August 7, 2017 | Policy Brief

U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Syria Will Fail Without U.S. Leverage

August 7, 2017 | Policy Brief

U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Syria Will Fail Without U.S. Leverage

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated last week that the U.S. has “chosen the theater in Syria as a place in which we test our ability to work together” with the Russians. This strategy is at odds with two core objectives of U.S. policy toward Syria, as defined by Tillerson: the replacement of the Assad regime and the end of “the direct presence of Iranian military forces inside Syria,” including proxies.

Tillerson has acknowledged the tension between cooperating with the Russians and seeking to replace to the Assad regime. As he noted, Russia “aligned itself early on in the conflict with the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad, which we find to be unacceptable.” However, Tillerson signaled American flexibility on the question of Assad’s departure. Indeed, the U.S. will indefinitely postpone any effort to ensure the replacement of the Russian-backed regime in Damascus.

On the question of Iranian military influence, U.S. policy appears less flexible, and this portends friction with Moscow. For the past two years, Russian forces have become an integral part of the pro-regime coalition, supporting units controlled by the Assad regime, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Shiite militia forces that Iran has mobilized from across the region, including Hezbollah.

Tillerson nevertheless praised the early July ceasefire in southwestern Syria as a model for future U.S. cooperation with Russia. Assad and his patrons, in an effort to forestall the rise of moderate Sunnis in the east, have good reason to respect a ceasefire in the west. By limiting the fighting on that front, the pro-regime coalition can redirect its military power to the east, a development already visible in its drive toward the town of Sukhna, a major objective on the road to the key Sunni-majority city of Deir Ezzor on the banks of the Euphrates.

In the short-run, pursuing multiple ceasefires in Syria may certainly save many lives, as the White House has asserted. Yet if the tactical effect of the ceasefires is to enable an eastward drive facilitated by Iran and its proxy forces, then the ceasefire will further entrench Iranian influence and undermine Tillerson’s stated objectives. Furthermore, if the regime and its partners successfully reassert control in the east, it is likely they will subsequently resume their brutal war in the west, erasing any temporary benefits of the ceasefire.

Negotiating with Russia can only be successful if the U.S. creates leverage by strengthening the military position of U.S.-backed forces on the ground. To negotiate without that leverage is to repeat the crucial mistake of the Obama administration, whose legacy in Syria is the spread of Iranian and Russian influence as well as a humanitarian catastrophe.

David Adesnik is the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.


Russia Syria