THE BLOG
09/29/2016 09:53 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2017

Syria - The War Continues

Syria - The War Continues

"We as a nation . . . are delivering a message that the Syrian state is determined to recover all regions from the terrorists and restore security." (Bashar al-Assad)

Introduction

"Are we disappointed? Of course we are" (Staffan de Mistura)

At sunset on Monday, September 12, the Syrian ceasefire agreement that the foreign ministers of the United States and Russia (John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov) had negotiated was supposed to enter into force. That same evening was also the start of the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adah, an event that looked befitting; the celebration, which is sometimes also called the Feast of Sacrifice, is celebrated to commemorate the legend of Abraham's attempt to sacrifice his son, but who was stopped at the last moment by God.
It was not the first ceasefire agreement negotiated in the Syrian conflict, now in its sixth year. But what separated this agreement from earlier ones was mainly the fact that the U.S. and Russia were its guarantors; in theory, something that should have given the agreement a better chance to hold.
Much was at stake, and at the press conference that introduced the agreement, Kerry said that this was the last chance to save a united Syria, a statement which illustrated some of the desperation with which the agreement seems to have been entered into by the U.S. government. Immediately after it had entered into force, violations of the agreement were reported from both sides. This pattern is familiar from previous attempts to stop the killing in Syria; there is an acceptance that the ceasefire does not actually mean what it promises, i.e. that all the shooting stops, only that it (at best) decreases.
But of perhaps greater importance is that no solutions to the fundamental problems of the war in Syria were presented in the agreement; only that the ceasefire agreement would lead to new talks. And this only after air operations against IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously the al-Nusra Front) are escalated.

"A pact with the Devil"

"No one is building this (treaty) based on trust. It is based on a way of providing oversight and compliance through mutual interest" (John Kerry)

When Russia stepped up its military involvement in Syria almost exactly a year ago, the aim was to support President Assad's regime and prevent the rebels from taking advantage of their successes. The policy must be concluded as having been very successful; Assad is safer in the saddle than he has ever been before during the Syrian civil war and there's no indication that he's even considering resigning. The Russian support (along with troops and equipment from the Lebanese terror group Hizb'allah and its political and religious mentor, Iran) during the past year has meant that Assad has been able to push back rebel groups in many locations.
The fact that Russia and the U.S. are on different sides in the Syrian civil war has complicated the situation and contributed to the deadlock in the efforts to resolve the conflict in a political manner. But it's Russia that's pulled the longest straw in the conflict. While the U.S. government has been quite stingy with military assistance to the rebels it claims to support, Russia under Putin has shown no hesitation supporting the regime in Damascus. Although there are U.S. troops (mainly in the form of various special forces) in Syria, US military support has mainly been channeled through the Kurdish YPG, a group which the U.S. NATO ally, Turkey, labels a terrorist organization, which has further complicated and hampered the U.S. involvement in Syria. U.S. support for the YPG can be traced to the fact that this group undoubtedly fields the best military force among the Assad regime's opponents. But that support has also pinned two U.S. allies against each other, which led to direct confrontation when Turkey invaded northern Syria in late August/early September. The (limited) invasion was more about Turkey wanting to prevent the Kurdish forces' expansion westward (to tie together various Kurdish enclaves) than to prevent IS from further military advances.
Since the Russians bolstered their support for Assad's regime, much of the negotiations between the U.S. and Russia have focused on preventing conflicts between the militaries of the two countries (primarily aircraft). And during this entire time, Russian aircraft has bombed rebels and civilian targets belonging groups that the U.S., at least rhetorically, claims to support. Russia has fully embraced the Syrian regime's vocabulary in which practically all rebel groups are classified as terrorists, and consequently can be attacked.
In addition, the U.S. and Russian militaries have, especially since the Russian annexation of Crimea, increasingly ended up in confrontational situations. Here, the Russian military has been the most aggressive, for example with close flight maneuvers against U.S. vessels in the Baltic Sea. Therefore, there is a great distrust of Russia within the U.S. administration (not just at the Pentagon) and the distrust has also led to conflict between the Pentagon and Kerry's State Department. This conflict has also impacted the new ceasefire agreement, to which Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was very skeptical, and - with the support of senior military leaders - unwilling to carry out joint military operations with Russia against IS and Jabhat Fatha al-Sham, as the agreement stipulates.
Secretary of State Kerry's goal to bring about a ceasefire that would lead to further negotiations about a long-term solution of the Syrian conflict thus increasingly appears as a last-ditch effort to bring about some sort of solution before Obama's last term is over.
The agreement locks the front lines where the regime has all the benefits and also provides Damascus with a right to veto the aid convoys that should have started the first week; aid convoys that were meant to supply the beleaguered opposition groups and rebel-controlled civilian areas with basic goods and medicine is thus dependent on the Syrian government - which is fundamentally responsible for the situation - consenting to the convoys in writing.
Finally, as reported the New York Times, Kerry himself expressed that he didn't believe the agreement would hold. And it's perhaps symptomatic of that skepticism when several days after the agreement was announced, the U.S. State Department still hadn't released either the text of the agreement or even a summary.

Several wars in one

*"bellum omnium contra omnes" (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan)

The above quote from Syrian President Assad makes it rather clear that he doesn't in any way believe that the war in Syria is about to be over. The statement came the same day the agreement would enter into force, and shows quite clearly that Assad himself hardly sees this agreement as a first step towards a peaceful settlement of the war he himself has started. And immediately after the agreement came into force, Syrian aircraft bombed rebels in Aleppo while forces loyal to the regime shelled the road that's supposed to be used to bring aid shipments with basic supplies and medicine to besieged civilians. Furthermore, Assad expressed joy that the West was "sad and vanquished" and that a solution to the conflict lies in defeating the terrorists. Thus, nothing about any ceasefire or truce.
The war in Syria is often described as a war against the Islamic State (IS). And it is true that IS has many enemies and very few allies among other organized groups. But equally true is that the enemies of IS also see each other as enemies. This effort against IS has also led to the smoothing over of other conflicts, or altogether ignoring them. For example, the fact that it is the Syrian regime which causes and has caused the absolute majority of all civilian deaths in Syria - not IS. And here's a fact that the unilateral focus on IS has entailed; an inability (or perhaps unwillingness) of Western political leaders and military officials to realize that for many Syrians, President Assad's regime - and his allies Russia, Iran and various Shiite militias - are an even greater evil than IS.
So regardless of whether changed circumstances after this agreement can lead to new talks or not, the other conflicts that define the civil war in Syria and the war being waged against IS in both Syria and Iraq remain. And those are conflicts which in many cases already have led to new small wars flaring up around the region.
The first of these small wars is partly that between the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds and the Syrian Arab groups supported by Turkey, and partly the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds in general. Whether it's in Syria, Iraq or Turkey, it's a priority for Turkey to crush the Kurds and when it comes to Syria, prevent the Kurdish forces to expand westward along the Turkish-Syrian border. Both of these conflicts have led to outright combat, and despite calls from the United States to refrain from further acts of war (after all, these are U.S.-allied combatants), tensions remain.
The second war is that between the Syrian regime and the Syrian Kurds. This battle has already started to some extent, but a shaky truce is in effect as long as both parties view other factions as more immediate threats, and the Kurds' proclaimed desire for more autonomy is in direct conflict with President Assad's ambitions for a united Syria.
The Turkish invasion of Syria to stop the Kurds from expanding westward could also lead to combat between Turkey and Syria, even if the limited operation seems to have stalled at the moment.
In Iraq, there's also an old conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. That conflict can easily flare up and if the threat from IS eventually goes away or decreases, we have every reason to be wary of future clashes. Likewise, the tensions between the Shiite militias that have expanded their area of operation in the battles against IS have already led to minor skirmishes between Kurdish and Shiite militias.
The same goes for armed conflict between Sunni militias and their Shiite and Kurdish counterparts. As the war against IS approaches Mosul and areas where Sunnis and Kurds dominate, there's a risk that conflicts between these two groups and the Shiites will escalate. These Shia militias see themselves as directly involved in the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad's project to extend its control over all of Iraq, and that means potential conflicts with other ethnic groups in the country.
All of these combined are conflicts that must be resolved - regardless of the outcome of the war against IS and whether any ceasefire agreement will survive longer than a week into the future.

Carrot or stick?

"An iron fist in a velvet glove?"

When the ceasefire agreement was presented, it became clear that there were some weaknesses in the mechanisms that would make the agreement hold, and that would lead to more permanent peace talks. Or rather; it totally lacked such mechanisms. For example, there was nothing in the agreement regarding sanctions for potential breaches of the agreement (which then occurred immediately). Nor was it stated in which way the U.S. and Russia expected that the two groups, which both countries agreed to classify as terrorists (IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), would pay attention to any ceasefire. Especially since those two groups, when the agreement had been in effect for a week, would be subject to joint military attacks by the U.S. and Russia. Apart from the fact that this scenario must be considered completely unrealistic, it's strange that this aspect of the agreement doesn't seem to have attracted much attention in the negotiations.
Another failure was, as stated above, to give Assad the right to veto aid shipments. Why Assad, who's always maintained his right to military strikes against "terrorists" (i.e. all who oppose him and the regime) was given the opportunity to exercise control over one of the key aspects of the agreement is beyond incomprehensible.
The agreement was based on the U.S. and Russia influencing and persuading their respective allies to agree to these conditions. But Russia has always worked to ensure that Assad will remain in power, contrary to the demands of the U.S. (and the opposition). But even if they had wanted to, it seems quite obvious that Putin and his foreign minister, Lavrov, lack such control over Assad.
And in the case of the U.S., it's even more apparent that it cannot control its allies. The American aid to the groups that they've supported (albeit in a limited way) hasn't led to any greater influence over how these groups operate.
For Russia, it's quite obvious that the time-limited extended military support to the Assad regime has paid off well; Assad is safer in the saddle now than before the Russians boosted their support a year ago, and the opposition is weaker. With support from Iran and Lebanese Hizb'allah, the conditions are set for a negotiation that may very well result in Assad remaining in charge. With little support from the U.S. and the West, the only somewhat effective opposition groups are the most militant Islamists, which the rest of the world has agreed not to support, and the Kurdish YPG forces. But the latter are sworn enemies of the NATO country Turkey, and therefore it's problematic for the United States to support them more than they already do.
There's a lesson for the United States and the West here; when President Obama vetoed against more robust U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war (with opposition from Secretary Clinton, the Pentagon and a vast number of security policy experts, all of whom argued for such a U.S. effort ), he did it with the motivation that there was no good way for the U.S. to - with a limited but expanded military operation - give the opposition a means to negotiate from a stronger position and thus benefit the United States and its allies in the region. Such a scenario would lead to a new drawn-out war, as in Iraq or Afghanistan. In addition, he said that a major U.S. commitment would only deepen the conflict, leading to more suffering for the civilian population as well as play in favor of the extremists' agendas. All these concerns were realized anyway, without an expanded American involvement, and with the result that Putin did exactly what Obama said was impossible; namely, a time-limited effort to give its allies (Assad in Putin's case) the help that was needed to achieve the upper hand that may ultimately lead to victory. It's far from what one of Obama's predecessors (Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt) ruled a good principle: "Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far."

Finally

"But what is happening is unreasonable...There is no clear plan for anything." (Brita Haji Hasan, president of the opposition council in Aleppo).

There were two key aspects of the U.S.-Russian agreement; partly that a ceasefire would enter into effect (which didn't happen, although the weapons went silent for a brief moment), and partly that aid shipments would immediately begin to roll out to the besieged areas where civilians, in some cases for several years, have been suffering from starvation and bombs from Syrian (and from the fall of 2015) Russian aircraft. The latter is of great importance for a more long-term solution to be reached. The agreement stipulated that both of these aspects of the agreement must be implemented within seven days from the start of the ceasefire. But that didn't happen, which hardly could've surprised anyone; the Syrian regime, with kind assistance from Russia, has never respected any agreement on aid deliveries to areas that are either besieged by Syrian forces or controlled by rebel groups. Hence, President Assad declared that the ceasefire was over one week after it was announced. The statement was immediately followed by air strikes on an aid convoy east of Aleppo, which was about to deliver food and medicine to the besieged civilians in the city. The aircraft - which a first preliminary investigation concludes were Russian - bombed vehicles marked with the Red Crescent and the International Red Cross symbols, killing at least 12 aid workers. The attack marked a sort of conclusion to the political charade that the U.S. and Russia have engaged in during the final months leading up to the presentation of the agreement. And from there it went downhill; later in the week, Syrian and Russian forces launched a new offensive against the rebels in Aleppo with severe air-bombardments killing scores of civilians in and around Aleppo .
The agreement that the U.S. and Russia announced after long negotiations thus experienced a similar fate as previous attempts to bring about peace in Syria. As I've hopefully demonstrated above, this was a result of too divergent ideas about what might come out of the agreement and of the fact that Russia and the U.S. never agreed on the starting points or even regarding which players should be included in the agreement. In essence, far too little consideration of the reality that controls the events on the ground and when it comes to the Americans, an underestimation of the Russian political leadership's will to extend President Assad's regime their full support.
Hence, there's a great risk that the type of peace expected by the U.S.-Russian agreement best can be summarized by the American author and journalist Ambrose Bierce's definition: "In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting"