Talking to Russia: A Plan for Syria

President Joseph Biden has clearly signaled that his administration will deprioritize the post-9/11 focus on the Middle East and, instead, devote diplomatic energy and finite defense dollars to priorities in Asia and Europe. The focus on America’s peer competitors—the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China—is a welcome change after years of strategic malaise and preoccupation with non-state actors in the Middle East. This policy will, consequently, change the U.S. approach to Syria and Iraq: involvement in the Syrian civil war will move to the backburner, and the regional priority will shift to U.S. training operations in Iraq.

The Biden administration is likely to focus on three interrelated goals in the Middle East. The first will be to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and to explore follow-up discussions. The second, and interrelated goal, will be to bolster the Iraqi central government to prevent the Islamic State from re-emerging as a threat and to blunt Iranian efforts to expand its influence in the country. The third, and more general goal, will be to shore up U.S. partnerships with Gulf Arab countries in such a way that leads to more regional support for the Iraqi government to suppress Iranian influence in the Levant.

In Syria, the United States has achieved its narrow objective of defeating the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate, leading to questions about the future role of the U.S. military in the region. In Iraq, the focus will be on the training efforts already underway for the Iraqi security forces and retaining a small footprint of soldiers to enable multilateral training efforts that U.S. allies have now pledged to undertake. The politically complicated (but relatively straightforward) negotiations with Iran to return to the terms of the JCPOA will proceed and dominate diplomatic bandwidth and drive broader aspects of the administration’s regional policy.

Given the American focus on Iran and, to a lesser degree, the maintenance of multinational forces in Iraq, the question becomes what to do about Syria, where U.S. forces remain deployed alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). A pathway forward in Syria requires the United States to recalibrate how it negotiates with Russia, which deployed military forces to the country in September 2015 to prevent a stalemate in the civil war and ensure that the Bashar al-Assad regime would not collapse. Now, five years later, the United States must assume that the Assad regime’s main enablers (Iran and Russia) will not allow Damascus to collapse. The United States must also assume that its own local partner, the SDF, has a greater interest in reaching a modus vivendi with Damascus and Moscow over the potential collapse of the Assad regime because the other major opposition bloc, a fractious group of militias dubbed the Syrian National Army, is beholden to Turkey, which is hostile to the SDF and dominated by a former al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS).

The United States should consider focusing on the northeast of the country, where it has forces and local partners, and pursue discussions with Russia about formalizing no-bomb zones, establishing a mechanism to share information about the Islamic State in the eastern desert, and creating a pathway to a formal SDF-regime ceasefire. These interlinked efforts could help to sustain U.S. counter-terrorism goals in Syria, lessen pressure on the SDF, and create a mechanism to negotiate a less-than-perfect end to one aspect of the war. These actions would enable the Biden administration to focus on other more critical priorities around the world and in the region, while preserving a slimmed down set of U.S. objectives in northeastern Syria.
No Good Options

Washington has few good options largely because each of the main groups in Syria are a net-negative for U.S. foreign policy goals. The Assad regime has committed heinous war crimes; has hostile relations with Israel; and has a history of illicit development of weapons of mass destruction. The Syrian opposition is unable to govern: HTS has clear links to U.S.-designated terrorists that it quietly tolerates, and the SDF undermines American relations with Turkey due to its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist group. Faced with these bad options, Washington has sought to thread the needle by balancing relations with Ankara and the SDF, which is untenable because Ankara has partnered with Russia to negotiate an end to the war. Ankara has also invaded Syria three times to frustrate the U.S.-SDF partnership and has sent forces to Idlib, where it has clashed with the regime, but now effectively controls an enclave where HTS governs.

As a result, the United States has an interest in deepening dialogue with Moscow over Syria. This effort would serve as a means to saddle its adversary with the costs of managing a broken Syria, as well as to try to retain a narrow set of priorities that matches the administration’s overarching effort to disentangle the U.S. military from conflicts in the Middle East. To do this, Washington should revisit two proposals pursued during the Obama and Trump administrations, but which collapsed under the weight of the war. First, it should revisit establishing the Joint Implementation Group (JIG, or sometimes referred to as JIC), which would have established no-bomb zones around areas where al-Qaeda or Islamic State affiliates did not have a presence. Second, it should consider a ceasefire modeled on trilateral talks for the southwest ceasefire zone near the Jordan border. These twin efforts should form the nucleus of a potential agenda for dialogue with Moscow. They would only impact areas where the United States has forces and exclude Idlib, which is under de-facto Turkish rule and subject to the bilateral Turkish-Russian diplomatic track.

Narrowing the focus of these agreements to the northeast should sidestep the challenges that the two sides faced during previous discussions, which stumbled over how to define radical groups in Idlib and how to cordon off no-strike zones in an area that an al-Qaeda affiliate de-facto controlled—albeit in tacit agreement with a series of groups that the United States once clandestinely supported, but which have no real political or military power. In place of this, the agreement could formalize the current status quo in Idlib, which allows for unmanned American overflight and relatively frequent targeting of extremists with drone-fired missiles.

As part of these talks, the United States should acknowledge the regime presence along the Turkish-Syrian border, which stemmed from Ankara’s October 2019 invasion of the northeast. This acknowledgment should come at the end of a U.S.-led effort to broker a durable ceasefire in the northeast between the regime and the SDF. This ceasefire is, for now, tacit and understood. However, in the absence of a formal agreement, Russia can use Ankara as a cudgel against the SDF, threatening to withdraw forces from areas to pressure the SDF to make concessions, or otherwise risk Russia doing little to prevent a Turkish attack. A U.S. proposal could split the difference, locking the three sides into an agreement that would carve out SDF-held territory as a no-bomb zone. This outcome would not be perfect for Washington, but it would take a step towards protecting the SDF, even if the trade-off entails a mechanism to continue SDF-regime negotiations.

This arrangement would, essentially, formalize the post-October 2019 status quo. The Turkish invasion forced the United States to abandon positions along the border, and the SDF reached agreement with the Assad regime—and Moscow—to backfill areas that Washington vacated. The intent was to deter an expansion of the Turkish invasion by putting non-Kurdish forces in areas that Ankara coveted. Following the Turkish invasion, Washington and Ankara agreed to a ceasefire that formalized Ankara’s gains and that threatened U.S. sanctions if the Turkish military expanded into additional areas. Ankara also reached a separate agreement with the Russian military to conduct joint patrols through Kurdish-majority territory that the regime now de-facto controls with Russia’s backing. These previous agreements have, by default, done much of the heavy lifting needed to reach a ceasefire.
A Bilateral Track with Moscow

Given this change, Washington cannot return to a pre-October 2019 position of retaining control over the entirety of Syria’s northeast. Therefore, the United States must lock Moscow into some sort of agreement that limits its options and binds Russia into a process that Washington can help guide. A JIG-type zone could narrow Moscow’s “bombing zones” to areas where ISIS remains a threat in the Syrian desert and, more importantly for Washington, can formalize a mechanism for open-ended U.S. overflight and intelligence sharing about the Islamic State. This agreement would, in essence, serve as a starting point to reach agreement on a post-American Syria, where Washington is certainly going to retain counter-terrorism interests, but may explore pursuing those with its presence based in Iraq.

This process will, without question, require some U.S. trade-offs. These are likely to include a broader dialogue about the future of Syria, a mechanism to facilitate SDF-regime talks, and a significant narrowing of U.S. goals. At the end of this process, Washington will have formalized two areas where it would overfly with unmanned aircraft to hunt for extremists, undercut a key point of Russian leverage with the SDF through the promotion of a formal ceasefire with the regime, and anchor U.S. efforts in Syria to its presence in Iraq. The broader risks, of course, are that the Russians will not be satisfied with this agreement and push for more or that the regime will eventually grow tired of talks with the SDF and threaten to invade its territory. In this case, however, Washington can free ride on the back of the regime’s overarching weakness and its preoccupation with Idlib, which is home to groups opposed to regime rule. Washington can bet that the regime is too weak to fight on two fronts, so while Idlib remains a point of contention between Ankara and Moscow and between the regime and the opposition, the SDF has more leverage to extract concessions that would benefit its security in the longer term.

American options in Syria require making hard choices, lest the outcome maintains the status quo. Negotiating with Moscow is Washington’s best option. Russia can enforce bilateral agreements, and, consequently, any such outcome further commits Russian forces to a conflict that it will have to manage for the foreseeable future. Russian forces, therefore, will remain in Syria, spending finite resources in ways that are less threatening to the United States than if they were used elsewhere in Europe or in the Mediterranean basin. This proposal also allows for Washington to reduce its commitment to Syria. It is not perfect, but such action could enable broader U.S. interests without sacrificing everything achieved during the war against the Islamic State.

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