The pros and cons of a doomed ceasefire

The first thing I said on Alhurra yesterday regarding the partial or “provisional” ceasefire that the US and Russia agreed yesterday to (try to) implement in Syria (reportedly starting at midnight on Friday) was that we should welcome it if only because of the possibility that desperately needed humanitarian aid might get to some of Syria’s besieged, starving populations in places like Madaya and Kefraya. I hadn’t yet seen the text of the agreement when I went on air, but one of its five main points speaks directly to that issue:

To allow humanitarian agencies, rapid, safe, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their operational control and allow immediate humanitarian assistance to reach all people in need

It shouldn’t be underestimated how important it will be to get relief to those gravely afflicted places. Absolutely this ceasefire should be attempted, at least, just for the humanitarian component alone. Hopefully this will set a precedent for continuing humanitarian assistance once the ceasefire collapses, because, oh boy, this thing doesn’t stand much of a chance of holding.

Syria as of February 21 (Wikimedia | Spesh531)

Let’s get the good news out of the way first. Both the “official” Syrian opposition, the High Negotiations Council, and Bashar al-Assad’s government have announced their support for the arrangement. For Assad this must have been a pretty simple decision, since he’s really giving up nothing under the agreement, and for the HNC, well, they announced that they’ll abide by the agreement in terms that suggest they think it will fall apart pretty quickly.

Now let’s get to the bad news. For one thing, there are still ~3 days before the ceasefire is to go into effect, so you can expect to see even more fighting than usual as everybody tries to gobble up whatever they can before they’re supposed to stop fighting. But really, don’t expect this arrangement to last for very long. The whole deal hinges on, and will likely collapse because of, the agreement’s first paragraph:

The nationwide cessation of hostilities is to apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities against any other parties other than “Daesh”, “Jabhat al-Nusra”, or other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council.

So ISIS, Nusra, and “other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council” are still fair game to be fired upon. As far as ISIS goes, that’s pretty easy to determine–one of ISIS’s defining characteristics is that it doesn’t play well with others. But Nusra has been fighting side-by-side with Syrian rebels for months now, most prominently in the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition that took control of Idlib province last summer and prompted Russia to get involved in the war to save Assad’s hide. They’re so interwoven with the general rebellion, including the “moderate” rebels that make up the HNC, that the United States tried to talk Russia into including them in the ceasefire because otherwise it will be too difficult to determine which potential targets are legitimate Nusra targets and which belong to the mainstream opposition and should therefore be off limits. To repeat, the United States was negotiating on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

So it’s inevitable that some Russian/Syrian airstrike on a “Jabhat al-Nusra” position is going to strike some HNC-affiliated unit at some point–maybe inadvertently, but there’s obviously plenty of reason why Russia and Assad might exploit this particular problem with the agreement to their maximum advantage. Then there’s the open clause that allows the UN Security Council to “designate” other terrorist organizations. How’s that going to work? What groups might wind up being designated? The likely answer to the latter question is “any group that doesn’t adhere to the agreement.” So that probably means Ahrar al-Sham will wind up being designated a terrorist organization; they walked out of the meeting to form the HNC and thus weren’t really involved in any way in negotiating or agreeing to this ceasefire. And while Ahrar al-Sham shares a lot of ideological similarities and operational ties with Nusra (and I’m certainly not defending them), it’s even more enmeshed in the “mainstream” Syrian opposition than Nusra is. So strikes against its targets are guaranteed to spill onto other rebel factions.

So what happens if, or when, some groups that were party to the formation of the HNC refuse to turn their backs on their Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra allies and/or get caught in Russian attacks meant to target those two groups, and they tell the HNC to pound sand and reject the ceasefire? They’ll presumably be designated terrorist organizations as well, and thus eligible for targeting, and pretty soon Russia and Assad will be back to bombing whomever they want, wherever they want, only now they’ll have international approval for doing so and they’ll be targeting groups that the United Nations designates as “terrorist organizations.” This will gut the Syrian opposition and give regional players like Turkey (more on them in a second) and Saudi Arabia more incentive to jump into the conflict ways that will risk escalating the conflict to more dangerous levels. And yes, this thing could definitely get even more dangerous.

The United States may block any attempt to make new terrorist designations at the Security Council, particularly if things get very out of hand in that respect, but I’m not sure how far they’ll be willing to go. I suspect there’s an element within the Obama administration that sees the Syrian rebels, who admittedly haven’t shown much negotiating flexibility so far (they’re in a precarious situation and negotiating with an ultra-violent liar, so I can understand why that’s been the case), as an obstacle to the administration’s goal of getting everybody in Syria aligned with the goal of taking down ISIS. So they may be prepared to let Assad and Russia have quite a bit of ground here if it means putting more emphasis on ISIS, and uprooting the extremist elements in the rebellion for good measure. But I’m only speculating here. What I think is pretty clear is that even if the US does block new terrorist designations, that only complicates things for Assad slightly.

What about Hezbollah? Assad’s good pals are designated as a terrorist organization by almost every major European/Western heavy except the UN (which doesn’t maintain a general “list of terrorists” and only creates specific designations for specific circumstances) and, of course, Russia? Hezbollah and its allies dispute the notion that it’s a terrorist group, arguing that it’s more akin to a militia or a national guard force. And you might be inclined to agree with them. But Hezbollah is at least as much a “terrorist organization” as, say, Ahrar al-Sham, or any other Syrian rebel force (apart from Nusra) that Assad and the Russians may try to have designated as such under this agreement. Yet I don’t imagine that anybody will try to designate Hezbollah as fair game. It’s just an example of how it seems to me that this agreement is too loaded in Assad’s favor to actually hold up for very long.

We’re about 1000 words in to this and I haven’t even mentioned Turkey and the Kurds, which is a whole other potential deal-breaker of a problem. Are the Kurds included in the text of this agreement anywhere? They could be construed, along with Iran and Hezbollah, as part of “all forces supporting or associated with the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic.” Is Turkey included in the text of this agreement? I can’t see how or where it is. So does that mean that Turkey can continue bombarding Syrian Kurds, as it clearly plans to do, and Syrian Kurds can continue returning fire as best they can, without impacting this deal at all? I’m not sure anybody can answer that until the ceasefire is implemented and the next round of Turkish artillery hits a YPG position. I strongly suspect that the US and Russia will have very different interpretations of the agreement on that point. But if Turkey-allied Turkmen and Arab forces in northwestern Syria keep fighting the Kurds, say around Azaz, will they be designated terrorists and become legitimate targets for Russia as well?

Obviously it would be amazing if this ceasefire somehow uncomplicated Syria and put it on a path to ending the war. But I’m going to need to see it before I believe it.

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One thought on “The pros and cons of a doomed ceasefire

  1. “What about Hezbollah?”
    Not that Saudi Arabia’s is the terrorism designation that matters, and maybe the fact that they’re not conducting airstrikes allows them to do this (without being obligated to do anything about it) but Saudi Arabia designated Hezbollah a terrorist group:

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