Syria Cease-fire: A Daring Decision Which Will Put Russian and American Prestige to the Test

With issues like ISIS, Nusra Front, the Kurdish-Turkish feud and an unresolved prisoner release, the truce has slim chance of being implemented, or even holding for the first two-week stage.

Syrian government forces patrol near Aleppo's thermal power plant after they took control of the area on the eastern outskirts of Syria's northern embattled city from ISIS fighters, February 21, 2016.
AFP

The cease-fire declaration in Syria on Tuesday is a daring decision tainted with over-ambitiousness in light of the dense minefield it will have to cross on the way to implementation. This is not a total cease-fire that encompasses all warring sides. Excluded are the Islamic State, the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, and other terrorist groups that have still not been precisely defined. The exclusion of these groups means that if they continue firing on civilians, Syrian army soldiers, Shi’ite militias, Hezbollah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, such attacks can be used as a pretext to continue the war against the other forces as well.

The other difficulty is that ISIS and the Nusra Front are spread through areas where other rebel forces are deployed as well, like the Idlib region, Aleppo and Daraa. Without precise marking of areas of control in which Syrian, Russian and American forces can act, the fighting against entities defined as terror groups will slide into all-out war. Such marking of territories will be an issue of discussion over the next two days between representatives of Russia and the United States, but there is no certainty that the sides will reach agreement.

The third obstacle is found in the attitude toward the Syrian Kurds. They are defined by Turkey as a terror group, while Russia and the United States regard them as essential partners in the war against ISIS. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who welcomed the cease-fire agreement, promised U.S. President Barack Obama that he would stop bombing the Kurdish areas in Syria if the truce is implemented. However, it is not clear whether this Turkish pledge will be honored if a major terror attack takes place in Turkey that is attributed to the Syrian Kurds or their PKK workers’ party allies.

Emergency workers help an injured person on the ground near the explosion site in Ankara, Turkey, February 17, 2016.
Reuters

Another difficulty touches on the conditions set by the leaders of the “legitimate” rebel militias, who have been discussing the cease-fire over the past two days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This leadership, which bears the title “the Supreme Council for Negotiations” and was established following a meeting in Saudi Arabia of representatives of most of the militias in Saudi Arabia, is demanding, among other things, the release of prisoners held by the regime, free passage for aid convoys and the lifting of sieges by the Syrian army together with Iranian forces in areas under rebel control.

Passage of aid is part of the truce agreement, but lifting sieges is not, and with regard to prisoners, it states only that an effort will be made to release them. One can only hope that the rebel militias do not insist on these conditions, especially after Syrian President Bashar Assad announced that he accepted the agreement, albeit with some caveats that themselves could hurt implementation.

These difficulties are enough to show the weaknesses of the truce and the slim chance that it will be implemented, or even hold for the two-week first stage.

Russia, U.S. put to test

But it is not only Assad’s regime and the militias’ leadership that will be put to the test. This is also an important test for Russian and American prestige; these two powers must see that their proteges keep to the agreement. In this realm too, it seems American difficulties are greater than Russia’s. While Assad is almost entirely subject to Moscow’s dictates, Washington must put pressure on a variety of fighting groups, not all of whom regard it as an ally that represents their interests, especially after it gave in on Assad’s removal from power as a pre-condition to national dialogue on Syria’s future.

Some of the militias are not at all dependent on U.S. assistance, but are funded and armed by Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirate and Qatar, or donors from organizations and private individuals representing various agendas different from those of the United States.

The conditions of the truce prohibit exchanges of fire and state that no side will attempt to take over additional territories during the cease-fire; however, the conditions do not prohibit reorganization, re-arming or moving troops. Thus, even if the militias accede to American and Saudi pressure, the United States will find it difficult to prevent them from improving their positions on the ground. From that point to renewed conflict with their adversaries the road is short.

The breaching of the cease-fire by those considered to be American proteges would in any case place Washington on the defensive, accused of inability to fulfill its part in the deal. Thus the agreement will play into the hands of Russia, which already has a monopoly on diplomatic and military moves in Syria.

The outcome of Russian supremacy can already be seen on the ground, but the political evidence of this came on Monday, when Assad declared that parliamentary elections would be held in mid-April. It is interesting that the areas where elections will be held include those over which the regime has no control, such as Idlib, which is controlled mainly by the Jaish al-Fatah faction and the city of Raqqa, under ISIS control.

Assad, from his strengthened position, wants to convey that he is the one who sets the national timetable, according to which new elections will be held four years after the last ones, and that he is also drawing the map of his future control, as if the rebel militias will evaporate by April. It seems that at least as Assad sees it, even if the cease-fire produces negotiations, he will continue to be an inseparable part of the political action.