On July 15, the United States and Russia announced a tentative agreement on Syria which, according to media reports, would establish a joint command center staffed with military and intelligence officers who would initially exchange information on the al-Nusra Front —a terrorist organization that was affiliated with al Qaeda up until last month. Based on that information, the two nations would consider coordinated targeting and integrated operations against Nusra Front targets. As part of the agreement, both sides could only strike mutually agreed upon Nusra Front targets. The U.S. also would expect Russia to convince Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to end bombings of the civilian population.
The proposal has sparked grumbling among national security officials at State and the Pentagon, including the Secretary of Defense, who justifiably mistrust the Russians based on their behavior in Syria to date. Besides, some argue, targeting the Nusra Front, one of the more effective anti-Assad groups, would only strengthen the Syria regime. However, unpalatable as it is, Putin’s intervention has established Russia as a key player in the Middle East, and therefore some form of U.S.-Russia cooperation is unavoidable for a peaceful solution of the crisis.
Putin undoubtedly embraced the proposal because it serves his foreign policy interests. U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria not only reinforces the Putin regime’s influence in the Middle East but also reduces its international isolation and acknowledges Russia as a superpower on par with the U.S., which in turn enhances his domestic popularity.
The proposed cooperation also has no impact on Putin’s staunch support of the Assad regime. Russian airstrikes, supposedly targeted against terrorists, have primarily focused on Assad’s opponents and weakened them in the process. Assad’s forces have also tightened their grip in the siege on Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and have encircled the Damascus suburb of Daraya, one of the first areas to rebel against the regime.
Putin had already called for cooperation on Syria, not only with the U.S. but with nations around the globe. At last year’s UN General Assembly, the Russian leader appealed for a broad global coalition to defeat ISIS similar to the “anti-Hitler” alliance in World War II.
The U.S. should take careful note of Putin’s World War II analogy and proceed with caution. The Syria proposal is initially predicated on exchanges of information on targets, and the Russians have historically manipulated intelligence sharing for their own purposes. During World War II, OSS chief William Donovan proposed intelligence liaison with the Soviets, who agreed to the relationship so they could divine U.S. knowledge, not only about the Nazis, but about resistance movements in other European countries, many of which they were to subjugate after the war.
Although some intelligence was exchanged, the liaison eventually waned as each side began to distrust the post-war intentions of the other. The Soviets didn’t need much from the Americans anyway – they had recruited spies throughout the U.S. Government, especially in the OSS, including Donovan’s own executive secretary. Soviet intelligence did use the channel to pass the OSS information to encourage the opening of the “second front” in Western Europe that would relieve the Nazi assault on the USSR.
The World War II cooperation reflected all the hallmarks of Russian modus operandi in intelligence sharing. Among other goals, the Russians exploit foreign intelligence relationships to determine the extent of its partner’s intelligence knowledge and to pass propaganda and information, whether true or false, that advances the government’s foreign policy goals.
The Russians continued this tradition when intelligence contacts were renewed after the end of the Cold War. During the Balkans conflict in the 1990s, the Russians passed biased intelligence highlighting atrocities by Bosnians and Croatians against their ally Serbia. For some reason, they appeared to have little information about the Serbian perpetrators of the Srebrenica massacre of thousands of Muslim Bosniaks.
In a similar vein, as Russia’s relations with the former Soviet republic of Georgia worsened over a decade ago, Putin’s intelligence service passed information on Chechen terrorists in Georgia launching attacks on Russian soil. In fact, Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge region bordering Chechnya was a haven for terrorists, but Russian reporting implicated Georgian politicians who were stridently criticizing the Putin regime’s aggression. This tactic of exaggerating accurate information to discredit political opponents epitomized Russia’s use of so-called intelligence sharing.
Given this checkered history, the Russians will surely try to glean as much information as possible from the U.S. on Syrian opposition groups, which they will then pass on, not only to their ally Assad, but to Iran. In return, they will provide their American counterparts with highly questionable information about supposed terrorist targets that are purely Syrian opposition groups supported by the U.S.
Information about the locations and activities of the many anti-Assad groups is extremely blurry. As former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford noted, “There’s not enough reliable intelligence to distinguish al-Nusra targets from other rebel groups they often live near.” This muddled intelligence picture makes it even more imperative that the U.S. should be extremely judicious about intelligence passed to the Russians and should rigorously vet any intelligence received. Any air strike approved through this arrangement that mistakenly strikes a U.S.- backed anti-Assad group will only strain already complicated relations with the Syrian opposition and strengthen Assad’s stranglehold on the country.