If America Tries to Team Up With Russia in Syria, It Will Face Two Big Problems
Intelligence sharing and the law
by PAUL IDDON
The nascent Trump administration denied that it coordinated an air strike with Russia in Syria, and to be sure, it isn’t doing so. But the White House says it is open to working with the Kremlin on jointly targeting terrorist groups in the country.
The list of potential targets could include the Islamic State and Fateh Al Sham, formerly known as the Al Nusra Front — an ex-Al Qaeda affiliate and one of Syria’s most tenacious militant groups. On Jan. 19, the Barack Obama administration went out with a bang by hitting Fateh Al Sham with a B-52 Stratofortress and an unspecified number of drones, reportedly killing around 100 militants.
But were the United States to team up with Russia, and/or significantly ramp up its targeting of Fateh Al Sham, it will hit several snags, as the Pentagon will at least need to ensure rigorous communications mechanisms are in place.
Then there are the legal issues.
Fateh Al Sham is primarily based in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, which it seized in cooperation with other anti-regime rebel groups in early 2015. Meanwhile in northwest Syria, the Russian and Turkish air forces officially began coordinating strikes on the Islamic State in the city of Al Bab.
Syria’s skies are crowded with warplanes.
To be sure, Syria’s airspace has been cluttered with various air forces for nearly two years. But were Russian, Turkish and American aircraft to operate together in Syria’s northwest, there will be an increased chance of overlap.
Russia’s intervention in Syria began on Sept. 30, 2015, and has primarily — although not exclusively — bombed rebels in Syria’s northwest. The United States and its coalition allies have focused their efforts on blasting Islamic State militants in northeast Syria, with some exceptions notwithstanding.
Since Russia’s intervention, the United States established a hotline to help keep the two countries’ aircraft away from each other — mainly as a means to avoid mid-air collisions.
Nevertheless, American and Russian jets have come close. In fall 2016 an advanced Russian Su-35 Flanker air superiority fighter flew dangerously near a U.S. surveillance plane flying over Syria.
“We assessed that guy to be within one-eight of a mile — a few hundred feet away — and unaware of it,” U.S. Air Force Col. Paul Birch said of the incident.
It’s almost certain that increasing pressure on Fateh Al Sham would compound the group’s miseries. Moderate opposition factions, including Free Syrian Army brigades which once fought alongside Fateh Al Sham are now at war with the jihadist group.
Turkey, which previously supported these rebel factions when they overran Idlib in cooperation with Fateh Al Sham, also recently declared the group a threat. A Reuters report citing a Turkish foreign ministry source claimed that Turkey believes that Fateh Al Sham is unwilling to join in a political solution to end Syria’s nearly six-year-old civil war.
Fateh Al Sham’s former rebel allies were also unlikely to focus their efforts on destroying the group if it only meant that the Assad regime would kill them next. And were coordinated American, Russian and Turkish air power to back the rebels up, Fateh Al Sham’s foothold in Idlib could collapse.
However, there are several obstacles keeping the United States and Russia from teaming up. Not that it’s impossible — just difficult.
In 2016, the Obama administration offered to work with the Russians in Syria if they were able to successfully implement a ceasefire, ground the Syrian air force and then jointly target recognized terrorist groups, namely Fateh Al Sham and the Islamic State — who are excluded from all ceasefires to date.
It was not to be. Secondly, such an arrangement is currently illegal as a result of a provision in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. This act of Congress limits the Pentagon’s ability to work with the Russian military in light of Moscow’s invasion of Crimea.
But the Trump administration still indicates it’s willing to partner with Russia. “I think if there’s a way that we can combat ISIS with any country, whether it’s Russia or anyone else, and we have a shared national interest in that, sure, we’ll take it,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said during a Jan. 23 press conference.
When the Obama administration attempted to work out an arrangement with Russia, U.S. military officials expressed concerns about intelligence sharing — a key element in any coordinated military campaign.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in September that the U.S. military was opposed to sharing intelligence with the Russians. Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he “not believe it would be a good idea.”
So if the Pentagon were to change course, the White House will have to first find some way to mollify America’s generals, and second, reverse the law so it can team up with the Kremlin … legally.