February 29, 2016

Syria: Cessation of hostilities - was John Kerry outplayed?

One week ago, I wrote an article titled The U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire in Syria - are we being naive? which I closed with this thought: "These [ceasefire monitoring] working groups generally become bureaucratic talk shops where nothing is resolved amid unceasing accusations and counterclaims, while the bloodshed continues. Russian and Syria aircraft will likely continue to attack the same groups they are fighting today under the guise of attacking ISIS."

We are now just over three days into the Russian and American brokered ceasefire (technically a "cessation of hostilities") in Syria. While the two primary architects of the agreement - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry - take a victory lap (see photo), Syrians continue to die at the hands of the Russian and Syrian armed forces.

What many Syria observers, including me, suspected from the beginning of the ceasefire talks is in fact happening. The Russian and Syrian air forces continue their savage attacks on what they have labeled "terrorists." In reality, these are mostly so-called "moderate" anti-regime rebels, many of whom are being either overtly or covertly supported by the United States and some of its allies. In the minds of the Syrians, anyone taking up arms against the government is a terrorist.

Not to be outdone, Russian media releases tout their attacks on ISIS, yet virtually all of the targets hit by the Russians are in areas far from known ISIS positions. These attacks have been conducted northwest of Aleppo, in the large rebel-held areas between Hamah and Homs, along the coastal mountain range east of the city of Latakia (in proximity to the air base used by the Russians), and even in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

The situation before and after the "cessation of hostilities" for the Syrian armed forces and the Russian Air Force pilots deployed to Humaymin Air Base remains the same - continue to attack anyone opposing the regime of Bashar al-Asad, in the name of fighting terrorists, a loophole in the negotiated ceasefire agreement.

The only groups seemingly adhering to the agreement are the moderate rebels - if they dare launch an attack, it would simply draw even more brutal Russian and Syrian attacks, this time with reasonable justification. A cynic could surmise that the ceasefire is nothing more than open season on the rebels.

This is not a surprise to people familiar with the situation in Syria or the players involved - it does seem to be a surprise for Secretary Kerry. While we all hope for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, this agreement will not accomplish that.

Has John Kerry been outplayed by Sergey Lavrov?

It will not have been the first time in this part of the world - I will forego other regions in which Kerry and Lavrov have negotiated. As I stated in my last article, Lavrov and Kerry have had at least three rounds of either direct or indirect negotiations concerning the Middle East. The results: the flawed Iranian nuclear agreement, the obviously failed Syrian chemical weapons agreement, and now a ceasefire that isn't.

Even the French are outraged by the continuing Russian and Syrian air attacks. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said, "We have received indications that attacks, including by air, have been continuing against zones controlled by the moderate opposition. France has therefore demanded that the task force charged with overseeing the cessation of hostilities meet without delay."

The task force to which Ayrault is referring is the "International Syria Support Group" (ISSG), led by the United States and Russia, charged with monitoring compliance. That is diplo-speak for what I described earlier as a "bureaucratic talk shop where nothing is resolved amid unceasing accusations and counterclaims."

I am afraid we have set up a long-term stalemate where hundreds of Syrians will continue to die while Russia and Syria diplomatically fend off accusations that they are violating the ceasefire - they will continue to strike any target they wish regardless of American and Western objections. They have done it before, and they will do it again.

Well played, Messrs. Putin and Lavrov.