US and Russia try to salvage Syria’s wobbly ceasefire
WASHINGTON - With diplomatic tension rising at the UN General Assembly over Syria and violations of the US-Russian-brokered ceasefire mounting across the country, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tried to salvage their deal, which they said was the only realistic alternative towards ending the war.
Despite its structural flaws and lack of an enforcement mechanism, seen in the attack on an aid convoy in Aleppo and the bombardment by the Syrian regime, the ceasefire offered the United States and Russia an opportunity to coordinate counterterrorism efforts while reducing violence and civilian casualties.
According to the deal reached September 10th, a nationwide ceasefire would be put in place under which Syrian President Bashar Assad would refrain from launching air strikes across the country. The rebels would abstain from clashing with regime forces or aiding Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formerly known as al-Nusra Front, which is regarded by the United States and Russia as a terrorist organisation affiliated with al-Qaeda.
One of the agreement’s preconditions is for the aid to be delivered to the besieged areas of eastern Aleppo and, if implemented after ten days, Russia and the United States would start a joint coordination centre and carry out operations against JFS and the Islamic State (ISIS). The deliveries have been impeded by the regime and negotiations are under way to agree on a mechanism for aid delivery.
Armed violations in the form of clashes and continued fighting have been blamed on both the regime forces and the rebels in Aleppo, near Hama, in Jobar and in Quneitra.
Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said that if “we measure the ceasefire against the classical understanding, as a cessation of hostilities, then it is not holding.” But, Itani added: “Secretary Kerry went to great lengths to manage expectations and aim for a significant reduction in violence.”
The United Nations hailed the “huge drop” in civilian casualties throughout the early days of the ceasefire before hostilities broke down last week. Instead of the average of 30-40 civilian deaths per day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was reporting few civilian casualties during the first week of the ceasefire.
Tobias Schneider, a defence analyst based in Washington who follows Syria closely, said: “Despite all minor and major violations along the front lines, the cessation of hostilities succeeded at dramatically reducing civilian casualties across the country by temporarily restricting the Russian and Syrian air forces.” He said “this brief breathing space alone would have justified some of the diplomatic charades surrounding the deal”.
Schneider warned, however, that “the return of regime and Russian air strikes against opposition population centres, combined with its [the Syrian government] continued refusal to allow much-needed humanitarian aid into besieged East Aleppo, spell the end of the current cessation of hostilities”.
The realities of the Syrian war and the lack of an enforcement mechanism for the ceasefire agreement make it unlikely to survive until the next US administration takes office in January, in the opinion of both Itani and Schneider. “Clearly, neither side [Russia and the United States] was able to secure sufficient buy-in or trust from their Syrian partners or indeed has sufficient leverage to force compliance,” Schneider said.
Itani noted that Iran is the elephant in the room and holds more leverage on the ground and over Assad than Russia does. Itani called for a new agreement with “enforcement mechanisms while being tied to a political process, and to make sure the opposition gains capability to compensate for the weakening of JFS, so that they can get on board with the anti-JFS effort”.
For the United States, the deal offers an opportunity to balance the US administration’s legacy in Syria by attempting to reduce the human suffering. For Russia it presents a valuable window to cooperate with Washington against JFS, a jihadist group that has attracted Russian fighters and others from the Caucasus. Schneider described the agreement as “likely the last attempt for the current US administration to affect the wider Syrian civil war. While Kerry seems eager not to leave office without some success on the issue, Obama would likely be fine passing the issue on to his successor.”
For Russia, however, a failure would spell trouble said Schneider, who pointed out that, in light of the inability of the Assad regime to achieve a military victory, “Russian President Vladimir Putin needs the West and its regional allies for a diplomatic solution to the conflict that can absolve Moscow of its military responsibilities in Syria and elevate the Kremlin back to international standing.”
For now, however, neither the United States nor Russia is ready to walk away from the deal and see in it the only plausible alternative for the bloodshed. As the two countries attempt to negotiate a new truce, the deal with its merits and flaws will likely remain the only template for US policy until January 20th, when the next administration takes office.