Russia, US Launch Military Cooperation on Syria
Andrei AKULOV | 23.09.2015 | OPINION

Russia, US Launch Military Cooperation on Syria

The U.S. and Russia are ending an 18-month freeze in military-to-military relations and initiating talks about how to pursue »deconfliction» of the American and Russian forces involved in the Syrian conflict. Russian and US defense chiefs began talks on September 18 over Syria to avoid dangerous misunderstandings on the battlefield.

Russia is extending its aid to Damascus. The US and Russia have disagreed sharply on Syria's bloody civil war and the role of President Bashar al-Assad. While Moscow has backed the Syrian government, the US sees the removal of President Assad as essential to resolving the conflict.

For a year, the US-led coalition of Western and Arab allies have been carrying out air strikes against Islamic State jihadists. The United States has also been training Syrians who are fighting the extremist Islamic State (IS) group but who are also in revolt against the Damascus regime. So far, this mission has been carried out with limited success. With Western efforts to counter the Islamic State (IS) group floundering, and the moderate Syrian opposition losing ground to radicals, the US officials have come to the opinion that it’s important to join forces with Russia in the fight. 

Moscow is sending advisers and technicians, crews to operate weapons systems, some support personnel and it may send pilots, but it has no boots on the ground. The pro-Assad fighters on the battlefield will continue to be Syrians, Iranians or Hezbollah.  Russia has called for a broad coalition to be formed. It is ready to consider any request from the embattled Syrian regime to send its troops to fight Islamic State. Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told state television on Sept. 17 that Syria would ask Russian forces to fight alongside its troops if needed.

A phone call between U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Russia Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu marked the first military-to-military conversation between the two countries since March 2014. The suspension covered exercises, bilateral meetings, military conferences, port visits and planning. Now the both sides are enmeshed in Syria, where they face an opportunity to work together but also the danger of an accidental clash.

Evidently, the both sides need to coordinate activities and go forward without miscalculations. Both the Secretary and the Minister agreed to continue their dialogue.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama's administration was willing to hold «tactical, practical discussions» on operations in Syria and the fight against the Islamic State group.

According to Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook’s read-out, «Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had a constructive conversation with the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu on the situation in Syria. The Secretary and the Minister talked about areas where the United States and Russia's perspectives overlap and areas of divergence. They agreed to further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria and the counter-Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) campaign. The Secretary emphasized the importance of pursuing such consultations in parallel with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria».

Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian agencies that the call was focused on «the necessity to coordinate bilateral and multilateral efforts to combat international terrorism.» «The conversation showed that the both parties have common vision on the majority of questions and problems. The ministers stated recovery of contacts between the both military departments and agreed to continue consultations», reads the Russia’s Ministry of Defense statement.

It’s worth to emphasize that the process has come to the phase of practical implementation. On September 18, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov had a conversation on the issue with US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft. According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement «They held a detailed discussion of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, focusing on the need to resolve the Syria crisis on the basis of the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012 and the task of consolidating efforts in resisting the terrorist threat emanating from ISIS.»

Military talks between Moscow and Washington could also facilitate a better understanding on the diplomatic front with Syria likely to be a prominent issue in the crucial contacts on the margins of the UN General Assembly later this month.

State Secretary John Kerry has recently made a statement to allow for the possibility that Mr. Assad might remain in power in the short term. «Our focus remains on destroying ISIL and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with the long-term presence of Assad», Mr. Kerry said at the start of a meeting here with Abdullah bin Zayed, the United Arab Emirates foreign minister. «But we’re looking for ways in which to try to find a common ground». 

Philip Hammond, the British Foreign Secretary, told the same thing to a parliamentary committee. «We are not saying Assad and all his cronies have to go on day one», he said. «If there was a process that was agreed, including with the Russians and the Iranians, which took a period of months and there was a transition out during that period of months, we could certainly discuss that», the Secretary emphasized.

In a deeper sense, Russian, U.S., as well as European, Saudi, Iranian, Chinese and the world, interests are on the same side against the enemy that threatens all of us.

Even if the US administration rejects the Russia’s plan of a grand coalition with Moscow, Tehran and Damascus, coordination to some degree is achievable and advisable. All parties involved clearly realize that Syria, as the world has known it, probably cannot be restored. A new entity is to emerge instead. This can only result from negotiations among the various actors (except the IS) with the assistance of the international community. Russia and the US will play the crucial role.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will address the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015. It is expected that the Russian President will propose a new Syria plan at the UN and hold a number of meetings on the sidelines of the General Assembly. This is a chance to tackle the burning issue of Russia-US relations in general and the cooperation in the Middle East in particular.

Back in history the both countries managed to cope with great challenges, they put curbs on the running away arms race starting from the 1960s and found a compromise while balancing on the verge of WWIII during the Cuban crisis. They found ways to avert unintentional accidents that could spark wars.

Today, the channels of military cooperation between the United States and other countries of the alliance with Russia are totally frozen.

Actually, the Russia-NATO Council has not been formally abolished, but it does not work. This is extremely dangerous. Any incident may not only result in a misunderstanding, but entail a tragic mistake, a clash between two nuclear powers with unpredictable consequences. For the purpose of preventing the risk the Soviet Union and the United States back in 1972 signed an inter-government agreement On the Prevention of Incidents on and over the High Sea, which set a code of conduct both parties should abide by in case of direct contact. 

However that agreement applied mostly to ships, while these days military aircraft get involved ever more often. To ward off threats to international security it will be essential to restore the operation of consultative groups of Russia and NATO in the spirit of the 1972 convention for exchanging information about flights by military planes and voyages by naval ships in the areas adjacent to Syria. The need for interaction stems from the common threat. military cooperation between all actors fighting the IS has no alternative.

Tags: Middle East  Russia  Syria  US 

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