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U.S.-Russian cooperation working on ground in Syria

U.S.-Russian cooperation working on ground in Syria
September 03
11:54 2017

As the multi-sided war in Syria grinds on, cynicism about the future is more than justified. Arguably, America has failed time and again to secure its objectives and follow through on its intentions in its halting, lurching, incomplete intervention.

The United States allowed Russia to establish itself as a major military and diplomatic player in the Mideast; allowed Iran unprecedented reach and control across the fertile crescent, clear to the Mediterranean coast via Lebanon, and allowed the Islamic State to metastasize to such a degree that the whole balance of power in the region will have to be reworked, without a playbook, once ISIS is destroyed.

This is not a track record to be proud of. But in spite of it all, there is evidence that the U.S. and Russia can successfully broker an eventual peace.

As important as grand strategy and great power politics can be, high-level maneuvers driven by rhetoric, theory and national interest can often fail to create the real-life conditions for practical cooperation, however tightly circumscribed, among rivals or adversaries. This has been the case with Washington and Moscow.

Three successive White Houses have sought a fresh start with Russia, and three have been stymied, their hopes of a geopolitical reset or grand bargain swiftly fading into a haze of recrimination — and, occasionally, outright hostility. Russia’s unilateral military advances in Ukraine are often held out as an example of who is to blame for the disappointing condition of relations between the two countries, but perhaps an even more fundamental culprit has been the complete lack of any structure wherein Americans and Russians are obliged to address urgent but solvable problems together on a routine basis. In Syria, however, just that kind of system has arisen out of necessity.

For months, the U.S. and Russian militaries have been working closely and constantly to avoid direct conflict in the crowded and chaotic Syrian landscape, “helping draw a line on the map that separates U.S.- and Russian-backed forces waging parallel campaigns on Syria’s shrinking battlefields,” according to Reuters. The wire service was recently granted access to the Air Force’s Combined Air Operations Area in Qatar, where difficult but “resilient” communications — as many as 12 calls a day — are conducted around the clock with Russian counterparts.

“The reality is we’ve worked through some very hard problems and, in general, we have found a way to maintain the deconfliction line and found a way to continue our mission,” top Mideast Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian told Reuters. “We have to negotiate, and sometimes the phone calls are tense.” But they’re working: not just in a tactical sense, but in a strategic one too. As ISIS continues to lose ground and Syria’s warring parties converge to fill the void, strictly maintained habits of U.S.-Russia cooperation — not high ideals or grand theories — will make the difference between a chain reaction of carnage and an orderly establishment of new zones of control.

Given the immensity of the challenge involved in working out the details of the new dispensation, only the U.S. and Russia can be counted on to work effectively in concert. The Assad regime is prepared to coordinate with both Moscow and Teheran, but Iran’s ambitions are opposed by too many regional powers, including Israel, for that axis of interest to settle matters alone.

Israel itself, a stalwart U.S. ally, was incensed that recent Russo-American talks failed to ensure that Iran and Hezbollah would not creep too close to its border — an eventuality that would lead to unilateral Israeli military action, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently warned Vladimir Putin in a three-hour meeting.

“An Iranian military presence in Syria will be a constant source of friction and tension not only with Israel, but with the Sunni majority in Syria, with the Sunni countries in the region, and with Sunni minorities outside the region,” as the director-general of Israel’s intelligence ministry told Bloomberg Politics. The U.S. and Israel may be unable to banish Iran from Syria, thanks to Russia’s protection. But Russia’s involvement is more delicate than it appears: if the balance of powers tips out of control, Russia’s risky intervention will become a debacle, and its core interests in the region hurt. The likely outcome will be a continued Iranian and Iranian proxy presence in postwar Syria, but not beyond Israeli red-line areas.

Of course, that issue is only one of a handful of thorny problems. Turkish and Kurdish military aims in Syria also must be taken into account. But as with Iran’s scope of influence, only the U.S. and Russia are powerful enough and positioned properly enough to establish and enforce workable, stable boundaries.

And Moscow and Washington will only be able to convert that potential into reality in virtue of how well specific individuals on both sides have been able to build working relationships of mutual reliance — however laced with suspicion or adversity. Officials on the ground and in the region will continue to be called upon to make high-stakes but detail-laden judgment calls to strengthen the current regime of limited but indispensable trust.

To date, there’s legitimate reason to put hope in that process. It’s a far cry from what Americans had a right to expect, but it’s far better than what we had a reason to fear.

By JAMES POULOS | August 26, 2017 | ocregister.com

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