Tis the season to be leaking, at least in Washington DC where the latest WaPo obtained “leak” is suggesting that the US is offering Russia a plan to ‘coordinate’ their strikes on Daesh and al-Nusra and to set up joint implementation group (JIG) to “enable expanded coordination between the United States and the Russian Federation beyond the established safety of flight procedures. The participants, through the JIG, are to work together to defeat Jabhat al Nusra and Daesh within the context of strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) and supporting the political transition process outlined in UNSCR 2254”. The US proposal also says that “The participants are to implement the provisions of the “Approach for Practical Russian-American Efforts against Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra and Strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities.”
Considering that the Kremlin has been demanding exactly that kind of cooperation with the USA for many months already, it is going to be awfully hard for the Russians to decline this US offer, especially considering that it does have many positive aspects. Buried inside the text however, are a few very disturbing clauses which the Russians will have to maneuver around without overtly rejecting this US offer.
This is the full text of the plan as obtained by the WaPo:
Notice the paragraphs: (emphasis added)
Nusra Targeting. The participants will commit to supporting deliberate targeting of Nusra. Once senior representatives to the JIG decide that information exchange has produced commonly understood information, the participants, through the JIG, intend to begin coordinating the targeting of Nusra. The participants are to develop target packages for Nusra targets under their national targeting processes. The participants, through the JIG, should coordinate on targets that have been developed. Once a decision has been reached on targets, the participants should coordinate the participants’ proposals on how these targets are to be addressed. Initial efforts against mutually-decided-upon targets will be deconflicted by geography or time. With the exception of imminent threats to the participants where prior agreement on a target is infeasible, the participants will only take action against Nusra targets that are agreed to in advance, pursuant to procedures developed by the JIG and deconflicted through existing channels.
Target Development. Only those targets that both participants agree are actionable will be further developed for strikes. The participants are to facilitate precision targeting by exchanging mensurated target locations. Actionable targets, as decided mutually by the participants, are to receive the same treatment as do other national targets – there is no presumption of priority simply because the participants mutually decided that a target is actionable.
In the case of Daesh, the plan is less restrictive. It says that
Daesh Targeting: The participants may communicate targeting information for targets that permit independent, but synchronized, operations against Daesh in Syria. The participants are to select and prioritize targets at their respective operational headquarters. The participants are to manage the exchange of information between targeting organizations. Any decision to jointly validate and execute a Daesh target should be made pursuant to procedures developed by the JIG and deconflicted through existing channels. [Both participants reserve the right to conduct unilateral strikes against Daesh targets outside of designated areas].
Strike Details. The participants commit to developing a format for the information about intended operations to be exchanged, including the general time of the strike, the intended method of target attack, general force composition, routing of the strike and precise details of the target being struck. The participants commit to ensuring that the intended actions are deconflicted by time and/or geography. The participants commit to coordinating to ensure strike packages are not targeted by air defenses of either party or by those of the regime.
One could wonder why the difference in the way Daesh and al Nusra are treated here. And, of course, this is, yet again, the old American notion of “my” or “good” terrorists versus “bad” terrorists. What the above says is really simple: Russkies, please don’t strike al Nusra unless we agree to it, and please don’t shoot us down if we separately engage Daesh. But, please, feel free to engage Daesh on your own in if you. It’s just our al Nusra friends we are worried about.
And then there is this, truly priceless, paragraph:
ii. Other Circumstances. The Syrian military can employ military action, including air activities, against the Nusra Front outside of designated areas if Nusra acquires territory there. Russia can use airpower in defense of Syrian government forces in the event of attack by Nusra from within a designated area, if agreed in advance with the United States. All actions should be consistent with the terms of the cessation of hostilities.
This is typical US thinking: to impose an limitations on a party to the conflict (the legitimate Syrian government) without ever directly negotiating with, or talking to, that party. It took the Americans months to accept that they did have to talk to the Russians, but they are still categorically refusing to talk to the Syrians. Even more amazing is this: a party which has no legal mandate or right to be in Syria, the USA, wants to impose restrictions on the legitimate government of a sovereign nation. The arrogance of it all is still breathtaking. This mind-blowing arrogance is exacerbated even more a few paragraphs later where the US proposal says:
Prohibited Activities and Exemptions. The regime is prohibited from flying in designated areas; designated areas include areas of most concentrated Nusra presence, areas of significant Nusra presence, and areas where the opposition is dominant, with some possible Nusra presence. Exempted circumstances are:
- Humanitarian Assistance
- Personnel recovery
Yes, you read that right. The “regime” is prohibited. In truth, the “regime” could tell both Russia and the USA to get the bleep out of Syria and the “regime” would be in its full, legal, right. But since might makes right, at least from the American point of view, this is simply not going to happen.
Still, the plan does have many features which neither Russia or the Syrian government can afford to simply ignore.
For one thing, this plan is the first de-facto admission by the USA that Russia is a crucial actor in the Middle-East. To many, this may sound like almost nothing, a truism, but please remember that just a few months ago we were looking at a very real possibility of a joint Saudi-Turkish invasion of Syria. And we also know that the neocon crazies in the State Department are demanding air strikes against Damascus and attacks on Russian aircraft. Politics being the science of the possible, little steps in the right direction should never be ignored, especially when the alternative can be truly disastrous.
Second, the plan does contain some good language. For example, on page 6 the plans says:
Russia and the U.S. reconfirm their commitment to intensifying support and assistance to regional allies to help them prevent the flow of fighters, weapons, or financial support to UN designated terrorist groups across the Syrian border. Delineation of territories controlled by Daesh, Nusra, and moderate opposition forces remains a key priority. Nusra shall enjoy no safe haven anywhere within Syria.
Of course, one could wonder why al Nusra enjoys no safe haven anywhere, but the Russians need to get the American “okay” to bomb them. Might it be because some al Nusra is better than some other? Could it be that some al Nusra might simply be rebranded as “moderate opposition”? But still, as a first step or basis for discussions, this is good stuff.
The irony here is that while the US invented this totally fictional “moderate opposition”, the Russians actually created it with their own peace plan which did bring many units into the peace process. So now the Russians cannot simply say “what moderate opposition? There is no moderate opposition!” because the Americans will simply reply to them “what about all your “moderate opposition” at your airbase in Khmeimim?!” and they will be correct.
So yes, this is a US trap, but this is one the Russians will probably have to walk into, with their eyes wide open and fully realizing what the Americans are trying to achieve.
The fact is that by offering a ceasefire followed by a peace plan the Russians did open themselves up to an American counter-move on the political level such as what we see in this latest US draft plan. Something tells me that the Syrians and Iranians will be rather unenthusiastic about it all and, frankly, I can’t blame them. The problem for them is that they simply don’t have the means to purge Syria of the Takfiri terrorists on their own.
As for the Russians, they will have to accept this plan, hopefully with some key amendments, even if the latter are not advertised, or they will have to “creatively interpret” the plan. But from the Russian point of view, the main reason to accept this plan is to temporarily de-fang the USA until, hopefully, Trump gets elected (if Hillary takes the White House this plan will collapse anyway). So we are talking about a very temporarily plan, a desperate attempt by Obama at face-saving, and a definite political victory for Russia. At least superficially. Fundamentally, this plans solves nothing because it still contains the two main seeds of war of the US stance:
1) Assad must go
2) There are good terrorists and bad terrorists
Frankly, as long as a highly ideological gang of Democrats sits in the White House these two key notions were dogma. Only a more Realpolitik oriented Administration could finally ditch this kind of nonsense and remember that politics is the science of the possible. In our times this means Trump.
The two main wars started by Obama Administration (the Ukraine and Syria) are now in a semi-frozen statis and it is unlikely, though not impossible, that some major development could happen. The Russians have neither the means nor the inclination to do “something big,” and as for the Americans, they are now stuck in pre-election mode, not a good time for grand actions. That, in turns, also restricts what everybody else (the Novorussians, the Ukronazis, the Syrians and the Takfiris) can do. At most the Syrians (with some semi-discreet Russian help) will tighten the nose on the Takfiri forces in Aleppo and hope for an eventual surrender/withdrawal (they don’t have what it takes to storm this large city). Of course, we should never say never, but my bet in on a sluggish continution of local combat operations until the election in in the USA is over.