The disclosure of the rewards program has highlighted emerging friction between the US and Russia in other areas, including Syria.
For years, the two countries have sometimes supported opposing sides in the long civil war, with Moscow supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Washington eventually supporting Kurdish fighters who have lobbied for the regime’s de facto autonomy. However, during the course of the war, the armies of the United States and Russia have communicated regularly to distrust their respective forces in the crowded Syrian battle space. In the early years of the Trump administration, the White House even lobbied the Pentagon to increase cooperation with the Russian military in Syria, three former Trump administration officials said.
The directive was disturbing to some members of the national security community, given that Russia has committed war crimes against civilians in Syria.
“They told us that we had to work with Russia and not just ignore them,” said one of the former officials. “We did it, but we limited it to just [deconfliction]. “
Clashes between Russian and American forces in Syria have rarely turned violent, with one notable exception. In a bloody four-hour battle in 2018, US commandos killed 200-300 pro-Syrian government forces, including Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group.
Recently, however, US military leaders in Syria are facing increasingly frequent clashes with Russian troops, according to two US officials and a former US official. Russia is deploying its forces ever closer to American positions in the Deir Ezzor region of eastern Syria, and the two armies interact several times a week, if not daily, compared to last month of the year. past, people said.
So far, the two sides have been able to defuse these incidents without violence, a US military official said. But one of the American officials said that Russia and its Syrian and Iranian partners are trying to pressure the United States to leave Syria entirely.
For example, earlier this month, Breaking Defense reported that Russian and American troops had an hour-long clash in northeast Syria. A US official confirmed the incident to POLITICO but said it was not violent. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported last month that the Russian army was building a new base in northern Syria, near the Turkish border.
The invasions in Syria conform to a broader pattern of Russian attempts to test the United States’ commitment to remain in the broader Middle East. National security experts say Russia’s rewards program in Afghanistan is part of that effort.
Like in Syria, the Trump White House initially lobbied the Pentagon and the intelligence community to get involved with the Russians in Afghanistan, a former Trump defense official said. During the development of the Pentagon’s South Asia strategy for Afghanistan in 2017, the National Security Council called on defense officials “to look for ways to actively cooperate” with Moscow, particularly in the northern part of the country, said the former official.
“Everyone was saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, we are not cooperating with the Russians, that’s crazy,” said the former official. One proposal was for the Russian army to carry out anti-terrorism operations in northern Afghanistan. “DOD had to roll quite hard opposing the idea,” said the official.
Until 2015, the NATO coalition had an agreement with Moscow on a logistics route through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucuses, called the northern distribution network, which carried up to 40 percent of supplies for the operations of the coalition in Afghanistan. But Russia closed the route in 2015.
However, recent reports on Russia’s rewards program suggest that Moscow is now testing the United States’ resolve in Afghanistan, said Doug London, a former CIA officer and nonresident academic at the Middle East Institute. Absent the White House rejection, London said: “They will continue to climb until they are verified.”
Defense and intelligence officials have become increasingly bitter about the White House’s approach to Moscow, particularly regarding the repeated request for increased cooperation with the Russian army, according to four former Trump administration officials, several of which requested anonymity to discuss delicate operations.
From the beginning, the Trump White House wanted “a restart with Russia,” which included counterterrorism cooperation, said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA official who retired in 2019. Still, Moscow consistently rejected his efforts, he said.
“This was an uninterrupted request as part of the administration’s often stated and well-publicized wish to engage with Moscow,” said Polymeropoulos. “While we once again tried to involve the Russians, the effort, as had always been the case, was futile. There was never any profit for the United States in this effort. “
In the days after Trump’s election, incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn immediately attempted to increase cooperation between the United States and Russia in the region, with the stated goal of fighting terrorism.
“You know that the strategic objective is stability in the Middle East,” he told then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in a conversation about a UN Security Council vote on Israeli settlements. “That is the strategic objective. And, and, you know, between you and me, and you know this, and we know this, you know between Moscow and Washington. We will not achieve stability in the Middle East without working together against this radical Islamist crowd. Period.”
Flynn was expelled from the Trump administration in its early days, but his vision of closer cooperation between the United States and Russia endured.
Initially shocked, the Pentagon and intelligence officials quickly resented requests for closer cooperation with the Kremlin and questioned the White House’s motives, the people said. After an election the intelligence community determined had seen unprecedented campaign meddling by Russia, officials were especially suspicious of the new administration and its friendly stance towards Moscow.
“I don’t think he [intelligence community] He trusts the White House at all, “said a former Trump administration official.” Not with information, and not to make the right decisions. ”
Syria is a place where Pentagon and White House officials have repeatedly clashed.
Senior defense officials twice rejected Trump’s efforts to withdraw U.S. forces from northeast Syria, once in late 2018, prompting the resignation of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and again in October 2019, which It allowed a deadly Turkish invasion of the Kurdish territory and sparked harsh criticism of the administration for abandoning the Kurds. On both occasions, the national security community finally managed to convince the White House to keep a small force there.
Now that Assad has primarily won the war in the rest of the country, he has focused his attention on Kurdish-controlled areas in the eastern part of the country, where several hundred American soldiers and their Kurdish partners continue to fight ISIS and protect the region. . Rich Oil Fields The tactic has led to some of the emerging conflicts between American and Russian troops.
Back in Washington, Trump has primarily lashed out at the media for recent reports on Russia’s behavior.
Some national security veterans say it reflects Trump’s longstanding rhetorical approach to Moscow. Since the beginning of his presidency, the commander-in-chief has repeatedly questioned and denigrated intelligence agencies on issues related to Russia, including his meddling in the US elections.
Trump has also responded negatively to the information in his daily intelligence reports that presented Russia in a bad situation, according to a former White House official. In the course of 2017, informants would choose not to highlight negative material about Russia by verbally reporting to the president, the official said. That included intelligence on Russian activity in Syria that was detrimental to US troops or interests.
“I don’t remember anything that involved Russia and that people felt comfortable arguing with the president,” the former official said. “Even at the top level, in the cabinet, it would be like drawing sticks to see who would have to pose a problem for Russia.”
Natasha Bertrand contributed reporting.