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Sorry, France — the US and Russia Aren't Joining Forces Against the Islamic State Anytime Soon

Despite the outrage of the Paris attacks, the differences in how the US and Russia approach the fight against the Islamic State are still too great for much cooperation.

by Ryan Faith
Nov 18 2015, 4:00pm

Photo by Sergei Guneyev via EPA

There are currently a whole lot of countries flying planes over Syria and bombing swaths of territory controlled by the Islamic State (IS). In the wake of the Paris attacks — and French President François Hollande's stated wish is to bring the US and Russia together in a grand coalition to fight IS — the commentariat seems to be discovering this fact. Or, really, rediscovering it; lots of countries have been dropping warheads on IS foreheads for awhile now.

All that air force activity has already prompted cooperation in the form of "deconfliction," one of the more colorful bits of jargon in the massive canon of militaryspeak. Very generally, it means making sure there's no conflict between two aircraft attempting to occupy the same spot at the same time, because when two aircraft attempt to do that, it typically results in a Total Unplanned Rapid Disassembly event — in other words, a collision or something unfortunate involving missiles.

Thus, air forces on reasonably good terms that are sharing the same airspace do their best coordinate in order to prevent the tragedy of unplanned airspace confliction. A lot of countries are attempting to bomb the bejeezus out of IS over Syria, and with all these different air forces going after the same few pieces of IS real estate, the need for deconfliction has become a hot topic of discussion.

Related: France Can't Put Enough Boots on the Ground to Wipe Out the Islamic State

Concern about deconfliction in the wake of Paris is fueled, broadly, by three premises: One, there will be a marked increase in the rate of air strikes. Two, there will be an increase in the number of countries participating in those air strikes. Three, those countries will want to cooperate to maximize effectiveness.

And all three premises are wrong.

First, despite the fantastic retaliatory appeal of "massive airstrikes" in response to Paris, it's pretty unlikely that there's going to be a huge surge in the air campaign. For starters, 10 planes dropping 20 munitions — the first round of French air strikes — isn't a massive airstrike by the standards of any modern, high-tech military. But regardless, sending more planes to the region with more weapons isn't going to generate more frequent airstrikes because there aren't enough targets to bomb that won't create unacceptable collateral damage.

The Islamic State is not a pack of drooling idiots (violent psychos, yes, but not idiots). They appreciate what will and won't attract the unwanted attention of a hostile air force, as well as the nature of collateral damage phobias that play so heavily into this air campaign. So they've used that knowledge and taken measures — like no longer traveling in large, bomb-friendly convoys of vehicles — that help keep them from getting killed easily. Both Russia and the US-led multilateral coalition would be positively ecstatic to have a rich-enough target list to assign 1,000 or more targets a day, but in reality, they're lucky to find 100. There's simply little way there could be an uptick in bombing rates.

Just as there won't be many more targets hit because there aren't many more targets to hit, there will not be many more countries joining the coalition because there are not many countries that can pull off an air campaign like this — and pretty much anyone who'd want to bomb IS because of Paris was already bombing IS before Paris. The only wildcard is the United Kingdom; Prime Minister David Cameron has been looking for ways to convince his parliament that they should expand their bombing franchise to include Syria.

Moreover, almost all of the folks flying over Syria (or at least making a campaign of it) are already involved in a coalition precisely to handle things like deconflicting airspace. So even though a lot of countries are blowing stuff up in Syria, they effectively act as one coordinated air force. The big outlier for a while was Russia, but the US-led coalition and Russia signed an agreement on airspace deconfliction on October 20. Now all the countries going after IS — right now, it's more than 10 — are functionally acting as just two forces, and they agreed to share airspace a month ago.

That agreement does not mean the US and Russia will cooperate in order to maximize their combined effectiveness against IS in other ways, which brings us to the third premise. The reason there won't be more cooperation between the US-led multinational coalition and the Russia-led pro-Assad faction comes down to a matter of ideology and semantics.

US president Barack Obama tends to have a severe allergic reaction at the mention of launching a ground war, and most of the rest of America would seem to as well. Russian president Vladimir Putin, however, has a much different take.

Watch VICE News' first dispatch from Paris after the attacks.

Therefore, while both the US-led coalition and Russia-dominated forces are both ostensibly there to do the right thing (i.e., kill the Islamic State), the US thinks the Russians are going about it the wrong way. The US won't pursue further cooperation with Russia on air strikes because it fears that would be taken as an endorsement, and therefore approval, of a ground war.

Also wrapped up in all this is how both parties are defining "the Islamic State." America's definition covers the very particular bunch of loons headquartered in Raqqa, flying the black flag, and making a mess of Syria and Iraq. Russian, on the other hand, more or less uses the term "Islamic State" as a synonym for "any insurgent who wants to topple the Syrian government" — and that includes a lot of the groups the US considers "good" Syrians, like the Free Syrian Army.

The US tried, in the past, to wave the Russians off from bombing the good Syrians, but the Russians went ahead and bombed them anyway, because to Russia that amounted to fighting terrorism. It's tough to partner up when you can't agree on who should be killed and who shouldn't. (However, Russia's definition of "terrorist" may be evolving. If this report is to be believed, Putin said in an interview at the G20 summit that the Russians are coordinating with the Free Syrian Army to locate and hit IS targets.)

Related: Canada's Opposition Leader Urges Trudeau to Keep Bombing the Islamic State

More broadly, there's going to be some level of information leakage from the US to Russia. There's no way to involve the governments and militaries of so many countries and not create some opportunities for Russian espionage mischief. Beyond that, the US is sharing intelligence with Iraq, which is, in turn, in an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran and Russia.

How hard would it be to get the US and Russia to buddy up for a big round of joint IS smashing? Well, the aversion to cooperation in Syria runs so deep that the airspace agreement signed on October 20 didn't include any provisions for combat search and rescue (CSAR). Any major air campaign, Russian- or American-led, is going to have a load of CSAR contingency plans to make certain a downed pilot is reached by his or her comrades before the enemy. IS burnt alive the last pilot it captured.

The US says that there's no need for any formal agreement on CSAR because the current agreement has provisions for communicating directly with America's Russian counterparts. According to Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Baldanza, "In the case of a downed pilot or aircraft in distress, both sides should contact each other via the newly established communication channel. Further action will be determined at the time of incident."

To some extent, the US is saying that it doesn't need to cooperate any more closely with those icky Russians because they're already cooperating closely enough. The Russians, however, say they want closer coordination in many areas, but that might just be a roundabout way of needling the US about not being seriously committed to fighting IS and/or being in league with terrorists.

Is a formal CSAR agreement absolutely necessary? It's hard to tell. But the fact that we're going to have to wait for a pilot to get downed and then hope that CSAR cooperation unfolds on the fly tells us something important: If the US and Russia won't even sign an agreement on CSAR, Hollande's aspiration to bring both parties together against IS may never get off the ground.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan