For now, US and Russia find common ground in Syria
BEIRUT - Apart from its two engineers — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry — nobody is happy with the US-Russian deal on Syria. It certainly won’t end the war but rather pave the way for future cooperation that might — much later — lead to a breakthrough.
The Syrian opposition is trashing the deal as a tailor-made to accommodate the interests of Damascus while state-run media are treating it politely, so as not to upset their Russian allies, but expressing doubts that it will succeed. Officially, the Syrian government has welcomed the US-Russian deal, promising to abide by it.
The US-Russian deal produced five documents, which have not been fully revealed by either Moscow or Washington. Speaking at a news conference September 13th, Sergei Lavrov said confidentiality of the deal came at the request of Kerry. He called for translating the deal into a UN Security Council resolution and “not keeping it secret, as Washington wants”.
The top Russian diplomat was hinting that something specific had been agreed upon in Geneva that the Americans did not want to publicise because it signalled a U-turn for US policy on Syria.
The deal, after all, contained no mention of a “political transition” as outlined by Security Council Resolution 2254 or the Vienna communiqué of October 2015. It said nothing about the establishment of a “Transitional Government Body” as specified by the Geneva Conference of 2012 and nothing about elections or the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It also made no mention of refugees, their right of return or political detainees in Syrian prisons, much to the horror of the Syrian opposition.
On paper, the agreement calls for a nationwide one-week ceasefire in Syria. If it succeeds, the United States and Russia will set up a joint operations room to coordinate their war on terror, namely against the Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — the former al-Nusra Front, which was the al-Qaeda branch in Syria.
One sticking point is a major US concession that allows the Syrian Air Force to strike positions held by the armed opposition.
Speaking September 13th at the US State Department, Kerry said: “Assad is not supposed to be bombing the opposition because there is a ceasefire. Now he is allowed to target al-Nusra but that will be on strikes that are agreed upon with Russia and the United States.”
This was the first statement in five years hinting at cooperation between the United States and Syrian militaries. It is easy for the Syrians to claim that any target is either affiliated or infiltrated by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, after all, just like the Russians have been doing since they entered the Syria war a year ago.
For its part, the Syrian government has agreed to evacuate the Castello Road leading to the besieged city of Aleppo, previously used as the main lifeline for the armed opposition, bringing money and arms from neighbouring Turkey.
This was a major point in the US-Russian deal — a major concession from Moscow. The Castello Road was recaptured by the Syrian Army in July, giving government troops a full siege of opposition-held parts of eastern Aleppo, with its 250,000 inhabitants. The armed opposition briefly recaptured it in early August, ahead of a high-profile meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but it once again fell to the Syrians and Russians, and Putin wants it to become the major route for transferring UN aid to Aleppo.
The Syrian Army has agreed to withdraw 3.5km from the road and to withdraw all heavy artillery by 500 metres, transferring Castello into a demilitarised zone, manned by the Russian Army and the Syrian Red Crescent (a Damascus-mandated non-governmental organisation). Some 600 Russian troops arrived at the Hmeimim airbase on the Syrian coast to carry out the job, marking the first deployment of Russian soldiers to the Syrian battlefield. They will make sure that nothing but food and medicine — no weapons — reaches Aleppo.
This basically means postponing a major confrontation in Aleppo, the strategic city in northern Syrian, coveted by all players since 2012. If Aleppo fell completely to the Russians and their Syrian proxies, it would have meant a collective collapse of the northern front and a speedy end to the Syria war. The Americans did not want that to happen.
Putting Aleppo “on hold” and concentrating only on the transfer of humanitarian aid means that the US-Russian deal will not end the Syria war. Far from it, it maintains the status quo and tests seriousness of the super powers in doing business of Syria in what remains of US President Barack Obama’s tenure at the White House.
The Americans want to see how serious the Russians are in forcing their Syrian friends to comply with the ceasefire while Moscow wants the United State to help eradicate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which has inflicted a heavy toll on government troops since 2012.
If the two sides find common ground now, then more can be agreed upon later.