February 22, 2016

The U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire in Syria - are we being naive?

The United States and Russia have announced an agreement for a ceasefire in Syria, scheduled to take effect on Saturday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are calling the agreement a "cessation of hostilities" between the Syrian regime headed by President Bashar al-Asad and armed opposition groups seeking to overthrow him.

However, not all parties are included in the cease-fire. Notably absent from participation in the agreement are the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front) and any militias designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council. Given that these groups are involved in much of the violence in the country - ISIS killed over a hundred people in two Syrian cities under regime control just yesterday - it remains to be seen how effective such a limited ceasefire can be.

I support any efforts to staunch the seemingly endless bloodshed in Syria, however, I have some concerns with this particular agreement:

The timing is suspect. By delaying implementation of this ceasefire until Saturday, the Syrian Army - backed by massive Russian airpower - will be able to seize more territory prior to the "cessation of hostilities." In the past few weeks, the Syrian military has gained momentum on the ground, particularly in the Aleppo area - by Saturday, they may be able to completely encircle the rebels in the city.

I remain wary of any agreement brokered by Minister Lavrov and Secretary Kerry. Lavrov is a tough, skilled and experienced negotiator and no doubt has seized as much advantage as he can for the Russians. On the other side, we have an inexperienced John Kerry who seems to be unable to say no to any demands.

Look at Kerry's abysmal performance in the negotiations (I hesitate to even use the word) over the nuclear agreement with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Virtually every "non-negotiable" point was negotiated, usually in favor of Tehran. As an aside, Lavrov was also involved in this agreement, convincing Kerry to allow Iran to trade in conventional weapons after five years and ballistic missiles after eight years.

Secretary Kerry's record of dealing directly with Lavrov is no better. Remember the Lavrov-Kerry agreement on the removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons in 2013 after the Syrian Army used nerve gas against rebels in the suburbs of Damascus? Yet just two years later, Secretary Kerry again accused the Syrians of using chemical weapons - weapons the Syrians theoretically no longer possessed. Evidently, there was not an effective verification protocol and the Syrians retained a chemical weapons capability.

It is expected that the U.S-led coalition and the Russian Air Force will continue to conduct air operations against Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIS after the ceasefire takes effect. The problem is Russia's claims about what targets are ISIS and which are anti-regime opposition groups. Russian press releases claim airstrikes on ISIS targets in areas where there are no ISIS fighters. I have seen estimates that 80 to 90 percent of Russian targets claimed to be ISIS are in reality Syrian rebels. Who decides?

Along that same line, is the Syrian Air Force also permitted to conduct strikes on "terrorist" groups? The Syrian regime considers anyone involved in fighting against it as terrorists, be they members of the Free Syrian Army, other armed opposition groups, or Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIS. Again, who decides?

These questions over who determines who is covered and not covered by the agreement are the reasons the parties will establish a "communications hotline" and a "working group" to monitor the ceasefire. These 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. I worry that we are codifying a stalemate and prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people.


No sooner did I write this that the Syrian Arab Army Facebook page confirmed one of my concerns - they regard any of the anti-regime groups to be terrorists and thus excluded from the terms of the ceasefire.