04.06.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The U.S. and its Allies Ready to Meet Moscow “Half Way” in Syria

24323434We are already into the fifth year since the conflict started in Syria and it still seems far from over—and we might not see its peaceful resolution unless the major powers involved in it start co-ordinating their anti-terror efforts. While the U.S. has been involved in the conflict since almost the beginning, Russia’s entry in 2015 has considerably altered the course of events to a highly positive direction. Not only has Russia’s role been recognized by the U.S. (read: John Kerry’s appraisal of how Russian campaign has positively contributed to salvaging thousands of lives), but the U.S. is now, gradually though, coming round to the Russian way of ending the war. Many see in it a glaring diplomatic success of Mr. Putin and his team.

This co-ordination’s first glimpse came when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during his last visit to Tashkent last week, “We agreed with our American partners – not straightaway, but after dealing with their concerns, doubts and even resistance – to eventually move from sharing information to coordinated action against terrorism. These issues are currently being considered by our defense departments.” He further added that, “there is now a chance that such coordination will occur. We believe that the Russian (forces) and the aircraft of US-led coalition should operate in a synchronized and coordinated manner and help those who are really fighting terrorist units on the ground – armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic and various Kurdish self-defense units … I can safely say we are ready for such coordination (in the forthcoming operation to capture Raqqa).”

This co-ordination has also seen some sort of practical manifestation. According to some reports, Russia has started to restrain from attacking the Al-Qaeda affiliate groups, such as Al-Nusra, due primarily to facilitate the U.S. in separating its “moderate” units from Al-Qaeda. While one may argue that this case implies Russia giving in to the U.S. policy of funding ‘proxy groups’ against Daesh, it can also be seen a concession Russia has agreed upon to co-ordinate its way with that of the U.S. and its allies to avoid un-necessary provocation. To quote Lavrov, “We (Moscow) met them (Washington) half way”.

While the notorious Al-Nusra front had previously not been attacked consistently by the U.S. led Arab coalition forces, its recent activities—and especially the way its attacks have increased manifold in Syria—seem to have pushed the U.S. government to focus on it to prevent it from turning into a ‘new Daesh.’ Reports from Syria indicate that Al-Nusra is reportedly seeking to establish its own “emirate” around Idlib and is wooing Salafi fellow travellers to its cause. Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham jointly attacked the Alawite village of Zara in Hama province May 12, massacring 19 civilians.

While the U.S. has seemingly agreed to work out a separation of these groups, this task is too complex to be carried out that easily. Speaking after the last held session of the Russia-Gulf Cooperation Council strategic dialogue on last Thursday, Russian FM noted, “The effectiveness of the anti-terrorist operation in Syria is hampered by the situation when many groups of the so-called patriotic opposition are territorially mixed with terrorist groups, first of all Jebhat al-Nusra.” He continued further, “Back in February this year, US colleagues promised us in the framework of ISSG (International Syria Support Group) and via other channels that they will soon achieve through their representatives the separation on the ground between patriotic opposition and Jebhat al-Nusra,”

“This has not happened so far despite the fact that the regime of cessation of hostilities came into force three months ago,” the foreign minister noted. “Everyone who wanted to join the regime of cessation of hostilities has probably been able to do that many times already,” he concluded.

While it is clear that the emphasis of official negotiations has positively shifted from blaming each other for ‘un-necessary strikes’ on harmless groups to increasing mutual co-ordination,

there are people still in the U.S. who believe that instead of increasing co-ordination with Russia, the U.S. and its allies would be better-off establishing a ‘second round’ of proxy groups.

While this strategy sounds to them a feasible way of avoiding Russia, it is certainly not clear how the so-called ‘second round’ would be any different from the previous $500 million train-and-equip effort that failed. While the U.S. tends to continue to support some ‘secular forces’ in Syria, absence of coordination with Russia would only serve to escalate confrontation, undermine the cessation of hostilities, blow up the peace talks, provide incentive for even more radical organizations and jihadi recruits to rush in and deliver another crushing blow to the faint hopes of Syrians for an end to the war.

And the emphasis on greater co-ordination between the U.S. and Russia has also been laid by some of countries from the Gulf too. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who led the Gulf delegation to Moscow recently, said Riyadh appreciated Russia’s stance on Syria, pointing to some identical points of view over the settlement prospects in, apart from Syria, Yemen and Libya. Even from the body language of the Russian FM, it was apparent that he had a fruitful interaction regarding Syria with his Saudi counterpart.

Notwithstanding the optimism both Russia and other states involved in Syria have expressed with regard to enhanced co-ordination in Syria, there are certain definite flash points, such as disagreement between Russia and the US with regard to some groups’ designation as ‘terrorist’ or ‘moderate’ in Syria. For instance, the U.S. is reported to have blocked a Russian initiative to have Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam designated as terrorist groups, despite the Salafi groups’ record of atrocities and collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusra and an extremist ideology it professes which is hardly indistinguishable from that of al-Qaeda or IS.

The question that one must be asking here and that must be factored in is: should a group be designated as ‘terrorist’ or ‘moderate’ on the basis of its ideology and tactics or on the basis of the side it fights for? It is the ideology that makes a group ‘terrorist’ and ‘extremist.’ On the other hand, were the second criteria to be employed to designate any group’s position, it might create a rather funny puzzle for the U.S. in Syria. For instance, Al-Nusra front—which is by all means a terror network—may become a ‘moderate’ group by joining the U.S. funded groups. Will, the question is, the U.S. then continue to co-ordinate with Russia against Al-Nusra? This is a tricky criteria and, for the sake of peace in the war-torn Syria, the U.S. must work out a clear criteria; for, in the absence of a clear-cut criteria, terror groups might find in it a useful way to evade being targeted, go into hibernation and resume their activities whenever suitable. Therefore, it is as important to set clear target groups in Syria as it is to work out a fully-fledged and across the board co-ordination programme.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.