Is this the beginning of the end of the war in Syria? Read the statement put out by the United States and Russia in Munich, Germany on Thursday night and one might be forgiven for thinking so. But the conflict remains as intractable as ever.
The Creation of the ISSG
It has long been obvious that some form of international understanding would have to precede meaningful negotiations among the Syrian parties, all of whom depend on foreign support to wage war on their countrymen. Such a consensus long proved elusive. But since 2014, three factors have converged to change all parties’ calculus about a limited agreement: the rise of a common enemy in the form of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a thaw in American-Iranian relations, and Russia’s September 30, 2015 military intervention in Syria which shook up the familiar pattern of the war and shocked the international community into action.
Soon after the Russian Air Force began bombing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies, the governments of the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and several other countries, as well as international organizations such as the United Nations and the Arab League, convened a meeting in Vienna. Together, they formed the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), an international contact group intended to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
The ISSG’s meeting in Vienna on November 14 sketched out the outlines of a new peace process in Syria. Under this model, talks between the Syrian regime and various opposition groups aiming for a ceasefire and free elections would be managed by the UN and ISSG. What followed was a flurry of opposition conferences—notably one in Riyadh in December 2015—and, finally, the Geneva III peace conference convened in late January 2016.
The Geneva III talks had barely begun, however, before they were suspended. The reason was an opposition walkout, provoked by a Russian- and Iranian-backed government offensive in the Aleppo region against the increasingly underpowered rebellion. By early February, that offensive had managed to cut the Azaz Corridor, a crucial supply line in northern Syria, giving Assad and his allies a decisive edge over their rivals. It was such a disaster for the opposition that observers have even been speculating about whether Ankara might intervene militarily to save its rebel allies, despite the risk of sparking a regional conflagration. (A military source recently told Hürriyet that Turkey would not enter Syria except on the request of the UN Security Council.)
The peace process seemed to be in tatters until the ISSG reassembled in Munich on Thursday and issued a lengthy statement vowing to seek a “cessation of hostilities.”
What went on in the dark recesses of international diplomacy we may never know, but it seems likely that two factors were crucial in securing the February 11 agreement: Russian satisfaction and American embarrassment.
Assad’s advances in Aleppo, Latakia, and Daraa have significantly improved his position and undermined the rebellion. While the Kremlin would undoubtedly have preferred to push a little further—according to the Washington Post, Russian diplomats recently tried to convince their American counterparts to delay a ceasefire until the end of this month—plenty has been gained already. For Assad and the Russians, a ceasefire that allows them to catch their breath and secure their gains might not be a bad idea.
Conversely, continuing on in the face of American opposition and Turkish and Saudi outrage might have proven costly. The impression that the United States had been outmaneuvered by Moscow at the Geneva III talks may have contributed to a tougher line in Munich; some participants at the meeting said they “had noted a new U.S. willingness to stand up to the Russians.”
What Does the ISSG Statement Say?
Although it pays lip service to the idea of a political transition and, sometime in the future, free elections, the Munich statement is mainly about finding a way out of the current dangerous stalemate. The most important and headline-grabbing paragraphs were, of course, the ones about how and when to end the violence:
The ISSG members agreed that a nationwide cessation of hostilities must be urgently implemented, and should apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities against any other parties other than Daesh[i.e. Islamic State], Jabhat al-Nusra [i.e. Nusra Front/al-Qaeda], or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council. The ISSG members commit to exercise influence for an immediate and significant reduction in violence leading to the nationwide cessation of hostilities.
The ISSG members decided to take immediate steps to secure the full support of all parties to the conflict for a cessation of hostilities, and in furtherance of that have established an ISSG ceasefire task force, under the auspices of the UN, co-chaired by Russia and the United States, and including political and military officials, with the participation of ISSG members with influence on the armed opposition groups or forces fighting in support of the Syrian government. The UN shall serve as the secretariat of the ceasefire task force.
The cessation of hostilities will commence in one week, after confirmation by the Syrian government and opposition, following appropriate consultations in Syria. During that week, the ISSG task force will develop modalities for the cessation of hostilities.
The ISSG task force will “resolve allegations of non-compliance” with the ceasefire regulations and “refer persistent non-compliant behavior by any of the parties to ISSG Ministers, or those designated by the Ministers, to determine appropriate action, including the exclusion of such parties from the arrangements for the cessation of hostilities and the protection it affords them.”
In other words, the American-Russian task force will be responsible for declaring outlaws and might also take it upon themselves to deliver a suitable punishment by way of airstrikes.
As an aside, one cannot help noting similarities with the recent peace proposal published by the RAND Corporation, which was co-written by President Barack Obama’s former coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf, Philip H. Gordon. The report, which appears to have been widely circulated in the White House, proposed a ceasefire based on existing frontlines that would be enforced by international powers policing the actions of their own Syrian client groups from the air or with embedded troops.
The Terrorism Listing Dispute
The task force will also be responsible for mapping out territory held by the Nusra Front, the Islamic State, and “other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council.” When it comes to these factions and the territory they control, the cessation of hostilities would not apply; indeed, all parties would be encouraged to continue their attacks.Security Council resolution 2254, from December 2015, which is referenced in the new ISSG statement, actually calls upon UN member nations to “eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Syria.”
Since the Vienna meeting in November, Russia has tried to persuade the Security Council to add two other Sunni Islamist groups to the list of terrorists: the Islam Army and Ahrar al-Sham. Neither group has been implicated in acts of international terrorism, but they are starkly fundamentalist, hostile to democratic governance, and some leading members have ties to pre-2011 jihadism in Iraq and elsewhere.
If roles were reversed, the United States might not have been so picky. The U.S. army spent almost a decade refusing to distinguish between al-Qaeda in Iraq and other armed Sunni groups, labeling them all “terrorists” and bombing them with little concern for their differences. But in Syria, the White House has suddenly become a scrupulous advocate of nuance. This is of course because the Americans realize that if the Islam Army and Ahrar al-Sham were relegated to the jihadi camp, there would be very little left of the moderate opposition they are trying to leverage simultaneously against Assad and the Islamic State.
The United States has therefore preferred to describe these groups as problematic albeit legitimate members of the Syrian opposition and it has resisted their inclusion on a terrorist list. According to a U.S. government source speaking to Syria in Crisis on Friday, the ISSG’s reference to “other groups” does therefore not imply that the United States has changed its position on the terrorism listings. To the contrary, American diplomats kept pushing back against Russian demands in Munich, ensuring that the Islam Army and Ahrar al-Sham will stay off the UN’s terrorism list for the foreseeable future.
Humanitarian Aid Deliveries
Another part of the ISSG statement takes aim at humanitarian issues, vowing that “sustained delivery of assistance shall begin this week by air to Deir Ezzour and simultaneously to Fouah, Kafrayah, the besieged areas of Rural Damascus, Madaya, Moadhamiya, and Kafr Batna by land, and continue as long as humanitarian needs persist.”
The first of these places is under siege by the Islamic State, the second two by Western- and Gulf-backed rebels and al-Qaeda, and the three last ones are besieged by the Assad government and its allies, including Hezbollah. Recent deaths from starvation in Madaya focused world attention on the issue of sieges in Syria and drew widespread condemnation of the Syrian government, Hezbollah, and Russia, for its apparent refusal to push Assad to comply with UN resolutions on the matter.
The growing likelihood that the Syrian government will be able to place rebel-held eastern Aleppo under siege, potentially depriving upwards of 300,000 civilians of food and necessities, was probably another reason these paragraphs were inserted.
Peace in Our Time?
Can this work? Peace agreements in Munich have, historically speaking, had a meager track record. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has staked much of his personal prestige on engaging Russia over Syria, but even he sounded less than certain at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. “What we have here are words on paper,” Kerry said. “What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground.”
The devil is, as always, in the details. There are certainly plenty of unresolved issues that could delay, undermine, and ultimately prevent an implementation of the Munich deal.
The most obvious one is that two of Syria’s most powerful armed groups, the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, will not be covered by the ceasefire. Islamic State territory is fairly well delineated, as the group is at war with everyone else in Syria, but the Nusra Front will be a harder nut to crack. The group has embedded itself deep within the broader Syrian opposition, and it is a mainstay of opposition forces in the Idlib-Hama region and certain areas around Aleppo. If the Nusra Front continues to fight, and the Syrian and Russian governments continue to attack locations where Nusra jihadists are said to be present, how is a ceasefire supposed to hold? This is where the U.S. bet on a moderate opposition being able to carry the day once the fighting ends becomes problematic; even the best-case options look bad.
If hostilities end, in whole or in part, the Nusra Front could decide to keep its head low and avoid disturbing a peace in order to not lose face with the civilian population or rebel allies. Some people in touch with the group have suggested it would do so. But such a step might easily split the group, which already faces legitimacy issues vis-à-vis the Islamic State, and it would at best postpone the problem.
Other rebel groups could also decide to face down the Nusra Front militarily. But for that to succeed, it would require both Ahrar al-Sham and the Islam Army to take a stand against the group, potentially splitting their own ranks. The ensuing infighting would likely destabilize the rebel movement to an even greater degree than the insurgents’ 2014 split with the Islamic State, providing spoilers on all sides with ample reason to restart the war.
How Good Is Moscow’s Word These Days?
Another problem is the extraordinarily bad faith shown by the Russian leadership in this conflict. Ever since it intervened in September 2015, the Russian government has been disgorging disinformation in bulk volumes through state-owned outlets like RT and Sputnik News.
Official Russian sources have consistently and deliberately mislabeled targets in Syria, with the Russian Air Force claiming to have bombed Islamic State fighters in areas of western Syria where it knows full well that the group is not present. When confronted with such inaccuracies, the Russian government’s response has typically been to repeat the original falsehood and go on to tell another.
One recent example is illustrative. On February 10, the state-owned TASS news agency ran a report featuring Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova denying claims that Russia is using “free-fall bombs” instead of guided precision munitions in Syria. Indignantly, she slammed such claims as “irresponsible” and “absolutely inadmissible.” TASS chose to illustrate Zakharova’s statement with a Russian Defense Ministry-provided photograph of a Russian jet dropping an unguided, free-fall bomb on Syria.
As government propaganda goes, this is not very sophisticated, but it does not need to be. There seems to be no intention to convince or gain the trust of new audiences. Rather, there is a purposeful effort to rally the pro-Putin base and to confuse and overwhelm the international media by a relentless barrage of false leads. If it were only the state media, it would be one thing: the problem is that these claims are repeated with poker-faced seriousness even at the highest levels of government, confounding and frustrating diplomats trying to engage the Russians on Syria.
The way the Munich agreement is set up, implementation depends on a minimum of fair play from both Russia and the United States. Or as the ISSG statement put it, “all members will undertake their best efforts, in good faith, to sustain the cessation of hostilities.” Washington’s own compliance with the letter and spirit of the agreement is far from guaranteed—and judging by the past few months, anyone hoping that Moscow will stand by its word is in for a surprise.
Thus, the planned cessation of hostilities would be unlikely to last long if the Russian government simply decides to proceed as before, labeling every anti-Assad group a part of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda and continuing to bomb in contravention of the agreement.