By Ranjit Gupta*
The war in Syria is still raging after over five and half years since its outset. Several initiatives have been undertaken to try and end it – first through the Arab League, then Geneva I, Geneva II and the Vienna Process, where even a calendar of steps for bringing peace to Syria was laid out. Obviously, partisan efforts by Western countries and their Arab Gulf allies in the UN Security Council (UNSC) were defeated by Chinese and Russian vetoes.
Finally, in February 2016 the US, Russia and 19 other countries met in Munich, preceded by intensive negotiations between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and an agreement for a ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria’s civil war was announced. On 26 February, the UNSC endorsed this initiative through Resolution 2268. Special Envoys Kofi Annan and Lahkdar Brahimi had toiled without success and resigned; Stefan de Mistura continues his efforts. Despite all this, the situation within Syria has continued to steadily worsen. Given the complex ground realities, a meaningful improvement is nowhere on the horizon, let alone being imminent.
After another round of marathon negotiations conducted secretly between Kerry and Lavrov, a new deal was announced on 09 September, to bring about a ceasefire with the deal coming into effect at 7:00 pm on 12 September. Kerry outlined the main features of the deal at the press conference while announcing the same.
An Overview of the Deal
The Syrian regime and the opposition will cease all attacks against each other including aerial bombardments and shall not attempt to gain additional territory at the expense of each other; both sides will agree to provide unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all besieged and hard-to-reach areas including, in particular, in and around Aleppo; non jihadist opposition groups are expected to sever connections with Fateh al Sham (earlier called Al Nusra Front – an al Qaeda outfit); after seven continuous days of adherence to the cessation of hostilities and increased humanitarian access to the besieged civilian populations, Russia and the US will begin working together to defeat Fateh al Sham and the Islamic State (IS) jihadist groups; after a “period of reduced violence” the US and Russia “will facilitate a political transition which is the only way to bring about a durable end to this war.”
The Syrian regime immediately accepted the deal; most opposition rebel groups have also accepted but less categorically and the most powerful, Ahrar al Sham, has rejected it. As of 18 September 2016, the ceasefire is largely holding and fighting has noticeably reduced but humanitarian supplies have not been getting through. However, with opposing sides in Syria increasingly accusing each other of violations and barbs being traded between Russia and the US, even at presidential levels, immediate short-term prospects of the deal working appear bleak.
The continuing deep distrust between the two protagonists of the deal, Washington and Moscow, was publicly articulated robustly by both US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter throughout the two weeks of the Kerry-Lavrov negotiations leading up to the announcement of the deal. Even Kerry’s remarks at the press conference unveiling the deal were peppered with deep uncertainty if not scepticism – e.g. the repetitive use of phrases such as ‘if this happens’, ‘if those concerned implement the deal’, etc. An extremely clear reflection of the enormous difficulties ahead is the fact that the US has made it absolutely clear that the detailed text of the deal cannot be released because if the deal breaks down, the details will be hugely useful to Assad. These are not propitious omens for potential success.
This deal is believed to be very detailed in contrast to past efforts. However, there are no mechanisms to ensure implementation of even a single element of the deal and there are far too many loopholes that can easily be exploited by different parties to continue doing what they have been doing in the past.
Kerry had said that “if groups within the legitimate opposition want to retain their legitimacy, they need to distance themselves in every way possible from Nusra and Daesh.” This is perhaps the single most essential key to the deal working out because most rebel groups operate in very close proximity to Nusra fighters when not embedded together in rebel controlled areas. Opposition rebels will inevitably be hit whenever the Syrian regime attacks al Nusra fighters, as it will inevitably do as al Nusra is excluded from the ceasefire, and then the regime will be accused of violating terms of the deal. But who will ensure that this separation is brought about? Neither the US nor Russia can do so. Most of the more effective rebel groups are proxies of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and though they have verbally welcomed the deal, do these countries have the ability or frankly, even any desire or intention, to bring about this separation?
Russia has given enough indications that it is not committed to keeping Assad in power beyond a transitional phase. If Russia can persuade Assad to refrain from attacking al Nusra for the next few weeks, progress to the next stage – US and Russia taking on Nusra and Daesh – could take place which is an essential prerequisite for the third stage: initiating a political transition. However, the opposition rebels are resolutely opposed to Assad’s continuation for even a very limited period of transition. Will a hugely politically weakened Obama, now also in the last four months of his presidency, and with the US’ influence in the region at a historic low, have the clout to persuade Saudi Arabia and its allies to persuade the rebels to accept Assad even for a short time? If Assad is excluded completely from transitional arrangements no progress on a solution is possible at all – Assad and Iran will ensure that notwithstanding Russian views.
Another significant uncertainty is as to whether the exceedingly disparate opposition can cobble together a meaningful representative entity to be a partner in any transitional authority? The obduracy and unalloyed attachment to zero-sum outcomes of all the very large number of players on the ground in Syria is a very serious impediment to a solution.
Furthermore, the deal does not say anything about the presence of foreign Shiite militias such as Hezbollah, which like al Qaeda and the IS, is considered a terrorist group by the US, and the Turkish Army having physically entered Syria to prevent the westward advance of Syrian Kurds, who are the US’ most effective ally against Daesh. These issues have the potential to derail any forward movement.
The past six years have witnessed many unpredictable surprises thrown up in the Arab world and West Asia. Making predictions, always hazardous, has become more iffy now. The many negative elements outlined above and the even more numerous imponderables make it difficult to be even mildly optimistic of this new deal bringing an early end to the conflict in Syria. That said, it will be good for the world at large and for the people of Syria in particular if this prognostication is proved wrong.
* Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India