Following the historic Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki on July 16th, Russian officials are claiming that the two leaders came to an agreement involving cooperation between the US and Russia in Syria. So far, the US’s only acknowledgement of this agreement is a statement released by the White House stating it was “considering possible next steps.”
The US and Russia have recently begun efforts to negotiate with Iran on a deal that would pull Iranian-backed forces out of southern Syria and replace them with troops loyal to the government in Damascus. Russia has also proposed a 62-mile buffer zone that would be off limits to Iranian forces and allies on Syria’s side of its border with Israel.
In addition to collaboration with Iran, Russia has suggested working together with the US on humanitarian efforts and returning displaced Syrians to their homes. This suggestion almost directly follows airstrikes in southwestern Syria that killed an aid worker, women, and children, and were authorized by the Russian and Syrian governments. The airstrikes also went against a cease-fire deal in that part of Syria that was brokered by the US, Russia, and Jordan last year.
While coordinating with Russia on the conflict in Syria is not an inherently bad course of action, the idea poses several significant challenges. Firstly, according to a US law passed in reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the US is prohibited from any cooperation or coordination with Russia’s military. As General Joseph Votel, the overseer of US military operations in the Middle East, stated, “The National Defense Authorization Act as a law prohibits us from coordinating, synchronizing, collaborating with the Russian forces.” General Votel also explained that a waiver would need to be made to allow the US military to work with Russia in Syria.
Furthermore, Russia has repeatedly claimed that its ability to pressure Iran into concessions is limited. According to Frants Klintsevich, a member of the Russian upper house of parliament’s defense and security committee, Iran has propped up Assad’s regime with huge amounts of human and financial resources, so “the Iranians most likely won’t go, they’ve paid too high a price already.” As Middle East Expert at the Russian International Affairs Council Yury Barmin stated, “In the south, Iran has embedded its people with Syrian army units ̶ this is not something that Russia can control.”
The proposed 62-mile buffer zone is also unrealistic. Iran will at most agree to remove its troops from the area, not including its military advisers or militia fighters. Even if the creation of the buffer zone is accomplished, Iran still possesses long-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used against Israel.
Lastly, the US and Russia have very different desired outcomes in Syria. The US is focused on defeating ISIS, and officials from the Pentagon and State Department hope to help Kurdish and Arab rebel allies in Syria gain a spot in peace negotiations. On the other hand, Russia wants to prop up Assad’s government and considers all rebel forces to be terrorists. This directly contrasts US interests in the area, with the US backing rebel allies throughout the conflict.
Going forward, the US must be careful to not develop unrealistic goals when dealing with Iranian forces and to keep its strategic interests in mind when negotiating with Russia. In order to work towards peace in the region, continue its fight against ISIS, protect Israel from Iranian attack, and help Kurdish and Arab rebel allies, the US should tread cautiously with Russia in Syria.