Russian and foreign experts analyze the reasons behind the continuous inability of Russia and the U.S. to organize effective anti-terrorist cooperation in Syria.

A Syrian man cries while holding the body of his son, killed as a result of the war in Syria. Photo: AP

The ongoing turmoil in the Middle East has already exacerbated relations in the region and increased tensions between the world’s powers. It has also greatly contributed to the increase of the terrorist threat in the world and caused the worst refugee crisis since World War II. To effectively address all these problems, the major powers have to revive their cooperation and dialogue.

While many in the West argue that the fragile Syrian ceasefire is collapsing, Russia insists that it is generally holding and urges all actors to use their influence to exercise necessary pressure on all sides of the conflict. With Russia and the U.S. being the major architects of the ceasefire and the current peace talks, their cooperation in fighting terrorism in Syria seems to be of crucial importance. 

Moreover, a couple of days ago Russia filed a request to the UN Security Council to put the Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam opposition groups fighting in Syria on the sanctions list of terrorist groups. Russia considers them to be terrorist organizations and wants the West to recognize this fact. Moscow repeatedly indicated the groups’ violations of the ceasefire as well as their fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra militants.

In an effort to understand what’s holding back cooperation between Russia and the West on counter-terrorism, Russia Direct talked to a number of pundits on the sidelines of the Fifth Moscow Conference on International Security, an event organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense that gathers together defense ministers, senior military officials, heads of international organizations and international experts to exchange their views on challenges of international security.

Also read: "The world's top military brass ponders how to respond to global terrorism"

Below, we asked three of these experts to weigh in on possible anti-terrorism cooperation with Russia and the impact of recent Russian moves to address the terrorist threat in Syria.

Russia Direct: What are the main obstacles for anti-terrorism cooperation between Russia and the West within the Syria context?

Andrew Tabler, Martin J. Gross Fellow on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy

First of all, there is a disagreement about what is a terrorist group and what is not. Second is that the U.S. does not see any concessions coming from Bashar Assad, so I think it is harder for the U.S. to look at that and say: “OK! Let’s get involved.” Third, there is the larger context of poor relations between Russia and the U.S., especially concerning Eastern Europe: recent incidents in the Baltics are just the latest of many signs.

So, those three things are the major ones. All those things generate the lack of trust between the two sides. So, if you can solve some of these issues, I think it could improve trust and then, you could perhaps have cooperation.

The one thing to keep in mind, though, is that the U.S. is only going to have the current president for a limited amount of time, so you will be dealing with either Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton or perhaps her Republican counterpart Donald Trump. Clinton would be a much more seasoned president, Trump is unpredictable and I don’t know what he’ll do.

Elena Suponina, Advisor to the Director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies

The main actors haven’t even agreed on the criteria that will define whether a group is a terrorist one or not. Russia’s position here is closer to the position of the Syrian government, which considers groups like Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam to be terrorists. But the U.S. and their regional allies, especially Turkey, cannot accept such a position.

So, how can one fight terrorism effectively when even international mediators cannot agree on the mechanisms which define one or another group as being terrorist? This is one of the major obstacles.

Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Affairs at the Hudson Institute

There are differences over whether keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power is worse than rescuing and moving him from power and seeing what comes next. There are still some differences on that. There is also an asymmetric interest. I think that the Russian government, as shown by sending its large military component to Syria, is more concerned with the outcome than the U.S., which so far has not sent any major commitment.

The Islamic State [of Iraq and the Greater Syria] issue is important for the U.S. President, but not as important as many other issues. Therefore, it is not the priority. So, I think that’s the major difference. I think the effect of this is that Russia is the driving force in Syria while the U.S. and others are reacting to it.

That being said, I think even if the U.S. and Russia reach an agreement, it is not likely to hold and work like it was during the Cold War time. Back in those days, we had Henry Kissinger going to Moscow, meeting Anatoly Dobrynin, they would come up with some terms and then Kissinger would go to Tel Aviv and say, “OK, these are the terms. You are going to do this, this and that.”

And Dobrynin would call the Soviet ambassador in Cairo and tell him the same and they would all stop fighting. We cannot do it now. Our influence is limited. So, even if we had cooperation between Russia and the U.S. it is not enough to bring peace.

Russia Direct: Recently, Russia requested the UN Security Council to put Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam on the sanctions list of terrorist groups. Do you see such a move as constructive given that it is a major disagreement between Russia and the West?

A.T.: I think the problem is that between us we can try and come to an agreement about what these groups are or not. But the question is: How will you manage the support they receive from the region? And I don’t know that. So, I think that it will be hard to get the U.S. and its allies to agree on this unified list. I think it will be a little bit easier with the United States and harder with allies in the region because they just look at things differently.

E.S.: In my view, this will cause some trouble in the common decision-making process on Syria. On the other hand, Russia’s move seems reasonable because Moscow wants more clarity. It wants to get an understanding from its partners in the West of who we are fighting. After that we can decide on how to fight it.

Therefore, the obscurity that surrounds this question impedes concrete and constructive actions. So, Russia’s move might eventually reveal everything and show whether or not any anti-terrorist cooperation between Russia and the U.S. exists.

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R.W.: I think the general issue is that there is a different list of terrorists in both countries. Some of them are the same, like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and some of them are not. And some of those groups are participating in the peace process, like Ahrar al-Sham, and if you call them terrorists and stop dealing with them, they will keep on fighting.

It is sort of like Afghanistan: We want to defeat the Taliban but we cannot, we have to bring some of them into the government or just to the negotiating table to talk. So, I think, there is a difference in approach and tactics.

Another issue that is interesting is the Russian and Chinese proposal to have a new UN resolution against chemical terrorism because some groups in Syria are using chemicals. That’s another bit of difference in approaches between the U.S. and Russia. But I think if we got involved in solving those issues, we could see some narrowing of differences.