The recent ceasefire deal in Syria is fragile at best, but it may be the closest that Russia and the U.S. have been to bringing about a lasting peace in the war-torn nation.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during their negotiations on Syria in Geneva, Switzerland. Pool Photo via AP
On Sept. 9, Russia and the United States announced a highly anticipated agreement to bring about peace in Syria. The deal was preceded by months of intensive efforts to revive the cessation of hostilities (CoH) regime that was first established in February 2016.
According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the new plan is different from previous attempts in that it is a comprehensive mechanism that will include the establishment of a lasting ceasefire. As a consequence, it will allow the two powers to launch a joint operation against recognized extremist groups.
Announcing the deal, Secretary Kerry elaborated on the plan, saying that it involves five documents that are aimed at improving cooperation, securing delivery of humanitarian aid, ensuring compliance with the ceasefire and facilitating the political process.
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While it is hard to understand the scope of the mechanism that was agreed upon since the documents will not be released due to their sensitivity, its general details were laid out during the joint U.S.-Russia press conference in Geneva. The details that have been released so far indicate that the Syrian Arab Air Force will stop flying missions in areas with moderate opposition presence, something the White House has been insisting on, but will not be grounded permanently.
A new CoH will begin at sundown on Sept. 12 and will have symbolic meaning because it coincides with the start of Eid al-Adha in the Arab world [Eid al-Adha is an important Muslim holiday celebrated worldwide – Editor’s note]. The lull in fighting is expected to facilitate the delivery of aid by humanitarian organizations to besieged areas, including to Aleppo.
Rebel forces and the Syrian army will be required to pull back from two key contested areas around Aleppo - Costello Road and Ramouseh district – effectively creating a demilitarized zone and allowing humanitarian organizations to operate freely.
Throughout the CoH period, a U.S.-Russia Joint Intelligence Group will work to delineate the areas controlled by the moderate opposition and Jabhat Al Nusra, and if the cessation of hostilities holds for seven days, the two will launch joint operations against the extremist groups in agreed upon areas.
The key detail that was absent from the announcement of the Syria deal was that of a mechanism to monitor and enforce the CoH, something that was lacking in a similar agreement in February 2016 and eventually led to its failure. However, in his comments regarding the deal, Kerry put it quite bluntly when he said that the deal is only “an opportunity and not more than that until it becomes a reality.”
According to him, the CoH is built on oversight, compliance and mutual interest. Lavrov had an even more disheartening thing to say, arguing that “there is no 100 percent guarantee” that all parties will adhere to the ceasefire.
With no implementation and accountability mechanisms announced, the ceasefire again will depend on oral commitments of all parties involved and could be derailed by even the smallest incident. The risk is that once the CoH kicks in on the night of Sept. 12, neither Russia nor the U.S. will have proper control over how it is implemented.
The decision to launch the work on delineation of territory controlled by Jabhat Al Nusra several days after the beginning of the cessation of hostilities may also appear to be a stumbling block in the process of the ceasefire. Given the high probability of violations of CoH, knowing who exactly is behind them is crucial to distinguishing between terrorist false flag attacks and signatories’ intentional attempts to derail the process.
As of now, Russia and the U.S. have a very different vision of who the terrorist groups are and what territory they control. Ignoring this thorny issue at the negotiating table may have facilitated the agreement, but in the long run it may bode ill for the overall process.
At the moment, however, the biggest challenge is not associated with the implementation but with the inception of the cessation of hostilities. Currently, not all the groups expressed their commitment to the U.S.-Russia agreement. Moscow’s partners, Syria and Iran, both expressed their support for the agreement, putting Washington, whose allies have not unanimously committed to the truce, in the spotlight.
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), representing the main opposition groups, welcomed the deal on Saturday, Sept. 10, but what is far more challenging is getting a variety of smaller armed groups on board. Throughout the weekend, there were conflicting reports as to what groups rejected and accepted the ceasefire. But a general feeling is that it will be extremely hard for the U.S. and its allies to secure support for CoH from the entire spectrum of opposition groups, especially those that have established a rapport with Jabhat Al Nusra.
Analysts agree that it is extremely unlikely that moderate rebel groups that - out of necessity - are “marbled” (as Kerry put it) with Jabhat Al Nusra will withdraw from the frontlines, because for them it would essentially mean ceding land to the Syrian government.
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What may further deter rebel groups, chiefly those pressured by Jabhat Al Nusra, from honoring the deal is the exclusion of Assad’s fate from the agreement, something that Russia and Iran have been pushing for. In fact, the HNC itself said last week that the removal of Assad is the cornerstone of its vision of the end of the civil war in Syria. The fact that Washington agreed to exclude this issue from the negotiations with Russia may also undermine the already shaky trust in the U.S. that the rebel groups have had so far.
As the Syrian government and rebel groups continue to fight for positions on the eve of the truce, the cessation of hostilities seems doomed to failure. Some of the most contentious issues seem to have been pushed to the back burner by Russia and the U.S., while a number of stakeholders, including Iran, were not part of the talks in Geneva.
All of this further reduces the chances for success. Neither Russia nor the U.S. have any false illusions about the agreement, but arguably the ceasefire negotiated in Geneva may be the closest the world has been to peace in Syria in the last five years.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.