By Daniel Benjamin
January. 23, 2017
Since early in his campaign, President Trump has made counterterrorism cooperation a pillar of his argument for improving relations with Russia. On the face of it, that idea might seem attractive: two of the world’s largest militaries and intelligence communities working together against the Islamic State and other jihadist networks to achieve progress that neither could alone.
But it’s a bad idea. A partnership with Russia of the kind Mr. Trump proposes has the potential to profoundly undermine the United States’ counterterrorism progress and shred our relationships with Sunni Muslims around the world. Moreover, it’s doubtful such an alliance could actually be forged.
Mr. Trump suggested in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal that counterterrorism cooperation would be reason enough to lift the sanctions the Obama administration has levied for Russian interference in the presidential election. As he put it, “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?”
Russian counterterrorism has never been about doing “really great things.” It has been principally about indiscriminate violence — targeting a few terrorists and recklessly slaughtering civilians in the hope that no one will dare continue to plot attacks. If you’re not sentimental about human rights, that may have some effect on a limited, confined population. But it's the opposite of American counterterrorism, which aims to remove dangerous terrorists while causing as few civilian deaths as possible.
Our approach is grounded not only in the recognition that killing civilians is wrong but also in the understanding that indiscriminate violence encourages radicalization. We do everything we can to limit deaths in counterterrorism strikes, both to minimize the effects of those in the immediate area and to deprive those streaming propaganda videos on their computers thousands of miles away of fodder for outrage.
It’s often said that the United States practices counterterrorism with a scalpel while Russia uses a chain saw. That has been made clear in Syria, where Airwars, a London-based monitoring group, estimates that Russian airstrikes cause civilian deaths at a rate eight times that of United States-led coalition missions. While Mr. Trump was pilloried during the campaign for suggesting that the United States murder the families of terrorists, that has long been standard practice in Russia, along with “disappearing” and extra judicially killing suspects. Consequently, the Muslim-majority Russian republics of Dagestan and Chechnya still smoulder after decades of rebellion and oppression; other Russian Muslim communities seethe.
The experience in the Caucasus and the rest of Russia underscores the dangers of Moscow’s approach. President Vladimir V. Putin’s tactics have led to jihadist violence at home and the export of thousands of terrorists to Syria, where they make up one of the largest cohorts of foreign extremists, alongside Tunisians and Saudis. Russian citizens have also been a major presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world. A Chechen-led cell is believed to be responsible for killing 45 people in an attack on Istanbul’s airport in June. Numerous smaller attacks against Russians at home have been carried out and jihadist calls for violence against Russia have been escalating worldwide.
Mr. Trump, It Seems, Is Oblivious To These Trends.
Embracing Russia and its brutal tactics has the potential to stoke anti-American sentiment and encourage radicalization among Muslims around the world. The thought that we would run that risk, particularly when the United States’ Muslim community is one of the best-integrated, least radicalized in a predominantly non-Muslim country, is simply foolish.
Joining forces with Russia in Syria would also damage American relations with Sunni governments. These governments rightly consider Russia the patron of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the ally of Iran and de facto partner of Hezbollah — all of whom are seen as responsible for the butchery of Syria’s Sunnis. They also understand, as Mr. Trump does not, that Russia’s military engagement in Syria has been aimed at helping the Assad government survive, not targeting the Islamic State.
For now, Sunni governments from Cairo to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, are exuberant about Mr. Trump’s victory. They expect that they will no longer face American criticism for committing human rights abuses. Those high spirits will quickly fade if the United States is seen to be abetting the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow axis. This, in turn, will impede the work of America’s fight against terrorism. The United States relies on Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for much of the most valuable intelligence on jihadists. By contrast, we receive little of value from Russia.
That points to the final reason such a partnership with Moscow is a terrible idea. The United States has laboured to improve its counterterrorism cooperation with Russia since the attacks of Sept. 11. As coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, I, like my counterparts in other agencies, sought to engage the Russians on many occasions. Though we pointed to the counterterrorism work as a modestly successful part of an otherwise volatile relationship, in truth there was little to boast about.
In areas where we should have been able to cooperate, like transportation security, safeguarding special events like the Olympics and countering terrorist propaganda, Russia’s sclerotic bureaucracy and general lack of interest (especially with issues like deradicalisation) made progress impossible. In more sensitive areas, like intelligence cooperation, some information routinely changes hands. But there is profound mistrust on both sides.
Russian and American intelligence agencies see one another not so much as potential allies but as persistent threats. In the wake of Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, it is utterly — and rightly — inconceivable that the American intelligence community would change its position. Mr. Trump might ponder that.
Daniel Benjamin served as the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism from 2009 to 2012. He is director of the John Sloan Dickey Centre for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.