JHI on the Issues 2016: Can the U.S. Cooperate with Russia in Syria?

Candidate Statement:  At the second presidential debate on October 9, 2016, Trump responded to running mate Mike Pence’s assertions that the U.S. must stand up to Russian provocation by saying both that he disagreed with Pence and, “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS…I believe we have to get ISIS. We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved.”

Summary: Trump’s assertion that Washington should collaborate with Moscow in order to defeat ISIS is based on wishful thinking. His position does not take into account Russia’s ongoing actions in Syria that work against bringing about a sustainable end to the humanitarian disaster and terrorist threat. Putin’s primary objective in Syria is to maintain the power of the Assad regime, which routinely kills its own citizens while sponsoring terrorism, emboldening Iran, and inciting instability in the region. Overall, contrary to Trump’s statements, relying on Russian cooperation in Syria is not a viable path toward defeating ISIS.

Talking Points:

  • In order to prop up the Assad regime, Russia’s ultimate goal, Russia has routinely bombed anti-government rebel groups, hospitals and humanitarian convoys, and U.S.-trained opposition forces. The U.S. and Russia continue to be at odds over the targets of Russian bombing campaigns.
  • Russian military strikes in Syria are duplicitous: In late-2015, while Russia's defense ministry said its warplanes were conducting "surgical strikes" on ISIS targets—military equipment, command centers and ammunition depots—U.S. officials including Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the bombardments did not appear to be targeting areas held by ISIS forces.
  • The Assad regime is a murderous dictatorship that the U.S. has constantly called to step aside.  Collaboration with Russia over ISIS speaks directly against U.S. interests: seeing a transition of power in Syria away from a regime acting against its own people.  
  • Military cooperation with Russia in Syria involves intelligence sharing with an untrustworthy adversary who has proven willing to carry out acts of cyber espionage that infringe on America’s own political process.
  • Strategic collaboration with Russia in Syria signals acceptance of Russia’s aggressive and militaristic actions elsewhere and risks alienating long-time allies in the Middle East and Europe. For more on a strong U.S. approach to Russia, read JHI’s Choosing to Lead.

Analysis:

Trump’s statements of the potential for cooperation with Russia in Syria and admiration for Putin may reflect his personal views but do not take into account Russia’s ongoing actions and interests in Syria and the region.  In Syria the overwhelming number of attacks carried out by Russian forces have not taken place against ISIS but against forces closer to the U.S who have opposed President Assad and are themselves fighting against ISIS.  At least a majority of Russian bombing raids have been against those forces, not ISIS.  And even now in the negotiations between Washington and Moscow, Russia demands that the U.S. disengage itself from forces that Moscow claims are terrorists, but that do not include ISIS.  Putin’s sole objective in Syria is to prop up an Assad regime, which incited the violence in Syria, wiped out political opposition, killed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, and provided direct support for terrorist groups co-sponsored by Iran and targeted against the State of Israel.

Not only has Russia rarely attacked ISIS, it facilitated the movement of terrorists from the North Caucasus to Syria and Iraq where they joined ISIS, thereby exporting its terrorist problem in the North Caucasus to the Middle East and the West.  Russia has sponsored terrorism in Ukraine in Odessa and Khar’kiv, carried out targeted assassinations in London and Doha of regime opponents.  Its forces in the North Caucasus regularly carry out abductions for profit like other terrorist groups, and through Iran and Syria, it sells weapons to Hezbollah.  In light of Putin’s actions in Syria, his territorial incursions into Georgia and Ukraine, provocative military conduct and trade embargos, Trump’s course of collaboration with Russia risks reversing much of the freedoms and security the West has gained during the post-Cold War era and stands to alienate long-time friends and allies in the Middle East and Europe.

Strategic collaboration with Russia would be inimical to U.S. interests, including the acceptance of Assad’s regime in Syria and acceptance of Russian influence and dominance over Ukraine.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • Do you think that Russia’s actions in Syria to-date have been directed toward defeating ISIS? If so, how can you explain the fact that the majority of Russia’s bombing campaigns have not been directed toward ISIS-held territory?
  • How can Russia and the U.S. collaborate in Syria when each nation’s primary objectives for a political outcome are at completely at odds?  
  • Wouldn’t strategic collaboration with Russia in Syria signal acquiescence of their violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty?