The seeds of American distrust over the new cease-fire in Syria — which began Monday after being brokered by U.S. and Russian diplomats — were planted as far back as last September. That’s when Moscow kicked off its air campaign in Syria by sending an official to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with the message that Russian bombs would begin falling within the hour, blindsiding President Barack Obama’s administration.
Since then, a pall of suspicion has settled in over the yearlong Russian air campaign, which has seen close calls and strikes on U.S.-backed rebels. Perhaps the most damning incident came on June 16, when Russian bombs nearly landed on American and British commandos in southern Syria in a raid that Russian planes repeated only 90 minutes later — despite urgent calls to Moscow to hold fire. Less than a month later, the Russians bombed a base 50 miles to the west used by rebel elements supported by the CIA.
Together, the strikes and mixed messages fueled suspicions at the Defense Department, CIA, and State Department that Russia’s actions betrayed its real agenda — to back the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the hilt while paying lip service to a worldwide goal of defeating the Islamic State.
An internal debate is now tearing through the Obama administration over how the United States should approach Russia’s aggressive moves in Syria.
Key officials at the White House and State Department want to negotiate with Moscow instead of risk an escalating proxy war with Russia or even direct military confrontation. Still, officials at the State Department and Pentagon remain deeply frustrated by what they see as Russia’s double-dealing, and the new plan to potentially forge deeper ties with Moscow comes as unwelcome news.
Under the terms of the agreement hammered out last week in Geneva, fighting between the Assad regime and opposition forces is supposed to stop in areas not controlled by the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — formerly the Nusra Front — allowing for the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas and, in particular, the divided city of Aleppo. For the first week, the cease-fire will be renewed every 48 hours, after which the United States and Russia will start coordinating their targeting of the militant fighters.
“This plan has a chance to work,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday, noting the mounting death toll of Syrian civilians struck by Russian and Syrian warplanes. “I would hope that everyone who has deplored these kinds of attacks … is going to support the effort to bring these assaults to an end.”
Yet senior officials at the Pentagon and other top brass privately say the Russians and their allies in Damascus exploited the previous cease-fire in February to regroup and hammer opposition forces — particularly in Aleppo — the symbolic epicenter of the five-year civil war.
From the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria, Moscow said it wanted to work in cooperation with the United States to target Islamic State militants and other extremists. But, instead, Russian warplanes and troops on the ground mostly have struck opposition forces threatening the Assad regime, with bombing raids that rarely distinguished between civilian and military targets.
“They’ve had about a year to demonstrate to us whether they were serious about that. And what they’ve demonstrated is, no, they’re serious first and foremost about securing a future for Assad,” Evelyn Farkas, a former senior Defense Department official who stepped down last year, told the BBC. “The Russians have consistently lied to us.”
Current senior military officers have an equally pessimistic view of Russia’s rhetoric on Syria as they have closely tracked Moscow’s aircraft and artillery backing up Assad’s forces over the past year.
“The Russians need to put their money where their mouth is. They’ve been reluctant to do that so far,” one senior military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Monday.
But top commanders are ready to carry out the agreement despite the widespread skepticism, he added. “Our job now is to say ‘aye, aye sir’ and enact the policy,” the officer said.
At the State Department, the deal’s provisions to allow for humanitarian access to besieged areas such as Aleppo are widely supported and viewed by many diplomats as a crucial reason for supporting the agreement. But officials deeply resent the impression that an unholy alliance is taking shape between the United States and Russia.
One major concern is that the United States now could be blamed just as harshly — by Sunni Muslims across the Mideast — as Russia currently is for supporting Assad.
“This is about saving Syrian lives and getting back to transition talks, not placating Russia,” a Western diplomat involved in Syria policy said.
U.S. officials have struggled to explain how they can both disdain Russia’s support for a regime that they believe has lost all legitimacy while agreeing to coordinate more closely with it.
This month, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, Michael Ratney, sent a letter to Syrian opposition groups outlining the planned cease-fire deal, saying it would rely on Russia to keep Assad’s warplanes from bombing mainstream opposition-held areas and bar pro-regime forces from a strategic supply route north of Aleppo. The letter emphasized that the deal with Russia was not based on trust — wording that angered Russian diplomats who felt they deserved better treatment by their American counterparts.
One Western diplomat said the Russian response was delusional.
“If you’re dealing with the Russians on this, you often need a long shower afterwards,” the diplomat said.
In June, at least 50 U.S. diplomats voiced their revulsion to closer ties with Russia in a “dissent memo” calling for military strikes against the Assad regime. The letter acknowledged that the strikes would prompt a “significant” deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations but said the risk was worth taking.
“The moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable,” the letter said.
The arrangements for how exactly U.S.-Russian military coordination would proceed in the ongoing cease-fire have yet to be hammered out. A senior defense official told Foreign Policy that the plan calls for American and Russian representatives to hold a series of face-to-face meetings to exchange targeting lists, haggle over which targets are legitimate, and negotiate where there might be objections.
“We’re going to have Russians and Americans sitting down in a room together” with representatives from about 11 other nations to select mutually agreed targets, the official said. However, intelligence-gathering methods, sources, and why a particular target might be important “will not be exchanged,” the official stressed. “Just the lists of targets.”
Any possible cooperation with Russia, however limited, will risk exposing aspects of U.S. spycraft, said Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War.
“Anytime the U.S. coordinates any military operations with another country, even our allies, we reveal some of our ‘operational art,’” he said. As for Russia, it has never been known to share much of its intelligence with any country, dating back to World War II. “In terms of sharing intelligence, Russia is a one-way street,” Harmer said. “They want information but won’t share any.”
In an awkward moment Monday, Kerry told reporters at the State Department that Washington and Moscow would have to give the go-ahead for any Syrian airstrikes, as long as they’re “agreed upon with Russia and the United States.”
Later in the day, however, State spokesman John Kirby issued a correction to Kerry’s statement to clarify that the cease-fire “makes no provision whatsoever for the U.S. and Russia to approve strikes by the Syrian regime, and this is not something we could ever envision doing.” The confusion increased calls for the United States and Russia to make the details of the agreement public, a demand neither side has shown a willingness to accept.
It’s unclear how the meetings will work, and officials declined to comment on where they might take place. Both the United States and Russia have operational centers in Baghdad from which they run their anti-Islamic State campaigns; Russian officials share their facility with Iranian intelligence and military officers. At the moment, U.S. officers at Central Command’s combat air operations center in Qatar speak to Russian counterparts by phone to ensure U.S.-led coalition aircraft are not risking collisions with Russian warplanes over Syria.
The first hurdle the cease-fire will have to clear is the critical first 48 hours.
“We’re going to stop and assess after the first 48-hour period to see how many times the cessation of hostilities has not been adhered to,” the defense official added. If the Americans are satisfied, he said, the cease-fire will continue for the rest of the week, after which the United States and Russia will begin sharing their targeting lists and signing off on strikes.
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