While the Russia-U.S. ceasefire agreement on Syria has several unaddressed issues, the agreement might well be developed further and become the basis for settling the conflict.
Residents of Nubel, in the north of Aleppo Province in Syria, after the removal of a long-term siege. Photo: RIA Novosti
The first two months of 2016 have witnessed important developments that have affected the overall flow of the Syrian conflict. Increased intensity of the Russian airstrikes, the successful offensive of the Syrian Arab Army and Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) led by the Kurdish militia, the bloody terror attacks in Damascus and Homs, and the activation of the diplomatic process within the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – mainly between Russia and the U.S. – gave a new dynamic to the conflict in Syria.
Given the rising risks of the escalation of hostilities in Syria, the major powers involved in the conflict managed to reach an agreement on a ceasefire. On Feb. 22, Russia and the U.S. agreed on the final modalities of the Syrian ceasefire. According to the agreed upon document, the cessation of hostilities is planned to kick in at midnight on Feb. 27 local time. By noon Feb. 26 all opposition groups that agree to the terms of the cessation of hostilities should inform either the Russian or the U.S. side. For that purpose, the Coordination Center for Reconciliation of the warring sides was established at the Russian Hmeymim airbase near Latakia.
— Минобороны России (@mod_russia) February 24, 2016
The U.S.-Russia agreement immediately raised a lot of questions about its ability to be implemented. Indeed, it does not clarify important questions, which if unanswered, make it almost impossible to see positive progress in implementation of the Syrian truce.
Who are the terrorists?
One of the major obstacles to the successful implementation of the ceasefire is the absence of a definitive list of terrorist groups operating in Syria that can be commonly agreed upon by all the members of the ISSG. As of now, there are only two organizations that everyone agrees to view as terrorists in Syria: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.
There is also a UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions list (as of Feb. 23, 2016) of terrorist entities and individuals affiliated with ISIS and Al-Qaeda that currently contains the names of 242 individuals and 74 entities, although it does not make things easier as there is still no consensus on many other different factions involved in Syrian conflict.
By the end of December 2015, a draft document of the UNSC meeting listed 163 factions that were proposed by the ISSG members as terrorists. However, a final consensus list has not been formed yet.
Although the Russia-U.S. ceasefire agreement from Feb. 22 says that the cessation of hostilities does not apply to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council, major powers have made little progress deciding who is a terrorist and therefore a legitimate target for bombing and who is not.
This has led to the situation where the Syrian government, Russia and sometimes the Syrian Kurds are blamed for targeting the Syrian moderate opposition on one hand, while the U.S.-led coalition is accused of supporting terrorist groups on the other. Therefore, it created the atmosphere of mistrust, which hinders undertaking any meaningful joint action aimed at terminating ISIS.
The diversity of the Syrian opposition groups further complicates this issue. Many non-moderate militants and even members of ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra can easily “shave their beards” and change the group they are affiliated with in order to avoid being targeted. Such high possibility of fluctuation within the ranks of the opposition and Islamists further complicates the process of defining terrorist groups and targets for airstrikes.
Where to bomb?
Another issue tightly connected with the previous one is the delineation of the territory held by ISIS, Jabhat-al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations designated by the UNSC. Without solving the first issue, this one cannot be settled. Moreover, without the U.S. and Russia jointly working on the ground defining areas and targets which can or cannot be bombed at least in accordance with the UNSC designated terrorist groups affiliated with ISIS and al-Qaeda, it is hard to see how the ceasefire can be somewhat effectively implemented.
This is why a list of terror groups and territories which can or can't be targeted in Syria needs to be formed by Feb. 27. For that, Russia and the U.S. have to finally start direct communication between their military on defining the terrorist targets in Syria.
Can Russia and the U.S. control their proxies?
As a multilayered conflict, the Syrian crisis has three dimensions: local, regional and global. This is to say that there are complicated lines of communication between the parties throughout all dimensions of the conflict. As the major diplomatic efforts are done on the global level with the major powers behind that, they play the main role in transmitting any agreement to their clients in the region.
In Syria, the U.S. and Russia project their power to the regional and local level through the network of their clients. From the Washington-backed side, it goes to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Syrian moderate opposition groups. From Russia, it goes to Iran, Hezbollah, the Syrian government and the Kurds.
However, it should not be forgotten that many clients often behave not in full compliance with their patrons’ interests, creating high risks of escalation. For example, Turkey’s decision to shoot down the Russian Su-24 bomber consequently caused Moscow’s defensive reaction, which ruined Western plans to establish a no-fly zone in Northern Syria. In addition, Turkey is shelling positions of Syrian Kurds who are the U.S. partners in fighting ISIS and recipients of their arms.
As for Moscow and its main client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently made a statement which basically defied any ceasefire and claimed to retake the entirety of Syria. Russia’s reaction was transmitted by its UN envoy Vitaly Churkin, who responded to Assad’s claims by suggesting that, “We should not assign too much importance to some of the statements… It obviously contradicts Russia’s diplomatic efforts.” Just these several examples demonstrate that clients often do not march in lock step with their patrons.
Consequently, it poses a question: Where are the guarantees that proxies controlled by the U.S. and Russia will not violate the ceasefire?
Turkey already stated that it could carry on shelling targets of the Syrian Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) as it did during the last week while the Syrian government asserted its adherence to the right of its armed forces to retaliate against any violation committed by opposition groups against Syrian citizens or its armed forces.
However, on Feb. 24, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed his government’s commitment to the Russian-U.S. ceasefire plan. Assad told Putin that his government is ready to help with implementing a ceasefire in Syria, although it does not guarantee flawless observation of the ceasefire and reserves certain risks.This is why it is important for Russia and the U.S. to establish an efficient instrument which could control implementation of the ceasefire by their respective clients.
It is quite indicative that in the first half of the day on Feb. 24, Putin held phone talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Saudi King Salman discussing the ceasefire and explaining its terms to both sides.
This indicates Moscow’s desire to transmit all details of the Russia-U.S. deal to the major stakeholders of the conflict.
Thus, it would be fair to say that the Russia-U.S. ceasefire agreement for Syria is a positive step, which can open a door to the next level of crisis settlement, although only if certain conditions are met. “A bad peace is better than a good war,” so for now, all parties should concentrate on working together towards implementation of the ceasefire terms and building a better peace.
Just spreading doubts and concerns about the compliance of Russia and the Syrian government to the terms of the ceasefire is not a constructive path. At this moment, responsibility lies equally on everyone, including the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.