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Bomb With Us Or Get Bombed By Us: Bizarre American & Russian Partnership in Syria

September 1, 2016

IMAGE- MASHABUBA VIA GETTY IMAGES

 

Exploding your classmate’s locker is an unconventional way of befriending him. Usually when you want to make friends, you invite them to parties, chat about the recent episodes of Breaking Bad, or play World of Warcraft together. It would be even more peculiar if you desperately need his help to finish your homework; ruining his locker to induce his cooperation is probably a bit “rude” and ineffective. Well, Russia just did that to the United States. And few people seem to be caring much. In fact, the U.S government seems to be willing to work with Russia regardless.

 

According to the Washington Post, Russian air force in Syria bombed Special Operations facilities jointly run by American and British elite special forces in June. The strike came just a day after the British commandoes evacuated the area, resulting in the deaths of at least 4 Syrian rebels. It was alleged that despite repeated warnings from U.S Command Center, Russian air force bombarded the place several times, later claiming that they believed the facilities were occupied by ISIS and that the Americans “did not specify the exact coordinates of their base”. However, given that the garrison was fortified in a unique way, there is no doubt that the Russians were cognizant of the identity of this base. A month after this incident, Moscow heaped on the aggression by unleashing cluster bombs on U.S-backed rebel groups near Jordanian border. Experts believe that the strikes were part of Russia’s campaign to “pressure the White House to agree to closer cooperation in the war against ISIS”. Few weeks later, Secretary of State John Kerry departed to Moscow to discuss closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against ISIS. This series of events comes in light of burgeoning coordination between the United States and Russia in their battle against the so-called Islamic State. Since the inception of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Russia and the United States have been involved in what many describe as “proxy warfare”. Russia and its allies have been supporting the Assad regime, while the U.S and its Western & Gulf allies have been backing various rebel groups. The situation on the ground became more complicated when the jihadist groups such as Islamic State and Jabhat Al-Nusra (Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, although it was rumored that the group will officially sever relationship with Al Qaeda, probably to avoid western airstrikes) gained footholds amid the chaos.

 

Since then, the war became a three-way conflict among the Assad government, moderate rebels and jihadists. Due to its animosity with the Assad regime, the U.S and its coalition forces bombing ISIS had not openly discussed working together with Russia or Syria. However, with the ongoing negotiation to end the civil war and increased awareness of ISIS’ capability to carry out attacks on western soil, the American government has recently been pushing for a Joint Implementation Group (JIG): a proposal to “expand coordination between the two countries beyond the established safety of flight procedures”. In the brutal theater of the Syrian Civil War, four military casualties are seldom significant enough to change public opinions or the overall landscape of a battle. It is safe to assume that the 4 dead soldiers are, in a crude military language (and I regret putting it this way), dispensable casualties. But put the picture in a broader context, and we get a completely different story.

 

Since the beginning of its air campaign last October, Russia has been devastating moderate rebels backed by the United States in the name of battle against extremists. This corroborates the dangerous trend set by the Assad regime of fighting the War of Attrition—decimating moderate rebels so that the world has to choose the lesser evil between him and ISIS. Although it is fair to say that Assad and his Russian ally took the brunt of ISIS offensives especially in the eastern front, they incessantly targeted moderate rebel groups unrelated to terrorist organizations. These groups include even those who signed the Cessation of Hostility treaty with the government February this year, attesting to the fact that Assad has been violating truce ever since it was signed. American diplomats have been trying to persuade their Russian counterparts to pressurize Assad into sincerely participating in peace negotiations. So far, such efforts were futile. Moderate rebels on the ground lost trust in their American allies, especially since the American policy of “Assad must step down” implicitly diverted to “Defeat ISIS first”. It is in such backdrop that moderate rebel groups have been indirectly working with certain jihadists group although they do not share extremist ideologies—the moderates need willing allies in the battlefield. At least in the fight against Assad, moderate rebels are finding more help from non-ISIS jihadist groups arguably than from the west. The fact that the United States is nonchalantly proceeding with the JIG despite the airstrike will dismantle moderate rebels’ relationship with the U.S. JIG does mandate grounding of most Syrian Air Force, but Russia will undoubtedly exploit loopholes. For example, Russia already considers most rebels to be either directly or indirectly linked with terrorists including Al Nusra. Map of Syria portrayed in Russian media labels rebel held territory as “Jabhat Al Nusra”, even when it is the moderate Free Syrian Army that is holding the area.

 

The deaths of 4 rebel fighters, as militarily “insignificant” as they might be, can be a symbolic loss that highlights the infeasibility and danger of trusting American assistance. In simpler terms, Russia just bombed American base in Syria, but the U.S is willing to work with Russia than ever. Meanwhile, American allies on the ground fear they might be abandoned by the United States. Joint American & Russian air strikes are likely to wipe off ISIS, but it is also possible (to a dangerous extent) that alliance with moderate rebels will be the collateral damage of such partnership. Remember, Assad is the same guy who used chemical weapon against his own people and engaged in sectarian genocide against Sunni population. The more he benefits from reduced ISIS and rebel presence, the less incentive he will have to come to the bargaining table. Oh, and by the way an American base was attacked, which is - supposed to be - a blow to American dignity and military capability. But few people seem to care. After all, the recent focus of the public on the Syrian Civil War has been almost exclusively about defeating ISIS. So the next time you need one of your brainy classmate’s help, plant a pack of dynamite in his locker. Who knows, he might still want to work with you on your science project!

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