The Obama administration and Russia have agreed to join forces in Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has refused to make some details of the deal public, prompting critics to say the Obama administration has conceded too much.
The agreement is expected to benefit the Russian-backed regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his allies, which include Shiite Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah, by helping to take out some of their most effective enemies — the Sunni terrorist groups ISIS and the Nusra Front.
Prior to announcing the agreement on July 15, Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin about increasing military and intelligence cooperation against ISIS and the Nusra Front.
In a statement, John Kirby, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, said of Kerry’s meeting with Putin:
The secretary expressed concern about repeated violations of the cessation of hostilities by the Syrian regime. The two also discussed the need to increase pressure on terrorist groups like Daesh [ISIS] and the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra.
Secretary Kerry emphasized that absent concrete, near-term steps, diplomatic efforts could not continue indefinitely.
After meeting Putin, Kerry held discussions with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
During a joint press conference with Lavrov, the secretary of State noted that fragile ceasefire in Syria brokered by Washington and Moscow has been plagued by two problems: relentless indiscriminate bombings by Assad and Nusra Front attacks, “sometimes with members of different oppositions joining with them.”
We have agreed to steps that, if implemented in good faith, can address two serious problems that I’ve just described about the cessation. It is possible to help restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce the violence, and help create the space for a genuine and credible political transition.
Now, the concrete steps that we’ve agreed on are not going to be laid out in public in some long list because we want them to work and because they need more work in order to work. I want to emphasize, though, they are not based on trust.
Kerry’s refusal to publicize details of the deal prompted critics to accuse the Obama administration of conceding too much, reports The New York Times (NYT).
Before Kerry’s trip to Russia, The Washington Post (WaPo) highlighted the proposed U.S.-Russia agreement:
Citing the text of the proposal he obtained, WaPo’s Josh Rogin reports:
It would open the way for deep cooperation between U.S. and Russian military and intelligence agencies and coordinated air attacks by American and Russian planes on Syrian rebels deemed to be terrorists…
While this would expand the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Syria, it would also be a boon for the [Bashar al] Assad regime, which could see the forces it is fighting dramatically weakened…It would give Russian President Vladimir Putin something he has long wanted: closer military relations with the United States and a thawing of his international isolation. That’s why the Pentagon was initially opposed to the plan.
Iran and Hezbollah, who are fighting on behalf of Assad, would also be in a position to capitalize on the deal’s intended purpose.
The Times also acknowledges:
The proposal generated deep unease at the Pentagon and in some quarters of the State Department, where the plan was seen as too conciliatory to both the Russians and the Syrian president…
The agreement has also raised alarms because it might lead the United States to support or even participate in strikes against groups fighting Mr. Assad. One of the great complications of the Syrian civil war is figuring out which groups should be considered rebels focused on ousting the Assad government — a goal the United States supports — and which groups are aligned with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, both of which Washington has designated as terrorist organizations and has vowed to defeat.
The deal comes after a top Obama administration official acknowledged that the U.S. focus on ISIS has allowed its rival the Nusra Front to become the “largest” al-Qaeda affiliate “in history.”
The Nusra Front has been one of the most effective anti-Assad forces, and American-backed rebel groups often coordinate their activities with its units. In Russia’s view, that means that Washington is effectively supporting the Nusra Front and that the American-backed groups are legitimate targets. So a joint campaign against the group not only would appear to concede Russia’s point, but could also bring American firepower to bear against the strongest anti-Assad military force and a sometime partner of Washington’s allies.