US-Russia negotiated ceasefire in Syria unlikely to succeed

US-Russia negotiated ceasefire in Syria unlikely to succeed

The US-Russia ceasefire framework for Syria does not adequately rein in the Assad regime, as double standards and linguisitic loopholes abound. A guest post by Syrian journalist Abdulrahman al-Masri.

The United States and Russia announced Monday that they reached an agreement to implement a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria. The proposed agreement calls on the opposing factions in the war to terminate all military operations as a step towards a political resolution to the almost five-year-old conflict.

As co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), Washington and Moscow have agreed to monitor this open-ended ceasefire. The proposal excluded the terrorist group of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. The partial ceasefire is scheduled to go into effect on midnight February 27th.

Ceasefire agreement too biased towards Assad to work

The terms of the agreement seem to demonstrate a bias in favour of the Assad regime, making it unlikely that the ceasefire will succeed.

The ceasefire agreement permits the US-led international coalition and Russia to continue air strikes against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and “other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council”. The agreement also allows the Assad regime to continue to fight against terrorist groups, while opposition groups are not permitted to do so.

These conditions suggest that the Assad regime has legitimacy in the country’s fight against terrorist groups, as well as some level of sovereignty over Syria. In reality, the regime forces control only a small portion of Syria’s territory.

The Assad regime accepted the deal and insisted that “military efforts” against terrorism must continue. The regime also asserted that any foreign help flowing to the rebels would be considered a violation of the truce. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition said their decision remains conditional on whether air strikes and sieges are discontinued.

The clause that allows the Assad regime to continue fighting terrorism is problematic. Since the war erupted in Syria, the term “terrorism” has been used broadly by many groups, particularly the Assad regime, and the term is open to various interpretations. Assad and his backers consider anyone fighting against the regime to be a terrorist. The regime has justified attacks on rebels by labeling them as terrorists, or by claiming that ISIS or al-Nusra elements are present among them. The previous failed attempts to cease military operations offers a great example of what that means.

It is also contradictory that Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force – both internationally designated terrorist groups – are fighting as part of the Assad regime forces, yet neither groups are mentioned in the ceasefire agreement.

Assad’s foreign assistance remains unaddressed by peace deal

The nature of the conflict on the ground in Syria can only be viewed in zero-sum terms. The Syrian opposition voiced legitimate concerns about the agreement. The truce terms, for instance, state that Assad’s forces will not be given the opportunity to expand in Syria, yet they are permitted to continue fighting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, thereby setting them up to acquire territory gained from fighting those groups. The opposition, on the other hand, is expected to cease all military efforts.

The Assad regime will be able to take advantage of the ceasefire and thus enhance its standing in Syria just before the planned settlement negotiations.

The fact that Assad forces, with Russian and Iranian backing, will have the right to fight Jabhat al-Nusra during the ceasefire will inevitably result in attacks against rebel forces. Unlike ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra has blended among some rebel groups. In the previous failed truces, the Assad regime targeted national opposition groups under the pretext of “fighting terrorism,” and it is likely that the same scenario will play out in this ceasefire.

Moreover, in several areas, Jabhat al-Nusra is in close proximity to the rebels. In places like Idlib and parts of northern Aleppo, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between non-terrorist rebel-held areas and al-Nusra-held areas. Those areas will be the most vulnerable to ceasefire violations.

Given the conditions of the agreement, the Syrian opposition will be left with limited options. The current terms of the ceasefire cannot be seen as a preparation to “achieve a peaceful settlement”, but rather as an indication that Russia has firmly established its influence in the outcome of the war in Syria.  This ceasefire demonstrates that the US continues to comply with Russia’s wishes and is failing its Syrian allies, the opposition.

Any possible ceasefire for Syria must consider fairness to the opposition. A solution to the war should focus on the transition of power in Syria, which will in turn contain and defeat the terrorist groups by addressing the conditions that fostered their existence in Syria.

Abdulrahman al-Masri is a Syrian journalist, originally from Damascus, based in Ottawa, Canada, who covers politics and events in the Middle East, specifically the war in Syria. He has been published in Syria Direct, USA Today, The Arab Weekly, and Middle East Monitor, among others. He can be found on twitter at @AbdulrhmanMasri.

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