Analysis: Russia, US Have Promising Starting Points for Cooperation in Syria
Peter KORZUN 03.05.2017 13:45

Moscow is ready to cooperate with the United States on settling the Syrian crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 29. The statement was made at a time the much-awaited round of Astana talks were to kick off on May 3-4 and the UN-brokered talks in Geneva were about to resume. There is a good reason to address the issue without delay.

Three days after Turkish aircraft delivered strikes along the Turkey-Syria border, the US deployed troops and APCs in the contested region. Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis has confirmed the information. US forces will also deploy as a separation force in areas where the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish forces meet.

Turkey attacked the positions of the US-backed People's Protection Units, or YPG, a close US ally in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). The Kurdish group is seen by the Turkish government as a terrorist organization with ties to Turkey's Kurdish rebels. Clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces in Syria could potentially undermine the US-led anti-IS effort. American forces are to carry out the mission of deterrent to protect the Kurds against attacks.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the leading force of Syrian Kurds – took full control of the Syrian town of Kobani last year, making it a powerful symbol of Kurdish resistance to Islamic State (IS). In February 2016, a representative office for Syrian Kurdistan opened in Moscow to represent the interests of Syrian Kurds and develop bilateral relations with Russia. Neither the US nor Russia is interested in further clashes between Turkey and Kurds. Both have good working relations with the Syrian Kurdish groups and both closely cooperate with the Turkish government. They share the desire to prevent hostilities between them. So, Moscow and Washington have a common goal.

A very important event – an extraordinary twist to illustrate the complexity of the conflict – took place in March. Russian and US forces were separately carrying out the same mission of Manbij and acting as a buffer between rival Kurdish and Turkish-backed militias. They acted separately but had the same objective. As The Times described it, «US and Russian troops have been patrolling the outskirts of the same Syrian town in the closest co-operation between the superpowers on the battlefield since the Second World War».

This was improvisation to prevent the worst. Inevitably, the activities were coordinated by commanders on the ground with the permissions given by top leaders in the nations’ capitals. The Manbij military council earlier had asked Russian and Syrian troops to form a buffer zone between Manbij and Turkish forces in al-Bab, 25 miles to the southwest.

The increased US military activity on Jordan’s northern border suggests that the operations will soon expand to southern Syria. A joint US-British-Jordanian military contingent is waiting in northern Jordan for the green light to enter southern Syria. The aim of the offensive is to combat the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Brigade, an Islamic State affiliate operating in the Golan Heights. This development introduces new potential consequences. A US military engagement in the south could result in conflict with the Russia-supported Syrian government forces located in the province of Daraa. Tensions could escalate to negatively affect the Astana peace process and the UN-backed Geneva negotiations.

Israel and Jordan have security concerns to spur talks on establishing a kind of buffer zone in the southern part of Syria to prevent terrorist attacks across the borders. President Trump and Jordanian King Abdullah discussed such a scenario in February. Israel is increasingly concerned about the presence of IS terrorists on its north-eastern border in the occupied Golan Heights – only 20 miles from the town of Safed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is advocating the idea of creating a buffer zone inside Syria.

It’s not plain sailing, but the concept appears to have taken root in the US and its allies. Nothing is clear about what actors would be involved, who would be responsible for the protection of such zones on the ground, whether the establishment of a safe zone would be followed by declaring a no-fly zone, and who would shoulder the expenditure. The key question is whether the safe zones will eventually be returned to Syrian government control.

It’s worrisome that the discussions seem to never even mention the need to submit a plan to the United Nations or the Syria government for approval.

The implementation of a safe zone in southern Syria is fraught with the risk of engaging Syria’s government troops. Once established, it’ll need constant coordination and de-confliction with Syrian, Iranian and Russian forces. The US has no direct contacts with Syria and Iran, which makes Russia’s mediation the only way to do it. A no-fly zone is unthinkable without coordinating the activities with Russia.

In a broader term, cooperation between Washington and Moscow is inevitable for crisis management after the IS, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and other extremist groups are routed.

Minister Lavrov’s statement is more than timely. As the situation creep demonstrates, there is no time to lose. One may not like the idea, but cooperation is inevitable. At the next G20 summit in July, the two leaders can hit it off and achieve a breakthrough as a start of a broader process of improving the overall relationship.