US, Russia cooperating in Syria despite disagreements
Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis may have changed several paradigms for the US but, after a while, Washington acquiesced to Moscow becoming a party to the conflict, if not a partner.
There has been one major difference between Moscow and Washington in their handling of the Syrian crisis: US policy was to overthrow the Assad regime while Russia was trying to save it and thwart the American efforts.
The fight against Daesh ushered in a new situation. Protracted deliberations took place within the Obama administration on whether the priority should be given to fighting Daesh or Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra-linked groups. From autumn 2014, the Pentagon gave first priority to destroying Daesh. The US would continue fighting Daesh while Russia could fight in areas out of the reach of US forces, such as Palmyra and Deir Ezzor. The US could thus keep the Russian forces away from what was called the “useful Syria” — the west of the country. The moderate armed opposition factions were strong in these areas and, therefore, the US could support their fight against the regime.
At that time, a Russian proposal to set up a joint operation center in Jordan was rejected by the US. In retrospect, this rejection may have helped the US to further harass the Syrian regime and weaken it, while on the other it prolonged the elimination of the armed opposition and caused additional civilian casualties.
Today, there is cooperation between the US and Russia, especially in northeast Syria. The ambiguity in the US attitude renders this cooperation difficult. This ambiguity is due to the lack of full agreement between the major powerhouses in Washington, especially the White House and the Pentagon.
As Turkey in October launched the military operation dubbed “Peace Spring,” the US withdrew its soldiers from the region. One of its abandoned bases was the Metras military airfield, 30 kilometers south of Ain Al-Arab. On Nov.1, US troops returned to the base, with American leaders saying they would use the airfield for the delivery of supplies needed to establish new military bases in the region. They left again before the Russian military police arrived at the airport on Nov. 15.
They both want to hold the Kurdish card because it provides important leverage in a tumultuous region fraught with risks.
There may be a tacit or even an explicit agreement between the US and Russia. Two major actors in a crisis area will have converging and diverging interests and it is only natural they do their best to avoid unnecessary confrontations.
There are two other areas in the Syrian crisis on which the US and Russia disagree. One is how to end the conflict. The US prefers a solution that refuses any role to Bashar Assad in Syria’s future, while Russia supports Assad’s regime.
The other disagreement is about the future status of the Kurds in Syria. On this issue, their respective policies are close but not identical. They both want to hold the Kurdish card because it provides important leverage in a tumultuous region fraught with risks. The US is eager to promote the Kurdish identity and use it to put pressure on the Syrian government for a solution that it prefers. It prefers to let the Kurds maintain their existing self-declared cantons — Jazira, Kobani and Afrin — and let the Kurdish cause evolve in the direction of regional autonomy, like the one in the north of Iraq. In a longer-term perspective, the US is eager to see an independent Kurdistan that may contribute to the security of Israel.
Russia is in favor of the recognition of Kurdish identity within the territorial integrity of Syria. This may be in the form of devolution of power to the municipalities inhabited predominantly by the Kurdish population. Russia does not have a strong position on the long-term future on this subject and seems to want to leave it to evolve under its own dynamics.
On the Kurdish issue, Turkey is also a player. Its various military operations in Syria were aimed at interrupting the emergence of a Kurdish belt on its southern frontier. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that, if the area is not entirely cleared of the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Ankara may launch yet another military operation. This defiant statement was later negated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said: “Ankara assured Moscow that Turkey was not seeking a new military operation in Syria.” So Ankara denied its own minister’s statement.
Turkey’s Syria policy differs to a great extent from that of the US and Russia. In light of these divergent positions, it is difficult to expect an early solution to the Syrian crisis. Unfortunately, the Syrian people may suffer as long as the foreign actors do not agree on a workable common position.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar