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.
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.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.
- Probably under the threat of a joint U.S.-American and Russian effort against Jabhat al-Nusra, the groups chief Abu Mohamed al-Golani confirmed yesterday evening that the group formally split from al-Qaeda and has renamed itself the Levantine Conquest Front. He said that by breaking its link, the group aims to protect the Syrian revolution … and with it jihad in the Levant, according to Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a deputy to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who blessed the split. According to U.S. State Departement spokesman John Kirby, there are no indication that would give the U.S. side reason to change the designation of this group as an terrorist organization. –> Dania Akkad, “Nusra confirms split with al-Qaeda ‘to protect the Syrian revolution’“, Middle East Eye, 28.07.2016.
- Carles Lister, “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra“, Brookings, July 2016.