NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 30 SEPTEMBER, 2016
Ceasefire Breaks Down: Territorial Integrity of Syria Under Threat
BERKELEY, California: It was foreseen, and it was almost inevitable. But few expected the ceasefire in Syria to break down so soon.
The ceasefire came into force on the evening of Monday, Sept. 12, as a result of the US-Russia Agreement, announced in Geneva on Sept. 10 by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. While the overall level of violence came down significantly during the first few days, numerous violations were reported from day one, mainly by the foreign-backed “rebels.”
Though the Russian and Syrian forces largely observed the ceasefire the “rebels,” particularly the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front (NF), were reported to be regrouping and rearming during those initial days. Moreover, a large number of Jihadi groups rejected the ceasefire Agreement outright—not a good omen.
Then a terrible incident happened on Sept. 17, the fifth day of the fragile ceasefire. That evening four US aircraft—two F-16s and two A-10s—bombed the Syrian Army positions on the outskirts of the city of Deir-ez-Zore, killing more than 60 Syrian soldiers and injuring more than hundred. The bombing had continued for almost 45 minutes before the Russians asked the Americans to stop. The US planes had flown in from Erbil in Iraq.
But by then the damage had been done. Strangely, immediately after the US bombing, Daesh/ISIS fighters in the area attacked a strategic position held by the Syrian Army on Jabal Tharda, a mountain that overlooks Deir-ez-Zore’s airport. The mountain is now under the control of ISIS, as a result of which the city’s airport, and its more than 150,000 civilian residents, are threatened. The Syrian Army is presently trying to regain the vital position.
This “coincidence”—the bombing, followed by ISIS military advance—was not seen as a coincidence by both Russia and Syria, who accused the US of deliberately bombing the Syrian troops and clearing the way for the ISIS advance. The US said the bombing was a mistake and not intentional. But given America’s sophisticated warfare capabilities, that explanation has not been bought by many analysts.
On Monday, Sept. 19, the Syrian government announced the end of the ceasefire, because of the US attack on its troops and the hundreds of violations of the ceasefire by the Jihadi groups. The same evening, another serious incident took place. A convoy of UN/Syrian Red Crescent trucks carrying humanitarian supplies to Aleppo was attacked and destroyed in rebel-controlled territory in eastern Aleppo, resulting in the deaths of some 21 people and destruction of 18 trucks.
Again, there was a strange “coincidence.” On the same day, the Nusra Front and its allies launched a fierce attack on Syrian Army positions in the area where the trucks were destroyed and advanced to Neighbourhood 1070 in Aleppo. The Nusra Front is currently the most powerful group fighting against the Syrian Army in Aleppo, with 2000 out of 3500 fighters in the city.
Both the US and Russia accused each other of being responsible for the attack on the UN/SRC humanitarian convoy. Lavrov told the UN Security Council on Sept. 22 that “such coincidences call for serious analysis and investigation.” He hinted that both attacks were carried out deliberately by the US and its allies. Russia also submitted drone footage and other evidence to the UN to indicate that Russian and Syrian forces were not responsible for the attack on the convoy.
The result of the above developments is that the US-Russia Agreement of Sept. 10 is virtually dead. Russia and Syria have made it clear that their forces will no longer observe the ceasefire unilaterally, as they have sometimes done in the past. They have seen that these unilateral ceasefires have been used by the Jihadi groups to regroup and rearm themselves, and launch fresh attacks. They have launched air and ground attacks against the rebels in eastern Aleppo. Intense fighting is currently underway in the city.
Even before Kerry and Lavrov had finalized the Agreement, there were indications that elements in the US establishment—particularly Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and several senior Pentagon Generals—were opposed to it. Demonization of Russia and Putin is current US policy; cooperation with Russia in Syria would go against it.
The US attack on the Syrian Army in Deir-ez-Zore on Sept. 17 was therefore viewed by Syria, Russia, and many observers as a deliberate attempt by the Pentagon to sabotage the US-Russia Agreement. Also, no separation of “moderate rebels” from the Nusra Front, as laid down in the Agreement, was taking place. Instead, many “moderate rebels” were actually rejecting the Agreement and joining the Nusra Front!
Moreover, it was becoming clear that the US and its allies had not given up their objective of regime change in Damascus. The US-Russia Agreement was merely a device to buy time for the Nusra Front and other Jihadi groups, who were under pressure from the Russian and Syrian forces in Aleppo. Russia decided to sign the agreement with the US because it did not want to be seen as a spoiler, and to give peace another chance. But its hopes were belied.
In the meantime, two ominous developments have taken place in the last few weeks, which could have grave implications for Syria’s territorial integrity. First, the US has expanded its military presence in northern and northeastern Syria. According to the Iranian news agency FNA, almost 700 US special forces have been deployed in at least seven bases in northern Syria. American and Turkish troops currently occupy a 100-km long swathe of northern Syria.
Second, Turkish President Erdogan has said that Turkish troops will push further south into Syria to occupy an area of around 5000 square km. Turkey invaded Syria on Aug. 24 ostensibly to fight Daesh/ISIS, which it has trained, supplied, and supported for a long time. Turkey says it will set up “safe zones” in northern Syria.
Needless to say, both the US and Turkish military presence in Syria are illegal, as they have not been invited into the country by the Syrian government. Syria has protested strongly, but its protests have been ignored by the US and Turkey. Their declared objective is to fight the ISIS and Nusra Front in Syria, but their real goal is to dislodge President Assad. The occupation of Syrian territory and deployment of troops means that the US and Turkey are now openly at war with Syria and can launch direct military intervention in the country.
Physical control of territory in Syria would enable the US and Turkey to create a “Sunni Entity” in east Syria and “safe zones” in northern Syria, which could be used for training, arming, and launching Jihadi fighters, and even their own troops, for overthrowing Assad. In the past, they had to do so in training camps in Turkey and Jordan. Moreover, their presence on the ground could lead to a de facto partition of Syria, which has been one of their strategic objectives.
It is not clear when or if the US and Turkey will pull their forces out of Syria. It is also not clear if Russia and Syria can force them to do so through military action. What is likely is that they will use their bases in Syria to continue the war against Assad indefinitely, till they achieve their objectives.
In the process, it is possible that there may be a direct military confrontation between Russia, Syria, and Iran on the one hand and the US, Turkey, and their allies on the other. That could escalate into a very destructive war which could draw in other NATO members. It’s anybody’s guess what would be its outcome. All one can say is that Syria may witness more death and destruction in the coming weeks and months. Nobody knows when its agony will end.
(The writer is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer. He has served for over 10 years in Arab nations, including Syria)