Evidently, there is no unity among U.S. top officials on the just-concluded pact with Russia on Syria.
In fact, the deal implicitly recognizes US acceptance of Russia’s role as a key political and military actor in Syria, as well as a battlefield ally. The planned establishment of a Joint Implementation Center with the participation of the representatives of the military and special forces of both countries will serve as a de facto acknowledgement that the United States considers Russia a key player in Syria and that it stands ready to cooperate despite the rivalry between the two countries in Europe and elsewhere. There is a reason to believe that the Obama’s administration was influenced by the improving ratings of Donald Trump, who promised the voters to swiftly come to an agreement with Russia on Syria.
The intelligence and security community led by the Defense Department, is openly opposing the agreement, and raising questions over whether the US military brass is prepared to abide by the deal. Even the White House has expressed reservations.
The only agency that is solidly behind the proposal is the National Security Council, an interagency body staffed in the White House that has its own problems with the Defense and State Departments.
The New York Times reported that «The agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry announced with Russia to reduce the killing in Syria has widened an increasingly public divide between Mr. Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who has deep reservations about the plan for American and Russian forces to jointly target terrorist groups».
«I’m not going to tell you I trust them», Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrington, the head of United States Air Force Central Command, told reporters.
Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter
«There is a trust deficit with the Russians», Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command – which runs US operations in Syria – said at a conference in Washington hosted by the Institute for the Study of War.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said at a news conference, «I think we have some reasons to be skeptical that the Russians are able or are willing to implement the arrangement consistent with the way it’s been described».
In a rather meek response, State Secretary John Kerry defended the deal in his interview with National Public Radio on September 14, insisting that administration is adamant in its desire to implement the agreement.
He «thinks» the Pentagon is prepared to abide by an agreement approved by the US president! There is obviously something wrong with the way the U.S. government agencies function if the State Secretary is not sure (he just «thinks so») the decision of the president will be carried out by military brass.
The divisions are really ominous as they are pitting U.S. military commanders on active duty against the political leadership of the country to challenge the civilian control of the military. It puts into question the very credibility of the United States government.
It’s not the military only. In June, 51 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
It was an open challenge to put into doubt the administration’s authority and competence.
Donald Trump has good reasons to call for cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in Syria. The United States is running out of options. The synchronization of efforts between the two main players united by the need to counter a common enemy is the only way out of the situation. Only Russia and the U.S. have enough leverage to influence pertinent players.
Russia is an active participant of the Geneva peace process. It cooperates with Iran and the factions it supports, Jordan and the Syrian government led by President Assad who leads an army that is serving as a backstop to any further expansion of jihadist elements in Damascus, Homs, Hama and the coast. Moscow’s mediation is the way to make Iran, which is actively involved in the conflict, a part of the peace building process. Moscow enjoys good working relationship with Turkey and the Kurds. It holds constant talks with the U.S. leading its own coalition. The problem of Syria cannot be solved without it. The U.S. efforts to tackle the problem without Russia have not resulted in any progress whatsoever. The coordination of efforts (if not cooperation) is the only way to go, there is no alternative to it.
The Pentagon’s approach is reflexive Cold War-era thinking. The prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough outweigh any concerns of the U.S. military related to the need to share intelligence with Russia. After all, the two countries have a history of cooperating against terrorists and data sharing. Even pursuing different goals, they have managed to de-conflict their military activities in Syria
With all the problems to divide the two leading world powers, the Russia-U.S. agreement on Syria marks a major turning point in Russian foreign policy in 2015. If the agreement succeeds, Russia and the U.S. would form a new military alliance focused on Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, cooperation seemingly unthinkable amid the tensions of late. The implementation of the agreement will become a diplomatic legacy of President Obama and State Secretary John Kerry- something both of them will be proud of and remembered for.
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About the author
Andrei Akulov is a retired colonel and Moscow-based expert on international security issues
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