A version of this article was published at The New Arab
The United States and Russia reached an agreement over Syria on 9 September that was supposed to lead to a week of reduced violence—a ceasefire or “cessation of hostilities” (CoH). During this time, there would be free distribution of humanitarian aid—followed by joint operations against the rebranded al-Qaeda branch in the country, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. This agreement was essentially ignored by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which Russia had pledged to restrain, and on Monday the agreement was torn up by the regime, returning Syria to all-out war.
What if it had worked?
The U.S.-Russia agreement was deeply problematic even if it worked, representing the triumph of the counter-terrorism approach, narrowly conceived, in America.
Had Russia actually kept Assad regime jets from striking at civilians and mainstream armed opposition groups, and worked honestly with the Pentagon to eliminate JFS, it would have removed from the insurgency a powerful actor, without compensation—crippling the rebellion as a strategic threat to the regime, and destroying any incentive for good faith negotiations.
Since the regime—even buttressed by thousands of Iranian-controlled Shi’a jihadists—cannot control the whole country, it would have condemned Syria to permanent war, conditions in which terrorists thrive.
During the CoH, the mainstream rebels were supposed to “de-marble” or untangle themselves from JFS. Rebels were reluctant, in the current circumstances, because if they leave an area solely to the administration of JFS, then JFS will be defeated by Coalition and Russian air power, and the regime will be free to move in and retake the territory from the opposition.
The Assad regime’s forces were not required to de-marble from the Iranian Quds Force, Lebanese Hizballah, or the Iraqi Kataib Hizballah militia—all groups controlled by Tehran and designated as terrorists by the United States.
And while the rebels were told in no uncertain terms that they would be bombed along with JFS if they did not stand aside, there was no enforcement mechanism to stop the Assad regime carrying out atrocities.
These deep inequalities in the deal and its strategic effects—if it worked—made it deeply unpopular among the Syrian opposition, and helpful to JFS, which is busy embedding and enmeshing itself in the rebellion. In this way, among other things, JFS gains protection.
JFS claimed that the U.S.-Russian deal was a deliberate effort to defeat the revolution; these terms can be read that way.
Such a reading was greatly assisted, in the days after the agreement had begun but before the CoH came into being, when the Assad regime was able to massacre fifty-eight civilians at a market with impunity. Meanwhile, the U.S. overflew the Iranian-controlled terrorist organisations re-imposing the siege on Aleppo City, to strike at Usama Nammourah (Abu Umar al-Saraqib), the JFS military commander credited with breaking the first Aleppo siege and who was in the process of planning to break the second.
For these and other reasons, the Syrian opposition’s formal stance on the U.S.-Russian deal was to accept the first part—seven days of relative calm and access to food, medicine, and other supplies for communities under siege—and to reject the second, the strikes against JFS.
As it happened, neither would occur.
All but three of the sieges in Syria are imposed by the Assad regime, and during this period not a single aid delivery made it to its destination. Nearly 150 people were killed by the pro-Assad coalition during the CoH. On Monday night, within three hours of the Assad regime unilaterally declaring the CoH over, one-hundred airstrikes and barrel bombs had been launched against rebel-held areas of Aleppo, killing dozens.
Shortly after Damascus said it was no longer abiding by the CoH, eighteen Syrian Red Crescent trucks loaded with aid from the United Nations finally moved into Aleppo. The convoy was obliterated with airstrikes, killing at least twenty-one people and destroying aid intended to help 78,000 others. The airstrikes took place in an area patrolled by Russian reconnaissance drones, ostensibly in place to monitor the CoH.
In August 2003, the Islamic State’s predecessor colluded with the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime to launch a terrorist strike against the U.N. in Baghdad, leading to the U.N.’s withdrawal. The pro-Assad coalition has borrowed this playbook: the U.N. announced on Tuesday morning that it was suspending all humanitarian aid deliveries into Syria.
This comes on the heels of the revelations that the UN has provided millions of dollars to crucial sectors of the Assad regime since 2011, contributing to its remaining in power.
Russia has justified its position by claiming the U.S. never abided by its part of the deal, to restrain the armed opposition, and pointed to an incident on Saturday night when Coalition airstrikes killed sixty-two regime soldiers. The U.S. says it was an accident, and this is plausible. Most conspiracy theories in Syria go wrong by assuming the West is hell-bent on overthrowing Assad, a proposition that, to put it mildly, lacks evidence.
Still, there are pieces of the puzzle missing.
One U.S. official explained that it was possible that, because Assad had pressed prisoners and others into being conscripts, and in his degraded armed forces these government militiamen might not be wearing recognisable uniforms or be in regime-like formations, they were mistaken for an irregular force. “That is where we are right now,” the official said, acknowledging “that could change”. This would be the most innocent explanation for the fact that, though the Russians were informed ahead of time about the airstrike, they did not alert the U.S. to the presence of pro-regime forces.
With the pro-regime coalition having flouted the terms of the CoH, publicly rejected it, engaging in targeted airstrikes against humanitarian actors, and indiscriminate attacks on Syrian civilians, most would consider the CoH to be dead. Since Russia was either unable or unwilling to halt any of this, it would seem to end the argument for Moscow being a useful enforcement mechanism and an interlocutor worth dealing with cooperatively in Syria.
That is not how Secretary of State John Kerry sees it.
Hours after the regime recommenced mass anti-civilian aerial attacks on Monday night, the State Department was waiting for Russia to “clarify” its position to decide whether or not the ceasefire was holding. Kerry was more definitive on Tuesday morning: “The ceasefire is not dead.”
The U.S.-Russia agreement might have been misconceived; had it worked as planned it would have strengthened both the Assad regime and al-Qaeda. But the pretence it is working when it isn’t is even worse. It amounts in practice to a replay of the CoH earlier this year, when the rebels under U.S. sway were restrained and the pro-Assad coalition acted as it wished. This is particularly damaging to Western efforts to isolate al-Qaeda from the mainstream rebellion.
Al-Qaeda made the argument, from the beginning of this round of the political process in December 2015, that it was a conspiracy against the revolution, an effort to demobilise the armed opposition and co-opt them into an interim government on terms indistinguishable from surrender.
Al-Qaeda had plenty to work with in making this case.
Their rebranding has been dismissed by most in the West, but it was never intended for the West, and it is working on the ground. JFS’s “break” with al-Qaeda is interpreted as a serious indication that its desire is to serve not rule. And their record as a better servant of opposition security and interests than the West is quite plain.
Having Syrians lay down arms would require them to feel secure and that cannot happen while Assad remains in power. The tilt of the U.S.-led efforts towards keeping Assad are therefore bringing discredit on the idea of a political solution, and al-Qaeda is stepping into that breach with a ready-made answer: violent jihad. And while Assad remains, the population will look to anyone who can help continue the fight.
The current political track took place in the shadow of the Russian intervention that turned this entire process on its head, from one about the terms of Assad’s departure to negotiating the terms under which he would stay. Al-Qaeda could hardly have asked for more. A political settlement could only be feasible after reversing this trend. Alas, a willingness to use force, even minimally, to alter the balance of power against the pro-Assad coalition does not seem to be on the table for the foreseeable future.