle East. Behind closed doors, Obama administration officials have told me they are keenly aware of these goals and understanding that they have nothing to do with defeating the Islamic State.
But by allowing Putin to set the rules of the road in Syria, the White House is allowing him to aid Assad’s campaign of terror against Sunni Arab communities. This campaign is no unintended consequence, but a strategy utilized by the regime since 2012 and deliberately adopted and perfected by the Russians in 2015. Assad can survive if his regime and its backers preclude a partnership with the Sunni Arab groups — something the White House is letting happen.
Our Sunni allies in Syria already have little reason to trust us. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander, has conceded that there are areas of the country where American planes can no longer fly due to Russian air traffic over Syria and the presence of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. These planes could, perhaps, provide air support for anti-Islamic State forces. The Russian activity blocks Western sorties that actually do target the Islamic State, unlike their Russian counterparts, which have bombed the U.S.-backed FSA and anti-Islamic State Islamist groups. Far from confronting the Russians over any of this, on Dec. 15 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accepted Russia’s pre-negotiating premise that Assad be allowed to stay on during a political transition in Damascus — a direct rejection of the position adopted by the mainly Sunni Arab armed and political opposition figures who met in Riyadh.
What’s more, the bulk of the new opposition coalition forged in Riyadh is composed of actors directly supported by the United States. Just two days after reaching internal consensus in Riyadh, the opposition’s nominal ally, the most powerful nation in the world, directly undercut it. Frustratingly, this is in keeping with Washington’s passive approach to Russian provocation.
It is possible that Russia took its initial position on allowing Assad to remain in power only for the reason to make his inevitable and necessary departure seem like a generous overture from the new Middle East power player. What the Russians will never accept, however, is a truly inclusive government, one that would empower the political and military groups that Russia is currently bombing. Increasingly, this may not be an outcome the United States or other international powers can forestall, as Russia gains leverage through its on-the-ground presence in Syria. Indeed, the West’s ability to shape Russian preferences is limited, given that the Russians and Americans now appear to be supporting the same Kurdish-led, anti-Islamic State coalition, which in some cases has turned its guns toward Arab Sunni rebels in territorial disputes across Syria’s north.
The sudden development of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a relatively new coalition composed of Arab and Syrian minority groups but controlled by the Kurdish, anti-Islamic State People’s Protection Units (YPG), may also represent deference to Russian preferences. Arab groups within the SDF, for instance, have complained that they need greater support from the United States, which has provided arms to the YPG. That support has indirectly enabled the ethnic cleansing of Arabs across Syria’s north, as an Amnesty International report from last October found.
We know that on at least one occasion, the YPG may have misled the U.S.-led coalition to target an Islamic State-free Arab town, killing civilians and displacing others. Obama touted such partners in his State of the Union address on Jan. 12, praising the effort to train, arm, and support “local forces” in reclaiming lost territory in Iraq and Syria, all while skillfully omitting that the SDF and other Kurdish-led groups are unwelcome by Syrian Arabs and the West’s regional allies alike. To be clear, both the YPG and the SDF have legitimate claims to certain territorial holdings in Syria, but they cannot replace Sunni Arab revolutionaries as the sole Western partner — an outcome Putin very much desires. If Sunni Arabs who have worked with the West against Assad and now the Islamic State can be replaced by primarily Kurdish forces, than the gravest threat to the Assad regime is removed from the board.
The central problem with this Kurdish-first approach is that it alienates, excludes, or directly targets most of those 70,000 non-jihadi revolutionaries mentioned by Prime Minister Cameron — the Sunni Arab groups most ready and willing to take back Raqqa. Even if we can empower Kurdish-led forces to launch an assault on the Islamic State’s capital, the SDF will never be able to hold Arab Sunni land, and the city will remain vulnerable to any and all future extremist groups that can appeal to civilians on identity grounds.
As we look ahead to the Vienna talks and consider the fate of Assad, we must acknowledge the ugly reality that Russian intervention has already secured Assad’s position for the present. Writing on the Atlantic Council’s website on Jan. 4, Fred Hof, former U.S. special advisor for transition in Syria, asked pointedly: “[W]hy would Moscow need or want … American assurance with respect to Syria? When has Washington mounted a credible threat to the Assad regime?”
Similarly, we must confront the fact that the Russian campaign, like its regime and Iranian predecessors, is based on the collective punishment of Sunni communities and the protection of the regime at all costs. This not only represents an endless humanitarian horror, but the brutal destruction of the very community the West will need to work with to defeat the Islamic State. If the destruction of the Islamic State is a real U.S. policy imperative, this administration will need to find more coercive and effective tools to influence Russian behavior before it’s too late.
Photo credit: Anadolu Agency
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