For the second time this year, Russia and the U.S. have agreed on a Syrian ceasefire. However, the obstacles to its implementation are making its future success quite unlikely.
Syrian Army soldiers and military equipment seen near a main highway interchange in the area of Ramouseh district in the southwest of Aleppo, Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti
On Sept. 12, the Syrian ceasefire brokered by Russia and the U.S. came into effect. For the second time during 2016, the two major external powers involved in the Syrian crisis agreed on terms for the cessation of hostilities. The goal is to decrease the intensity of the conflict in order to create the basis for a meaningful political dialogue.
However, the first agreement reached in February of this year demonstrated the limits of such an approach. Simultaneously, it showed the ability of Russia and the U.S. to discuss sensitive and complicated issues. Although the implementation of the agreement does not entirely depend on its two key sponsors, it puts serious responsibility on them.
Six years into the Syrian crisis, there is still a struggle between two different sides. On one hand, there are the Syrian authorities backed by Russia and Iran and on the other, numerous opposition groups (some moderate, some extremist) backed by the U.S., Turkey and the Saudi-led Gulf countries.
The large number of external actors involved in the Syrian civil war complicates the implementation of the ceasefire and hinders any attempt to settle the conflict in a way that is acceptable to all parties. Yet, the Russia-U.S. Syria ceasefire agreement represents the best possible chance to find common ground. So how effective will this new ceasefire actually be?
To answer that question, Russia Direct asked Middle East experts about the prospects for the new Russia-U.S. Syria ceasefire agreement.
Eyal Zisser, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, dean of Humanities and vice rector of Tel Aviv University.
I very much doubt that the U.S.-Russia agreement on the Syria ceasefire can be implemented. The biggest question here is how to separate the bad rebels, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra and others from the moderate rebels.
Another important question is whether Syrian President Bashar Assad has a real interest in following the agreement.
As for the U.S.-Russia plans to set up the Joint Implementation Center, it is a good step forward when it comes to U.S.-Russian relations in general. It contributes to building trust, which is apparently lacking in the relations between Moscow and Washington, so maybe on the tactical level, it will increase the cooperation between the two. However, I do not know if it can really have an impact on the war against ISIS as the two sides are already doing their best.
Maxim Suchkov, associate professor of International Relations and deputy director for Research at the School of International Relations, Pyatigorsk State University, and an expert of the Russian International Affairs Council.
I believe the Russia-U.S. Syria agreement is at the stage where little depends on Moscow and Washington. Both made an important move toward a settlement in Syria, and now a lot depends on the fighting groups on the ground even though the ability of Russia and U.S. to push them towards fulfilling the agreement is important.
I think there are at least three major obstacles for the ceasefire agreement to be successfully implemented. First, the main impediment is the number of groups that have to respect the agreement. Every one of them wants to make sure its interests are observed and if they feel they are not, the temptation to sabotage the agreement is too high for them.
Second, the agreement is difficult to fully implement given the high fragmentation of the Syrian territory in terms of security and “zones of control” – in some parts of the country, the agreement’s jurisdiction simply cannot be applied.
Finally, there is a question of how accurately the U.S. and Russia calculated the degree of their actual influence on their proxies. Past and current experiences demonstrated that getting them do something that was agreed upon without their participation is fraught with complications.
As for the prospects for the establishment of the Joint Implementation Center, it has to be noted that there is genuine opposition to military cooperation and intelligence sharing with Moscow within the Pentagon and some intelligence agencies in the U.S. So, the Obama administration will have to enforce its political will to make it happen. If the Center is established and functions properly, it may indeed breathe new life into U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria. But it in no way is going to be strategic – tactical, at the very best.
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Nikolay Sukhov, researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In my view, the prospects for the implementation of the Russia-U.S. agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Syria are quite pessimistic.
There are several major obstacles that will hinder implementation of the ceasefire. First, the time frame of the ceasefire is enough for opposition and jihadist forces to regroup and enhance their fighting capabilities. This will soon end in increasing ceasefire violations from all sides.
Moreover, neither the Syrian government and pro-government forces, nor rebel groups sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar (such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam) benefit from the ceasefire remaining in place. In fact, this cessation of hostilities stopped their offensive in Aleppo half-way.
Second, humanitarian aid deliveries into besieged areas of Aleppo will very likely result in further entrenchment of the militants there. As a consequence, we might expect a new offensive of anti-government forces in Aleppo and Homs.
Third, there is an absence of mutual trust between Russia and the U.S., which complicates planning and implementation of the ceasefire.
Fourth, to start Syria peace talks involving all parties of the conflict, the Syrian government should provide security guarantees to the participants from the opposition. The first step is the agreement on such guarantees between Russia and the U.S. Only after that, the second step should follow, which is to discuss the participants’ lineup, date and location of such talks. All this looks quite unlikely.
There are also several other factors that create additional obstacles for maintaining the ceasefire. Actions of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham are absolutely out of either Russian or U.S. control, but they do depend on and are managed by sponsors from the Gulf countries. This complicates control over them.
Turkey will continue its military operation against the Syrian Kurds and no one will be able to stop it. As for the Shia pro-Assad militia, it also poses a potential threat to the fragile ceasefire as it is loosely controlled by the Iranian command, which is quite skeptical about the need for the cessation of hostilities.