The Russian intervention in Syria has left U.S. policymakers in a quandary. The official line is that Russia’s move doesn’t fundamentally change anything and that, in any case, the Russians will soon find themselves in a quagmire. The United States, to paraphrase former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s famous quip about battling both the Nazis and the British, is prepared to fight ISIS as though the Russians (and the Bashar al-Assad regime) were not there and to counter the Russians as though ISIS weren’t there.
This isn’t as absurd as it might sound; as a practical matter, the Russians have created only two new facts on the ground. First, it is no longer feasible for the United States to establish a safe haven or no-fly zone. But Washington had little intention of doing either, so the tangible significance of this development is meager. Second, the Russians are hitting U.S.-backed rebel groups that had been exerting pressure on the Assad regime near Damascus. This is a genuine problem, and it is the main obstacle to collaborating with Moscow, which was thought to interest U.S. President Barack Obama, at least at the outset of Russia’s intervention.
Three of the protagonists in Syria’s conflict—the United States, Russia, and the Syrian regime—seem to have a converging interest at this point in breaking the logjam created by Russian attacks against U.S.-backed formations in western Syria. American officials probably realize that the Russians have targeted U.S. proxies because of the immediate threat those proxies pose to regime forces, not on account of their connection to the United States. In fact, Russia’s strikes are currently nondenominational, covering the spectrum of rebel groups—from moderates supplied by the United States to ISIS, which Russian forces have started attacking in the vicinity of Aleppo. Moscow’s targeting strategy is intended to alleviate pressure on the regime, allow the regime to reconstitute its forces, and, in the process, foster the internal cohesion the government requires to remain viable.
To get Russia to stop the strikes against the U.S.-backed units, the United States would have to convince those units to suspend their operations against regime forces. And that is obviously inconceivable unless the regime halts its attacks against them. On that score, however, there might be room for maneuver. However Machiavellian, Assad’s assiduous efforts over the past year to jury-rig local reconciliations have resulted in fragile, local cease-fires along the main line of settlement in Syria, from Idlib in the north to Latakia, Homs, Hama, and the environs of Aleppo. In fact, the regime is now trying to cobble together a similar arrangement in Daraa, the battered southern city where the revolution first broke out over four years ago.
Not all of these ad hoc deals have proved durable, in part because of poor command and control on both sides. But where they do hold, they save lives, reduce the level of violence, and improve the climate for political progress, even if no breakthrough is currently in sight. In combination with the continued hammering of ISIS, this might be as good as it gets for the time being.
It’s a good bet that the regime would consider ceasefires in cases where Assad’s forces and U.S.-backed moderates are directly contesting real estate. Meanwhile, the United States should use its diplomatic access to Putin’s government and its leverage with its proxies to warm them to the idea as well. First, Washington would have to prevail on Moscow to cease air strikes on moderate rebel positions, provided those rebels stood down. Next, Washington would need to make it clear to its proxies that their continued access to American supplies (and enjoyment of Russian forbearance) would hinge on their willingness to explore local ceasefires and the possibility of going after ISIS in conjunction with the United States and Russia. All sides would have a stake in maintaining such a truce.
This kind of a deal would bear more than just a superficial resemblance to the awakening in Iraq, so effectively exploited by then U.S. Commander of Multinational Force Iraq David Petraeus’ surge in 2007. In Iraq, the Sunnis’ burgeoning resentment of al Qaeda–like groups in the Western provinces, combined with their exhaustion from fending off both U.S. operations and Shiite death squads, led them to accept U.S. assistance and ultimately collaboration. And make no mistake: Although there is now a degree of tactical cooperation between ISIS and many other rebel groups operating in Syria, at bottom most of these groups do hate ISIS and consider it a temporary but useful evil.
Under these circumstances, it would make sense for the Obama administration to exploit the ostensibly awkward situation presented by Russian strikes against U.S.-backed forces to explore the possibility of a ceasefire. Not only would this spare civilians from ongoing agony, but it could open the door to U.S.-Russian collaboration against ISIS and jumpstart an awakening that might begin to dislodge ISIS from a shattered Syria—all while opening a path to a political solution.