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A New Fight Over Syria War Strategy

By       Message Gareth Porter     Permalink
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Reprinted from Smirking Chimp

The long internal political struggle within the Obama administration over policy toward Syria has intensified following a proposal by President Barack Obama to cooperate with Russia in an air campaign against Al Qaeda's Syrian franchise.

The proposal, in response to an overture from Russia in May, would coordinate airstrikes against al-Nusra Front -- the most powerful force in the war against Bashar al-Assad's regime -- in return for Russian agreement to constrain the Syrian regime from bombing non-jihadist forces willing to comply with the ceasefire.

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If fully implemented, such a joint U.S.-Russian military campaign against Nusra could help hasten an end to the war by weakening the jihadist group cited by the Syrian regime as a major reason it has refused to make sufficient political concessions. In theory, such cooperation could strengthen both the regime and the so-called "moderate" rebels at the expense of the jihadists.

But Obama's proposal is under attack by powerful elements of the national security bureaucracy. Even though the opponents have been unable to stop the proposal, they continue to press their case and it is not clear how committed the proponents are in pressuring their Syrian clients to comply with an agreement.

Last week, opponents of the proposal within the Obama administration leaked its existence to Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, whose sympathies clearly lie with the U.S. advocates of direct U.S. war against the Assad regime.

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Rogin's story confirms that one major source of opposition to the proposal is Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and his staff. The article suggests, moreover, that the Pentagon opposition has less to do with Syria than with the Pentagon's interest in preventing any softening of the new U.S.-Russia Cold War.

Carter opposed the Obama plan for a joint military strategy with Russia, Rogin writes, because Russian President Vladimir Putin sees military cooperation with Washington in Syria as "a way to gradually unwind Russia's isolation following the Russian military intervention in Ukraine."

But the primary argument against a joint campaign with Russia targeting Nusra Front is that it would jeopardize the military strength of Al Qaeda's Syrian franchise and thus help the Assad government reclaim key territory.

Rogin quotes a complaint from Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that, even if Russia delivers on a commitment to halt regime bombing of non-jihadist armed groups, the other armed groups fighting Assad would be in a much weaker position.

The on-the-ground subordination of the so-called "legitimate opposition" to the command structure of Al Qaeda's offshoot, which is officially designated a terrorist organization, has been at the center of the diplomatic maneuvering between the Obama administration and Russia over possible military cooperation in Syria.

Russia's Overture

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The original Russian proposal to the United States for a joint air campaign, announced by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on May 20, was conditional on non-jihadist armed groups separating physically from Nusra. The Russians had made that same condition part of the agreement for the partial ceasefire in February.

Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to the condition but never delivered on the pledge to get the "moderate" armed groups to move away from Nusra and its jihadist allies. Nusra and another hard-line jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sham, have been the leaders of the powerful Saudi-backed rebel umbrella group, the Army of Conquest.

The subordinate non-jihadist groups have made it clear they have no intention of abandoning Nusra Front and its superior fighting capabilities. Instead of separating themselves from Nusra, the non-jihadist forces in northeastern Syria joined Nusra in breaking the ceasefire.

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Gareth Porter (born 18 June 1942, Independence, Kansas) is an American historian, investigative journalist and policy analyst on U.S. foreign and military policy. A strong opponent of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, he has also (more...)
 

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