Combined Military Operations: The Practical Challenges of US-Russia Cooperation in Syria (Part II)

Reasonable management of expectations is essential to achieving an acceptable outcome for U.S.-Russian military cooperation in Syria.

September 15, 2016

By Michael Purcell

Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov listens to U.S. Secretary of State Kerry during a press conference at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York


“Howz about calling the Russians our Frenemies?” Walter Winchell, a hugely popular tabloid journalist and radio host, asked in his syndicated column in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death.[1] Winchell, the product of a Jewish immigrant family from Russia and an enthusiastic McCarthyist, accurately described the dynamic tension between promise and disappointment that continues to serve as the essential characteristic of U.S.-Russian relations more than six decades later. The U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire in Syria, riddled with what President Obama has called “gaps of trust”, is only the latest iteration of these traditional competitors being forced by circumstances to work together.

While Secretary of State Kerry has clearly labored to bring some hope to the situation in Syria, the Department of Defense seems to see its related task of establishing the mechanisms of military cooperation on the ground, and more importantly in the air, as an unwelcome and maybe even hopeless task. As I previously wrote, simply “deconflicting” U.S. and Russian operations is the lowest common denominator of cooperation. The level of trust and transparency required to pursue deeper coordination in the exceedingly complex operating environment of Syria has not been seen in U.S.-Russia relations since perhaps the Apollo and Soyuz space vehicles docked in 1975. This impressive feat was preceded by five years of political negotiation and technical cooperation. Today, however, relations have been characterized by increased military, political, and economic hostility. 

Why the reluctance on the part of the Pentagon? Prime among the reasons is the fact that military professionals know that multinational operations are very difficult and in practice are often so constrained by political imperatives that effectiveness suffers to the point of mission failure. This is particularly true, as it is in this case, when the nations that intend to cooperate have not practiced together nor even share a common political culture to facilitate communication.  Each of these factors merit a brief discussion.

While the media is currently referring to potential U.S.-Russian operations as “joint,” U.S. doctrine refers to such operations, consisting of “two or more forces or agencies of two or more allies operating together,” as “combined.” Conversely, joint operations involve the participation “of two or more Military Departments” of the same country. While it might be obvious that single-nation joint operations would be less difficult than multinational combined operations, it is less apparent how difficult it is to achieve a sustained ability to “fight joint.”

Though joint operations now appear the norm for U.S. forces, this effectiveness was borne out of decades of operational frustration induced by inter-service rivalry in WWII, Vietnam, the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission, and the Grenada operation. The Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 provided far-reaching systemic fixes that facilitated a steady convergence of technical and tactical interoperability among the branches of the U.S. armed forces. This achievement, rapidly solidified in the past 15 years of conflict, was decades long in the making.

To understand the difficulties of combined operations, simply extrapolate the problems of single-nation joint operations to the multinational level. In this context, inter-service rivalries and “gaps of trust” assume an international dimension. Communication problems across incompatible equipment and systems are exacerbated by foreign languages, cultural misunderstandings, and differing doctrinal terms, concepts, and even operational symbology. The United States and its NATO allies and non-NATO partners have hammered away at these problems in Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere. Yet there has been very little substantive interaction at the operational or tactical level between U.S. and Russian forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

More importantly, the lack of a shared political culture between U.S. and Russian servicemembers and security officials manifests itself as a very real and practical barrier to operational efficiency. While NATO expansion outpaced EU integration in part due to the common bonds of military professionalism, the context of the conflict in Syria is so fraught with political tension and ambiguity that it seems inevitable that paranoia and suspicion will dominate military to military relations.

Prime amongst the manifestations of mistrust is the assumption that everyone will be more concerned with “collecting” on everyone else rather than executing effective operations. As former NSA Director Lt. Gen. William Odom once wrote, “People who grow up in liberal democracies have a hard time understanding garrison states.”[2] American service members, like their political leaders, are generally inclined to pursue the greater good with idealistic motives, sometimes to a fault.

Russian officers tend to have a finely honed radar set to identify cynical behavior by adversaries, partners, and superiors alike and are more likely to be concerned with pragmatic and self-interested objectives. While these stereotypes have their limits in application, it is already clear that the sharing of information, let alone intelligence, will be incremental at best. This counterproductive dynamic cannot be resolved by technology; it is a human problem that has persisted in U.S.-Russia relations beyond living memory. 

It is not wise or desirable to categorically preclude the possibility of effective U.S.-Russian military cooperation. Russia’s military has recently, mostly to the West’s dismay, proven that it is a peer, or at least a near-peer, competitor to U.S. forces. That is to say it has sufficient capability and demonstrated intentions to be taken seriously as both a potential adversary and partner. While hopes for another Apollo-Soyuz type achievement are probably too optimistic, it is not unreasonable to think that these two professional militaries, in a classic Frenemy relationship, can achieve the minimum amount of cooperation required to push the Syria conflict in a less destructive direction.

Reasonable management of expectations, as is often the case, is essential to achieving an acceptable outcome for U.S.-Russian military cooperation in Syria. Walter Winchell himself might agree. Although he died a bitter and sad man, his influence on American journalism and society, for better and worse, was also unlikely and outsized.

[1] Winchell, Walter (19 May 1953). “Howz about calling the Russians our Frienemies?”. Nevada State Journal. Gannett Company.

[2] Odom, William E. The Collapse of the Soviet Military. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1998, pg vii.


Michael Purcell is Director of Operations at CGI. He previously served over 20 years with the US Marines as an armor officer, foreign area officer, and strategic planner. His assignments included Deputy Director of Strategy, Policy, and Plans for Marine Forces Europe, serving as the Marines lead for conducting security cooperation with allied and partner countries in the Black Sea and Caucasus in support of NATO operations in Afghanistan. He has also served in Iraq as a tank battalion operations officer and as a senior liaison officer for the United Nations Mission in Georgia. 

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