The long internal political struggle within the Obama administration over policy toward Syria has intensified following a proposal by President Barack Obama to cooperate with Russia in an air campaign against Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise.
The proposal, in response to an overture from Russia in May, would coordinate airstrikes against al-Nusra Front – the most powerful force in the war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime – in return for Russian agreement to constrain the Syrian regime from bombing non-jihadist forces willing to comply with the ceasefire.
If fully implemented, such a joint U.S.-Russian military campaign against Nusra could help hasten an end to the war by weakening the jihadist group cited by the Syrian regime as a major reason it has refused to make sufficient political concessions. In theory, such cooperation could strengthen both the regime and the so-called “moderate” rebels at the expense of the jihadists.
"As the Obama administration goes into its final months, what appears to be the most promising path to an end to the Syrian civil war may yet be blocked by U.S. refusal to break with the policies of its regional allies who have been feeding the jihadist-led war for years."
But Obama’s proposal is under attack by powerful elements of the national security bureaucracy. Even though the opponents have been unable to stop the proposal, they continue to press their case and it is not clear how committed the proponents are in pressuring their Syrian clients to comply with an agreement.
Last week, opponents of the proposal within the Obama administration leaked its existence to Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, whose sympathies clearly lie with the U.S. advocates of direct U.S. war against the Assad regime.
Rogin’s story confirms that one major source of opposition to the proposal is Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and his staff. The article suggests, moreover, that the Pentagon opposition has less to do with Syria than with the Pentagon’s interest in preventing any softening of the new U.S.-Russia Cold War.
Carter opposed the Obama plan for a joint military strategy with Russia, Rogin writes, because Russian President Vladimir Putin sees military cooperation with Washington in Syria as “a way to gradually unwind Russia’s isolation following the Russian military intervention in Ukraine.”
But the primary argument against a joint campaign with Russia targeting Nusra Front is that it would jeopardize the military strength of Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise and thus help the Assad government reclaim key territory.
Rogin quotes a complaint from Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that, even if Russia delivers on a commitment to halt regime bombing of non-jihadist armed groups, the other armed groups fighting Assad would be in a much weaker position.
The on-the-ground subordination of the so-called “legitimate opposition” to the command structure of Al Qaeda’s offshoot, which is officially designated a terrorist organization, has been at the center of the diplomatic maneuvering between the Obama administration and Russia over possible military cooperation in Syria.
The original Russian proposal to the United States for a joint air campaign, announced by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on May 20, was conditional on non-jihadist armed groups separating physically from Nusra. The Russians had made that same condition part of the agreement for the partial ceasefire in February.
Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to the condition but never delivered on the pledge to get the “moderate” armed groups to move away from Nusra and its jihadist allies. Nusra and another hard-line jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sham, have been the leaders of the powerful Saudi-backed rebel umbrella group, the Army of Conquest.
The subordinate non-jihadist groups have made it clear they have no intention of abandoning Nusra Front and its superior fighting capabilities. Instead of separating themselves from Nusra, the non-jihadist forces in northeastern Syria joined Nusra in breaking the ceasefire.
Charles Lister, a British specialist on the jihadists in Syria, recounted being told by the commander of a U.S.-supported armed group around March 20 that Nusra Front officials began a round of meetings with non-jihadist opposition groups from the areas of Hama, Latakia and southern Aleppo to persuade them to join in resuming the offensive against the Assad regime, rather than participating in a ceasefire and political negotiations.
When Nusra Front launched an offensive operation on April 3 on three fronts near Aleppo and in Idlib with the aim of taking back territory lost to the Syrian government in 2015, a number of the armed opposition groups supported by the United States fought alongside Al Qaeda’s affiliate.
The opposition commander explained to Lister that, if his group had not agreed to join Nusra’s offensive, “we would be seen as the enemy” — thus acknowledging that the U.S.-supported groups see no choice but to fight with the much stronger Nusra Front.
On May 5, just over two months ago, 37 armed opposition groups that were continuing to call themselves “Free Syrian Army,” the name applied to many of the U.S.-backed rebel forces inside Syria, issued a declaration that rejected any ceasefire that allowed attacks on Nusra Front.
“[A]ll the armed groups from across Syria will form a single bloc,” it said, adding, “Any offensive that takes place in an area where our units are present will be regarded as an attack against all the units throughout Syrian territory and we reserve the right to respond to it.”
In other words, many of the U.S.-armed, supposedly “moderate” rebels are in a strategic alliance with Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. It is that reality that has complicated Russian airstrikes against “terrorist” elements, both Nusra and the Islamic State, without also hitting U.S.-backed rebel groups and provoking outrage in Washington.
Obama’s willingness to increase cooperation with the Russians is recognition that the continuing collaboration between Nusra and the so-called “moderates” represents an untenable situation if Syrian peace negotiations are to have any meaning. If the “moderates” don’t separate from Nusra, they effectively serve as its protective shield.
Thus, the inside-Washington bureaucratic pushback against Obama’s proposal to Russia was prompted by the fact that the Obama proposal appears to represent a fundamental departure from its policy in 2014-15 of encouraging – if not participating in – making a Nusra Front-led military coalition a powerful threat in northeastern Syria.
Turkish, Saudi and Qatari financial and logistical support for the Army of Conquest military command — dominated by Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib — was the crucial factor in the shift in military balance that raised the specter of a jihadist victory over the largely secular Assad government and led to Russian military intervention last fall.
Though the Russian intervention helped the Syrian military regain key territory, the U.S.-Russian-negotiated partial ceasefire has enabled Nusra and its allies to regroup.
Brett McGurk, Obama’s special envoy for the “Global Coalition to Counter IS” – also known as the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh – has noted in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Nusra Front “is gaining ground in the west, putting down roots in Idlib province along the Turkish border.”
McGurk said Nusra Front is now “al-Qaeda’s largest formal affiliate in history” and added that it is “a serious concern.” It was the first time anyone in the Obama administration had registered the slightest concern about the military power of Nusra Front in Syria since the strategy of exploiting its military potential for diplomatic advantage over the Assad regime went into effect.
Obama’s proposed cooperation with Russia against Nusra Front was reportedly sent to Moscow by the State Department on June 27. The implication of the counter-argument protesting Obama’s proposal is that the opponents are willing to accept a long-term Al Qaeda-dominated mini-state in northeast Syria and even risk the possibility of a Nusra Front-led coalition coming to power in Damascus.
No Clean Break
But the fact that some hawks in the U.S. security bureaucracy oppose Obama’s proposal does not necessarily mean that the President is seeking a clean break from past administration strategy.
In his Senate testimony, McGurk cited the need to “find a mechanism to de-escalate and end the Syrian civil war, thereby allowing the moderate opposition to take charge of its own territory without threat of Assad’s barrel bombs overhead or terrorists down the street.”
But Kerry and other administration policymakers know very well that the vast majority of the Syrian opposition groups are not going to separate themselves from Nusra Front, so the idea of a “moderate” opposition with its own zone of control is a political fiction.
A key element in the new proposal is the demand that Russia agree to guarantee an end to all Assad regime air attacks against the “legitimate opposition.” That is apparently being interpreted as imposing extreme limitations on operations by the Syrian air force.
Journalist Laura Rozen quotes “a diplomat involved in the international discussions on Syria” as saying, “Grounding the [Syrian] air force is possible; restricting its area of activity could be a possibility.”
Any U.S.-Russian agreement on cooperation against Nusra Front would be clearly based on the premise that any new limitations on either Russian or Syrian airpower would come only after opposition groups have moved away from the Nusra-dominated areas and withdrawn from the Nusra-led military commands with which they have been affiliated.
After those groups failed to move away from Nusra Front troops this spring, Kerry’s State Department did put pressure on their supplies lines across the Turkish border. But Kerry and the State Department continued to blame Russia for failing to prevent the Syrian government from carrying out air attacks on targets in the Nusra Font zone.
Kerry, who is supporting Obama’s proposal, according to Rogin’s report, may still be hoping to use the proposed agreement to build a case that Russian and Syrian government intransigence – not the continued U.S. complicity in Turkish-Saudi-Qatari strategy of backing the Nusra Front-Ahrar al Sham duo in the northeast – is the reason why the “legitimate opposition” is still under air attack.
As the Obama administration goes into its final months, what appears to be the most promising path to an end to the Syrian civil war may yet be blocked by U.S. refusal to break with the policies of its regional allies who have been feeding the jihadist-led war for years.