Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

An exit from the US’s dead-end policy?

Local Syrian ceasefires could work, but first the United States must free itself from the interests of its regional alliances, writes Gareth Porter

Al-Ahram Weekly

Contradictions between the Obama administration’s policy in Syria and realities on the ground have become so acute that US officials are discussing a proposal for local ceasefires between opposition forces and the Bashar Al-Assad regime.

The proposal surfaced in two articles in Foreign Policy magazine and a column by David Ignatius in The Washington Post. Their appearance indicates that the idea is under serious consideration by administration officials.

In fact, the proposal may have been discussed in a series of White House meetings held the week of 6-13 November to discuss Syria policy, one of which Obama himself presided over. Ignatius, who usually reflects the views of senior national security officials, suggested that the administration has nothing better to offer than the proposal.

Robert Ford, who served as US ambassador to Syria until last May and is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told David Kenner of Foreign Policy that he believes the White House “is likely to latch onto” the idea of local ceasefires “in the absence of any other plan they’ve been able to develop.”

The proposal also appears to parallel the thinking behind the efforts of new United Nations peace envoy, Steffan de Mistura. He has called for the creation of what he calls “freeze zones” — local ceasefires that would allow humanitarian aid to reach civilian populations.

The fact that the proposal is being taken seriously is especially notable because it does not promise to achieve the aims of existing policy. Instead, it offers a way out of a policy that could not possibly deliver the results it promised.

Such a policy shift would be a tacit acknowledgement that the US cannot achieve its previously stated goal of unseating the Assad regime in Syria. The Obama administration would certainly deny any such implication, at least initially, for domestic political as well as foreign policy reasons.

The policy would refocus diplomatic efforts on the immediate need of saving lives and promoting peace, rather than on unrealistic political or military ambitions. US Syrian policy lurched from Obama’s abortive plan to launch an air war against the Assad regime in September 2013 to the idea that the US would help train thousands of “moderate” Syrian opposition fighters to resist the threat from the Islamic State (IS) in September 2014.

But the “moderate” forces have no interest in fighting IS. And in any case, they have long ceased to be a serious rival to IS and other jihadi forces in Syria. It was no accident that the alternative policy surfaced in November — just as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was completely routed from its bases in the north by IS forces.

Washington Post columnist Ignatius not only mentioned that rout as the context in which the proposal was presented in Washington, but quoted from three messages the desperate FSA commander, while under attack, sent to the US military, requesting air support.

The author of the paper that appears to have struck a chord in Washington, Nir Rosen, is a journalist whose depth of knowledge of human realities on the ground in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon is unmatched. His personal encounters with the people and organisations that fought in those conflicts, recounted in his 2010 book, Aftermath, reveal nuances of motives and calculations that can be found nowhere else. 

Rosen now works for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, which was active in bringing about the local ceasefire in Homs, considered the most significant such achievement so far. Rosen gave Robert Malley, the senior NSC official responsible for Syria, a 55-page report making the case for a policy of supporting the negotiation of local ceasefires, which also calls for “freezing the war as it is.”

According to James Traub’s article in Foreign Policy, the report is based on the twin premises that neither side can defeat the other militarily, and that the resulting stalemate strengthens IS and its jihadi allies in Syria.

Negotiating local deals under the conditions of the Syrian war is devilishly difficult, as an examination of 35 different local deals by researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Syrian NGO Madani shows. Most of the deals were prompted by the Syrian regime’s strategy of besieging opposition enclaves, which meant the regime’s forces were hoping to impose terms that were nothing less than surrender.

Local pro-government militias sometimes frustrated potential deals, because of a combination of sectarian score settling and because they were gaining corrupt economic advantages from the sieges they were imposing. In other cases, however, the pro-government National Defence Forces (NDF) militias lent their support to local deals.

The Syrian regime ultimately recognised that its interests lay in a successful deal in Homs, but the researchers found that the further military commanders were from the location of fighting, the more they clung to the idea that military victory was still possible.

The primary source of pressure for ceasefires, not surprisingly, was from the civilians who suffered the consequences of the conflict most heavily. The study observes that the larger the ratio of civilians to fighters in the opposition enclave the stronger the commitment to a ceasefire.

Both the LSE-Madani study and an Integrity Research and Consultancy paper say that international support in the form of both mediators and truce monitors would help establish both clearer arrangements and legal commitments for ceasefire, safe passage and opening routes of humanitarian assistance. Homs is an example of a deal where the UN played a positive role in influencing the implementation of the truce, according to Integrity.

Unless they lead to a comprehensive process, however, the small steps toward peace and reconciliation that the local truces represent are highly vulnerable. Even though the challenge from IS shadows the entire process, it is an approach that is likely to be more effective than escalating foreign military involvement. And, surprising as it may seem, the LSE-Madani study reveals that even IS concluded a ceasefire deal with a civil society organisation in Aleppo.

But even if the Obama administration recognises the advantages of the local ceasefire approach for Syria, it cannot be assumed that it will actually adopt the policy. The reason is the heavy influence of Washington’s main regional allies.

Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar would all reject any policy that allows a regime they regard as an Iranian ally to persist in Syria. Unless and until the United States can figure out a way to free its Middle East policy from the interests of its regional alliances, its policy in Syria will be confused, contradictory and feckless.

The writer is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing on US national security policy.

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