Search for a Syria solution: how Russia might help, as ties with US improve

A thaw in US-Russia relations offers limited possibilities for military-to-military cooperation, say defense officials, but civilian casualties in Syria are a concern. Diplomacy might have more potential.

Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/AP
President Barack Obama, right, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, prior to a session of the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Monday. The tide of global rage against the Islamic State group lends greater urgency to ending the jihadis’ ability to operate at will from a base in war-torn Syria. That momentum could also force a reevaluation of what to do about President Bashar Assad’s future and puts a renewed focus on the position of his key patrons, Russia and Iran.

Between comments from Secretary of State John Kerry that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not “wedded” to keeping Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad in power, and scenes of President Obama and Mr. Putin huddled at the G20 summit with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, there were some indications this week that the United States might be coming around to the idea of Russia as a potential partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

So, how helpful a partner could Russia prove to be? Reviews have been mixed on that front.

There have been some signs of a thaw in US-Russia relations in the wake of the Paris attacks last week in which at least 130 people died, and for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility. Even before the attacks, there were stepped-up efforts to de-conflict operations, and now this thaw offers limited possibilities for military-to-military cooperation, say defense officials. But they express concerns about “reckless and irresponsible” Russian bombings.

Civilian casualties are a great concern to US officials, who are pushing back against calls from some quarters for a loosening of “rules of engagement” restrictions that could strike more IS forces, but cause deaths of innocent bystanders.

In addition to, as one US military official puts it, “our moral obligation to protect the innocent and to the Law of Land Warfare requirements to minimize civilian harm,” civilian casualties play into the Islamic State narrative of callous Western forces who do not care about Middle Eastern Muslims, analysts note.

On the political front, however, Russia may have a valuable role to play, if it chooses to do so, in bringing Syrian leaders to the negotiating table, say former military officials and analysts.

For the time being, the US military has established a system to allow Russian and US military headquarters in the region to reach out to each other, “and warn or advise of an upcoming operation so we could de-conflict,” Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for US operations in the region, said this week from Baghdad. “We actually test that communication channel almost daily, so we know it’s a good channel.”

Indeed, when Russian forces in Syria bombed the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa last week, “Russians contacted us and told us what they were going to do, and we acknowledged it, and everybody continued on with their missions,” he said. “It’s important to note that the Russian actions in Raqqa here recently had a minimal impact on coalition operations, very minimal.”

Russian forces did not, however, give US forces their target set. “So we’re going through the analysis piece now to try to determine exactly what they hit,” Colonel Warren said. “Right now, I’ve seen no indication that they hit any targets in our target set. That said, you know, they were attempting to strike ISIL targets,” which would be a net plus, he said, using the US government's acronym for the Islamic State.

On the ground, however, senior US military officials express concern about the tendency that the Russian approach to warfare has to produce civilian casualties, particularly because their forces don’t use precision weapons.

When asked whether this is harming civilians, “it would come as no surprise,” Warren said. “The Russians are using dumb bombs. Their history has been both reckless and irresponsible.”

US military officials also point to the old-fashioned formations in which Russian forces fly.

“The Russians had a large air armada flying into Raqqa to conduct these operations. And it was notable to us that, you know, those are antiquated tactics,” Warren said. “The idea of putting ... 10 ships in the air at one time, or 12 or even more, are very old-fashioned. And those are the type of tactics needed only if you don’t possess the technology, the skills, and the capabilities to conduct the type of precision strikes that our coalition conducts."

In a recent operation to bomb 116 oil trucks this week supplying the Islamic State, US forces dropped leaflets in advance of the operation, warning drivers in Arabic to “Get out of your trucks now and run away from them.”

At one point, some civilians got out and ran away from their trucks, which were backed up bumper to bumper, and into a tent about 300 feet away.

“These truck drivers were absolutely legitimate military targets,” Warren said. “But in a great sense of what we’re all about here, those [US military] pilots made a decision ... from the cockpit that they could accomplish their mission without striking that tent and without hurting any of those civilians.”

Given the great difference in, among other things, the approach to civilian casualties, “I wouldn’t cooperate with Russia militarily,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, professor of military history at Ohio State University in Columbus.

That said, “Russia has a role to play diplomatically,” he adds, which might include putting pressure on Iran and Mr. Assad to bring them to the negotiating table.

“At the end of the day, even though Assad may be unpopular, there’s still a deep reservoir of support for a Syrian Arab republic, and Russia’s intervention,” says Nicholas Heras, research associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“The best-case scenario is that Russia is able to midwife a process in which Assad and his close coterie are no longer in power,” he says. “Russia’s role could be helpful, if it so chooses, in terms of working with the Assad regime and the Syrian military to say, ‘Look, OK, in order for this to work, Assad will have to go. What does your governance plan look like? We’ll then put this to the Americans.’ ”

Mr. Heras adds, “Then the Americans can put pressure on its allies to come to the table with a cease-fire.”

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