September 26, 2016
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”. Six months later, in the absence of any progress, they decided to revive it. At a joint press conference in Geneva both Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov underlined that the agreement 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 encourage Assad, and the US has an ability together with other countries to encourage the opposition. Yet, twelve days later he told the UN Security Council (UNSC) that the agreement was “shredded by independent actors, by spoilers who don’t want a ceasefire”. The immediate reasons for the failure were a mistaken attack by coalition aircraft on Syrian government forces killing more than sixty soldiers and the controversy regarding the attack on a UN humanitarian aid convoy. In reality these are only the symptoms of multiple conflicts of interest facing Russia and the US in forging a united front in Syria.
Firstly, there is the question of trust. At a news conference in Hangzhou at the end of the G-20 summit President Obama said: “Given the gaps of trust that exist, that’s a tough negotiation, and we haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way where we think it would actually work…” And, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, despite their statements aimed at inspiring confidence, have never said that this was not a problem.
Secondly, while everybody seems to agree that there is not going to be a military solution to the conflict, Russian intervention has changed the ground situation in favor of the Assad regime. Moscow believes that the opposition sees this as a disadvantage at the negotiation table and is seizing every opportunity to reverse it. By contrast, Washington maintains that the regime is trying to eliminate all the opposition under the guise of fighting either ISIL or al Nusra.
Thirdly, there is the question of who constitutes the “moderate opposition” and who are the terrorists. Everybody agrees that ISIL and al Nusra are terrorist organizations though some may still see the latter in a different light. At the UNSC meeting on September 21, 2016 Foreign Minister Lavrov said:
“… I mentioned the list that our US partners handed over to us, which lists about 150 organizations as participants of the cessation of hostilities regime. However, immediately after September 12, over 20 of these groups officially declared that they will not comply with the agreements. By the way, Ahrar al-Sham, which we proposed including on the list of terrorist organizations together with another group, Jaish al-Islam, as part of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, is also on that list. Our partners then said that this will prevent us from working efficiently. As a goodwill gesture we did not insist at that time, limiting terrorist lists to Jabhat al-Nusra and the so-called Islamic State.
“Right after it was announced on September 12 that the Russian-US agreements had come into force, the Ahrar al-Sham leadership officially declared that it will not comply with them, because they designate Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization while Ahrar al-Sham does not regard it as such and closely collaborates with it.”
In brief, Russia does not seem to believe that a credible “moderate opposition” exists, at least on the battlefield. On September 6, 2016 the High Negotiation Committee (HNC), an umbrella body representing the Syrian opposition, unveiled in London a plan for Syria’s political transition. But how the HNC relates to the 150 organizations mentioned by Foreign Minister Lavrov remains a question.
And fourthly, there is the question of proxies. At the last UNSC meeting on Syria Secretary Kerry said:
“… Supposedly we all want the same goal. I’ve heard that again and again. Russia, Iran, the United States, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, everybody sits there and says we want a united Syria – secular, respecting the rights of all people, in which the people of Syria can choose their leadership. But we are proving woefully inadequate in our ability to be able to get to the table and have that conversation and make it happen.
“And let’s face it: Everybody in this room understands that there are proxies at this table and proxies outside of this room – and we know who they are – who have the ability to have an impact on the players in this conflict that has provided the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II…”
This is a clear recognition of the fact that there is still no united front to resolve the Syrian conflict.
It is worthy of note that Mr. Kerry in setting out the future political features of Syria assigned a “secular” character to it. Unfortunately, Washington’s key regional allies would beg to differ, if not seek to undermine that prospect. Because, for the Saudis secularism is impiety. And, Turkey’s Speaker of the Parliament stated only last April that the principle of secularism should be eliminated from a new Turkish constitution. Thus at this point, despite clashing strategic considerations and sharp differences on the cessation of hostilities, Washington’s broad outlook on Syria’s future may have just as much and maybe even more in common with Moscow than with its regional allies. This should be a frustrating situation for the Obama administration and its chief diplomat Mr. Kerry, or alternatively constitute an additional incentive for them to explore the grounds for renewed collaboration.