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IDSA COMMENT

Syria: The Cease-Fire that was and wasn’t

September 23, 2016

On 10 September 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov announced a cease-fire agreement in Geneva following negotiations that lasted over ten months. The agreement was not a cease-fire between Russia and the US, but one between their proxies. Russia was answerable for President Bashar Assad and his allies that include Russia. The US was responsible for the ‘moderate’ rebels supported by the West and its allies. The two major rebel groups, ISIL and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, were excluded from the cease-fire. Since the cease-fire has been violated a number of times, one may assume that those who signed the agreement did not have full control over those who fire.

This cease-fire is a strange one. No text was shared with the media. There was not even a joint communique. It was given out that there were five texts which will remain secret. There was only a joint press conference. Lavrov took pity on the journalists waiting for hours and handed over some pizza around midnight and added that it was from the US delegation. A little later, he re-appeared with bottles of vodka, this time from his own delegation. Perhaps, the intended message was that the two sides were about to make a deal.

The deal that was announced has the following elements:

  1. A week-long cease-fire to take effect from 12 September, but initially valid for 48 hours and renewable for the same period from time to time.
  2. During the cease-fire, the Syrian government should refrain from flying combat missions in areas “agreed on with real specificity”.
  3. There should be “unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all of the besieged and hard-to-reach areas including Aleppo”.
  4. The US will get the ‘moderates’ to separate themselves from the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham so that, at the end of the cease-fire, Russia can bomb the latter without hurting the former.
  5. The US and Russia will create a Joint Implementation Centre for the “sharing of information necessary for the delineation of territories controlled by (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) and ‘the moderates’ in the area of active hostilities”.
  6. If the cease-fire holds, Russia and the US will coordinate or cooperate in the fight against ISIL.
    l)

Two major violations, one by each side, shattered the cease-fire, proving how fragile the understanding and trust between Washington and Moscow is. The first violation was by the US-led coalition, which bombed and killed about 60 Syrian troops at Jebel Tharda, near Deir al-Zore airport, on 17 September. The troops were fighting ISIL. Washington claimed that the actual target was ISIL and regretted the mistake. Russia was not satisfied and insisted on a closed- door Security Council session to discuss the matter which was held. The US Permanent Representative to UN, Samantha Power, publicly accused Russia of resorting to a ‘cheap stunt’ by demanding such a session. Moscow actually asked for the session to satisfy Assad who did not accept the US explanation about the mistaken identity of the target. He probably believes that the US bombed his troops deliberately.

The second major violation was the attack on 20 September on a convoy of 31 trucks, which had stopped to offload supplies, at a rebel held area, Urum al-Kubra, near Aleppo. The convoy had been sent by the UN and other relief agencies after obtaining the necessary permission and informing all concerned. 20 aid workers were killed and 18 trucks destroyed. Washington has asserted that Russian aircraft bombed the trucks. Russia has denied responsibility, adding that the West-supported rebels themselves might have done it. It is difficult to believe that the rebels who were to benefit from the supplies would have attacked the convoy. Russia issued a series of contradictory explanations. It has been speculated that Russia might have carried out the attack as revenge for the attack on Syrian troops. We still do not know what exactly happened. What is painfully evident is that in Syria human life has no value. The attack on the convoy should be treated as a war crime.

One wonders why the five texts have been kept secret. One possible reason might be that Russia and the US have agreed on some political steps on the transition after the cease-fire which they might have hoped to extend after the first week. Here the US has a real difficulty. Since August 2011, it has been asking Assad to quit. The US knows that at present there is no question of Assad’s quitting. The US has accepted this, but cannot say it openly as Saudi Arabia is still insisting that Assad should quit for the transition to be completed. In December 2015, Riyadh formed a High Negotiating Committee (HNC) of which the head is Riyad Hijab, Prime Minister of Syria for a few months in 2012. On 7 September 2016, when the Kerry-Lavrov negotiations appeared deadlocked, the UK hosted a meeting of ‘Friends of Syria’ who can be more accurately described as ‘Foes of Assad’. UK’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was the host. Hijab presented a plan starting with the return of refugees and internally displaced to their homes and the release of prisoners in jails, followed by an 18-month cease-fire managed by a transitional government without Assad, and, finally, an UN-supervised election after which an elected government will take over. Hijab warned that the HNC would not accept any US-Russia plan that deviated from its own plan.

It is obvious that the HNC is delusional. It has prepared its plan based on the Geneva Communique of 2012. It does not realize that the said Communique is as dead as a dodo. In fact, while those who wanted to see the beginning of the end of Syria’s agony are saddened by the collapse of the cease-fire and the trust between Washington and Moscow, the HNC might feel glad. There is no real move towards peace in Syria as many, if not all, of the actors do not want to move towards peace. For example, Saudi men are not fighting and getting killed in Syria. Riyadh has only to pump in money to keep the war going.

We have seen one too many aerial attacks on hospitals for years. Assad has carried out such attacks recklessly and so far has got away unpunished. The latest is an attack (21st September) at a medical facility at Khan Touman in Aleppo province. Nine patients (possibly al Nusra fighters) and five medical workers were killed. It follows that Assad wants the injured fighters and those who attend to them to be killed.

Apart from the HNC, ISIL also might be pleased at the collapse of the cease-fire. If the cease-fire had held, the US and Russia would have carried out operations against ISIL with a degree of coordination. The same argument applies to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham too.

Another recent development to note is the Turkish incursion into Syria. Turkey has been planning Operation Euphrates Shield for about two years. It started the incursion on 24 August 2016, hours before US Vice President Biden came on a penitential visit. He had come to mollify President Erdogan who complained that the US had not shown any concern for him and Turkey when there was a coup attempt. Erdogan accused the US of shielding his foe Fehtullah Gulen, ‘the master mind behind the coup attempt’. The Turkish operation was aimed at ISIL as well as at YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units), a US ally in the fight against ISIL. Erdogan’s plan worked and Biden publicly warned ally YPG not to cross the Euphrates. The Kurds complied and wondered whether the US could be trusted. As of 19 September 2016, Turkey holds about 900 square kilometre of Syrian territory. Will Turkey move in further and run into a quagmire?

In conclusion, the Kerry-Lavrov agreement did not work because those who had to cease fire were not willing to abide by it. Lavrov had the easier task as he had to make only Assad comply. Kerry had to convince a multiplicity of actors and his colleague Defense Secretary Carter who had publicly aired his strong reservations about coordinating military action with Russia. The Geneva cease-fire agreement showed Kerry’s tenacity of purpose; he had worked on it for 10 months. There was an unpleasant exchange between Kerry and Lavrov at the Security Council (21 September). Kerry wondered whether Lavrov inhabited a ‘parallel universe’. Kerry may be right. But it follows that Kerry too is in a parallel universe of his own if he honestly believed that Russia and Assad really wanted an end to the horrendous bloodletting except on their terms and that he (Kerry) had the necessary clout to make the multitudinous actors in Syria comply with the agreement he made with Lavrov, even if they are called ‘moderates’. The US under Obama has painted itself into a corner in Syria with diminishing good options. What Obama’s successor might do is anybody’s guess. But, any worthwhile progress towards an end to the killing in Syria is unlikely to take place before the next US President assumes office. And it needs inexhaustible optimism to believe that the killing will stop any time soon.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.