Yesterday there was some relatively good news out of Syria:
The Syrian army said it was observing a 72-hour ceasefire across the country coinciding with the festival marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“A ‘regime of silence’ is applied across all territory of the Syrian Arab Republic for 72 hours from 1am on 6 July to midnight on 8 July,” the army said on Wednesday in a statement republished by official media.
Of course, there seems to have been an out in the deal:
The statement did not specify whether the ceasefire extended to military action against militant jihadis such as Islamic State or the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
And maybe it’s that out clause that allows the Syrian army to justify what’s happening today, a scant day into its three day ceasefire:
Syrian government forces took a step towards completely encircling rebel-held parts of Aleppo on Thursday, capturing ground overlooking the only road into the opposition half of the city and effectively putting those areas under siege.
The army’s advance towards the Castello Road, which brought it to within its firing range, came during a 72-hour ceasefire announced by the Syrian army on Wednesday, which a monitoring group said had been a ruse.
Rebels said they were fighting to retake lost positions and re-secure the road. Its capture brings the Syrian government closer to its long-standing objective of encircling rebel-held areas of the northern city.
It’s rare that an army is able to keep advancing despite promising not to shoot at anybody, but apparently the Syrian army is just that damn effective.
It’s unlikely that there are any ISIS units around the Castello Road–if there were any, they’d already be fighting the rebels–but it’s easy for Bashar al-Assad’s army to claim that it’s attacking Nusra in Aleppo because, well, Nusra does have a presence (albeit a reportedly limited one) in Aleppo. Nusra is the proverbial “get out of jail free card,” in that it’s so closely embedded with the rest of the Syrian rebels that its existence has allowed Assad and Russia to justify attacking relatively moderate rebel forces under the guise of fighting “Islamic extremism.” And so, perhaps in an effort to nudge Russia away from bombing those more moderate rebels, the Obama administration is reportedly working on a deal to increase the collaboration between the US and Russian air missions in Syria with the express goal of targeting Nusra specifically (both countries are, at least in theory, already bombing ISIS, which, again, is a lot easier to separate from the actual rebel forces since the two groups are openly hostile to one another), rather than Nusra plus whoever else looks like they might be Nusra. Washington Post foreign policy columnist Josh Rogin was up in arms about the possibility of such a deal last week:
The Obama administration has proposed a new agreement on Syria to the Russian government that would deepen military cooperation between the two countries against some terrorists in exchange for Russia getting the Assad regime to stop bombing U.S.-supported rebels.
The United States transmitted the text of the proposed agreement to the Russian government on Monday after weeks of negotiations and internal Obama administration deliberations, an administration official told me. The crux of the deal is a U.S. promise to join forces with the Russian air force to share targeting and coordinate an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is primarily fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Under the proposal, which was personally approved by President Obama and heavily supported by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the American and Russian militaries would cooperate at an unprecedented level, something the Russians have sought for a long time.
If the price of getting Russia on board with the Syrian political process is to further abandon the Syrian rebels and hand Assad large swaths of territory, it’s a bad deal. It’s an even worse deal if Russia takes the U.S. offer and then doesn’t deliver on its corresponding obligations.
The Obama administration is understandably trying to find some creative way to salvage its Syria policy in its final months. But the proposal that Obama offered Putin will have costs for the U.S. position vis-à-vis Russia as well as for the Syrian crisis long after Obama leaves office.
Fortunately (I guess?) there’s been no deal yet, and the hangup seems to be a detail that Rogin left out of his report for some reason. It turns out that the Obama administration, no doubt in its zeal to further abandon the Syrian rebels and hand Assad large swaths of territory, is apparently insisting that one of the prices for closer Washington-Moscow collaboration is the grounding of Assad’s air force. I am not a military expert, but given that Assad’s air force has been one of his biggest assets in this civil war as well as the instrument by which he’s inflicted considerable destruction and civilian loss of life on rebel-controlled territories, grounding it would actually seem to be a pretty sizeable blow to his war effort. Yes, the offer doesn’t require Russia to get rid of Assad altogether, but it would still represent a major step forward in terms of reducing the war’s carnage and potentially forcing Assad to listen to a peace proposal or two.
Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen reported a couple of days ago that the US-Russia talks are ongoing but “have gone well.” She also suggested that Washington might be willing to compromise by restricting the parts of Syrian airspace where Assad’s aircraft are permitted to fly, a step that could–though of course the devil is in the details–be tantamount to imposing that no-fly zone that many pro-intervention folks seem to want so badly. Yes, it would leave Russian planes alone and yes, Moscow could simply pick up the slack on Assad’s behalf, but it’s not clear whether Russia would do that and, if they really see collaborating with the US as some kind of crucial PR victory, it’s unlikely that they would do anything to jeopardize that collaboration once they’ve gotten it.
Grounding Assad’s air force or at least severely restricting its movements would open the door to new humanitarian missions to some of Syria’s most distressed places, and getting Russia to be more precise with its bombing (Washington is also trying to convince the rebels with which it works to geographically separate themselves from Nusra to make it easier to target the latter without hitting the former) would go a long way toward salvaging whatever’s left of a (relatively) moderate Syrian opposition. And by doing it this way, rather than simply imposing a no-fly zone over Syria unilaterally, the Obama administration might avoid the small, but not small enough, possibility of triggering World War III in the skies over Aleppo. Of course there’s no reason to think that this deal will actually get done (nobody’s gone broke yet by betting against something positive happening in Syria), but maybe it would be alright if it did.