EDITORIAL

A new ceasefire in Syria

A Reuters analysis published on Tuesday, September 13, reads: “A new ceasefire in Syria brought a full day with no combat deaths in the war between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents, a monitoring body said on Tuesday, as efforts to deliver aid to besieged areas got cautiously under way. Twenty-four hours after the truce took effect, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura declared the situation had improved dramatically, saying U.N. aid access should be possible soon including to eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of the city that is under blockade.” Thus, we are at the start of the implementation of a new ceasefire agreement in a Syria ravaged by well over five years of civil war. It is the second such agreement reached by Russia and the U.S. this year on the launch of the conflict resolution roadmap. As known, the first ceasefire agreement was reached at the end of February this year, also under the aegis of the U.S. and Russia, following lengthy talks between the heads of the diplomacies of these two great powers, being intended to open the way for the launch of negotiations between the rebel groups and the Assad Government over the launch of a period of transition and general elections.

Ever since March, the same great powers sponsoring the peace process, which at the time could be considered as already ongoing in line with the UN Security Council Resolution adopted on 18 December 2015, established the month of August as the deadline for the conclusion of negotiations in Geneva and for the move to a new stage of the peace process. It’s just that clashes grew in intensity in Syria during the summer of 2016, and new data entered the overall picture of the civil war. Worthy of mention is the situation around Aleppo, where government forced backed by Russian air power tried to eliminate the rebel forces, or the fact that Assad’s air force started to launch airstrikes against the Kurdish forces backed by the U.S., and Turkish armoured forces entered Syria to fight Peshmerga fighters and attempt to establish a zone of their own control.

Wide-ranging mutations were likewise registered on the political plane, such as the “rewarming” of Russian-Turkish relations in July, relations that had been characterised by hostility after the episode in which Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian tactical bomber in November 2015, and Ankara decisively changed its stance in Syria, admitting a role for Syrian leader B. Assad at least during the period of transition. Likewise, there were mutations in the case of the rebel camp too, some impactful, such as Nusra group’s split with Al Qaeda in order to enhance its influence among anti-government groups. This terrorist group is now called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and its forces are intermingled with rebel groups backed by the U.S., which makes hitting them extremely difficult.

The new ceasefire agreement has been negotiated by the Russian and American diplomacies since the start of August if not earlier, when wide-ranging changes were noticed in the situation on the ground, particularly in the Aleppo region and as a result of the change in Ankara’s attitude. At the G-20 Summit in China, the details of the agreement were also discussed at the level of Russian and American Heads of State, who decided to task the heads of their own diplomacies, S. Lavrov and J. Kerry respectively, with continuing working on the document. The agreement reached at the end of last week came into force on Monday, September 12, and is set to remain in force for seven days, after which – in case the ceasefire holds – a joint American-Russian coordination cell will be established in order to control the situation on the ground, including by cooperating and exchanging intelligence in order to hit rebel terrorist groups and the so-called Islamic State.

Several features of this new Russian-American agreement reveal its weaknesses and raise questions about the efficiency of its implementation. Thus, it has to be mentioned from the start, the text of the agreement has not been published, drawing sarcasm and scepticism from some commentators. Ian Bremmer noted on his Twitter account that “Obama admin should release terms of US-Russia deal on Syria. Before they’re leaked.” Basically, based on what American officials have stated in press conferences, the implementation of the agreement faces several obstacles. One of them is extremely important, especially since it concerns a U.S. Congress decision which asks for the cessation of any military cooperation with Russia, in force since 2014 after Moscow annexed Crimea. Hence, the agreement reached on the setting up of an American-Russian joint coordination cell will need, from a legal standpoint, a waiver from the Pentagon. Based on the news available at this moment, it seems the Pentagon has doubts in what concerns the efficiency of the agreement, especially when it comes to cooperating with the Russian partners on exchanging intelligence.

A recent article published by The New York Times shows that Pentagon officials allegedly disagree with putting into motion, after seven days of ceasefire, their own plan concerning “an extraordinary collaboration between the United States and Russia that calls for the American military to share information with Moscow on Islamic State targets in Syria.” At any rate, Pentagon officials have stated that they will not disclose to their Russian partners classified intelligence on the tactics they use and, on the other hand, they will try to drastically lower if not eliminate the civilian collateral casualties caused by Russian airstrikes carried out based on American intelligence. “Clearly there will be some authorities and legalities that we’re going to need to work through to make sure everybody understands what the agreement is,” an official said when asked if the U.S. can be considered a co-belligerent as a result of the fact that it provides intelligence for Russian airstrikes that could result in the loss of life among civilians. “I’m not going to tell you I trust them. We, from our side, have to do some planning and they need to do the right thing. We’ll see what happens from there.”

Another obstacle in the path of the agreement consists of the fact that all rebel groups – except Al Qaeda, al Nusra and of course the so-called Islamic Caliphate – will have to observe its provisions. But Al Nusra’s forces are extremely intermingled with other rebel groups, some of them backed by the U.S., and there is no certainty that briefing the Russian Air Force on their positions would not create advantages for the Assad regime, with the possibility of vetted rebel groups being eliminated as well. In fact, among the ranks of American officials there is a dose of scepticism about the Russian partners’ ability to meet the commitments they undertake in the new agreement. An AP analysis in this regard pointed out that: “senior U.S. officials said military and intelligence officials and other segments of the administration have serious doubts that Russia will be able to live up to its commitments in the deal, despite Moscow’s long-held desire for military cooperation with the U.S.”

We are thus at the start of a new chapter in the Syrian civil war which has already caused 430,000 victims and has forced millions of people to leave abroad, causing significant problems for neighbouring states and as far away as Europe, where this migration is having a major impact. It is to be hoped that the new Russian-American agreement whose implementation started on Monday would last and the road to peace would be launched. But most observers are sceptical in this regard.

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