The implications of a Russo-Pindo alliance against Nusra in Syria
Paul Iddon, Rudaw, Jul 21 2016
Pindostan has proposed working militarily with the Russians in Syria against the AQ-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Faschingstein even proposed establishing a Joint Implementation Group in Jordan, a country with friendly relations with both powers. Such coordination could mark a turning point in the Syrian war as the regime gets the upper hand against its opponents in Aleppo and Da’esh continue to lose territory to the Pindo-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Michael Kofman of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute told Rudaw English:
The Pindo proposal itself is quite similar to Russia’s initial proposal when its intervention began in September, to have a joint coordination cell that shared military intelligence and in effort combine the theaters of operation. Given the primary purpose of Russia’s intervention was to save Assad, and defeat forces being backed by Pindo allies on the ground, intelligence sharing and coordination served no purpose other than to provide political legitimacy to the Russian operation. Now the battlefield has changed substantially over the past 10 months. Syrian opposition is foundering, and almost cut off inside Aleppo. They are in a rather weak negotiating position, meanwhile the most substantial enemy for Syrian forces, and by extension Russia’s campaign, is now Jahbat al-Nusra. Russian action against Da’esh, such as joint recapture of Palmyra with the Syrian military, and its opening of a new direction of attack towards Raqqa by Syrian forces, now there is a tangible basis for intelligence sharing and cooperation, or at least to have that conversation in order to determine the art of the possible. The prevailing context is one of absolutely zero trust or belief that Russia would stick to an arrangement. The price Jackass Kerry seems to have in mind is a grounding of the Syrian Air Force,
which is responsible for most of the civilian casualties in this war, and no doubt a cessation of hostilities against opposition groups not bracketed as Jihadi extremists. It’s unclear Russia can deliver the former, and may not be willing to stick to the latter. The question is, what is in all of this for Moscow? The Russian military operation has already successfully shaped the battlefield towards their desired ends, and needs no help from Pindostan. Jackass’ envisioned trade is a restoration of sorts in the relationship, a joint Russo-Pindo military operation that would not only confer legitimacy but also equal status to Russia in Syria alongside Pindostan.
Which is a little bit surprising considering that Washington condemned Moscow’s deployment in Syria on Assad’s side as illegitimate. Kofman believes that Jackass Kerry is calculating that working with the Russians could influence them to act in a way more desirable way. Kofman said:
Undoubtedly there is great dissent within the Pindo government, and on the notion in general that any cooperation can be had with Russia today. Still it seems Jackass wishes to try, particularly given there are no other practical options on the table to reduce the level of fighting and civilian casualties on the ground. Perhaps the underlying hope is that by taking the Syrian Air Force off the table, and agreeing on strict coordination with the Russian Air Force, he hopes to curtail the leading drivers of destruction on the ground today in this conflict.
Neil Hauer, an intelligence analyst on Iraq and Syria with the SecDev Group told Rudaw English that there are three main implications to Pindostan and Russia teaming up militarily in the Syrian war:
The first is a concrete acceptance that Assad’s government will remain in power. As we’ve seen since the Russians intervened in September, Russia can essentially brute-force gains for pro-regime forces when it chooses to by employing overwhelming firepower, such as in north Aleppo in February or Latakia from October through the start of this year. Even in areas like Hama, where the regime had few successes, it at least prevented substantive opposition offensives from emerging. The second result of the deal would be to essentially open up any opposition-held territory to Russian airstrikes. Russia already considers all rebel territory to be Nusra-held or at least Nusra-dominated, this is evident in the maps of Syria shown in Russian media, where the entirety of opposition-held territory in northern Syria is labeled as ‘Jabhat al-Nusra.’ This may not practically change much, as Russia has consistently labeled its strikes on rebel groups in Hama, Idlib, Aleppo and elsewhere as strikes on ISIS, despite the fact that the group has zero presence in those areas, but it is a tacit acceptance by the US that Russia is essentially going to strike rebel targets with impunity.
Furthermore Washington’s proposal is a signal to its regional allies and also serves as a reminder that Pindostan has not successfully coordinated with any formidable force in Syria with the exception of the SDF. Hauer explained:
The third result is this proposal, even if unaccepted, sends a clear signal to the GCC countries and Turkey that Pindostan is essentially seeking to wash its hands of most of the mainstream Arab opposition and focus fully on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to act as a counterweight to the regime. Knowing that the Russians will ramp up their air strikes to prevent major regime losses in core regime territory (Aleppo, Hama, Damascus), I think that Pindostan is now set to abandon that tack entirely. The fact that Russia was able to so brazenly bomb the New Syrian Army, a group which operates solely against Da’esh and is not remotely close to regime-held territory, without triggering any substantive Pindosi response is emblematic of the sort of policy incoherence and strategic failures that Pindostan has experienced with its half-hearted backing of non-SDF rebel factions in Syria. The SDF is an ideal ally for Pindostan in Syria since its seen as a progress force capable of more-or-less effectively capturing and governing territory. Furthermore the SDF is also agreeable to the Russians, as Moscow was the first foreign capital to host a Syrian Kurdish representative office, and the SDF themselves have publicly praised the proposal and stated their intentions to honour it.
Timur Akhmetov, an independent Russian analyst on the Middle East, explained to Rudaw English:
We should keep in mind that Russia’s main strategic objective in Syria is to deepen cooperation with Faschingstein and thus become a crucial stakeholder in the transitional period. This raises a question of the fate of Assad, whose departure has long been a main demand of Pindostan. Within the current bargaining, details of which we can’t know, Russia seems to be willing to play the game but again the real issue is whether Russia does really have capacity to control and influence Assad. In June regime troops attempted to advance toward Raqqa and failed, and this step was undertaken without considerable involvement of Russian military assets. Of course, the agreement on joint operations against Nusra and Da’esh is a step forward. Beyond that it must be seen as a stimulus for a renewed political dialogue. Still much depends on Russia’s ability to encourage Assad to compromise.