September 12, 2016
Ever since the rise of ISIL and Syria’s proxy wars compelled Moscow and Washington to engage in greater cooperation they have had three hurdles to tackle:
• Breaking the deadlock over Assad’s future.
• Persuading the regional backers of Damascus and the opposition to give their support, not only in words but also in deeds, to a Syrian-owned political transition.
• Securing a broad-based agreement on who is a “terrorist” and who is a “moderate”.
During the past year, Syrian President’s future, at least during the initial phases of such transition, seems to have become less of an issue. Even his archenemy Turkey’s position has shifted. The other two still top the agenda, but in reverse order.
On February 22, 2016, the US and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. Accordingly, Russia and the US were expected to delineate, with other members of the ISSG’s Ceasefire Task Force, the territory held by “Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council” which were excluded from the cessation of hostilities. It was obvious that in view of conflicting interests this would be easier said than done.
Following their talks in Moscow in mid-July (*), Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov met in Geneva on August 26. During the joint press conference, Mr. Kerry stated that the cessation of hostilities exists for the most part on paper, if at all. He said that it needs to be overhauled in order to achieve reduction in violence and open the window of opportunity for a political solution. He also stated that the two sides had completed the vast majority of their discussions and if the remaining details could be completed, they would be able to address the two primary challenges to the cessation of hostilities: one, the regime violations, including the aerial bombardment of densely populated areas; and two, the increasing influence of the al-Nusra Front.
Mr. Lavrov put the emphasis on Al-Nusra and said:
“… I would like to once again mention a problem being caused by the fact that units cooperating with the United States and the US-led coalition are located in the same areas as Jabhat al-Nusra. Instead of merely staying there, they regularly cooperate with this organization, and they take part in its operations…”
Following their talks in China on the occasion of the G-20 summit, the two top diplomats met again in Geneva last Friday and announced, using cautious language, a new agreement to revive the “cessation of hostilities”. The details of the agreement are not going to be made public but it is understood that the “cessation” will start today at sunset. This will hopefully serve as a confidence building measure, open a window of opportunity for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and allow time for the “moderate” Syrian opposition to physically separate itself from terrorist organizations. After the cessation is fully functional for seven continuous days, Russia and the US will create a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) where their military representatives will engage in solving practical matters regarding delimitation and separation of terrorists from the moderate opposition. And, there will be coordinated strikes in agreed areas against terrorists.
With reference to al-Nusra Secretary Kerry said: “Now, I want to be clear about one thing particularly on this, because I’ve seen reporting that somehow suggests otherwise: Going after Nusra is not a concession to anybody. It is profoundly in the interests of the United States to target al-Qaida – to target al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, which is Nusra, an organization that is opposed to a peaceful transition, an organization that is an enemy of the legitimate opposition, an organization that is currently plotting attacks beyond Syria’s borders, including against the United States. So we must go after these terrorists – not indiscriminately, but in a strategic, precise, and judicious manner, so that they cannot continue to use the regime’s indiscriminate bombing in order to rally people to their hateful crimes. It is our belief that, in fact, Nusra and ISIL have grown stronger because of the bombing. Now, some might disagree, but that is our belief…”
And answering a question he said “… there was always a confusion with Nusra versus a legitimate opposition group. And in some cases they became melded together – marbleized, as some people have used the term – so that the Assad regime could say, “We’re going after Nusra,” but at the same time would be attacking those who had signed up for the cessation of hostilities. And that confusion lent itself to a complete ultimate fraying of the ceasefire structure…”
And, this is how Minister Lavrov responded: “I’m very glad that John said a very important thing. He said that the U.S. is firmly aimed to fight Nusra and those who believe that the fighting with Nusra is a concession to Russia are wrong. That is a very important statement, because a lot of people supposed that the United States are really not very desirable to fight with Nusra; they just keeping Nusra as Plan B for overthrowing of the regime. So today’s statement of John is greatly welcomed by me…”
Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov underlined that the arrangement they were announcing would only hold if the regime, the opposition and others met their obligations. Mr. Kerry said that the Russians have an ability to be able to encourage Assad, and the US has an ability together with other countries to encourage the opposition. Not an easy task…
The immediate aim of the agreement announced by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov is to defeat ISIL and al-Nusra and thus pave the way for Syria’s political transition. The first part on the plan now seems more feasible. ISIL’s sources of revenue have largely dried up. The Washington Post has reported that according to US intelligence assessments, ISIL’s flow of foreign fighters has plummeted. And now, there is full agreement on what al-Nusra represents. However, a growing number of analysts believe that the defeat of these terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria will mark the end neither of jihadist terror nor the Middle East turmoil. Secretary Kerry’s closing remarks in Geneva were revealing in this respect. He said: “… the crisis in Syria, obviously, is enormously complex and it is still, even as it’s complex, relatively simple at the same time. It’s complex for reasons that we all understand – the number of stakeholders with different agendas, the wounds that have been inflicted by years of fighting, the ideological and sectarian divides, the urban and suburban war zones, the brutality of extremists, and the unhelpful actions of some outside powers. But let me be clear: out of all of this complexity there is emerging now a simple choice between war and peace; between human agony and humanitarian relief; between the continued disintegration of an ancient society and the re-birth of a united and modern nation…”
The question is “who is going to make that choice?”
(*) A Critical Meeting in Moscow, July 20, 2016