There is a decided difference between the cohesion of a single army, led into battle under the personal command of a single general, and that of an allied force extending over 250 or 500 miles, or even operating against different fronts. In the one, cohesion is at its strongest and unity at its closest. In the other, unity is remote, frequently found only in mutual political interests, and even then rather precarious and imperfect; cohesion between the parts will usually be very loose, and often completely fictional.
– Carl von Clausewitz, circa 1832
On September 12th, the United States and Russia announced a ceasefire in Syria. While certainly not the first attempted ceasefire in the war, this one involved a particularly interesting promise: if the ceasefire held, the United States and Russia might begin sharing intelligence and targeting data. Both sides laid out very specific details regarding the intelligence sharing. The United States would be required to discourage rebels it backs from joining Fath al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra or the Nusra Front). The Russians would be required to exert pressure on the Syrian government to limit their attacks to Daesh. Neither side would agree to the sharing until after the ceasefire held for seven days.
After this week’s events, it seems incredibly unlikely that the intelligence sharing will move forward. Hostilities flared over the weekend, including barrel bomb attacks by Syrian forces and the mistaken bombing of Syrian forces by American warplanes. Russia called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the American bombing (but made no mention of the Syrian bombing). Aid supplies destined for starving and injured civilians still have not made it to their intended destinations.
So what difference, at this point, does it make? As Clausewitz said, cohesion in alliances “will usually be very loose, and often completely fictional.” When you examine the lay of the land in Syria, who stands to gain more from this alliance? What are the possible pitfalls of this alliance, not just in Syria, but internationally? I’m not a professional State Department type, so these observations are based primarily on reading a lot of talking heads and formulating my own opinion…
Putin longs for the days when Russia (then Soviet Russia) was the big kid on the block. What’s more, he’s not afraid to take what he thinks will get him there. He’s already invaded two countries in Europe in the name of “protecting Russian citizens;” and the fact that both of those countries were seeking alliances with the West just prior to the invasions was a total coincidence, per his propaganda machine. In each case, he’s gotten something out of it – in the case of Georgia he set a precedent and chilled the desire of former Soviet republics to seek out NATO and the West. In the case of Ukraine, he gained a permanent home for the Black Sea Fleet. He used the chemical weapons crisis in Syria to show that he is a player on the world stage, negotiating a deal when the United States sat around issuing “red lines” with no real consequences to back them up. Since then, he’s sponsored the International Syria Support Group. The ISSG facilitates negotiations to bring peace to Syria, and Putin is racking up his creds as a world player yet again.
The United States and Russia support very different sides in the civil war. Russia supports the Assad regime, and has been conducting offensive operations against any and all rebel factions, including Daesh, al-Nusra, and the “moderate” Free Syrian Army. The United States, on the other hand, supports the FSA in their fight against Daesh and al-Nusra/al-Sham. However, since you really can’t support the FSA solely in their fight against extremists without them also using their training and weapons against the Syrian regime, the United States finds itself in the de facto position of fighting the Assad regime. Russia wants the regime to continue because Syria currently hosts the Russian naval base that allows Putin’s navy to operate in the Mediterranean and the Gulf. Officially, the United States has no position on regime change, and just wants Daesh and al-Sham gone.
So why would Russia be willing to share intel for targeting now? Simply put, Putin thinks he’s going to get something out of it. In the world of international relations, Putin falls under the category of realist, someone who acts out of self-interest (as opposed to a constructivist, who acts out of respect for an international construct). If Putin is ready to share intel and targeting, he thinks that sharing is going to get him somewhere. So let’s look at the conditions outlined above. First, the Syrian government would only be allowed to target Daesh. That benefits Russia, as Daesh has long been the strongest force fighting Assad, and they haven’t suffered near the defeats in Syria that they have in Iraq (at least not yet). The United States is to discourage FSA members from joining al-Sham. This also benefits Russia, as despite their infighting with Daesh, al-Sham has worked together with Daesh, and still boasts more victories than the FSA. The United States will obviously continue to push the FSA to attack Daesh, as that remains our stated goal. So now, with the Syrian government no longer in danger of falling (thanks to Putin), Putin is ready to turn the screws on
the opposition. Putin may not necessarily want total annihilation of the opposition, but he wants enough concessions at the end to make it worth his while. With the two most successful opposition groups out of the way, the FSA probably won’t be looking at any roaring success on its own when the Syrian government turns its full might towards the FSA.
So, in the end, if this agreement were to go forward, Russia comes off as the winner. Would Daesh be pushed out of Syria, giving the United States a win? Possibly. But Daesh has already started moving operations to other countries. We’ll whack a Daesh here, and it’ll pop up over there. Daesh also continues to encourage homegrown terrorism, and has quite a few claimed attacks to their name – including one this weekend in Minnesota. Would it be a total loss for the United States? No, but it wouldn’t really be a win either.
About the author
Joel is an 12 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.