Knowledgeable, sober observers of the Syrian scene continue to worry that the Obama administration is seeking, without adequate reflection, an agreement with Russia featuring military cooperation against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. If there is truth to these reports the administration should take a deep breath and think things through very carefully. As desirable as it is to damage a loathsome al-Qaeda entity, military collaboration with Russia could also exact long-term costs to America's reputation and the broader fight against extremism, costs potentially far exceeding the benefits of a here-and-now body count.
Although the Nusra Front's rank and file is mainly young Syrian men focused on fighting the Assad regime, its leadership is openly and unapologetically al-Qaeda. Unlike the ersatz caliph of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), Nusra's leaders remain loyal to the successors of Osama bin Laden.
Nusra's leaders are, therefore, by definition transnational terrorists open to striking beyond the boundaries of Syria. This has been the case since early 2012, when they first materialized in Syria. Although the Front has had its hands full battling an array of foes - the regime, pro-regime Iranian-assembled foreign fighters, Syrian nationalist opponents of Assad (with whom it often also collaborates), and even ISIS - its putative ability to strike beyond Syria is now receiving increased attention within the United States government.
The attention may well be merited. For years the Nusra Front has been visited by al-Qaeda luminaries from outside Syria. Moreover, Nusra has hosted foreign terrorists (most notably from south Asia) in its midst. And even though the Front has managed to mount effective military resistance to the Assad regime in northwestern Syria, its very presence - like that of ISIS - has been a gift of enduring political and (lately) military value to the regime. It has enabled Bashar al-Assad, whose multi-year atrocities have promoted competing brands of terrorism in Syria, to claim he is an anti-terrorist paragon. It has enabled Russia - claiming that the Nusra Front is everywhere - to mount aerial assaults on Syrian civilians and air strikes against nationalist, non-jihadist rebels, some of whom have received American support.
No doubt there are senior American officials who think that common military cause should be made with Russia - and by implication with its war criminal client - against the Nusra Front. Nusra's al-Qaeda affiliation would seem, on its face, to make a case for doing so. But costs and benefits must be measured with great care.
Some American diplomats - Secretary of State John Kerry, for example - reportedly see joint military action with Russia against the Nusra Front as a way to ground Assad's murderous air force and protect nationalist rebels and civilians from Russian air strikes. This sounds attractive in principle. After all, unless Assad regime collective punishment and mass homicide end, the prospects for meaningful peace talks are precisely zero.
But what is Moscow willing and able to deliver when it comes to the Assad regime? Can it compel cooperation? Would it? And do we assume that the Nusra Front will conveniently array its forces in wheat fields, olive groves, football fields, and other uninhabited areas? Or will they burrow into dense urban neighborhoods? And if they do, will American aircraft join with Russian jets to bomb and strafe them in heavily populated residential areas? Will the United States hand over targeting data to the Russian Air Force? And if the Russians do what they customarily do - slaughter civilians in their homes, hospitals, schools, markets, and mosques - will the United States escape blame in Syria and far beyond for having facilitated the depredations of a new ally?
Other American diplomats reportedly care little of what the Russians may wring from the Assad regime in terms of leaving civilians unmolested so that peace talks in Geneva can reconvene. Their motive, according to some observers, is simply to extend the war on terrorists from ISIS in eastern Syria to the Nusra Front in the west. From this viewpoint Russia's Vladimir Putin and Syria's Bashar al-Assad can be assets. Are these diplomats carefully measuring the potentially catastrophic impact on Washington's reputation of such an unholy alliance? Are they taking into account the recruiting bonanza that would accrue to al-Qaeda in its various manifestations?
John Kerry has spared nothing in terms of his own charisma, endurance, and health to try to persuade an array of bad actors to knock off the deliberate targeting of civilians so that political transition peace talks can proceed. He was recently reminded by 51 State Department officials of something he already knows: that life-saving diplomacy in the charnel house that is Syria is empty and useless without a credible prospect of military force to protect civilians lurking in the background. The dissent memorandum signed by the 51 reportedly got the attention of Russia and the Assad regime: two parties and two systems utterly unable to believe that officials could do such a thing without prompting from the top.
One can conceive, at least hypothetically, of a Kerry-driven arrangement where Assad's air force is grounded, Russia abstains from attacking non-Nusra, nationalist armed groups, massive assistance is pumped into those groups under American supervision, and everyone but the regime and ISIS moves in unison to sweep the Nusra Front from northwestern Syria. Lots of moving parts here. Lots of gears turning while Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime dominate militarily in northwestern Syria. Lots of faith required in the honor, good will, and humanity of chronically bad actors. If such an arrangement is arrived at, who will insure its faithful execution? Who will guard against and defeat a double-cross?
The Obama administration should breathe deeply and think hard before entering into military collaboration with Russia in Syria. Put to the side all of the past and present debates and disputes about Syria policy. Admit that some good things - albeit fully at the discretion of Moscow, Tehran, and Assad - may flow from collaboration. Still, are we willing to place our reputation in the hands of Vladimir Putin?
One would hope not. It is hard to envision such an arrangement as a worthy, honorable, or even practical thing for the United States of America to consider, much less do. Perhaps Moscow will let Washington off the hook by requiring nothing of or delivering nothing from its murderous, ISIS-enabling client, or by insisting that other, non-al-Qaeda elements be added to a joint target list. Russia may make it easy for the United States to avoid a big mistake.
Ideally, however, President Obama will stand firmly for American values and American interests, not relying on Kremlin fumbles to save the day. Victory over al-Qaeda in Syria cannot be purchased by making common cause with those whose support for eradication campaigns against civilians has made the country safe for ISIS and Nusra. Protection of civilians - the prerequisite for real peace talks - cannot safely be subcontracted to their assailants. The United States must, if it truly wants a negotiated end to a growing international crisis rooted in Syria, do its best to protect the innocent and safeguard its reputation.
Frederic C. Hof, director at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.