The Syrian Challenge: Can Obama and Putin Control Their Militant Proxies?

This rare moment of agreement between the United States and Russia is fragile in that it gives everyone on the ground – the Assad regime as well as the rebels – veto power.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria, in 2012.
Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria, in 2012.Credit: Manu Brabo, AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“It is an opportunity and not more than that until it becomes a reality,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said of the agreement Washington and Moscow had reached on a Syrian cease-fire Saturday. The word “opportunity” is meaningless now that dozens of similar opportunities have been missed, so we have to wait for the “reality” that the agreement strives to create.

The cease-fire takes effects to start at sundown Monday with a 48-hour truce to be followed by another 48-hour truce. If the truce holds, Moscow and Washington will begin work on setting up a “joint implementation center” that they will use for planning joint attacks. Meanwhile, they will launch preparations for reconvening the sides for negotiations to set up a provisional government.

At this stage, there is no reason to rush with pessimistic statements. While some of the rebels, among them the High Negotiation Committee, welcome and support the agreement, some believe that the deal will only help President Bashar Assad retool so he can attack better when the first cease-fire ends. A third group, mainly the Support Front for the People of al-Sham (the Nusra Front’s new name), said in a statement the revolution wouldn’t stop and external agreements didn’t interest it.

Meanwhile, Assad’s government approved the deal, but it’s unclear if it will be willing to obey orders from Russia. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it: “It supports the initiative on which we agreed with United States, so we will do everything which depends on us, but it is understandable that not everything depends on us.”

Is he opening an escape route in case Assad doesn’t obey? Does he mean the rebels might continue fighting or Washington will break the agreement?

The assumption that Assad can’t avoid obeying Russia remains unproven, especially given the ongoing battles in Aleppo and Idlib; in the latter city, more than 20 people were killed Saturday in an airstrike. Also, there is no guarantee the rebels will obey Washington and lay down their arms. Thus the working assumption that the agreement relies on could collapse if it turns out Washington has no control over the rebel groups.

The deal’s details were not published amid fears someone would seek to torpedo it before it took effect. But when Lavrov talks about an agreement being reached over defining the terror groups that it is permissible to attack, some rebels might man the barricades. Some of the militias that collaborate with the Nusra Front in Aleppo or southern Syria see that group as an integral part of the anti-Assad struggle.

Some sections of the agreement raise questions about the modus operandi of the two powers should the cease-fire be violated. Will Russia be able to act without restraint if it turns out the rebels violated the truce? And what would Washington be able to do if Assad violated the truce or didn’t allow humanitarian aid to civilians under siege in Aleppo, as the agreement calls for?

We probably shouldn’t hold our breaths for the agreement’s details to conclude that Washington offered compromises on these questions and that it doesn’t intend to attack Assad’s forces if he continues to attack. Thus it seems the deal, more than paving the way for a political solution, is largely a test of the world powers’ intentions, of their ability to control their protégés, and mainly of their ability to create a base for collaboration that can last even during the political negotiations, whenever they begin.

This rare moment of agreement between the United States and Russia is also fragile in that it gives everyone on the ground – the Assad regime as well as the rebels – veto power.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands at the end of a press conference closing meetings to discuss the Syrian crisis on September 9, 2016.Credit: AFP

It’s early, even very early, to start debating the chances of the political proposals – which are held hostage to the cease-fire – that some of the rebels presented in the conference held in London. All that’s left is to hope that the residents of Aleppo and other besieged cities will be able to celebrate Id al-Fitr, which begins Monday, in peace and quiet, and to count the hours in the hope that these days indeed turn into days of truce.

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