Syrian cease-fire: How can US and Russia trust each other?

Even countries as seemingly at odds as the US and Russia can cooperate, but it will be hard. 

Kevin Lamarque/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands at the conclusion of a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss Syria on Sept. 9.

Faced with the prospect of partnering with the Russians as part of a cease-fire deal in Syria, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrington didn’t hedge.

“I’m not going to tell you I trust them,” said the head of United States Air Force Central Command in a briefing with reporters Tuesday.

Joint US-Russia airstrikes against terrorists in Syria would come about only after seven days of calm, but General Harrington interjected, “that is, if we get that far.”

For the Syrian cease-fire that began Monday to hold and gain momentum, many things have to come into alignment – from local cooperation among militias and the Syrian government to the definition of just who is a terrorist.

But US-Russia cooperation is high on the list, and many military officials leave no doubt about how they view their Russian counterparts.

“There is a trust deficit with the Russians,” Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command – which runs US operations in Syria – said Wednesday at a conference in Washington hosted by the Institute for the Study of War. "It's not clear to us what their objectives are. They say one thing, and we don't necessarily see them following up.”

It is not impossible for two countries that don’t trust each other to cooperate, experts say. The US and Russia have coordinated militarily and diplomatically in the past.

But the potential impediments in Syria are substantial – from differing opinions about the need for precision airstrikes to the sharing of intelligence.

The greatest challenge, however, is an apparent lack of shared interests. It means each small step will be vital to establishing a working relationship between two groups that look at each other with distrust.

“This isn’t an agreement of trust. There is a deficit of trust, and I think we all understand why that is,” said Vice Adm. Frank Craig Pandolfe, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Wednesday conference. “This is a verify-kind-of-agreement.” 

Differences of precision

On one level, the concerns are tactical.

For example, preventing civilian casualties is a top concern for US military commanders, but that hasn’t appeared to be the case for the Russians.

While the Pentagon uses precision munitions, Russia doesn’t. But beyond weapons technology, US pilots are simply trained and equipped to carry out strikes with a greater degree of precision.

“It’s the capabilities on our airplanes from the [intelligence] pods that we carry to, quite frankly, the coalition airmen that ... are able to take those capabilities and then leverage them to make sure we’re putting the right weapon on the right target,” Harrington said.

Harrington was asked if the US military would potentially assign “easier” targets to the Russians, since they use dumb bombs. “There will be some challenges there,” he said.

It may be possible to do “proof of concept” cooperation tests, says Melissa Dalton, who served as the Pentagon’s country director for Syria in 2012.

“Are there areas that are relatively free of civilians where you can more discreetly target a terrorist group?” she asks. “That’s hard to find in Syria, given how embedded [terrorist groups including] ISIS are in communities, but it could be possible to try to find to test out, at a very tactical level, the possibility of cooperation.”

Similar capabilities

A lack of precision munitions does not mean that the Russian military lacks capabilities. 

“The Russians are good at what they do. They do the same types of things we do – not as well, but it’s not like dealing with people who are incompetent,” says Christopher Harmer, who previously served as deputy director for future operations for the US Navy Fifth Fleet. “They are a semi-modern air force, and they have picked up some precision targeting capability.”

“So from a tactical perspective, doing air operations or de-conflicting air operations is tactically possible,” he says.

Though there hasn’t been a great deal of tactical cooperation between the US and Russia, the two militaries have taken part in NATO “partnership for peace” training exercises. And the US and Russia have worked together diplomatically in brokering the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015 and rounding up Syrian chemical weapons in 2013. 

“This sort of diplomatic cooperation has happened, but on a tactical level, it's rare, and that's giving the Pentagon cause for concern,” says Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. 

Differences of interest

The question is whether working together is advisable, adds Mr. Harmer, now senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

There is a question about just how much military intelligence to share with Russians. While there are ways to guard intelligence sources and methods, the Russians will have an interest in gleaning what they can from the US.

“They want to know: How does US intelligence select targets? How do they allocate assets? What if there are more targets than assets – how do we prioritize targets? They’re going to gather all the intelligence on us that they can.” Harmer says.

The larger question, however, is one of shared interests.

To Harmer, they are “nonexistent."

“There is nothing Russians are trying to accomplish that we are,” he says. Russians want to keep Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power, and "what Assad wants is to drag the Syrian civil war down to a level where there are only two viable camps left – Assad on one side and the extreme radical jihadists on the other.”

Similar concerns

But Ms. Dalton argues that the humanitarian crisis – coupled with the potential for the war to spread jihadism to Russia – could create a mutual purpose.

Reports suggest that the Russian Embassy in Damascus is working with the Assad government to address the humanitarian challenges, she notes.

“From that you can deduce that the Russians can recognize how big a crisis the humanitarian problem is now, and that there's a drive to staunch the wound,” says Dalton, now chief of staff for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

What’s more, “There’s a grave concern in Russia’s mind about the proliferation of extremist groups into Europe" and the sizable Muslim population in the Russian Caucasus.

“These are some of the reasons we’ve come together on this, which can serve as a useful touch point when inevitably tensions arrive,” she adds. “There's such a huge moral and strategic imperative to address the humanitarian challenge, that if this agreement brings even a day or two of relief to besieged areas under attack, then that is a good thing.” 

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