President-elect Donald Trump’s talk of direct U.S.-Russian military coordination in the war against the Islamic State in Syria is already drawing criticism on Capitol Hill and has Pentagon and State Department officials scrambling over how to implement the sharp shift in policy in the months ahead.
As a candidate, Mr. Trump — who spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday night — repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for failing to coordinate better with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State, saying Moscow and Washington had a common goal in destroying the jihadi movement.
Career military officials and diplomats say they will implement whatever policy the coming administration orders, but sources behind the scenes say the most immediate collaboration with Moscow is likely to center on reviving a stalled Obama administration plan that calls for joint U.S.-Russian airstrikes in Syria.
“We were ready to go, and we can be ready to go again,” one U.S. defense official told The Washington Times, speaking on the condition of anonymity hours before the Kremlin announced that Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin had discussed ways to work together on the Syria crisis.
A State Department official said on background that the Obama plan, which in September called for the creation of a Geneva-based Joint Integration Center staffed by Russian and U.S. military officials, likely would be presented to the incoming administration. But the official stressed that no one knows whether Mr. Trump and his yet-to-be named national security team will embrace the plan.
“It’s all speculation at this point,” said the official, adding that it was unclear “whether they’re going to keep the strategy as it is, tweak it, revise it or do away with it completely.”
Such questions have been fed this week by the mixed signals Mr. Trump and his small circle of advisers have sent over key national security and diplomatic appointments. While former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has emerged as the front-runner for secretary of state, it is unclear whether he will get the nod.
Mr. Trump’s thinking on the secretary of defense and CIA director are even more cloudy. That reality was hammered home Tuesday when former Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who served as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, abruptly quit the Trump transition team.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the outspoken former Defense Intelligence Agency director who is reportedly in the running for a top national security job, is known to have advised Mr. Trump to push for a new era of U.S.-Russian military cooperation.
Mr. Trump said on repeated occasions during the campaign that he would push to rework the overall U.S.-Russian relationship, and the Kremlin said Monday that he and Mr. Putin had discussed Syria and agreed that they shared a common view on “uniting efforts in the fight with the common enemy No. 1 — international terrorism and extremism.”
But the question of who and what constitutes a terrorist in Syria’s 5-year-old civil war has long been a sticking point between Moscow and the Obama administration. While the Russians claim to be helping longtime ally Syrian President Bashar Assad fight terrorists, U.S. intelligence officials say Russian air power has been deployed mainly to bolster the Assad regime’s ability to crush any and all anti-government rebel forces — including those backed by Washington.
U.S. warplanes, meanwhile, have focused on taking out targets tied to the Islamic State, the capital of whose self-styled caliphate is based in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Pushback on the Hill
Mr. Trump’s effort to overhaul U.S. policy toward Russia is proving controversial on Capitol Hill, including with a key member of his own party.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, bristled Tuesday at the idea of any kind of “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations. He suggested that Mr. Putin is taking advantage of the incoming president.
“Vladimir Putin has said in recent days that he wants to improve relations,” Mr. McCain said. “We should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”
Mr. McCain warned that the price of working with Moscow will be “complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House intelligence committee, told Foreign Policy on Monday that Mr. Trump should “proceed with caution” with the Russians.
Meanwhile, Russian forces launched fresh airstrikes on parts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo held by opposition rebels that the Obama administration spent years trying to prop up.
Opponents of the Assad regime reported that the strikes came from Russian warplanes and ship-based cruise missiles, The Associated Press reported.
The Pentagon said U.S. officials were still sifting through the reports.
“It remains to be seen who is doing what [in Aleppo],” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis. The spokesman added that Mr. Assad’s forces, not Russian planes, may have been behind the strikes.
But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Tuesday that Russian jets based off the Kuznetsov strike group anchored off the Syrian coastline were participating. The strike group, which consists of the Admiral Kuznetsov, three Udaloy-class destroyers, a Kirov-class guided missile cruiser, two Akula-class nuclear submarines, a Kilo-class attack sub along with a number of refueling and support ships, began steaming toward the Syrian coast in late October.
Tuesday’s blitz, meanwhile, appeared to signal Moscow’s abandonment of a 4-week-old promise to pause its strikes on the city so rebel forces might leave the area. The rebels have refused, and negotiations over the delivery of aid into Aleppo have failed at the United Nations.
The Obama administration has tried for months to negotiate a cease-fire in the city, widely seen as a key to ending Syria’s civil war. At the height of the cease-fire effort in early September, administration officials began circulating a plan to coordinate airstrikes with the Russians away from Aleppo.
Military representatives from Washington and Moscow had agreed on Geneva as the location for the Joint Integration Center to oversee such coordination, and the two sides were slated to begin face-to-face talks on other aspects of the plan. But the plan would not go into effect until the Russians proved they had ended their assault on Aleppo.
The U.S. military official who spoke anonymously with The Times this week said American officials tasked with creating the joint center “sat in hotel rooms for 3 weeks” waiting to see if Russia would hold up its end of the deal, before the plan was suddenly upended by a Sept. 19 airstrike that destroyed a U.N. convoy carrying food and humanitarian aid into besieged neighborhoods of Aleppo.
Moscow denied that its warplanes carried out the strike, but the Obama administration has since dropped the idea of coordinating with the Russians.
Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters last week that if the early September plan had held, U.S. and Russian forces “would have coordinated” to target Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the former Nusra Front that split from al Qaeda, as well as possibly the Islamic State.
“We didn’t go there,” Mr. Toner said. “So, at this point there’s no plan to coordinate.”
He made the comments a day before Mr. Trump’s surprise election win — a development that has prompted other officials to say the plan could be put back on the front burner quickly if the new president demands it.