After Raqqa: U.S.-Russia Engagement in Syria

A five-step roadmap for deepening U.S.-Russia cooperation to secure peace and American interests in Syria. 

May 16, 2017

By Jaim Coddington 


U.S. President Donald Trump has spoken at length about both defeating international terrorism and his desire to work with Russia on issues of mutual interest. Syria presents an opportunity for the Trump administration to advance both policy goals. The operational value of the impending defeat of the Islamic State (alternately referred to as “ISIS”) at its last major stronghold in Raqqa will be predicated on how well it serves the strategic objective of better stabilizing the country.

The first and most imperative objective is for the U.S. to establish a credible deterrent against Syrian government forces attacking civilians and moderate rebels. Secondly, this deterrent must be leveraged to facilitate the creation of safe zones and no-fly zones to protect civilians and moderate rebel groups. As safe zones are being established, the U.S. should work with Moscow to promote a lasting ceasefire, setting conditions for peace talks. With a stable ceasefire in place, Washington should then work with the Kremlin to bring all factions to the table for political negotiations that can facilitate an acceptable end the conflict. Finally and maybe most problematically, the United States and Russia must be prepared for sustained peacekeeping operations to reinforce the outcomes of negotiations. Without Moscow’s cooperation, these objectives may prove too difficult for the United States to achieve, undermining larger U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Victory over Islamic State

Until the closing days of the Obama administration, Russia appeared to be the U.S.’s primary antagonist in regards to its policy in Syria. But in December 2016, after Syrian government forces won the pivotal battle against rebel factions in Aleppo, Russia achieved its primary objective of ensuring that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would survive. The withdrawal in January 2017 of the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s lone aircraft carrier, was a symbolic tempering of Russia’s presence in the region and reinforced the idea that Moscow had permanently altered the dynamics of the conflict.

After six years of intensive military, political, and economic investment in Syria and Assad, while simultaneously fighting another war in Ukraine and struggling with economic woes at home, Russia appears to feel that its gamble has largely paid off. In the short term, the primary Russian goal remains to help Assad consolidate his position, and at present that aim coincides with the U.S. interest of defeating ISIS.

Even if Assad is eventually obliged to step down, no successor regime would dare to rebuff Russia’s presence in Syria. Based on this assured access, the Kremlin will be inclined to both refine its current military posture and collaborate with the Trump administration on negotiating a political settlement in Syria. Both Washington and Moscow want to see Syria stabilized, even if Russia would prefer that stability be achieved by a total Assad victory over rebel forces.

Defeating ISIS and similar groups should be the non-negotiable foundation of U.S.-Russia engagement in Syria. As Kurdish-dominated US.-supported forces approach Raqqa from the north, and Syrian government forces beat back extremist forces near Deir Az Zor and Palmyra to the south, ISIS is quickly losing control of major population centers and revenue sources. Because of the interconnecting supply lines between the two sites and throughout the larger region, the American-led coalition and Russian-backed Syrian government campaigns are mutually supporting.

Fig 1

The United States and Russia would benefit from reopening lines of communication to share targeting information on Islamic State convoys. Opportunities to target Islamic State logistical assets in the open desert have already been lost in this regard – large groups of fighters fleeing the coalition offensive in Mosul have been detected crossing the border to reinforce since late 2016. The operational advantage of targeting Islamic State assets in transit, when human shields and urban cover are not available, is significant.

Renewed intelligence sharing would go hand in hand with reopening deconfliction channels that Russia unilaterally closed after the U.S. strike on Ash Shiryat airbase in April. While U.S.-Russia diplomatic negotiations have included similar proposals to share intelligence or create deconfliction centers in the past, none has included a physical location staffed with American and Russian personnel. Establishing a combined physical hub on neutral ground could help improve the political durability of this line of communication. Azerbaijan, the site of a February meeting between top U.S. and Russian generals, could be a suitable location for some type of combined planning center.

Syria After the Islamic State

After Raqqa and Deir Az Zor are liberated from ISIS control, the Syrian civil war will have reached an inflection point. Remaining extremist fighters will seek refuge in the east of the country, disrupting movement along the Euphrates River near the border with Iraq but no longer posing a major operational threat. Russia will sustain its air campaign against moderate rebels as legitimate “terrorist” targets begin to dwindle, allowing Syrian government forces to isolate and neutralize rebel strongholds in the areas around Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs in the west.

Meanwhile, Kurdish forces will be in a position of strength, having led the coalition that captures Raqqa. Government forces will apply additional pressure against moderate rebel groups and continue to claw back territory from ISIS in the east. Ultimately, the Assad regime will benefit from this more stable situation.

Fig 2

Step 1: Deterrence

To prevent the revitalization of the Assad regime, Washington must first establish a credible deterrent against Syrian government predations on moderate rebels and civilians. The cruise missile strike on Al Shiryat airbase was a move in this direction. Other available U.S. military capabilities, such as artillery forces near Raqqa and coalition air strikes throughout Syria, also restrain Syrian government aggression. However, deterrence alone will fail if it only seeks to provoke Russia or thwart Assad, and could backfire if it persuades the Kremlin to increase its support for Assad.

An effective deterrence scheme should instead support the establishment of safe zones to protect moderate rebels, refugees, and internally displaced persons. Safe zones will help prevent civilian casualties and generally reduce intrinsic barriers to a ceasefire, which must occur before peace negotiations can succeed. This kind of graduated, sequential process will be more sustainable in the long run than trying to force a peace settlement through the UN Security Council or the International Syrian Support Group, where Russia can block unfavorable actions.

Step 2: Safe zones

It is crucial to understand how to establish safe zones and what kind of commitment this strategy will require from the U.S. and Russian militaries. First, safe zones should be in areas that are not close to major infrastructure but still accessible to international aid. Second, safe zones must be guardable against external military force from the ground and air. Third, the United States must be prepared to enforce safe zone boundaries.

Fig 3Source: Author

Figure 3 above depicts potential safe zones that could meet thee above criteria near flashpoints where cross-border access to Jordan and Turkey would help facilitate aid to refugees. In addition to keeping civilian populations safe, establishing these zones will also allow international observers better access to monitor for war crimes and other atrocities.

No-fly zones should roughly correspond with the territory currently held by U.S.-friendly rebel groups, including the New Syrian Army, Southern Front, and Syrian Democratic Forces, to allow the political enfranchisement of these regions during future peace negotiations.

No-fly zones should also protect areas where safe zone boundaries may prove difficult to enforce, but where remaining civilians are still vulnerable to air strikes, including Homs and Jayrud. Enforcement of these zones will help shape the conditions necessary for the Russian and Syrian governments to agree to a comprehensive ceasefire with the opposition.

Step 3: Ceasefire

Russian cooperation on a new ceasefire would look like the attempt made by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in September 2016. That deal proposed a broad no-fly zone over opposition-held territory and a Syrian government promise to allow international aid organizations access to civilians. It also included the creation of demilitarized zones near Aleppo.

The key flaw within that truce was that it relied entirely on the mutual trust and goodwill of all parties to the conflict. The failure to achieve closer targeting coordination with Russia prior to the negotiation doomed the deal from the outset: within days of the agreement, a mistaken U.S. air strike on Syrian government troops was followed by a Russian and Syrian air raid on a Red Crescent humanitarian convoy near Aleppo. If the United States and Russia can first agree to implement intelligence sharing and deconfliction in the fight against ISIS, then the chances are greater for any potential ceasefire to hold.

Step 4: Political negotiations and decentralization

Even with a ceasefire in place, it is unlikely that Syria will return to a unified state in the near to mid-term. Many observers see the enfranchisement of autonomous regions as the only viable resolution to a bitterly sectarian conflict in which mutual trust is nonexistent. Russia acknowledged in its draft constitution presented at Astana in January 2017 that decentralization is the only realistic path forward.  Such a federal system would prevent a complete political partition of Syria and help keep the Assad regime and its Russia-friendly successors in power. From the U.S. perspective, federalism would empower Kurdish allies and stabilize the country, forestalling the spread of violence and extremism in the surrounding region.

Prior negotiations have been marred by two impediments: the Obama administration’s insistence that Assad step down and the lack of representation of all Syrian opposition parties at each forum. Russia will continue to veto or undermine any peace deals which seek to force Assad out. It seems that the Trump administration is more inclined to accept that, at present, there is not enough political impetus to support forcibly removing Assad from power. Continuing to demand his abdication without having any kind of leverage will do nothing to resolve the conflict. By dropping the demand that Assad immediately step down, the United States will be able to more effectively engage with Russia in bilateral and multilateral formats.

The second impediment is the failure to date of including all legitimate Syrian opposition parties excluding true terrorist groups such as ISIS and Jahbat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly Nusra Front). Russia currently uses the “terrorist” label to justify ongoing strikes against U.S.-supported moderate rebels. For this reason, it is crucial during any U.S.-Russia negotiations to find concurrence on which Syrian factions should be considered extremist, terrorist groups.

While both powers acknowledge the so-called High Negotiations Committee as a legitimate negotiating bloc for the Syrian opposition, neither the United States nor Russia has officially acknowledged the influence or legitimacy of Kurdish-led groups like the Syria Democratic Council. These Kurdish elements have been widely recognized as among the most effective in defeating ISIS and have worked alongside both U.S. and Russian special forces. Perhaps the first step towards U.S.-Russian cooperation on defining the legitimacy of rebel groups is to find bilateral agreement on the status and role of Kurdish factions. Bilateral agreement will facilitate Kurdish involvement in the peace process while preventing inevitable Turkish interference in multilateral forums.

Step 5: Peacekeeping and stabilization

The introduction of international peacekeepers to Syria will be necessary to maintain stability in the near term, perhaps concurrent with the establishment of a sustained ceasefire and certainly while peace negotiations are underway. At present, political will does not exist in the West to commit the numbers of peacekeeping troops mandated by military doctrine for a mission in Syria: such a force would comprise hundreds of thousands of personnel. A much smaller force, potentially in the tens of thousands, stationed near flashpoints such as Aleppo and Damascus could significantly improve Syria’s ongoing chances for peace after a ceasefire is established.

A UN force or a new multilateral coalition led by the United States, Russia, and other great powers would be preferable. Russia appears to be increasing its commitment of ground troops in Syria to enforce its own plan for safe zones. The U.S. should follow suit, particularly in Kurdish regions, to demonstrate a commitment to preserving territorial gains against ISIS and overall Syrian stability.

European leaders, while unlikely to take a leading military role in Syria, may still make a significant contribution of troops and materiel support to a peacekeeping campaign which enjoys U.S. backing and looks likely to succeed. The new president of France may wish to score an early political victory by joining a successful Syrian peacekeeping coalition.

Russia’s Interests

Finally, it is important to consider the political climate in Moscow and the likelihood of Russian cooperation with the United States on the crucial issues mentioned above. While Russia has a vested interest in supporting Assad, it clearly shares the overarching U.S. interest of maintaining Middle East stability and preventing Syria from regressing into more chaos. Russia views Syria as part of its sphere of influence, and is keenly aware of the threat posed by terrorism and extremism emanating from the Middle East.

There is also a sense among observers in Moscow that President Putin is eager to show the Russian public a comprehensive military and diplomatic victory in Syria, especially in light of the 2018 Russian presidential election. By engaging with Putin and Russia on Syria, President Trump can give Putin the political fodder he needs to show his electorate that Russia is reclaimed a kind of essential role in global management that it hasn’t had since the Soviet Union dissolved. Unlike most other issues in U.S.-Russia relations, selective coordination in Syria has the potential to become a win-win scenario.


Jaim Coddington is a member of the 2016-2017 CGI Rising Experts Program. He is an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps Reserve and is currently working as an analyst for the Marine Corps Wargaming Division. He completed his BA in International Affairs and Russian language at American University in 2013, where he was the recipient of the James Symington scholarship for the study of Russian language, culture and international relations.

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions or individuals.


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