When scores of foreign ministers gather in Washington on Thursday for their latest meeting to coordinate the fight against ISIS, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will once again be missing. Despite a January phone call in which Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin discussed collaborating against the Islamic State, it appears that the White House has at least temporarily shelved the idea. If that holds, it will be good for the United States.
Last August, I sat across from senior Russian generals and intelligence officials in a meeting meant to explore whether our two countries could agree on modalities for delivering humanitarian assistance to the beleaguered city of Aleppo. Our Pentagon delegation was trying to convince the Russians to pull back Assad-regime forces from critical supply routes such as Castello Road in northern Aleppo. It was painfully clear from our discussions then, just as it is now, that the Russian General Staff was not focused on the fight against ISIS and cared even less about civilian casualties, which had become a tool for extremist radicalization. It appeared that the generals across the table were simply playing for time so Assad could barrel-bomb his way to victory in Aleppo. Their focus was on mustering every conceivable argument to oppose humanitarian access to Aleppo neighborhoods where the local population sympathized with the opposition.
In these discussions, the Russians repeatedly accused the United States of failing in its ostensible responsibility to separate radical groups like Jabhat Al Nusrah (now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) from moderate opposition fighters. Whether they were oblivious or understood and simply did not care, the Russians failed to appreciate the argument that bombing urban centers radicalizes the civilian population and pushes moderate and extremist groups towards tactical alliances against a common enemy. In any case, after days of negotiations we did manage to agree on a plan for humanitarian access that alleviated Russian concerns about the possibility of military resupply for opposition fighters in Aleppo. Unfortunately, when Foreign Minister Lavrov met Secretary Kerry in Geneva a few days later, Lavrov reneged on the agreement.
The reason is simple. Lavrov’s bosses in the Kremlin view the Syrian opposition the same way they viewed the Chechen opposition 20 years earlier: as a regime threat that needs to be physically eliminated. The only difference is that in Syria the Kremlin prefers to outsource the bloody ground combat to its three allies: Assad’s army, Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It is a “hearts and minds” campaign of a different sort, one based on terrorizing the civilian population into submission and capitulation. Because Russia is militarily embedded with these groups and coordinates its actions with them, it is fully complicit in this campaign. For this reason alone, the United States should continue to avoid any association or entanglement with this notorious alliance.
Another reason to avoid collaboration with Russia in Syria is because it would require sharing intelligence on military targets, which would expose U.S. sources and methods to Russian military intelligence. Because Russia’s air campaign in Syria is based largely on unguided munitions, sharing even sanitized target information would risk U.S. complicity in any collateral damage, including civilian deaths, from airstrikes using “dumb bombs.” If intelligence on targets were shared in the reverse direction, it would also pose problems because it would require the United States to independently verify Russian targets — a painstaking and lengthy process — before taking action. Assuming the targets were valid, it would make far more operational sense for the Russian military simply to take action on its own rather than to wait for the United States. Fortunately, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community understand these dangers and have staunchly resisted calls for collaboration in the air campaign.
Instead of pursuing a futile attempt to cooperate with Russia against ISIS, the U.S. should continue to deconflict its operations with Moscow so an accidental encounter in the congested skies over Syria does not inadvertently set off an escalatory spiral. Deconfliction channels that were opened under the Obama administration should continue to be maintained and even improved to ensure that sufficiently senior (i.e., flag) officers are available 24/7 if something happens. Another potential step is a more defined geographic deconfliction of activities on the ground. This would involve designating areas where Russia bears responsibility for clearing ISIS, such as those regions where Moscow has a significant military footprint already, and leaving other areas to the Counter-ISIS Coalition. Geographic delineation of areas of responsibility would ensure that ground forces supported and armed by the two sides do not inadvertently clash, but would not involve any combined missions or operations. Further still down the road, if geographic de-confliction became a reality and de facto zones of influence emerged in Syria that were reasonably well delineated, one could envision a negotiation among key stakeholders to discuss Syria’s future governance structure.
For now, however, it is important to recognize that while Russia has a clear national interest in defeating ISIS, good counterterrorism policy is about more than just eliminating bad guys. It is also about creating socio-political conditions on the ground that mitigate against future radicalization. Iraq learned this lesson the hard way under Prime Minister Maliki’s exclusionary rule, during which Al Qaeda in Iraq was transmogrified into ISIS. It is not a lesson that Russia or its allies in Syria appear to understand, given their direct role in deepening sectarian divisions. So long as that is the case, the United States and the rest of the Counter-ISIS Coalition should steer clear of collaborating with Russia.