Donald Trump is coming under a lot of fire for speaking with apparent admiration of Vladimir Putin. Trump’s seeming affinity for a KGB thug with a trail of bodies in his wake is understandably troubling for many.
But there’s certainly one fellow who would have no room to criticize, if it occurred to him to do so. That fellow is John Kerry.
Since at least early summer, Kerry has been working on a deal with the Russians in Syria that would so effectively hobble U.S. activities there that we would be of little use even to the Russians and Assad, much less to ourselves.
The specifics of the deal just announced on Friday have not been released in detail. But based on a set of specifics published in July, when Kerry was working on the same deal (which was not fully implemented at the time, but only partially observed), we can confidently guess that the bottom line on the deal is this: there is no way to fully implement it and remain effective.
The Pentagon was opposed to the terms of the deal in July, and continues to have the same level of opposition, according to the New York Times. That, and the general outlines of the deal, which remain the same, tell us that the specifics of it haven’t changed much, if at all.
The current plan for the deal is that if the ceasefire that officially started on Monday “holds” (scare quotes meant to scare), for seven days, then on the eighth day, the U.S. and Russia will begin to implement an agreement for joint military operations.
Under the agreement, the two forces would coordinate air strikes on the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda in Syria) and ISIS. The U.S. and Russia would share targeting intelligence on related targets. And coordination would be accomplished through a “joint implementation cell,” manned by both parties. (Possibly to be located in Amman, Jordan, which was the plan in July.)
A bad deal
More on those terms in a minute. But first, the major big-picture concerns with the deal are that the U.S. and Russia are operating at cross-purposes in Syria, making operations-level coordination virtually impossible if we both retain our national purposes; and that coordinating with Russia on air strikes would implicate the U.S. in the much higher level of collateral damage Russian forces inflict in their strikes.
AP summarizes it (special-pleading passage in bold):
U.S. officials expressed concerns that Moscow might continue to target U.S.-allied opposition forces, claiming they are working with the al-Qaida-linked group, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front. Rebel forces have intermingled with the Nusra militants, at times making targeting difficult.
They also worry that many of the Russian airstrikes do not involve precision-guided weapons. Moscow has predominantly used so-called dumb bombs in Syria, largely targeting opposition forces and backing Assad’s government forces.
Two senior administration officials, however, said the U.S. will bear no responsibility for any strikes made by Russia or deaths that result. And neither country will be able to veto strikes the other wants to conduct. The process involves sharing information not airstrike approvals, they said.
So: we will willingly facilitate strikes by Russia that we have no control over, while sticking our fingers in our ears and humming at people who say that makes us complicit in them.
But there’s more. And it’s essential to review it, to understand the awfulness of this deal.
A really bad deal
The most general point to make here is that sharing targeting intelligence would inherently mean compromising – to the Russians – not just the positions but the activities of our special forces operators on the ground in Syria. By the same token, it would mean compromising the activities of the anti-regime forces that we support. The Russians aren’t stupid: they’ll be able to deduce quite easily, in most cases, which “targeting intelligence” comes from “eyes on,” or forces in the immediate vicinity on the ground.
Since the Russians have already attacked our partners on the ground – in an area far from any of the active fighting in northern Syria – we can know with full certainty that they will do that whenever they want to.
But withholding such targeting intelligence won’t obscure anything for the Russians. Rather, the reverse. Merely selecting a set of targets to prosecute jointly, as outlined in the original proposal from July, will convey a world of intelligence to the Russians about our operations, our intentions, and our intelligence.
If we maintain a common battle space picture of any kind at the “joint implementation cell” – also called for in the original terms of the deal – and especially if we do provide some intelligence from other sources, the Russians will quickly piece together not just what’s going on with our commandos and partners, but with our other intelligence sources as well.
They’ll know in any case where we are conducting our own air strikes, and won’t have trouble guessing most of what we know, and why we know it.
Presumably, the Russians are listening for our voice communications on the ground in Syria, and assembling the picture in greater detail will make that, too, quicker and easier for them.
We can assume they’ve already made great strides in this process of forensic/deductive intelligence, since they’ve been conducting military operations in the same battle space as our forces for over a year now. John Kerry apparently wants to hand them the last 20% of the picture on a silver platter.
The New York Times:
Chief among Pentagon concerns is whether sharing targeting information with Russia could reveal how the United States uses intelligence to conduct airstrikes, not just in Syria but in other places, which Moscow could then use for its own advantage in the growing confrontations undersea and in the air around the Baltics and Europe.
But to Mr. Kerry’s inner team of advisers, the Pentagon approach was reflexive Cold War-era thinking.
We cannot, of course, expect the Russians to provide much if any useful targeting intelligence. They won’t have that much anyway, on the targets we’d want to strike – given that our respective priorities are geographically distinct, for the most part. But they also just won’t give it to us.
(The geographic separation of our national priorities – the U.S. focused more on eastern Syria and Kurdish-held territory, the Russians more on the western urban corridors – is a valid reason why trying to share targeting intelligence has dubious value to begin with. There’s direct overlap in the area where the Euphrates crosses the Turkish border, but that overlap isn’t a strategic concern so persistent that it requires changing the U.S. national posture entirely, either on Syria, or on military cooperation with the Russians. Even if we did decide to let the evolving situation at the Turkish border affect our policy, we shouldn’t go into it bass-ackwards by starting a joint operations center with the Russians. Rethink our policy first – then decide if we need such a center.)
An unimplementable, counterproductive, really, really bad deal
The challenge for the U.S. military, if it’s required to actually implement this deal, will be to somehow avoid implementing it while pretending to. That would be a lot of extra work, while courting very high and unnecessary risk for no gain. One word describes such an undertaking: idiotic.
Besides the risk to our intelligence sources and methods, there is the risk of seeing our own operations frustrated and slowly shut down entirely. This risk is so high as to be a virtual certainty.
One reason is the strong likelihood that there will be a timed notification requirement before conducting air strikes. Such a requirement was part of the deal being outlined in July, and we can assume the Russians will still insist on it. (The “JIG” here is the joint implementation cell, which was called the “group” in July. Emphasis added.)
The JIG is a liaison body; it is to expose portions of a participant’s targeting and airstrike planning functions to the other participant. The United States and Russia should inform one another through the JIG of final plans for operations against a mutually selected target no later than the day before execution.
Another reason this deal would frustrate our operations is simply that it entails coordination, to a greater degree that our current posture does. All coordination gives the Russians information they wouldn’t otherwise have about our operations and intentions. The more they know, the better able they will be to exploit and leverage our operations for their own ends – or interfere with them.
This was apparent within weeks after U.S. forces had to begin deconflicting our use of Syrian air space with Russia. The effectiveness of our air targeting, never high due to self-imposed constraints, plunged even further because the Russians were able to stymie our targeting posture, simply by preempting the air space at will and leaving us to make the adjustments.
Intensifying this effect, as the Kerry deal would entail, will quickly have a significant, negative impact on what we and our anti-regime partners on the ground are trying to accomplish. The more we “coordinate” with Russia, the more the Russian force has the key to preempting and frustrating our policy.
It’s hard to overstate what a bad idea this “deal” concept is. If fully implemented, it would put us well beyond ineffectiveness. We would be in Syria for no positive purpose at all, while also proactively exposing our own national secrets and our erstwhile partners to Russian exploitation – and hence, in large part, to Iran as well.