Breaking down the Syria peace deal

Breaking down the Syria peace deal

Just over a week after UN-sponsored negotiations ground to a halt in the face of a government breakthrough, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) unexpectedly announced an ambitious agreement to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities.

The news that the United Nations-sponsored negotiations in Geneva to implement a ceasefire in Syria had ended almost as soon as they had begun surprised few. The build-up to the talks was shrouded in uncertainty – invitations were extended and then withdrawn; Russia argued fiercely for Kurdish representation at the talks whilst Turkey stonewalled, threatening to boycott if the Kurds were given a seat at the table. Leading opposition groups released conflicting statements: some senior rebels ruled out attending Geneva whilst others assured they would send delegations to Switzerland.

In a statement, UN Envoy Steffan de Mistura conceded a ‘lot of work needed to be done’, and a sudden Syrian government breakthrough and advance on the opposition-dominated city of Aleppo was the final nail in the coffin for the Geneva talks, which were postponed until February 25 at the earliest.

Undoubtedly more unexpected was the announcement by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) — a forum of stakeholder powers in Syria comprising of the United States, Russia, and Iran, amongst others — that a ceasefire had been agreed upon and would be rapidly implemented (‘within one week’ according to the statement released by the ISSG on February 11).

What can the Syria deal accomplish?

On closer inspection, what has been dubbed the Munich agreement, for the city in which it was negotiated, may not be as promising as many had hoped. Neither the Syrian government nor opposition elements were party to the deal; therefore, it does not therefore technically qualify as a ceasefire. The ISSG’s statement announcing the deal promises the cessation of hostilities but only after troublingly vague ‘consultation’ with the Syrian government and opposition.

Far more encouraging, however, is the deal’s attempt to accelerate the provision of humanitarian aid to the ‘besieged and hard-to-reach areas’ in dire need of assistance. The Munich agreement, which underlines the need to provide support to ‘all sides [and] all people in need’, does not discriminate between the warring parties but cites specifically the need to provide aid to both opposition-held areas such as Madaya, besieged by the Syrian government, as well as Deir ez-Zor, a government enclave in eastern Syria under Islamic State siege.

Announcing the breakdown of his efforts in Geneva, de Misutra rebuked the Syrian government for its refusal to allow humanitarian aid into opposition-held areas, which he claimed had prevented any ‘serious discussions’ at the short-lived congress.

If the ISSG can deliver on its promise to provide aid to those suffering on both sides of the war it could be the sorely-needed gesture of goodwill that was so conspicuously absent from Geneva and ease future government-opposition dialogue.

Regional competing interests

Reception to the Munich agreement has been divided, however. A growing fear of marginalisation over Syria has drawn Turkey and Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies together into an interventionist faction increasingly at odds with its nominal allies.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, has been the most vocal critic of the proposed ceasefire. Riyadh has consistently stressed the need for regime change in Damascus as a precursor to peace initiatives, arguing Bashar al-Assad must go before Islamic State can be fully confronted.

The Saudi-backed bloc of opposition groups, the Higher Negotiating Committee, stuck rigidly to the line taken by its most prominent sponsor. Riyad Hijab, chairman of the coalition, echoed Saudi sentiments, speaking out against the ceasefire deal and stating that the removal of Bashar al-Assad must precede any pause in hostilities.

Other regional leaders offered a more positive outlook on the Munich agreement: Iraq’s Haider al-Abadi stated that the plan ‘must be successful’ whilst King Abdullah of Jordan called for an immediate ‘stop to the killing in Syria’ and a political solution to the conflict.

In stronger terms, Egypt’s foreign minister explicitly rejected the prospect of military intervention and underlined his country’s support for de Mistura’s efforts in Geneva. Under Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s presidency, Egypt has reversed its previously hardline anti-Assad stance and taken a more neutral approach to the conflict, re-establishing the relations that el-Sisi’s predecessor Mohamed Morsi, broke off.

Egypt’s neutrality is prudent; the country enjoys a good relationship with Russia but also receives an enormous amount of aid from Saudi Arabia and will be careful not to alienate either power.

Although Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both nominally members of the ISSG and therefore party to the Munich agreement, neither seem enthusiastic about the prospect of a ceasefire. Both countries, who share a common priority in ousting Bashar al-Assad, have been pushing an increasingly interventionist agenda as Assad’s troops advance into opposition strongholds.

Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies have followed suit, with the Qatari foreign minister arguing that a ground intervention ‘has become an urgent necessity’. How serious Gulf intentions of intervening directly in Syria are remain to be seen.

Ground intervention?

Regional states have entertained the possibility of a ground intervention preferably under American and British leadership, but there is little appetite in the West for another ‘boots on the ground’ operation. However, twenty countries from the Muslim world are currently undertaking an enormous joint exercise, Operation Northern Thunder, under Saudi command in the north of the kingdom, where the prospect of a Saudi-led coalition entering Syria will undoubtedly be considered.

A Gulf coalition would aim to recapture as much territory as possible from Islamic State, likely with a view to transferring control over to Gulf-backed proxies on the ground such as the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham. Compensating the opposition, who are losing ground to the Syrian government, with territory taken from Islamic State would mitigate the damage dealt to anti-government forces by recent government advances and prevent Russia and Syria from achieving their goal of marginalising the ‘moderate’ opposition.

With the parties supposedly responsible for reaching an agreement on a ceasefire so divided on the subject, the outlook is not hopeful. A joint commitment to increase humanitarian efforts is a more promising development. Whilst it will have little short-term impact, the legacy of the Munich agreement is likely to be seen if and when negotiations in Geneva recommence at the end of the month.