On January 28, Russian and US presidents spoke for about one hour – their first official contact since Trump's inauguration on January 20 – and vowed to join forces to fight terrorism in Syria and elsewhere. The event signals a potential shift in U.S.-Russian relations that have been at low ebb recently. The Kremlin said the phone conversation showed there is «a mood for restoring and improving» cooperation between Moscow and Washington. The White House said the January 28 the call «was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair».
The two leaders agreed to establish «partner-like cooperation» on international issues, including «the crisis in Ukraine», the situation in the Middle East, strategic stability, and the fight against terrorism. They emphasized that joining efforts in fighting the main threat – international terrorism – is a top priority. The presidents spoke out for establishing real coordination of actions between Russia and the U.S. aimed at defeating the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorists groups in Syria. The leaders agreed to a set a possible date and venue for a personal meeting, and vowed to maintain regular personal contacts.
Recent polls show that anti-American sentiment in Russia has dropped to 56 percent. Pollsters say it’s due to the president’s indication he wants to improve the bilateral relations.
President Trump signed a presidential memo directing the Defense Department to submit a plan within 30 days to defeat the IS, including in it the possibility of teaming up with «new coalition partners». This is an effort to make good on his presidential race promise to confront the militant group more aggressively than President Obama did.
Even prior to the memo, military officials had been at work developing potential actions for the administration to consider. Those include potentially deploying additional advisers to Iraq and Syria, allowing U.S. military personnel to accompany local forces closer to the front lines, and delegating greater decision-making power to field commanders.
Today the IS poses a very serious threat for both countries, voicing threats towards the U.S. as well as the Russia. The terrorist activities of the IS go beyond the scope of a regional threat. There are a few options here for cooperation of the military agencies and special services of both countries, ranging from intelligence exchange on IS to exercising influence on the countries affected by the war with the terrorist threat.
Launching businesslike relationship will benefit both sides. Despite the existing differences and discords, they have managed to work together on a range of issues in the not-too-distant past, including the Iran’s deal, North Korea and Afghanistan. The United States and Russia maintain a line of communication to avoid any incidents in the airspace above Syria. Both nations Washington continue cooperation within the framework of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) – the fact rarely mentioned in mainstream media.
Russia and the U.S. have many points of shared mutual interest. Former US State Secretary Henry Kissinger says a bad relationship with Russia makes it harder to solve problems.
Russia and Turkey set a good example of mutually advantageous cooperation even while pursuing different goals. Turkey, a NATO member, did cooperate and carry out joint airstrikes with Russia in al-Bab against the IS, which is a pretty significant development.
The cooperation won’t be a bed of roses. For instance, Donald Trump has signed an order that will create safe areas for refugees inside Syria to keep Syrians from leaving their country. The Defense Department and the Pentagon are expected to produce within 90 days a plan to provide such areas in Syria and in the surrounding region. The plan would come on the heels of a cessation of «refugee processing» and admittance of Syrian nationals as refugees until sufficient changes are introduced to amend the Refugee Admissions Program.
This idea has long been advocated by Turkey but drew little international support.
Would the administration seek the creation of safe zones through the United Nations, by agreement with other pertinent actors, or unilaterally? Unfortunately, the U.S. has not consulted with Russia on the issue.
It’s not clear what the term «region» actually means. Does Mr. President mean the neighboring countries like Iraq, Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon? What about displaced persons? Will they have freedom of movement? If so, the Syrian armed opposition would use the safe areas for much-needed respite from the relentless airstrikes waged by Russia and other countries and then go and wage a never-ending war. If safe areas are open for entrance with no chance to leave, then the guarded territories will resemble internment camps. What about the human rights of those who’ll be interned? History provides lessons to be learnt. Remember «safe zones» in Bosnia and Rwanda?
The chances that such a plan would be approved by the UN Security Council are bleak. The absence of UN resolution would prevent many nations ready to contribute from doing so. A large number of troops would be needed to defend havens, pitting them against pro-government forces as well as rival rebel groups. In 2013, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a no-fly zone (a safe area and a no-fly zone go hand in hand) would «require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support», costing up to $1 billion per month. Some of those resources would have to be diverted from missions against the IS. Putting boots on the ground risks putting America on a slippery slope to further involvement in the war.
Benefits and risks must be carefully considered before a consequential decision is taken. Consulting other actors involved in the conflict would be right step to do.
Anyway, there still about 90 days to discuss the issue and make things clear. That’s what is important. The January 28 phone conversation created certain atmosphere which makes it possible to discuss, consult and exchange opinions. And that is the most significant result the conversation produced. At last, the leaders of two great powers are engaged in constructive dialogue.