The outpouring of global solidarity in the face of the horrific attacks in Paris has raised hopes for improved cooperation between Russia and the United States, France and their partners in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Yet despite some encouraging words even before Friday’s attacks, the challenges that have hampered effective teamwork in the past remain. And they won’t be easy to overcome.
Russia has long said it is willing — even eager — to cooperate with the United States in combating global terror. Indeed, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call then-U.S. President George W. Bush to offer support.
Fast forward to the wake of the Paris attacks: Almost immediately Russian officials urged greater unity against ISIS and other Syrian jihadi groups, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held a joint press conference on Saturday calling for ever-stiffer resolve in the fight. These remarks followed Putin’s comment Friday — before the Paris attacks took place — that he was open to working with the United States and had worked with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army.
With all this in mind, and as the flowers pile up at the French Embassy in Moscow, there seems to be new hope that Russia will work more closely with the U.S.-led coalition, especially as evidence mounts that the recent explosion of a Russian passenger aircraft en route home from Egypt was also an ISIS operation.
But things might not be that simple — there are several challenges to effective cooperation, both in the field in Syria and between capitals, that will need to be overcome if there is to be more meaningful cooperation.
One sign of this is Putin’s own statements. Even when talking about Russia’s willingness to cooperate with the United States, the Russian President could not resist having a dig at Washington, pointing out that Russia’s involvement would come despite the absence of either a U.N. mandate or the support of the Syrian government for U.S. action.
Another problem is that fighting ISIS is merely one component of Russia’s Syria operation (and, if its targets to date are any evidence, far from the most important). Tactically, Russia is working to support Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, and it may well have judged that the best way to do that is to weaken the more moderate opposition, rather than attack ISIS.
True, Saturday’s discussions in Vienna resulted in the promise of a meeting between Assad and the opposition by January 1, which could be seen as a win for Moscow. And while it leaves Assad’s future far from resolved, if it enables Moscow to increase pressure on ISIS, it’s likely a victory for others at the table, too.
Strategically, however, Russia also appears to see Syria as an important opportunity to stand up to the United States and demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Washington’s support for anti-authoritarian movements in Syria and more broadly. This presents a significant challenge, one that rhetorical unity between Moscow and Washington (and Paris) can’t just wipe away.
If Russia does take fighting ISIS more seriously, there is room for more information-sharing, more synchronization of efforts, and more collaboration. But even here, another set of challenges must be overcome.
Over the past decade and a half, U.S.-Russian efforts to work together to fight terrorism have been limited by mutual distrust and differing approaches to information collection and analysis. The United States has tended to question data provided by Russia, while limiting the sensitive information it has been willing to share with Moscow. In the Syrian context, this mistrust is exacerbated by Russia’s relationship with Iran; with Russia and Iran fighting on the same side in Syria, it is difficult to believe anything Washington shares with Moscow does not run a strong risk of ending up in Tehran. As a result, actual coordination on target sets, intelligence sharing, and war-fighting can only go so far.
Of course, none of this means that U.S.-Russian collaboration is impossible, but it does mean that expectations must be tempered, and that larger successes can only be built on small ones.
If there is clear evidence that Russia is fighting the same fight, up to a point, as the United States and its partners, then the United States will be more willing to work with Russia. And if Russia feels it is getting a voice and credit, it is probably more likely to support at least some U.S. efforts.
Ultimately, though, optimism is probably best tempered, because Moscow’s desire to challenge Washington, Washington’s fundamental distrust of Moscow, and the continuing and substantial differences in interests between the two mean that this will most likely remain an effort of fits and starts.
The world was united in horror at what took place in Paris. But that doesn’t mean Washington and Moscow see everything quite the same way.