The Syrian ceasefire has the support of Moscow and Washington, but it remains to be seen if Damascus is willing to support the deal.
A patch with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad portrait on the uniform of a Syrian army volunteer. Photo: RIA Novosti
On Feb. 22, Russia and the United States announced that they had reached an agreement on a ceasefire in Syria. In an unusual move, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to Russia’s state-run TV stations to make a statement about the deal, in which he likened the agreement to the Syrian chemical weapons deal that Moscow and Washington helped to reach in 2013.
According to the agreement, starting Feb. 27 both armed opposition groups and the Syrian government must cease attacks on each other and allow uninterrupted access of humanitarian aid into besieged areas.
Most importantly, Russia also agreed to stop its airstrikes against the opposition, which has been the key demand of Syrian rebel groups. Some opposition members have already indicated their readiness to abide by the terms of this deal. However, the Syrian government is the one side that has been lately sending mixed signals as to its readiness to support the ceasefire.
Earlier in February, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a statement in which he basically defied the U.S.-Russia initiative for a ceasefire in Syria. "We hear about them requesting a ceasefire within a week. OK, then who is capable of bringing together all these conditions within a week? No one. Who will speak to the terrorists if a terrorist organization refused to adhere to the ceasefire, who will make them accountable? Who, as they say, will bomb them?” said the Syrian President.
The manner in which this was pronounced as well as the publicity these statements received in the Syrian media put into question Assad’s readiness to accept the deal. Following a series of successful offensives in which Russia’s air power played a key role, the Syrian president clearly feels emboldened.
One might even think that Assad wants to sabotage the peace deal because he feels that he is close to crushing rebel forces in northern Syria. The most likely explanation for such assertive statements, however, is to do with where the Syria-Russia relationship is headed and Assad’s wish to influence Moscow’s position on Syria.
Putin’s televised address (unusual in itself) contains one particular detail that sheds light on how the “cessation of hostilities” deal was reached between Russia and the U.S. The Russian president particularly said that to promote and monitor compliance with the ceasefire, “Russia will conduct the necessary work with Damascus.”
So necessary measures are yet to be taken and the Syrian government is yet to be convinced to abide by the agreement. Putin’s statement basically means that the Syrian authorities had little say in ceasefire negotiations and Moscow was only preparing to sell the deal to Assad.
Syria’s president was essentially sidelined in the negotiating process when the world powers first announced their three-point ceasefire plan in Munich on Feb. 11 and later the U.S. and Russia came up with a final deal for the cessation of hostilities. By throwing a tantrum just days before the deal was announced, the Syrian president could be trying to make it clear to Moscow that any agreement first needs to be approved by Damascus.
Some media outlets interpreted Assad’s outburst of anger as the first cracks in the alliance between Russia and Syria. But just like that, it happened before experts reduced the intricate Moscow-Damascus relationship to a binary combination. The Syrian president wants a bigger role for himself in talks and does not want to be seen as a mere client of Russia.
To put it into a foreign policy perspective, Assad fears that in the future world powers will prefer to reach out directly to Moscow or Iran about Syria-related issues rather than deal with him, which is another blow to Assad’s already shaky legitimacy. The fact that Russia’s Defense Minister flew directly to Tehran and not to Damascus on Feb. 21 once again underscores the marginal role that Assad plays at the moment.
Having turned the tide for the Syrian government on the ground, Moscow, more so than Tehran, is now perceived as the guarantor of the survival of Assad in Syria. Hence, the issue that bothers the Syrian president is a potential scale back in Russian military presence in his country. A ceasefire agreement that holds means that Moscow may start to gradually withdraw troops and fighter jets from the Latakia airbase as well as other locations throughout the country, basically depriving the Syrian president of his main insurance.
Russian jets have been recently carrying out joint combat operations with the Syrian Arab Airforce as part of a wider training program for the Syrian Army and as an attempt to showcase its prowess. Moscow may eventually have Damascus take over some of the operations that Russian jets are currently in charge of. This will be the first indication that Russia is going to pull some of its military hardware out of Syria.
While Assad continues to put on a show of bravado, he feels very insecure without the Russian military. Syria has recently boasted about its military success around Aleppo, and some reports even assessed that the army would retake the city within days. But a few days ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), the terrorist organization forbidden in Russia, struck back and cut the Syrian Army near Aleppo from the rest of government-controlled territory. Assad’s forces are doubling down in the area and will likely manage to reinstate their control there but this once again proves how uncertain Damascus’ control continues to be.
In that sense, Russian forces in Syria as well as their active involvement not only against ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra, another terrorist organization, but also against other rebel groups is part of Assad’s deterrence policy and morale booster for Syrian forces.
Once and if the ceasefire kicks in, Assad’s domestic political rhetoric will inevitably have to progress from fighting rebels to dealing with the battered economy and improving the livelihood of the Syrian people. This is exactly where the government’s weaknesses could be exposed, which could be detrimental for Assad ahead of scheduled parliamentary elections in April in Syria.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.