US/Russian Accord on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria

Summary: the truce in Syria agreed between the US and Russian foreign ministers is a military accord. It has checked the fighting and opened the door to much needed aid but to succeed it must be followed by political agreement.

First reports this morning 13 September for example from the BBC and from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are that the truce in Syria is being observed although as expected there have been some violations but with violence at a much reduced level.

Once again we welcome as guest editor, Basil Eastwood, former British Ambassador to Syria. The opinions in the article below are his own.

Late on 9 September in Geneva the US Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister spoke to the press about the agreements they had reached. The five agreed documents have not been published but the transcript of the press conference is at link.

It is essentially a military accord to take effect from sunset on 12 September. Since then there does seem to be a lull in the fighting, but given the complexities of the Syrian situation the accord’s prospects cannot be good. Any success it may achieve will be undermined if it is not followed by political progress.

kerry-lavrov

What has been agreed?

Kerry’s opening statement described these agreements as “a plan which we hope will reduce violence, ease suffering, and resume movement towards a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria”. According to his statement the accord

  • calls on all sides to recommit to a nationwide cessation of hostilities from the start of Eid al-Adha, sunset on 12 September, halting all attacks, including aerial bombardments and any attempts to gain additional territory at the expense of the parties to the cessation;
  • requires unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all besieged areas, including Aleppo.
  • stipulates that forces from both sides are to pull back from Castello Road (the main artery from the North – ie Turkey – into opposition-held eastern Aleppo) creating a demilitarized zone around it subject to unspecified monitoring. This will permit as quickly as possible (unspecified) the resumption of humanitarian and civilian traffic along that road.
  • stipulates that in the Ramouseh Gap area in southwest Aleppo, both pro-government and opposition groups will be required to provide “safe, unhindered, and sustainable humanitarian, commercial, and civilian access” to eastern and western Aleppo. This will mainly benefit government held western Aleppo.

Provided that there is a sustained period of humanitarian access and reduced violence the US and Russia will work together to develop military strikes against what Kerry still called the Nusrah Front. [This recently renamed itself Front for the Conquest of Syria (Jabhat Fath al-Sham) and is the dominant militia in the Idlib area west of Aleppo].

From 12 September the US and Russia will start preparing a “Joint Implementation Centre” and will hold initial discussions to delineate territories controlled by Nusrah and other opposition groups in the area of active hostilities. After seven continuous days of effective cessation of hostilities and increased humanitarian access, then U.S. and Russian experts will work together in this JIC to target their air forces to defeat IS and the Nusrah Front. Lavrov said that the JIC would “delimit and separate terrorists from the moderate opposition”.

In Kerry’s words the US and Russia “agreed on the steps through which the regime will come to a place where it will not fly combat missions anywhere where the opposition is present in an area agreed on with very real specificity”.  Lavrov said that the Syrian air force would not operate in the areas singled out for Russian-American military cooperation (which might well be a narrower definition).

Kerry was at pains to stress that this programme will be based not on trust but on mutual interests and monitored compliance. After the period of reduced violence,   the US and Russia will not only  take coordinated steps to isolate and defeat the terrorist groups but also to facilitate a political transition, the only way to bring about a durable end to this war.

Lavrov confirmed the Syrian government’s agreement but cast doubt on the ability of the US to deliver the other parties. He endorsed Kerry’s account and welcomed in particular the US determination to take action against the Nusrah Front. The agreement would create the necessary conditions for the resumption of the political process. He said that the agreements included procedures to respond to violations of the cessation of hostilities but did not elaborate.

Steffan de Mistura confirmed full UN support for the agreement.  The UN hoped that its implementation would facilitate renewed efforts to reach a Syrian-owned, Syrian-led political settlement. There would be a ministerial meeting in New York on 21 September to discuss a date for the renewal of the next round of intra-Syrian talks.

How have the parties reacted?

The High Negotiations Committee representing the mainstream Syrian opposition groupings has warily accepted the agreement.  The Free Syrian Army says it will co-operate positively with the cessation of hostilities but is concerned it will benefit the government.

Another major rebel group, the hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, has rejected deal but stopped short of explicitly saying it will not abide by its terms. It works closely with the Nusra Front but will  be exposed to coordinated Russian and US airstrikes if it does not differentiate itself and physically distance itself from the Nusra Front.

Turkey and the US-supported Kurdish Group the YPG have welcomed the agreement but neither of their statements refers to the recent conflict between them around Manbij (nor was this referred to at the Geneva press conference).

On the government side, Iran, Hizbollah and President Bashar al Asad personally have welcomed the agreement, but Asad paying a symbolic visit to the newly liberated Damascus suburb of Darayya on 12 September said characteristically that he was there with his entire government “to send a clear message that we are determined to retake every inch of Syria from the terrorists and to restore peace and stability in the country and to rebuild everything that has been destroyed in the past”; the army would continue is work “regardless of internal and external circumstances”. He is clearly in no mood to compromise about his own future or the major underlying issues to be tackled by the UN sponsored talks.

As before previous ceasefires the government and its allies used the time before the Monday sunset deadline to mount major airstrike on rebel areas. These reportedly killed some 100 people.

Assessment

As the cessation came into effect the Syrian army announced a ‘freeze’ on military operations and a lull has been reported, but given the complexities and the recent history of abortive diplomacy the cessation’s prospects cannot be good. The devil will be in the detail and much of this has not been revealed. How will it be enforced for example? How will the arrangements around the Castello Road and the Ramouseh Gap be monitored? How will decisions be made about who is or is not linked to the Nusrah Front?

In any case the cessation will be patchy. There will be too many opportunities for disruption by those who see an interest in the failure of the accord. There are too many local militias on all sides which are not subject to central political control. There are too many men for whom violence is now a way of life. The likelihood must be that like earlier agreements it will erode after a few weeks.

The novelty in this agreement, however, is the provision for Russian/US coordination of air action against IS and the Nusrah Front. The Russians will not wish to endanger this further endorsement of their Big Power status. President Asad too will see every advantage in this coordinated targeting of his two most militarily effective enemies. At least in Idlib province west of Aleppo he will hope that his ground forces will fill any power vacuum which the assaults on the Nusra Front may create. East of Aleppo the Turks will probably see to it that the Free Syrian Army fills any void created by the degradation of IS.

This is essentially a military agreement and only tackles the most immediate issues. Any success it may achieve will be undermined if it is not followed by agreement on the longer term issues.

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