Both the United States and Russia have a vested interest in preventing the growth of terrorist groups and disrupting terrorist activities. In the interconnected world of the 21st century, regional terrorist groups are increasingly capable and willing to expand their operations outside their traditional home territories. Terrorists groups originating in the northern Caucuses have traditionally been issues of primarily Russian interest, but, due to IS’s ability to attract radicals to travel and fight on its behalf in Iraq and Syria, terrorist activity in the northern Caucuses now also affects American interests. Those that do travel to Syria and Iraq can influence issues in their home territories by inspiring others to do the same or by returning with newfound skills and terrorist tradecraft. This problem is not limited to the northern Caucuses; the actions of a terrorist group anywhere can have repercussions everywhere. With that in mind, both the US and Russia have an interest in disrupting terrorism and building resilience wherever plausible.
The US and Russia both have the ability, through alliances, historical relationships, and governmental ties, to assist other countries with counterterror efforts, but their ability to assist particular countries varies. The US and Russia should coordinate and complement one another’s efforts to build the counterterror capacities of governments and disrupt global terrorist networks.
Through the auspices of the OSCE, US efforts to bolster European counterterrorism capacities will likely have more bang for each buck than Russian efforts, but Russia’s own security relationships can give it an advantage in providing counter terrorism aid to historically pro-Russian states. By coordinating these efforts to build resilience around the
world, the US and Russia can minimize the risk of redundant efforts while benefiting from the unique advantages each side possesses. For instance, if a terrorist group against which the US has developed strong expertise is discovered to be operating in a Russian ally such as Kazakhstan, that expertise can be combined with preexisting Russian security ties with Kazakhstan to greatly enhance Kazakh efforts to disrupt or even outright eliminate that cell. American and Russian efforts to build a resilient world would benefit from coordination.
This plan carries risks that can be mitigated, but not eliminated
There is a clear divide between American and Russian counterterrorism practices that ranges from questions of governance to the conduct of kinetic operations. Without an agreed-upon framework, these differences would almost certainly result in major controversies that would make further cooperation politically impossible. Furthermore, associating the US with those tactics could be counterproductive for American national security and counterterrorism efforts. As the new US administration hopes to increase US-Russian cooperation, it should have a clear framework in mind that does not run counter to American values, and should be prepared to walk away from the table if Russia is unwilling or unable to work within it. Mistakes that arise from disagreements on key aspects of counterterrorism could undermine cooperation, further sour US-Russian relations, and strengthen the hands of terrorists.
This framework would include agreed upon targeting rules for kinetic operations to mitigate collateral damage, a framework for dealing with poor governance, and prohibitions against specific counterterrorism practices that are counterproductive—such as collective punishments and torture. Getting Russia to agree to these terms will be difficult and will require compromises on areas like governance, but it should be possible to identify mutual standards that are sufficient, if not perfect. Getting Russia to stay true to these terms will be much more difficult. Setbacks and violations are inevitable, but so long as they are not exceedingly frequent or severe, the benefits of coordinating efforts and cooperation in specific instances should be sufficient to justify continuing the initiative.
At the moment, IS remains a major problem for all parties involved in Syria and Iraq. If possible, the US and Russia should coordinate air strikes against IS to prevent collisions and aerial accidents while also maximizing the air strikes’ effectiveness. Establishing a joint task force explicitly to target designated extremist groups with agreed-upon rules of engagement could more effectively disrupt those groups.
Coordinating strikes would allow the US to ramp up the quantity and quality of its air strikes in Syria by reducing the risk of interception or incorrect targeting information leading to a possible escalation. Establishing common rules of engagement could reduce the amount of counterproductive collateral damage from Russian air strikes by improving Russian targeting standards. Coordination would necessitate the selective sharing of intelligence related to IS and groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the al-Nusra Front), which would build trust and increase the efficacy of both countries’ air campaigns. Assuming that the effort succeeds and both parties act in good faith, the trust built and lessons learned through this effort could be translated into a joint effort to tackle counterterrorism in other arenas around the globe.
This plan carries significant risks that are nearly impossible to mitigate
The previous 2016 attempt at US-Russian cooperation in Syria ended swiftly and tragically following the bombing of a UN aid convoy by Russian planes. Any future attempts at cooperation must require the establishment of clear rules, procedures, and effective lines of communication to prevent any similar incidents from occurring. A US air strike that destroys a school due to faulty Russian intelligence would be a major setback for both countries’ counterterrorism efforts. Additionally, given Russia’s previous inclination to bomb rebel groups under the guise of fighting terrorism, a list of acceptable targets must be established with unambiguous procedures for when extremist groups are mixed into groups that are not acceptable targets.
Furthermore, Russia is unlikely to launch air strikes against extremist positions if doing so would assist the Syrian rebels. Depending on how frequent that situation arises, the US and Turkey may be able to provide air strikes in those instances, but Russia would likely attempt to indirectly interfere with the strikes. Russia’s primary stated interest in Syria is not the defeat of IS or terrorist groups, it is ensuring the victory of the Syrian government. Due to that interest, any successful joint air campaign will require the tacit acceptance that Syria’s government will remain in power; without that acceptance, the air campaign will be undermined to the point of borderline uselessness. It may be possible to arrange a power transition from Assad, but that is both unlikely and would just result in another member of Assad’s administration taking his place. Russian demands will not stop there.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has prolonged the war that spawned a refugee crisis throughout the Middle East and in Europe. The refugee crisis in Europe has emboldened populist movements throughout the continent that also tend to hold pro-Russian views. Russia’s military assets in Syria can prolong the conflict and, by extension, the refugee crisis to the detriment of US allies in the Middle East and Europe. This ability provides it leverage against European governments that are in favor of maintaining sanctions against Russian over its actions in Ukraine. The likelihood that Russia will give up that leverage without a deal to ease or remove the sanctions against it in the near future is very low.
Easing sanctions and tacitly accepting Assad’s continued reign in exchange for a joint air campaign will anger our Gulf allies, unnerve our European allies, and legitimize Russia’s use of military force and disinformation as effective tools of foreign policy. Additionally, giving in to those demands will reduce the credibility of the US in the eyes of allies and rivals. US allies may become less willing to cooperate with US initiatives and more willing to pursue ties with US rivals, while US rivals may adopt a more aggressive foreign policy to capitalize on what they see as a weakened US. All of these must be weighed by the new US administration as they consider pursuing an air campaign alongside Russia.