April 21, 2016

Truce in Syria collapses as pro-regime forces move on Aleppo

It was a noble effort to staunch the bloodshed in Syria - by some estimates the war has claimed over 450,000 lives - but the truce was doomed from the start. The terms of the "cessation of hostilities," as it was officially titled, were too vague, too open to interpretation, and did not apply to several of the major combatant groups. Ceasefires only work when all parties agree to stop fighting - clearly not the case here.

The agreement, brokered by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, specifically excluded the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the al-Qa'idah affliliated Jabhat al-Nusrah ("the Victory Front"), and "other terrorist groups" designated by the United Nations. That list of other terrorist groups was never clarified - hence the problem.

That last clause was a major factor in the failure of the truce. In several CNN interviews, I identified it as a huge loophole that the Russians and Syrians were prepared to exploit - and exploit it they did.

The term "terrorists" has always been used by the government of President Bashar al-Asad to describe any armed group that opposes it - the Russians adopted a similar definition. Thus, anyone not on the regime side was considered outside the scope of the agreement and thus subject to continued military action. The Russians and Syrians continued air operations against virtually everyone.

When the Lavrov-Kerry agreement was announced, I wrote: "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." (Read the entire article, Syria: Cessation of hostilities - was John Kerry outplayed?)

The truce was conceived to provide an opportunity to reach a political solution to the five-year old conflict between the Syrian government and the myriad opposition groups seeking to overthrow al-Asad's Ba'ath Party regime. Despite the ceasefire agreement, the fighting continued. The Russians followed up the agreement with an announcement by President Vladimir Putin that he had ordered most of Russian forces to withdraw from Syria.

What actually happened was not a withdrawal, but merely a rotation of forces - the Russian expeditionary force in northern Syria is as potent as ever, but with different types of aircraft. Rather than a large number of fighter-bombers, the force is now composed of mostly attack aircraft and helicopter gunships. When the Syrian Army liberated the city of Palmyra from ISIS, Russian air assets were heavily involved - and controlled by Russian special forces soldiers embedded with the Syrian forces.

While several rounds of talks did take place in Geneva, for the most part the two sides were talking past each other. The opposition groups' primary demand was that any agreement include the removal of Bashar al-Asad from office. Syrian government officials insisted that the continuation of Bashar as president was a non-negotiable condition in any agreement. Neither side was willing to move away from those diametrically-opposed positions. Despite the maneuverings of John Kerry, neither side was open to compromise.

On April 18, the committee representing the opposition groups announced a "postponement" of the talks in Geneva, pointing to the lack of progress in the talks and the continued military buildup and operations in the Aleppo area. Not only is the Syrian Army moving more forces to the area, there are deployments of Lebanese Hizballah units, as well as forces from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and now the regular Iranian Army, and not to be overlooked, Russian advisers and artillery troops.

It is likely that without the foreign forces, the Syrian Army would be hard pressed to retake the city. Without retaking Aleppo, the regime cannot reassert control over the country.

The day after the announcement by the opposition groups that they were leaving the talks, Syrian Air Force fighter-bombers struck the produce market in the rebel-held city of Kafr Anbal, followed immediately by an attack on the produce market in Ma'arat al-Nu'aman, just five miles distant. The death toll approached one hundred.

Two markets hit one after the other just five miles apart - that appears to be deliberate targeting of civilians to me. A high-casualty attack on two cities, each with the reputation of being "poster children" for the rebellion, coming just one day after the opposition pulls out of the talks - a coincidence? Hardly.

It is a harbinger of things to come. The Syrian regime, with its Russian and Iranian supporters, will continue to kill thousands of Syrians. The introduction of Russian forces into Syria last year saved the Syrian Army from having to cede a large portion of northern Syria to the rebels. The impact of virtually indiscriminate bombing by the Russian Air Force allowed the Syrians to retake most of the ground they had lost in Idlib province, move back towards Aleppo and begin an encirclement of the city.

At the same time, the Syrians pushed east in Homs province, retaking the strategic - and culturally significant - city of Palmyra. It was a major victory for the Syrians - both real and symbolic - and a major defeat for ISIS. The Syrians appeared to be poised to advance further east towards the oil center of Dayr al-Zawr and relieve the besieged Syrian military garrison at and adjacent to Dayr al-Zawr air base. Things finally seemed to be going the Syrians' way - thanks to the Russian air umbrella.

However, with the collapse of the talks in Geneva, the Syrians have a tougher task. The focus for the next round of fighting will necessarily be Aleppo. Given the amount of military power being deployed by the Syrians and allies, I believe it is only a matter of time before Russian air strikes and artillery fire create the conditions by which the Syrian and Iranian ground troops encircle the city and eventually starve it into submission. We've seen this tactic work before.

It appears that the quagmire and bloodletting will continue unabated. Casualties will climb on both sides, but the majority of the dead and wounded will continue to be noncombatant civilians caught in the crossfire - most caused by the regime and its allies. Neither the Syrians, Iranian nor even the Russians are concerned about "collateral damage."

The eventual winners? Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.