The strategic significance of US-Russian military coordination in Syria

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at their Tuesday meeting in Laos, during which they talked about an American plan for US-Russian military cooperation inside Syria. This was the second meeting for Lavrov and Kerry over a period of ten days.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at their Tuesday meeting in Laos, during which they talked about an American plan for US-Russian military cooperation inside Syria. This was the second meeting for Lavrov and Kerry over a period of ten days.

The Obama administration recently proposed a new agreement with the Russians concerning military coordination in Syria. Washington essentially suggested that it could work together with the Russian military in Syria against the Syrian-based al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra if Russia agrees to pressure the regime in Damascus to stop bombing certain targets and areas. Moscow has reportedly agreed to take these steps and work with Washington militarily against this common enemy. The consequences of such those two powers coordinating militarily have already been explored. The interesting question that arises from that prospect is how it will enhance the United States’ ability to target al-Nusra.

Incidentally this comes after two incidents, both in June, led some to inquire if the US is already overstretched in its ongoing air war against Islamic State (IS). On June 16 a garrison of US-backed New Syrian Army anti-IS fighters was controversially bombed by two Russian air force Su-34 Fullback jets. Two US Navy F/A-18 Hornets were scrambled to the scene to intercept the Fullbacks, after making visual contact with the Fullbacks the Russian planes flew away. Shortly thereafter the F-18’s departed from the scene after running low on fuel, the Fullbacks then returned and bombed the garrison a second time. On June 30 US air power was supporting the same New Syrian Army fighters on a major offensive against IS-militants in the east. However the jets providing that air cover suddenly diverted course and flew to neighbouring Iraq to participate in the bombing of a major IS-convoy fleeing from the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The New Syrian Army, left without air cover, were subsequently pushed back by IS and their offensive ended in a complete failure.

The New Syrian Army's fighters have reportedly been trained at US-run camps in Jordan. The image, released by the New Syrian Army beginning of July probably shows the captured al-Hamdan airbase / village, located just outside of Abu Kamal Deir in the ez-Zor Governorate of eastern Syria near the border with Iraq.

The New Syrian Army’s fighters have reportedly been trained at US-run camps in Jordan. The image, released by the New Syrian Army beginning of July probably shows the captured al-Hamdan airbase / village, located just outside of Abu Kamal in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate of eastern Syria near the border with Iraq.

Given these precedents it’s worth wondering how coordination with the Russian military would help Washington achieve against al-Nusra, which is primarily based in the Syria’s northwest. Many other groups fighting the al-Assad regime have cooperated with al-Nusra, which has focused on fighting the regime. Its endurance has enabled it to integrate itself into various armed groups fighting al-Assad which are not viewed by Washington and the western powers as terrorist groups and are included in the ceasefire regime established by US-Russian brokerage last February. Russia has said on many occasions that groups that have collaborated with al-Nusra and are part of the ceasefire need to clearly break their ranks with the group if they want to avoid being bombed. The US also wants to see al-Nusra isolated from these groups so it can be targeted more easily.

As IS incrementally loses its territory in both Iraq and Syria it’s clear that Washington is figuring that al-Nusra needs to be contained too before it further entrenches itself in that war-ravaged country. But will direct coordination with Russia really enhance these two powers ability to strike at al-Nusra, and perhaps IS too? Against al-Nusra an alliance with the Russians may make sense, primarily due to the fact that al-Nusra has a particularly strong presence in the northwestern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, while IS is in the northeast and east – where the US is already working with a ground proxy – the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.

A Russian Kamov Ka-50 flying near the Khmeimim Air Base south-east of Latakia in March 2016.

A Russian Kamov Ka-50 flying near the Khmeimim Air Base south-east of Latakia in March 2016.

Unlike the Americans the Russians have most of the aircraft they use in Syria based in the western part of the country already while the US flies from its bases across the region, primarily from the Persian Gulf monarchies (but also from Turkey’s southeastern Incirlik Airbase). Both countries have also used cruise missiles: the Russians twice in late 2015, ostensibly against IS, and the US once in September 2014, ostensibly against the shadowy Khorasan terrorist group. Additionally both countries have used heavy bombers against their enemies, with Russian Tu-95’s and Tu-160’s flying all the way from Russia to strike their enemies and American B-52’s from Qatar.

There is one thing the Russians have used in Syria which the American’s haven’t, helicopter gunships. Russia has deployed Ka-52 and Mi-35 gunships, among others, to Syria. Those heavily armed flying tanks can be quite effective against militants who possess little, but nonetheless growing, means to counter aerial attacks. They flew air support for the Syrian Army last March helping them to retake Palmyra. The US has recently deployed Apache gunships to its war against IS, but only in Iraqi Kurdistan to support offensives against IS near Mosul, not in Syria.

Teaming up with the Russians against al-Nusra could see the Americans coordinate airstrikes with Russia’s advanced flying tanks, which have adequate range to fly from the Syrian airbase in Latakia to neighbouring Idlib, or further up in Aleppo, and to loiter around the battlefield. American A-10 Warthog attack planes and Predator drones based in Incirlik Air Base in Turkey can also work closely with the Russians across the Aleppo region against these militants.

Using air power alone against al-Nusra is unlikely to defeat it, but it US-Russian coordination would surely be a good start to disrupting that groups attempts to wage jihad across that war-torn land.

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This entry was posted in English, International, Syria, Terrorism.

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