Syria’s latest ceasefire: a declaration of war

Syria’s latest ceasefire: a declaration of war

The announcement of a US-Russia brokered ceasefire coincides with John Kerry’s repeated calls for Syria’s mainstream opposition to distance itself from the radical blocs that constitute much of its battlefield strength. If implemented successfully, the ceasefire will act as a window of opportunity to bring much-needed relief to Syria’s beleaguered populace as well as an opportunity to isolate the increasingly influential Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the al-Qaeda-linked insurgent group whose ascendancy amongst rebel forces is problematic for the West.

With little warning, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov announced an imminent ceasefire to take effect across much of Syria on the evening of Monday, 12 September the first night of the Eid al-Adha religious festival. The terms were agreed following thirteen hours of talks in Geneva, and much of the resultant details closely guarded, which Sergei Lavrov explained as a countermeasure against any attempted “sabotage” of the deal.

The Russian Foreign Minister also indicated that Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus had lend its endorsement to the agreement, as had Turkey, which has been embarked on a Syrian intervention of its own, Operation Euphrates Shield, since 24 August.

The Saudi Arabian-assembled opposition umbrella council, the High Negotiations Committee, which opposes both Bashar al-Assad and the Russian intervention that has solidified his government’s position, also welcomed the deal, but as a caveat voiced its doubt at Russia’s willingness to respect the ceasefire.

Washington and Moscow aim at enhanced cooperation against radical Islamists

Whilst primarily aimed to alleviate the human suffering in besieged and conflict-devastated areas of Syria as well as to rein in the Assad regime and its widely-documented indiscriminate bombing of densely populated rebel-held areas, Kerry did not hesitate to outline a further dimension to the ceasefire strategy: an intention to reduce the local influence of radical opposition group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

In the event that the ceasefire is able to hold for at least seven days, Kerry signalled that the US and Russia would then together begin targeting Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a leading Syrian insurgent group which formerly acted as al-Qaeda’s official Syrian branch. Operating in this capacity under the moniker of Jabhat al-Nusra, the group seemingly renounced ties with the formal al-Qaeda hierarchy and presented itself as the fully independent, newly-christened entity Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in late July. The manoeuvre was dismissed as purely cosmetic by Washington, which insists the group’s extremist ideology remains unchanged, a view shared by most analysts commenting on the group’s efforts to reposition itself.

For their part, JFS reacted angrily to the ceasefire announcement, taking the opportunity to address developments in a statement they released in response to the death of a senior military commander in a US airstrike. Labelling the agreement a “deceptive plan”, JFS argued that the US and Russia intended to “[take] advantage of the humanitarian situation in Syria to achieve their goals in the region”. In an admission that the group appears aware the ceasefire it is designed to isolate it from the rest of the opposition, thanks were also extended to “sincere groups” who have “stood in solidarity” with JFS “in the just fight against oppression and tyranny”.

Jabhat al-Nusra: a major factor of instability in Syria

Western governments had become increasingly concerned about al-Nusra’s presence in Syria but have long struggled to formulate a coherent response to the group’s growing prominence given the success al-Nusra had enjoyed in embedding itself into the Syrian opposition. Recognised since 2012 as ‘the most aggressive and successful arm of the rebel force’ in Syria, the ruthless fanaticism of the group’s fighters and their place at the forefront of many opposition offensives has allowed the battle-hardened group to develop an impressive arsenal including tanks, artillery pieces, and other heavy weaponry seized as spoils of war. A perception of the group as an effective and prestigious fighting force has accompanied this growth, a reputation further strengthened by a prolific media output of sophisticated, high-production-value releases  featuring battlefield footage shot by drones operated by the group and GoPro cameras worn by its fighters.

JFS’ size and impressive capabilities, combined with the group’s more relaxed approach to enforcing its radical interpretation of Sunni Islam and its willingness to work alongside other groups has ensured collaboration with JFS is a virtually inescapable prospect for most other Syrian rebel groups. In turn, the integral place in the Syrian opposition that this guarantees JFS has so far functioned as a shield complicating Western intervention against the group.

The formal dissolution of Jabhat al-Nusra in July, and its instant resurrection as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, was a further attempt to strengthen this shield, designed to inextricably lodge the group in the native Syrian opposition movement by emphasising its local roots, motivation, and goals. In stressing its distance from the potentially toxic al-Qaeda brand, JFS sought to sway hesitant Syrian factions more concerned with barrel bombings and chemical attacks than confusing and unfamiliar notions of ‘global jihad’ into closer association and perhaps full integration. Undoubtedly, JFS calculates that the unity it hopes to bring Syria’s opposition will lead to the proliferation and acceptance of al-Qaeda’s vision of an Islamic emirate in Syria.

Above all, the proposed cessation of hostilities in Syria is an overdue opportunity to address the urgent humanitarian crisis that has devastated the country, but the parties that negotiated the agreement are fully aware that the ceasefire represents the best and possibly last chance to reverse Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s creeping influence over the direction of Syria’s revolution. Certainly it is no coincidence that John Kerry has intensified his calls for the rest of the Syrian opposition to distance itself from JFS during a window in which the group will not be able to retaliate against factions that isolate it without appearing as an aggressor.

Ironically, given President Obama’s disavowal of the type of rhetoric prevalent in the early years of the War on Terror, his administration has presented Syria’s opposition with a choice reminiscent of George W. Bush’s infamous dictum: “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists”.