The Syrian ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia has temporarily put a stop to fighting in some parts of the war-torn country, but it could have unintended consequences that end up working in favour of the leader that US-backed rebels are trying to oust.
The ceasefire which went into effect on Monday will, in theory, allow humanitarian aid to get through to besieged areas like Aleppo, a Syrian city where civilians have lived with daily bombardments and a dire lack of food and medical supplies. The ceasefire is also meant to facilitate joint efforts between the US and Russia to target terrorists in Syria.
But, the week-long truce has raised red flags for local actors who ‘see it as an Assad regime victory in disguise,’ according to a report published this week by The Soufan Group, a strategic security firm.
The concerns are derived from scepticism about Russia’s true aim in the region. The country inserted itself into the Syrian civil war last year under the pretense of fighting terrorists, but Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be more focused on bolstering the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime ally.
For instance, the last time a ceasefire was put into place, Russia and the Syrian regime used it to regroup and eventually target moderate rebels who oppose Assad, senior Pentagon officials recently told Foreign Policy. Some anti-Assad rebel groups receive support from the US.
Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told Business Insider in an email that while it’s “too early to tell who the winners and losers are” in the ceasefire, it could end up benefitting Assad at the expense of other interests.
“The agreement would be an unadulterated triumph for the Assad regime if the result is one ultimately reflecting the Russian-American neutralization of the anti-Assad Nusra Front, but with no corresponding strengthening of the non-extremist Syrian armed opposition,” said Hof, who is now the director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
Basically, if the moderate rebels fighting to oust Assad don’t benefit enough from the ceasefire, then the Syrian regime, which is no friend to the US or to the Syrian people, will be the clear winner of the deal.
There are many players on the Syrian battlefield, and rebels encompass extremist elements — like ISIS and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which recently rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — as well as moderate groups that want to oust Assad but don’t share the Islamist goals of the extremist groups.
US officials have called on Assad to step down, but the military has so far declined to get involved directly in removing him from power, leaving that job for the moderate rebels that have received US support.
And once the extremist groups are gone, Assad is likely to focus on destroying whatever moderate elements of the opposition are left.
“[The] ceasefire will benefit the Syrian government if it is able to concentrate forces and attack against the former Nusra Front (now Fateh al-Sham), seizing strategic positions from it and setting itself up later to pivot against more moderate elements of the armed opposition,” Robert Ford, a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute and US ambassador to Syria between 2010 and 2014, told Business Insider in an email.
What is further complicating the situation is the fact that moderate rebels have become increasingly enmeshed with Islamist groups, namely Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which is not a party in the ceasefire. Because the Islamist groups tend to have more arms and money than other rebel groups, partnering with them on the battlefield became a matter of survival for the moderate rebels.
As of right now, the moderate rebels would have to trust the US and Russia if they were to separate completely from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
“Separating from Nusra is something the non-extremist opposition would like to do, but under current conditions it would not be easy,” Hof said. “But if it somehow happens and Nusra is subsequently neutralized, what would stop Assad and his allies from pouncing on the non-extremist armed Syrian opposition?”
To earn the trust of the Syrian opposition, the Americans would have to persuade Russia that if the Assad continues to massacre civilians, the US would take action.
“Nothing good will happen in Syria until civilians come off the bullseye,” Hof said. “But the country’s worst actors — the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and ISIS — have used mass murder and terror to great advantage thus far.”
And Russia isn’t exactly a reliable partner in Syria.
“The Russians have consistently shielded the Syrian government from the repercussions of its renewed use of chemical weapons, war crimes such as indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and blocking humanitarian aid access,” Ford said. “They have repeatedly lied to try to absolve the Syrian government if its crimes.”
Therefore, Russia isn’t likely to help serve the ultimate interests of the Syrian people, which is deposing the despot whose regime has killed more Syrians than any terrorist group.
“The Americans should be very wary of any thought that the possibility of new US-Russian military coordination in Syria will lead to any change in Russian goals or behaviour,” Ford said. “There is certainly no sign that Russia is prepared to push really hard on the Syrian government to make some big compromises at a political negotiation the Obama administration hopes might solve the Syrian crisis.”
Even US officials admit that Russia might be less than trustworthy in this deal.
“I think we’d have some reasons to be sceptical that the Russians are able or are willing to implement the arrangement consistent with the way it’s been described,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said during a Monday briefing. “But we’ll see.”
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