Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How Russia and the U.S. Factor into Syria: A Briefing Report
How Russia and the U.S. Factor into Syria: A Briefing Report

How Russia and the U.S. Factor into Syria: A Briefing Report

On May 19, 2018, Robert E. Hamilton, Black Sea Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, spoke at FPRI on his recent Russia Foreign Policy Papers report, “Russian and American De-Confliction Efforts in Syria: What’s the Endgame in the Civil War?

Five years into a geopolitically convoluted and logistically complex civil war in Syria, there appears to be no end in sight. Not only are numerous regional groups engaged in this conflict, but also the issue is further complicated by the involvement of two global powers, which has the potential to escalate the situation far past its current scope. As Col. Robert E. Hamilton delves into the intricacies of how the United States and Russia operate on opposite sides, under dubious legal and territorial confines, and with their own strained history, he emphasizes the present success of their de-confliction efforts. However, the potential for the achievement of peace in Syria is another story, as Hamilton theorizes his own potentially successful strategy only to deem it as improbable as the rest. Furthermore, Hamilton was able to utilize his intimate knowledge of the situation to shed some light on the Trump administration’s impact on the conflict, revealing an increase in both effectivity and unreliability. The impact of this approach is still to be determined.

A Brief Overview of the Current Situation

Russia and the United States, two powerful countries with historically hostile relations and differing agendas, are now power players on opposing sides of an already complicated situation in Syria. While the United States’ official reason for its involvement is the fight against terrorism, Russian involvement is more complex. Invited in by the Bashar al-Assad regime, Russia is motivated by the strategic advantage of having naval and air bases in Syria, the geopolitical benefit of holding a key seat of power in the Middle East, and its fight against a wave of U.S.-led regime changes taking place in several Russia-friendly countries. Russia has been attempting to loosen America’s grip on this region by initiating a social media smear campaign against the United States, crafting the narrative that the U.S. supports ISIS and, in the process, inadvertently providing terrorist organizations with information about U.S. military troop movements. Additionally, Russia has been publicly questioning the legality of America’s presence in Syria as well as orchestrating strikes against America’s partner forces. A problematic combination for the U.S., tensions only continue to escalate as the potential for direct warfare between the two nations grows dangerously high.

De-Confliction Succeeds

With a long-term goal of achieving lasting peace in Syria, the United States is additionally focused on a similarly critical immediate goal: the stabilization of U.S.-Russia relations in Syria through de-confliction. Instead of referring to this process as cooperation, the term “de-confliction” is used because, in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, U.S. forces are barred from coordinating with Russia on operations within Syria. Therefore, de-confliction refers to the sole objective of lowering tensions between the U.S. and Russia in order to prevent an escalation of the conflict. After a close call between Russian and American forces near al-Tanf, an area near the Syrian-Jordanian border, both parties recognized the risks of operating in such close quarters and without means of direct communication, so they made steps to mitigate this potential crisis. De-confliction procedures were established for air operations in Syria in 2015, but it was not until both sides’ ground forces came into proximity that a sense of uneasiness with the situation initiated an official ground de-confliction process. Through the use of an agreed de-confliction line at the Euphrates River in eastern Syria and direct lines of communication established between Russian and American officials at every level of command, the nations effectively have been able to avoid an escalation to all-out warfare on more than one instance.

A major test of de-confliction came when a Russian strike against ISIS forces resulted in the injury of 10 fighters in the U.S.-affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), raising tensions. Through protocols established by de-confliction, both sides were able to meet face-to-face and come to a non-violent resolution. Throughout the crisis, the U.S. made clear that they would not hesitate to make retaliatory strikes to protect their forces. This realization illustrates not only the great necessity for de-confliction, but also the reality that an attack on America’s partners is capable of triggering direct warfare between Russia and U.S. forces. Another instance of successful de-confliction involves a breach of the established de-confliction line at the Euphrates. Russian forces crossed the river, extending their reach and assuming control of land east of the Euphrates surrounding the city of Dayr-az-Zawr. However, Russia was not alone; despite their agreement, both the U.S. and Russia have moved onto the opposite side of the river and the de-confliction line. Continuing along the path of tenuous compromise, American forces allowed Russia to maintain its new position on the stipulation that Russia would not attempt further expansion or interfere with U.S. or SDF operations. Since the goal of de-confliction is the prevention of direct combat between U.S. and Russian forces, so far de-confliction has been a success, despite high tensions and problematic circumstances.

Is There a Path to Peace in Syria?

The ultimate goal of America’s involvement in Syria is peace: a goal that Hamilton sees as virtually impossible. Taking account of the two major plans for peace currently on the table, the UN-crafted plan and the Russian-led Astana process, Hamilton finds great flaws in both. With the UN and Arab League plan deemed unrealistic, overambitious, and non-specific, and the Astana plan essentially a precursor to further fighting in North and East Syria, options are limited.

Seeing no viable option among the present plans for peace, Hamilton devised one himself. Designated as the Bosnia-Herzegovina process and modeled after the 1995 peace process between the countries for which it is named, the desired outcome of this process is a single united Syrian state with a joint Kurdish and Sunni federation within. Through a non-electoral rotation of power, Hamilton protects against predicted voting along ethnic and sectarian lines and ensures a fair and equal power-sharing compromise for all groups. However, one major requirement makes this option as infeasible as the previous proposals: the crucial high level of international oversight, both politically and militarily. As Hamilton points out, there is a lack of nations willing to commit their time and resources to such an undertaking and, once again, there is no clear path to peace in sight.

Trump Changes the Game

As all parties reach critical decision-making points in this conflict, the United States experienced a change in administrations that has made the situation simultaneously simpler and more uncertain. As opposed to the policies of the Obama administration, which involved supporting multiple Syrian opposition groups, Trump has given the military new orders: kill terrorists. This straightforward directive is easier for U.S. forces to execute, especially now as ISIS attempts to validate its self-declared caliphate status with its own territory, and therefore has the potential to be more effective than previous strategies.

However, Hamilton goes on to indicate that although Trump has provided focus for the U.S. military he has also introduced an element of uncertainty through his untraditional communication practices. As Trump speaks on withdrawing from Syria, or taking a number of potential actions he has spoken or tweeted about, he directly contradicts his own administration’s words and actions. This puts other nations, like Jordan, on edge as the United States’ position becomes uncertain and the president’s words unreliable. Commenting on Trump’s words on the topic, Hamilton asserts that “walking away from Syria is the biggest gift we could give to Iran” and illustrates the importance of considering not just the needs of the United States when making critical strategic choices here, but also the position that the U.S. puts all other parties involved with each decision it makes.

An Uncertain Future

As Russian operations in Syria move forward, their positon will become increasingly difficult: a bad sign for de-confliction and for future peace processes. Speaking on Russia’s current condition in the Middle East, Hamilton notes that the “Russians have reached the end of the stage where they can tell all of their partners what they want to hear.” Hamilton also makes the point that Russia consistently acts in the sole pursuit of its own goals, a detail that indicates that disagreement with members of is coalition is imminent. It is unclear what precisely will transpire once Russia and its associates start to clash, but it is likely that these changes will only cause greater divisions among groups in the area and further increase the complexity of an already highly convoluted situation: circumstances that make finding a resolution that appeals to all sides of the conflict increasingly impossible.