NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 14 SEPTEMBER, 2016
The US - Russia Agreement on Syria: Will it Work?
NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced in Geneva on Sept 10 that they had reached an agreement to stop the fighting in Syria. Specifics of the agreement, contained in five documents, were however not released, to prevent misuse of the information by the terrorist groups in Syria, Lavrov said. Only the broad outlines were announced.
According to them, a complete cessation of hostilities would begin on the evening of Monday, Sept. 12 for 48 hours. If successful, the truce would be extended for one week and humanitarian aid will be delivered to Aleppo and other besieged areas. If that, too, happens, the US and Russia will set up a Joint Implementation Centre where they will share targeting data and coordinate bombing of Daesh/ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate.
The Jabhat al-Nusra recently changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and announced severance of its ties with al-Qaida. The US and Russia have, however, dismissed the move as a PR exercise and designated the JFS as a terrorist group, which, along with Daesh, would be a target of their military operations, in terms of the Agreement.
The key provision of the Agreement, however, is that once the US and Russian airstrikes begin, Russia will ensure that the Syrian air force stops bombing the areas held by the JFS and “moderate rebels” supported by the US and its allies. On its part, the US will “persuade” the “moderate rebels” backed by it to “separate” or “disentangle” themselves from the JFS.
This is not the first time that the US and Russia have tried to implement a cease-fire agreement in Syria. The last time they did so was in Feb. 2016. That cease-fire barely lasted a couple of weeks, before intense fighting resumed. The period of relative peace during those weeks was used by the rebels to regroup and rearm themselves.
In fact, at that time the Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces were making rapid advances against the opposition. They had acquired momentum, while the rebels were on the backfoot. The US called for a cease-fire to break this dynamic and allow the rebels to regroup, which is exactly what happened. The Russians were later criticized by some people for agreeing to the cease-fire.
A similar situation exists now. On Sept. 4, the Syrian Army, helped by Russian airstrikes, recaptured strategic territory in the Ramouseh district of southwest Aleppo. That enabled the Syrians to cut off the sole remaining supply route to rebel-held east Aleppo and impose a complete siege on the city. Earlier, in mid-July, the Syrian Army had captured the Castello Road, the only supply route linking Turkey with east Aleppo.
The military situation on the ground in Aleppo has, therefore, changed in favour of the Syrian Army, which has completely encircled the city and cut off all supply routes to the rebels. That partly explains the urgency with which the US concluded the latest cease-fire agreement with Russia, which provides for humanitarian aid to the people of Aleppo, including the rebels, who would otherwise have faced the prospect of starvation, disease, and surrender to the Syrian Army.
Moreover, a collapse of the rebels would have resulted in complete control of Aleppo by the Syrian Army, effectively ending the war in Syria. The remaining strongholds of Daesh/ISIS, JFS, and other Jihadi groups would have been mopped up by the Syrians, Russians, and Iranians in due course. The US and its allies would have lost the game in Syria which they started more than five years ago. The new cease-fire agreement is aimed at precluding that scenario.
But the question is, will the cease-fire last? Current indications are not promising. The Agreement suffers from several inherent flaws and contradictions. To begin with, there is opposition to the Agreement in the US establishment itself. The Pentagon is not happy with the proposed coordination of airstrikes with Russia. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter has questioned if Russia or President Assad will comply with the terms of the agreement. There are sharp divisions in the administration over the wisdom of sharing targeting information with Russia if joint airstrikes materialize.
Several rebel groups have also opposed the Agreement in varying degrees. A few have rejected it outright. Many have expressed reservations and demanded its details. Reports indicate a significant reduction in violence on the first day of the cease-fire, though sporadic exchanges of fire have also been reported.
The biggest problem in implementing the Agreement would be the “disentanglement” of the “moderate rebels” from the JFS. Even during the last cease-fire the US was unable to do so, though it was one of the conditions. The reason is simple. There are hardly any “moderate rebels” in Syria. Most of the major rebel groups, including Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, etc., are intertwined with the JFS and are fighting alongside. For example, the umbrella group Jaish al-Fateh includes JFS, Ahrar al-Sham, and several other groups. Also, the JFS can be expected to resist “separation” of other groups from itself as that would make it more vulnerable to the US and Russian airstrikes.
Moreover, the foreign backers of these groups, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, have their own agendas and objectives, sometimes conflicting. They, as also the US, Israel, UK, and France, have not given up their goal of regime change in Syria. Therefore, some of the rebels and their backers are likely to continue fighting, as they did the last time. If they violate the cease-fire, Russia and the Syrian Army will feel free to respond. The US-Russia deal also contains many loopholes which allow Syrian airstrikes to continue. It allows the Syrian air force to continue to fly missions in some areas, to be specified later.
The main US objective in reaching this deal with Russia appears to be putting in place a “holding and regrouping operation” till the next US President, expected to be Hillary Clinton, takes over in January 2017. Clinton is much more hawkish on Syria, having called for setting up “No Fly Zones” and direct US military intervention in the country. Without a cease-fire, the Russians and Syrians may take over Aleppo and defeat the insurgents before Clinton could take any action.
For the same reason, the Russians and Syrians too may want to end the war before Jan. 2017. They have made important military progress on the ground in the last fortnight and have momentum on their side. There would be no dearth of reasons for them to resume military operations; the various Jihadi groups can safely be expected to provide them, as explained above.
The coming days and weeks will reveal how the US-Russia agreement unfolds. There could be a temporary lull in fighting for a few days or weeks, providing much-needed respite to the foreign-backed rebels. But it would be surprising if it lasts much longer or leads to a political solution to the Syrian conflict, which is the only long-term answer to the country’s trials and tribulations.
( Niraj Srivastava is a retired Indian diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Denmark and Uganda, and has spent more than ten years in Arab countries including Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. He has also taught undergraduate students at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. )