RD Interview: Prominent Middle East expert Irina Zvyagelskaya discusses the new Syria ceasefire agreement, highlighting what needs to happen for the agreement to lead to a lasting settlement of the conflict.
A Free Syrian Army fighter feeds a cat bread in the old city of Aleppo, Syria. Photo: AP
The Syrian crisis has been on the global agenda for already five years now, but it is only last week that a significant breakthrough happened that potentially can lead to the settlement of the conflict in Syria. The ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and the U.S. has become one of the most debated and widely discussed initiatives on the Syria foreign policy track and it has already received negative and positive feedback.
On the sidelines of the fifth Valdai Middle Eastern conference, “Middle East: From Violence to Security,” Russia Direct sat down with prominent Middle East expert and chief researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Irina Zvyagelskaya. In the interview below, she discusses the current ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and the U.S. and the possibility of settlement of the war in Syria.
Russia Direct: What do you see as the main obstacles for the implementation of the U.S.-Russia ceasefire plan?
Irina Zvyagelskaya: The main obstacle is that it is not clear how they will monitor the results of the ceasefire if it is ever put into practice. So, nobody knows how to make sure that those groups who have signed the agreement and said they are ready to implement it would really do it.
The second problem is that if we all know where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) is based, we do not know that about Jabhat al-Nusra, which is based within local communities. And this is why it is going to be very difficult to say whether those groups that did not follow the agreement are those people who are from radical terrorist groups.
So this very much will depend on what the moderates will do under these circumstances. I do not believe that those who are really interested in the peace process would be also interested in weakening Jabhat al-Nusra by trying to take people out of this organization because some of them joined it just in despair. It was the only a means for security they were seeking. So, it is important what the moderates will do under the current circumstances and whether they will manage to impose certain pressure upon Jabhat al-Nusra.
As for ISIS it is different, and, of course, they will be bombed and no one will argue about that.
Then there is one more issue that should also be taken into consideration. This is the border issue. We all understand that the radical opposition first and foremost receives aid from Turkey. And I do not mean now only military aid. This also includes humanitarian aid. If they do not have an alternative they will be very much dependent on Turkey and on those groups in Turkey that are interested in continuation of the hostilities.
So what we need here is an alternative humanitarian aid coming from the government. And this is actually a part of the agreement on the ceasefire. So we should make these people not dependent on just one source of aid. Then, as far as the border is concerned, it is not only humanitarian aid and support but also there is a concern from the Turkish side that the border sooner or later will become a buffer zone controlled by the Kurds, no matter whether they are terrorists or not, for Turkey it makes absolutely no difference. So, this should be taken into consideration when we are discussing the border issue.
And probably, I am not sure whether it will be feasible or not, what we can do is to organize a sort of international contingent on the Syrian part of the border to make it closed. This might be a way out of the situation.
RD: Some experts argue that one of the biggest concerns about the ceasefire is the absence of a commonly recognized list of terrorist groups operating in Syria.
I.Z.: Well, first of all I do not believe that for the ceasefire we need a list of terrorist groups. It is next to impossible to produce such a list. There are two organizations which all agreed to consider to be terrorists, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. We do understand that these two are not covered by the ceasefire and fighting against them can be continued no matter who is fighting them - Russia or the U.S. or the Syrian Army.
So as far as small groups are concerned, some of them sooner or later under the new circumstances may dissolve because people will leave their ranks and they won’t be any longer interested in being with such an organization and they will feel more or less safe. This is because people mainly joined those organizations and groups mainly for security reasons. So, they should be given some security. In this regard, the ceasefire is very important.
As far as Turkey is concerned, I believe a lot will depend on the Russia-U.S. agreement. If we agree on certain things then the respective allies will have to accept it.
RD: Do you believe that the U.S. can actually put pressure on Turkey to comply with the agreement?
I.Z.: Well, the U.S. has already tried and Turkey said it’s either us or the Kurds. But I believe at the moment there is no disagreement on the ceasefire and this might make the situation really different. So, Turkey would not like to be labeled as a violator of the agreement, I do not think they want it. If they want NATO behind them and they are afraid of certain unpredictable consequences they will not do that.
RD: What is the worst case scenario for the current ceasefire?
I.Z.: The worst case scenario is if the ceasefire does not hold.
RD: And what will happen next after the ceasefire fails?
I.Z.: Again fighting.
RD: So, nothing like a Plan B, which allegedly exists?
I.Z.: Well, nobody knows what it is all about. If they are talking about a buffer zone it is next to impossible to implement it technically. I believe the main idea now is to try to implement the agreement. If it is not implemented there are other scenarios and all of them are worse and of an escalatory nature. There will be no peaceful way out of the situation.
RD: There is an opinion that one of the main issues that hinder the settlement of the Syrian conflict is that the main actors involved (local, regional and global) in the conflict have different priorities. They cannot find common ground and make an agreement made on a global level to be respected through all other levels. How do you think this issue can be addressed?
I.Z.: I believe that this issue can be solved if, firstly, Russia and the U.S. agreed on something and then they bring regional powers into the picture. I do agree that nowadays regional powers are playing much more of an important role in the area than global ones.
The problem is that very often regional powers have been outplaying the global powers, using them for their own interests. And the reason why they can do that is that they understand and are absolutely sure that it is very difficult for Russia and the U.S. to find a common ground. Hence, they are exploiting differences between Moscow and Washington and pursuing their own interests.
This is why it is very important that Russia and the U.S. reached some sort of agreement that might help to manage the conflict.