“Working through the Russians” in Syria; Generals and Defense Department oppose Obama’s proposed military cooperation

For over four years, President Barack Obama has been pursuing a policy of “working through the Russians” in Syria. One might ask, “How has it all worked out?”

Obama’s policy of working through the Russians is the logical conclusion of a policy that stipulated the U.S. is not going to use forceful measures, including force, in Syria. Admittedly, the situation is much more complicated now than it was in 2012.

But there are lessons to be drawn.

Russia has acted consistently to uphold the regime of Bashar al-Assad and al-Assad himself in power.

The predicate that the Russians can lean on al-Assad to do anything is highly questionable. His track record, going back to the Arab League mediation effort and monitors in 2011, and including the U.N. mponitors and mediation effort in 2012, demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can not be trusted to comply with any agreement. As long as his authorization for implementation of any element of a ceasefire or other agreement is necessary, he can be counted on to sabotage the agreement.

This he is now doing with respoect to movement of humanitarian supplies into rebel-held areas in Syria. Should the supplies actually start moving, he can stop them at any time by having his forces or “unknown individuals” fire at the trucks, so that the supply of humanitarian aid cannot be carried out due to safety considerations. He used this tactic to force the withdrawal of the U.N. monitors in 2012.

Obama has no real policy toward Syria, other than to seek to destroy ISIS. Instead, he has continually placed blind faith in the Russians to come up with a solution and to force al-Assad to adhere to its terms.

The results of the last four years of pursuing this policy are clear for all to see, with some 470,000 dead, Russia, Iran, Hesbollah, and Shia militias deeply involved in the fight, and not one light of hope for the future.

How is a ceasefire to hold? On what basis do John Kerry and Barack Obama place their trust in the Russians?

Why has Obama overruled the Pentagon and the generals in insisting that the American military conduct coordinated military activites with Russian forces?

Russia is behind the hacking of the democratic national committee and other politicians, and may be attempting to interfere in the November presidential elections.

Putin has invaded and annexed the Crimea and invaded the eastern Ukraine. Russian forces occupy the Crimea, and remain in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the Ukraine, in flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter’s prohibition of the use of force across international frontiers. Over 10,000 people have been killed in the eastern Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion, which became overt in August, 2014.

Putin and Russia are actively seeking to undermine NATO and foment divisions within the European Union.

This deal with the Russians, which is secret, is one more indictment of the ad hoc foreign policy of the Obama administration, where coordination of foreign policy actions under a coherent strategy appear to be purely theoretical concepts, devoid of practical application.

For example, the deal would apparently require Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to waive a prohibition of military cooperation with Russia contained in the the Russian sanctions legislation adopted following the Russian invasions of the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The amateurish nature of foreign-policy decision making in the last months of the Obama administration is pregnant with potential consequences. Any waiver by Carter would certainly undercut the rationale for past U.S.,EU and NATO opposition to the French sale and delivery of two Mistral-class warships to Russia in 2014 and 2015.  Such a waiver could easily lead to European countries resuming different kinds of military cooperation with Moscow.

We have an incoherent foreign policy, where no one connects the dots.

If Obama thinks the Russians can be trusted, he needs to think again.


(1) “Looney Toons” at the White House: New York Times article details Obama’s thinking on Syria—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #45 (May 27), The Trenchant Observer, May 27, 2012.

(2) Saagar Enjeti, “Obama, Kerry’s Syria Deal VIOLATES An Act Of Congress,” Daily Caller, September 14, 2016(10:54 a.m.).

Military cooperation with Russia apparently violates the sanctions legislation passed following the Russian invasion of the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine. There is no evidence that the Obama administration has given full consideration to the implications and probable effects of dropping this sanction, even if technically it is allowed under the legislation if the Secretary of Defense waives it in the security interests of the U.S.

(3) Felicia Schwartz and Paul Sonne, “U.S., Russia Reach Syria Cease-Fire Deal; Pentagon skeptical over whether to trust the Russians in a military partnership on the battlefield, Wall Street Journal, Updated September 10, 2016 (10:22 a.m. ET).

(4) Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger, “Details of Syria Pact Widen Rift Between John Kerry and Pentagon,” New York Times, September 13, 2016.

(5)  Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, “Remarks by Secretary Carter at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford, England, Department of Defense Trasncript, September 7, 2016.


Let me start with the challenge posed by Russia’s coercion and aggression. Despite the progress that we made together in the aftermath of the Cold War, Russia’s actions in recent years, its violations of Ukrainian and Georgian territorial integrity, its unprofessional behavior in the air, in space and in cyberspace, as well as its nuclear saber rattling, all have demonstrated that Russia has clear ambition to erode the principled international order that has served the United States, our allies and partners, the international community, and in fact Russia itself, so well.

In our response to this behavior, the United States is taking a strong and balanced approach to address Russia’s actions and deter Russian aggression against our allies. We’re strengthening our capabilities, our posture, our investments, our plans, our allies and partners, all the while keeping the door open to working with Russia wherever and whenever our interests align.

Now, let me be clear. The United States does not seek a cold, let alone hot, war with Russia. We don’t seek an enemy in Russia. But also make no mistake, we will defend our allies, the principled international order and the positive future it affords us. We will counter attempts to undermine our collective security and will not ignore attempts to interfere with our democratic processes.

Now, we haven’t had to prioritize deterrents in the Transatlantic community’s eastern flank for over 25 years. Unfortunately, now we do. That’s why the United States is strengthening our deterrent posture here in Europe. Our defense budget for the coming year includes significantly more funding for our European Reassurance Initiative, $3.4 billion. More than quadruple what we allocated just last year.

(6) National Defense Authorization Act, 2014 (published December 19, 2014).

Section 1241.

(a) Limitation.–None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for
fiscal year 2015 for the Department of Defense may be used for any
bilateral military-to-military cooperation between the Governments of
the United States and the Russian Federation until the Secretary of
Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, certifies to the
appropriate congressional committees that–
(1) the Russian Federation has ceased its occupation of
Ukrainian territory and its aggressive activities that threaten
the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and members
of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; and
(2) the Russian Federation is abiding by the terms of and
taking steps in support of the Minsk Protocol, signed on
September 5, 2014, regarding a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.

(c) Waiver.–The Secretary of Defense may waive the limitation in
subsection (a) if–

[[Page 128 STAT. 3563]]

(1) the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the
Secretary of State–
(A) determines that the waiver is in the national
security interest of the United States; and
(B) submits to the appropriate congressional
(i) a notification that the waiver is in the
national security interest of the United States
and a description of the national security
interest covered by the waiver; and
(ii) a report explaining why the Secretary of
Defense cannot make the certification under
subsection (a); and
(2) a period of 15 days has elapsed following the date on
which the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the
Secretary of State, submits the information in the report under
subparagraph (B)(ii).

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.