Obama’s Russian gambit getting flak from all sides

August 14, 2016
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrive at a news conference in Moscow, last July.

WASHINGTON - Despite mounting criticism from both Republicans and Democrats — and even high-ranking officials in his own administration — US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry are trying to coordinate anti-Islamic State and anti-Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Jabhat al-Nusra) operations with Russia. Although Obama has voiced concern about Russia’s military activities in Syria, he is not ready to give up on coordination with Moscow. Obama and Kerry seem to believe that, because the Russians are already engaged militarily in Syria and are among the few actors who have influence on Syrian President Bashar Assad, it is best to seek their cooperation than leave them to their own devices and continue hitting a broad range of anti-Assad rebels.
The US proposal, which has been leaked in part, involves the following: Russia would use its influence to compel Assad to ground the Syrian Air Force and focus Russia’s air strikes more exclusively on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — which changed its name from Jabhat al-Nusra and claims to no longer be affiliated with al-Qaeda though it still endorses a similar ideology. The United States would share intelligence with Russia on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham positions, and US military aircraft would join in the strikes. The sharing of intelligence would involve identifying and targeting Jabhat Fateh al-Sham military posi
tions as well as its leadership, training camps, logistical depots, supply lines and headquarters. According to a CNN report, the White House says the plan offers the best chance to “limit the fighting in Syria that is driving thousands of Syrians, mixed with some trained Islamic State fighters, into exile in Europe and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching tens of thousands more, as well as preserving a political track”. Despite US officials having had several meetings with their Russian counterparts, including a trip by Kerry to Moscow, the proposed deal has yet to be finalised. Even if it is, there are serious doubts that the Russians will abide by it. Over the past few weeks, Russia has aided Syrian government forces in laying siege to the city of Aleppo, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in that area. The Syrian regime continues to use its air force to attack rebel targets — in violation of a previously agreed-to ceasefire — and continues to use barrel bombs, which have caused numerous civilian casualties. These actions have been aided by Russian air strikes. The Russians, like the Assad regime, do not make distinctions between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and more moderate rebel groups. Moscow seems to agree with Damascus that all rebels are “terrorists”. The US proposal to cooperate with Moscow has elicited predictable criticism from certain Republicans on Capitol Hill, such as US Senator John McCain, R-Arizona. But what has been surprising is that criticism has also come from Democrats and administration officials. One unnamed administration official said that Kerry seemed to be ignoring Russia’s aim, which is to keep Assad in power, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s track record of violating agreements. More publicly, the Pentagon spokesman in July said that US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter “has been sceptical of Russia’s activities
in Syria” and “we have reasons for that”. And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told David Ignatius of the Washington Post that he had doubts whether Russia would deliver on any promises it makes on Syria. The Washington Post editorial page, which usually supports the Obama presidency, wrote that the administration “appears to have been blindsided by Mr. Putin, just as it was when Russia dispatched its forces in Syria in September” 2015. The editorial implied that US warnings to Russia about its military activities in Syria ring hollow. At an August 4th news conference at the Pentagon, after receiving a briefing on Syria and Iraq,
Obama expressed frustration with the Russians, stating that their “direct involvement” in Syrian government military actions raises “serious questions of their commitment of moving Syria from the brink”. Obama reiterated that while the United States wants to work with Russia against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria, so far Russia has “failed to take the necessary steps”. Normally, such a statement by Obama would receive more criticism from his opponents as being “naive”. Luckily for him, attention was focused on Donald Trump’s eye-popping statement that the Russians were not in Ukraine — even though they occupied and annexed Crimea in 2014 and continue to stir up trouble in eastern
Ukraine. Trump’s ignorance of foreign affairs and his earlier praise of Putin have worked to Obama’s benefit on Syria. Trump cannot seriously criticise Obama for seeking Putin’s cooperation when he has said he would have a good relationship with the Russian leader. Nevertheless, the fact that so many inside the administration have criticised the proposal to cooperate with Russia on Syria may indicate that Obama will have to recalibrate the policy soon.