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Can the U.S. and Russia Work Together to Save Syria?

Kurdish soldiers near Hasakah, Syria on Aug. 23, 2016. Kurds retook the city from Assad's forces, a potentially critical power shift that may have ramifications on U.S., Russian, and Turkish positions in the Syrian conflict. Photo: Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Kurdish soldiers near Hasakah, Syria on Aug. 23, 2016. Kurds retook the city from Assad’s forces, which may have ramifications on U.S., Russian, and Turkish positions in the Syrian conflict. (Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images)

Sadly, the city of Aleppo in northern Syria can be added to list of areas in humanitarian crisis. Intense fighting has prevented needed aid and supplies from reaching those who need it. While the U.S. and Russia are backing opposing sides in Syria, there has been some signs that the two may join forces to combat ISIS, and bring the relief Syrian civilians desperately need.

Russian officials suggested on August 15 that they are close to an agreement with the U.S. to combat ISIS forces in the Aleppo area. As stated by Rick Gladstone and Alison Smale of The New York Times, “Such a joint effort would be a new level of cooperation between the two powers in seeking a way out of the five-year-old Syria war.” Russian news agencies cited Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying that a U.S.-Russian united front against ISIS could “bring peace to this long-suffering land and help people return to their homes.”

While prospects of such an alliance are encouraging and absolutely should be explored, it is not a done deal yet. There has not been an official U.S. response to Shoigu’s statements, and some experts are skeptical, claiming Russia has no interest in actually cooperating. Instead, the theory is that Russia is making empty gestures in an effort to give the appearance of taking some responsibility in Aleppo. Russia’s motivation may be that it feels it needs to simply show some effort in preventing the situation in Aleppo escalating; but it has no concrete plans to actually do so.

On August 22, a top U.S. military official reiterated this hesitancy to believe Russian comments. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, newly in charge of U.S.-led coalition combat operations in Iraq and Syria, said it is “fairly skeptical of the Russians,” and not sure he’s inclined to believe the U.S. can realistically cooperate with them. According to Lolita Baldor of the Associated Press, Townsend’s remarks “reflect a broader U.S. military reluctance to work more closely with Moscow on operations in Syria” in spite of Russian statements like that of Defense Minister Shoigu mentioned above.

Also antagonism remains between the U.S. and Russia in other encounters in Syria. On August 22 the U.S. military sent a reprimand to Syrian and Russian leaders after Syrian fighter jets bombed U.S.-supported Kurdish troops, in an area very close to American troops training the Kurds. However, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook made a point to distinguish that the warning did not constitute declaring a no-fly zone. At the same time, he reiterated that the U.S. would “protect, and provide that military support for our coalition forces and […] our coalition partnered operations on the ground [primarily Kurds on the front lines against ISIS].”

At the same time, the Wall Street Journal reports “a warming of relations” between Turkey and Assad-backers Russia and Iran, which could be bad news for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria given Turkey’s long-standing mistreatment of Kurds. One positive sign: on August 23 Kurdish forces indicated they took control of the city of Hasakah, isolating and surrounding government forces (for more on this, and its impact on Turkey, go here).

Russia support of Assad is, notably, abhorrent. But humanitarian relief must supersede political or military alliances. Syrians in Aleppo and elsewhere need help, and all countries/groups/organizations (the U.N. in particular) capable of providing it have an obligation to work in concert to do so. The U.S. and Russia have a chance to lead the way, and to initiate significant improvement in the Syrian struggle.

Perhaps this initial cooperation will provide the foundation to seek broader and larger solutions to the crisis, and maybe start Syria on the path to peace and recovery. It is absolutely worth trying.



Scott Bleiweis
Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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