Moscow Rules in Syria, Again

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on September 11, 2016


In Geneva on 9 September 2016, the United States and Russia announced an agreement to implement a ceasefire—formally a “cessation of hostilities” (CoH)—in Syria, which is intended to allow humanitarian access and restart the political process to end of the war, and then to begin jointly targeting the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, recently rebranded Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS).

There is reason to wonder if the deal will ever take effect and the lack of an enforcement mechanism against Bashar al-Assad’s regime leaves open the possibility that the pro-regime coalition will, as it did after the February ceasefire, abuse this process to their advantage.

Most dauntingly, if this process worked to the letter it will legitimate the gains of the regime’s aggression, carried out under the cover of the last ceasefire, and has the potential to weaken the insurgency and embolden the regime, strengthening radicalism on all sides, pushing a political settlement further away, and thus protracting the war.

The Terms of the Agreement

The details—which will determine the feasibility of this agreement—are being kept secret. But Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the broad terms, which he “hope[s] will reduce violence, ease suffering, and resume movement towards a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria,” this way:

  • The regime “will not fly combat missions anywhere where the opposition is present in an area that we have agreed on with very real specificity.” This is a “bedrock” component of the agreement, according to Kerry, who acknowledged that this instrument has been the primary cause of civilian deaths and displacement in Syria. Russia would also refrain from attacks on mutually-agreed, opposition-held zones. But, Kerry added, “not all flights” by the Assad regime would be halted, and the regime would be allowed to continue attacks on al-Qaeda and IS.
  • The CoH will go into effect at “sundown” on Monday, 12 September. Neither side will be permitted to take territory held by the other and the CoH will be accompanied (in theory) by the granting of humanitarian aid to all besieged areas, including Aleppo. All parties are to withdraw from Castello Road, creating a demilitarized zone that allows free access to eastern Aleppo City, and both the regime and the opposition are to allow unhindered access through the Ramussa gap.
  • There will be “seven days of adherence to the cessation of hostilities in order to convince the people of Syria and the opposition that the actions of the regime … will be consistent with the words that we put on paper.” After this “sustained period of reduced violence” and access for humanitarian supplies, the U.S. and Russia will “work together to develop military strikes against Nusra” through a Joint Implementation Centre (JIC), essentially a U.S.-Russian intelligence cell, to be based in Jordan, that will map out which actor holds which territory.

The immediate questions are over the enforcement mechanisms.

How will JFS, which in Idlib especially is deeply tangled into the rebellion, be isolated?

Kerry explained:

If groups within the legitimate opposition want to retain their legitimacy, they need to distance themselves in every way possible from Nusra … The warning we give to opposition groups who have up until now found it convenient to sort of work with [JFS] is: it would not be wise to do so in the future; it’s wise to separate oneself.

In other words, move or get bombed.

On the other side, the question is: How will the regime be prevented from continuing its aerial bombardment of civilians and the mainstream opposition?

Kerry says that Moscow has conveyed the terms of the agreement to Damascus and Assad has agreed. “There is … deterrence in Russia holding Assad accountable for his promise,” Kerry says.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed with this, though naturally put the emphasis on “de-marbling”—geographically separating JFS and the rebels—over restraining the regime’s indiscriminate bombardment of civilians. Lavrov also made a point of saying that this proposal was available a year ago but the Americans would only do “deconfliction”; now they have come around.


The rebels are reluctant to “de-marble” because they know what comes next: areas ceded solely to JFS become fair game, JFS will be defeated, and the regime will then move in. Moreover, solely excising JFS, without doing anything else to alter the current balance of power, would cripple the rebellion.

Still, the enforcement mechanism for opposition violations is effective and can be implemented over the reluctance—even defiance—of actors on the ground and/or their external backers. As Kerry put it, “There is a deterrence in that.”

The enforcement mechanism on the other side—Russia’s influence over the regime—does not work that way. Indeed, if past is any indication of the future—and it usually is—it does not work at all.

Putting aside the raft of war crimes Russia has racked up on its own terms since its intervention began in service of keeping the Assad regime in power, Moscow has shown no willingness to stop the Assad regime committing aerial massacres and using siege-and-starve tactics to eliminate rebel pockets.

Kerry says that “no one is building this based on trust,” but his explanation of what it is based on—”a way of providing oversight and compliance through mutual interest and other things” and “managed in a different way” from last time—sounds an awful lot like trust. The U.S. seems, once again in Syria, to be playing by Moscow’s rules.

From the phrasing Kerry used it seems Assad’s air force will be free to launch attacks into IS-held areas and will also be allowed to attack al-Qaeda in areas where the target packages are not developed by the JIC. Even at face value this would make Assad—whose ouster is formal U.S. policy—and his most murderous weapon into a counter-terrorism partner*. In reality, there is no reason, whatsoever, to believe the regime intends only to strike at jihadist terrorists, and the process of delineating areas that will be considered legitimate targets provides a manipulable loophole by which the regime and/or Russia can target the mainstream armed opposition.

The Washington Post reports:

In technical discussions over the last several weeks, U.S. and Russian military and intelligence officials have mapped out “boxes” in Syria, designating areas with a preponderance of [JFS] forces, those regions where the terrorists overlap with opposition groups, and areas that are primarily opposition and civilians.

How a final call is made on labelling areas as JFS-dominated, JFS-present, and JFS-free is distinctly opaque.

Though Russia has not insisted formally, as it previously has, that Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam be treated as terrorist organizations, too, whether in practice Russia, Iran, and Assad behave this way—and what will prevent or punish strikes at these or other, non-mutually-agreed groups—is likewise unclear.

Additionally, the JIC is itself somewhat troubling. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, is on record expressing his “reservations about … sharing intelligence with [the Russians] … which they desperately want, I think, to exploit—to learn what they can about our sources and methods and tactics and techniques and procedures.” Clapper pointed out the Russians’ heretofore perfect record of deception and cynicism, asking, “What is it they’ve done that gives you confidence that if we do more with them or share more intel … they’re going to improve?” This is not a new problem.

Jose Rodriguez, the chief of staff of the Counterterrorism Centre at the CIA after 9/11, noted that even at that time—when relations were considerably better than now—the Russians “were always in the ‘receive mode,’ happy to take whatever information we were willing to share with them on terrorist threats but generally reluctant to offer much in return.” And that’s before considering the incompetence and corruption of Russian forces—bribable border-guards have been a significant jihadist asset in the Caucasus—let alone Moscow’s dubious practices that often strengthen and manipulate terrorist groups for political ends.

Options Going Forward

Three options now present themselves: (1) the CoH is never implemented; (2) the CoH is partially implemented with persistent cheating by the pro-regime coalition, reducing violence overall for a time but breaking down eventually with the Assad regime better situated; (3) the agreement works with minimal violations.

After the experience in the spring, when the opposition held-fire for months and the pro-regime coalition did not, the opposition’s response to this proposal has been distinctly cold, and Ahrar al-Sham this morning allegedly rejected the proposal. The politico-military pressure on the opposition makes an outright rejection unlikely. More likely is some kind of pro forma acceptance from the mainstream opposition and at least tacit support from Ahrar and perhaps even JFS, at least initially. But, given Ahrar’s size and role in northern Syria, it is difficult to conceive of this working if Ahrar chooses to play spoiler.

Though Assad has supposedly agreed to this, how he, the localized militias under the banner of “the regime,” and, perhaps above all, Iran behave in practice is an open question. Despite Tehran and its Lebanese proxy Hizballah publicly accepting this deal, they have the potential to be spoilers. The possibility that fighting simply never stops or reduces cannot be ruled out—as Kerry himself recognized.

The U.S. and Russia could “encourage” the rebellion and the regime, respectively, Kerry said, but he did not push it beyond that. “If—and I again want to emphasize the ‘if’—if the plan is implemented in good faith … this can be a moment where … the negotiations could take hold,” the Secretary of State said.

A direct re-run of the last ceasefire is certainly plausible, where the rebellion more-or-less abides by the CoH and the pro-Assad forces reduce the scale of their offensive operations, which at least spared some civilian lives, but use the rebel quiet on some fronts to concentrate their forces and attacks in the most strategic zones. Indications from pro-regime media hint at this possibility, with the regime allegedly planning an escalation in Aleppo; the question is how the opposition responds.

There were no penalties for the regime last time, and the gains it made under the CoH have been recognized by the “international community,” which now uses them as the baseline for this proposal. Assuming this CoH is enacted, whenever it was next admitted to have collapsed, the pro-regime coalition would have further attrited the rebellion and be in an even better position to negotiate a settlement on its own maximalist terms.

The third option—that the process on paper works to the letter—is actually difficult to distinguish in important ways from option two. The regime’s advances in violation of the last ceasefire are frozen in place and, as explained by Faysal Itani,

[The U.S.-Russia plan] would likely weaken or eliminate a strong component of the insurgency without compensating for the lost capacity, further tilting the military balance in the regime’s favor. Unless the United States can prevent that, the [JIC] would make a lasting negotiated settlement in Syria more difficult than it already is, setting the stage for open-ended civil war and further radicalization.

The deal will “save innocents from regime aerial bombardment—a worthy goal in itself,” as Itani notes. The mere reduction in violence six months ago saw a flourishing of the nationalist discourse and the peaceful street demonstrations that began this uprising, causing serious tensions between opposition communities and al-Qaeda that remain to this day. But such an agreement has to be “judged by the extent that it serves key U.S. policy goals in Syria: fighting extremism and enabling a negotiated settlement,” and on both counts it fails.

Western Missteps, Al-Qaeda’s Gains

When Russia intervened on 30 September 2015 it had three aims: rescue a tottering Assad regime, eliminate all possible workable oppositionists, and thereby rehabilitate Assad, converting military success into political achievement by subverting the political process that was supposed to transition Assad out into one that set the terms of his remaining. It has proceeded more or less to script.

The gains of Jaysh al-Fatah were quarantined; the crucial rebel pocket east of Damascus had its leader, Zahran Alloush, murdered and its viability mortally threatened; the mainstream opposition in the north was battered and al-Qaeda has filled the void; IS was scarcely touched outside of three small areas and the propaganda show in Palmyra.

The overarching trend for the last year is the regime mopping up. The insurgency has been divided into besieged cantons that are then being shrunk down and starved into submission, either permitting regime control to return or seeing the population expelled entirely, as happened in Daraya recently and seems likely to occur in Maadamiya soon.

With no decisive Western assistance forthcoming, these were the ideal conditions for JFS to expand its reach. Insurgent unity was clearly necessary, and JFS was able to dominate the coalitions formed.

Long before the last year, one of the key factors enabling JFS to embed itself in opposition dynamics so thoroughly was presenting itself as better-serving opposition interests and security than the West, which it portrays as conspiring against the revolution. Both perceptions are widespread among anti-regime Syrians, and not without reason.

Before this deal, the West had compiled a “spotless record of having protected not one single Syrian inside Syria from the mass homicide campaign conducted by Assad and facilitated by Iran and Russia,” as Fred Hof put it. Concurrently, the U.S.’s pro-Iran tilt had made the line between jihadi conspiracy theory and U.S. policy an increasingly hazy one, since the U.S. had all-but ceded Syria to Tehran, whose ground forces now lead the pro-regime coalition, as a sphere of influence.

The latest data point was the airstrike on 8 September that killed JFS’s military commander, Usama Nammourah (Abu Umar al-Saraqib), a man who was planning to break the siege of Aleppo. Meanwhile, not a single shot has been fired against those imposing the siege, namely what remains of Assad’s forces or the thousands of Iranian-controlled foreign Shi’a jihadists, many of them members of registered terrorist organizations, from whom the regime’s army will not have to “de-marble” under threat of airstrikes.

Operation INHERENT RESOLVE’s unwillingness to deal with the pro-regime terrorist groups has compromised its legitimacy among the opposition from the start. The impression that the Coalition became the regime’s air force was one shared by the Pentagon, which was well-aware of, and displeased by, the fact that its intervention allowed Assad to “perform an economy of force,” leaving IS in the east to the Allies and trying to finish the nationalist opposition once and for all in the west. But that was the policy decision.

Now comes this deal with Russia, a state that has provided close-air and other support for Lebanese Hizballah and the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria.

If the deal succeeds as planned—changing the status quo only by removing JFS—it would deliver an existential blow to the rebellion, which will thereafter be neutralized as a strategic threat to the Assad regime. Enabling regime advances in this way will not pacify the country but condemn Syria—a la Algeria—to perpetual war, leaving U.S. interests in a political settlement that stabilizes the country and closes down the favourable environment for terrorist groups unattainable.

The threat to rebels from the eradication of JFS without any replacement of its capacity is not just to their cause, bitter as that would be; it is to their personal security and that of their families, a very powerful motivator. The Assad regime’s systematic atrocities against the Syrian population were assessed by the United Nations to rise to the level of crimes against humanity, including enforced disappearance, rape, and extermination, and Amnesty International recently reported on the nearly-indescribable inhumanity of the conditions in Assad’s prisons, where up to 200,000 people languish. That is what falling back under regime rule means to people in opposition-held territory.

This is why, despite Syrian oppositionists understanding the primacy of Western counter-terrorism priorities in approaching Syria and the lethal consequences, physically and spiritually, of JFS co-opting their rebellion, they will fiercely resist any proposal they believe enables regime advances and why extruding JFS from their midst under these conditions is impossible. The rebels never acceded to JFS’s assiduous efforts to foster interdependence by choice or ideological affinity; it was a tactical and military necessity.

An Alternative

Destroying JFS is necessary, no matter the imminence of the threat of its terrorism, which is in many ways the least important aspect of the strategic danger it—and al-Qaeda more generally—pose. There are ways of doing this without so narrowly focusing on counter-terrorism that it further tilts the balance in Syria toward Russia and the pro-regime coalition.

The more effective means of isolating and defeating JFS to bring about an outcome consistent with Western interests is to finally give the mainstream armed opposition a meaningful alternative, while complicating the regime’s ability to commit mass-homicide, which provides the desperate circumstances under which extremists are tolerated as a necessary-evil for protection.

Enforcing the second condition would necessitate direct military action against the Assad regime. This is militarily possible, and extremely unlikely during this administration. Nonetheless, it is difficult to conceive of a solution to the Syrian crisis that meets Western interests without such action.

If the U.S. accompanied the anti-JFS airstrikes with increased support to the mainstream rebellion and demonstrated a preparedness to punish regime violations of the CoH, such as the mass-slaughter at the Idlib City market yesterday, with force, it would signal both fairness and seriousness, raising the strategy’s chances of success. It would make rebel buy-in more likely and might convince the regime to negotiate in a manner approaching good faith, something its present position gives it no incentive to do.







[*] UPDATE (12 SEPT): John Kerry said: “Assad is not supposed to be bombing the opposition because there is a ceasefire. Now, he is allowed and will be able, outside of that area [where moderate oppositionists are designated to be] … to target Nusra, but that will be on strikes that are agreed upon with Russia and the United States in order to go after them.”

Then State Department spokesman John Kirby added: “The idea was not to quote/unquote, ‘ground’ Assad’s air force everywhere all the time. The objective was to limit their combat operations in such a way that they could not hit opposition targets or civilian targets, but that if they were able, willing, [and] intending to target Nusra, which is outside the cessation of hostilities, that would still be permissible. But the whole purpose for the JIC is to allow for a measure of compliance and monitoring and pre-coordination of strikes that they [the Assad regime] would do against Nusra so that it’s not done without visibility of both Russian and U.S. planners.”

The ambiguous phrasing in Kerry’s announcement on 9 September, as I noted above, suggested Assad was a de facto partner in the U.S.-Russian anti-terrorism mission: completely free to strike in IS-held areas and permitted to attack al-Qaeda outside of zones designated as moderate opposition-held or where the JIC had developed the strike package. Kerry and Kirby here stated that the JIC-Assad coordination would be more direct.

Hours later Kirby released a statement to “clarify” the U.S. position: “The arrangement … makes no provision whatsoever for the U.S. and Russia to approve strikes by the Syrian regime, and this is not something we could ever envision doing. A primary purpose of this agreement, from our perspective, is to prevent the Syrian regime air force from flying or striking in any areas in which the opposition or Nusra are present. The purpose of the JIC, if and when it is established, would be to coordinate military action between the U.S. and Russia, not for any other party.”

Whether Kirby was truly clarifying, or was revoking, the U.S. position—even if it still lacks an enforcement mechanism—is now clear on western Syria and the airstrikes against JFS/Nusra. This does still leave the Assad tyranny as a de facto ally against IS and making IS-controlled zones into free-fire areas has no more targeted Assad’s—or Russia’s—airstrikes against jihadists than their airstrikes in western Syria.

UPDATE 2 (13 SEPT 2016): A letter sent by the U.S. to the Syrian armed opposition has circulated, which says that Assad will be able to launch airstrikes against JFS outside the areas designated as opposition-held or for targeting by the JIC, which aligns with Kerry’s statement in his speech announcing the deal.

From the statements so far, Assad either: (1) can strike at JFS in coordination with JIC; (2) can strike at JFS outside of areas designated by the JIC and with no direct coordination with it; or (3) cannot strike at JFS at all.

UPDATE 3 (13 SEPT 2016): By the end of the first full day of the “cessation of hostilities,” the U.N. aid convoy to Aleppo City was blocked and both the pro-regime and Kurdish PYD forces had refused to withdraw from Castello Road.

During the daily press conference at the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner said that “when we talk about seven days of reduced violence, we’re also talking about sustained humanitarian access as well, and too often that’s … left out of the discussion”. Toner later affirmed that the U.S. could set “the clock back to zero” if there were a “credible series of violations,” which has questionable deterrence power against Assad, even if repeated violations do force the U.S. to eventually “walk away”. But it was accepted there “isn’t going to be a clean start to this,” so this counted as Day One of the “sustained” reduction of violence period.

Toner also gave a further indication of what Assad’s air force would be allowed to do within this agreement. “A key to the agreement [is] Assad’s forces no longer being able to fly missions within that designated airspace,” Toner said [italics added]. This would appear to be option 2 above. And even this restriction does not start after the seven-day reduction of violence, when the JIC begins; it starts once joint U.S.-Russian airstrikes begin.

Toner additionally clarified why the U.S. was going after al-Qaeda and leaving Iranian-controlled terrorists in Syria untouched: “Hizballah … has signalled that it will abide by the agreement”. This is rather the wrong way around: al-Qaeda was the announced target of this agreement; it was not possible for it to survive by complying with its terms.

Finally, the Pentagon, CIA, and NATO remain direly sceptical of sharing U.S. intelligence with Moscow as part of the “cessation of hostilities,” especially at this time of heightened confrontation from Eastern Europe to the Levant. Kerry’s closest advisors view this as “reflexive Cold War-era thinking,” but the Secretary of State himself, “in private, … has conceded to aides and friends that he believes it will not work.”

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