US and Russia try to salvage Syria’s wobbly ceasefire

Sunday 25/09/2016
US Secretary of State John Kerry (C), Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

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.