Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Complicated agreement on Syria

The Russian-US agreement on the Syrian crisis may mark the start of a worse and more complex phase in the conflict, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Since the announcement of the US-Russian agreement on Syria on 9 September and US Secretary of State John Kerry signing a final draft of the deal with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov after weeks of difficult consultations, the US-Russian quarrel over Syria has taken a new turn.

Instead of upholding the ceasefire in Syria, which was the first clause of the agreement, conditions on the ground have deteriorated into more violence and uncertainty.

Keeping the details of the agreement secret has paralysed the parties to the Syrian conflict, with only the US and Russia being privy to them. Even key European players, such as France, Germany and the UK, have not been told the details. Neither has the UN, and the Syrian opposition was given only a brief summary by a US envoy.

The Syrian opposition, represented by the Supreme Commission for Negotiations which is supposed to be a party to the agreement, was not given details of what it said. Nevertheless, the opposition has been widely criticised for its “reserved” welcome for the deal even though it does not know its contents.

Lavrov said the Americans wanted the details to remain classified, but Moscow suggested the deal should be revealed in its entirety in order for it to be adopted as a UN Security Council Resolution.

No one knows why the Russians did not reveal the details, but it may be because neither side wants to publish them because the deal would be unacceptable to the relevant Syrian parties.

A date had been set for discussion in the Security Council, but this was cancelled by the US without explanation. Moscow and Washington were to have presented the agreement to member states in order to pass a UN resolution. When the meeting was cancelled, the parties were in the dark since they could not sign up to an agreement they had not read.

Although the agreement was only signed by Russia and the US, these countries have started implementing it and focusing on making it succeed. But the delays and secrecy have fuelled rampant rumours and various explanations of what is happening on the ground.

Not revealing the details of the agreement has raised the suspicion of the countries involved in the Syrian crisis, and it has enraged the Syrians since the fate of their country is at stake. The armed opposition has said it will transform its combat methods into urban warfare if Russia and the US decide to impose a deal that maintains the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

The deal consists of five documents, including an agreement that ends acts of aggression to pave the way for focusing on targeting terrorist groups that the US defines as Islamic State (IS) and the Fatah Al-Sham Front (formerly the Al-Nusra Front). Russia defines all the armed Syrian opposition groups as terrorists.

The sections of the agreement that were made public aim to demilitarise a main road in Aleppo that opposition and regime forces have battled over. They establish a joint command centre for the Americans and Russians to exchange information and call for an end to random bombings and regime air strikes in a certain zone that has remained undisclosed and does not include all the country.

The documents confirm strikes against the opposition close to IS and Fatah Al-Sham, but do not refer to militias loyal to the regime or Iran such as the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard which controls large swathes of Syria.

From the perspective of the Syrian opposition, this gives these groups legitimacy. The deal does not refer to Al-Assad’s fate, the transitional period in Syria, a clear mechanism for monitoring the ceasefire or the sanctions for breaching the truce.

The ceasefire under the agreement has not held, and the opposition has blamed the regime and Moscow for its collapse because of the continued air strikes and attempts to take advantage of the ceasefire to fortify military positions and bring in more combatants and weapons. The regime has also prevented the delivery of aid to areas under siege.

Washington has threatened Moscow that it will not cooperate militarily with Russia if the latter does not put pressure on the Syrian regime to ground its fighter jets and allow the safe passage of humanitarian aid to besieged areas.

While most were focused on the agreement, coalition forces led by the US carried out air strikes on regime locations in Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria and killed about 80 combatants. The US said it had targeted them by mistake while monitoring the movements of IS.

Russia and the Syrian regime have accused the coalition of providing air cover for IS and paving the way for IS forces to take control of army positions. Moscow said that it suspected the US air strikes against the Syrian army positions were intentional, but Washington said it had notified the Russians of the operation ahead of time, further confusing matters on the ground.

The US has been angered by a Russian request for a list of all Syrian opposition military factions that Washington does not want to be targeted and the names of their leaders and locations. Washington is concerned that this could be a ruse to place the factions it supports on the target list of the Russian and Syrian armies.

The Americans also differ among themselves about the agreement signed with Russia. The US defence department has objected because it “mistrusts” the Russian military and is concerned about intelligence sharing with Moscow and revealing how US agencies operate. It also has questions about who will fill the vacuum after the Islamist factions are targeted.

US President Barack Obama supports the deal because he believes the only solution is to cooperate with the Russians. This would de-escalate the violence, allow the passage of humanitarian aid to besieged areas, and launch negotiations in Geneva in parallel with forming a joint operations cell, he believes.

Before announcing the deal, the Americans wanted to guarantee three key issues that would be evidence of good intentions by Russia and the Syrian regime. The first was the delivery of humanitarian relief to besieged areas in Syria and Russian approval of the lists of armed opposition factions that would not be targeted and keeping Syrian jets on the ground.

This would move to the next requirement of setting up joint command of the US and Russian militaries, as well as intelligence sharing, in order to begin targeting IS and Fatah Al-Sham in parallel with the peace talks in Geneva.

“All the Russians see in the deal with the Americans is the opportunity to improve the conditions on the ground for their alliance with the Al-Assad regime, Iran and the Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere,” said Fayez Sara, a member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

“They want to show the world that they are working on ending the armed conflict and embracing a political solution in partnership with the US. However, their actions on the ground continue to bolster their power through the arrival of more supplies and combatants.”

 “There is a clear bias towards the interests of the regime and its allies and derailing the Syrian cause from its track as a people’s revolution against a tyrannical and murderous regime. The deal makes it into a war on terrorism, but not all terrorism, especially since Hizbullah has also been named as a terrorist organisation,” Sara said.

He believed the deal would fail because “the US-Russian understanding on Syria lacks seriousness and is dominated by political and media coverage rather than the need for implementation.”

“The Syrian regime and its allies are not genuinely interested in a political solution, and the military option still dominates their policies and actions. The regime is taking advantage of the truce and talking of a political resolution to create new realities on the ground,” he said.

The Syrian opposition believes the agreement will end its role in future negotiations and that it is intended to anchor a truce between Washington and Moscow rather than a truce among the combatants on the ground.

It says the US is only interested in the war on terror, while Russia is obsessed with not being sucked into a quagmire that is draining its economy as a result of low gas prices and sanctions by the West. The Syrian regime has not abandoned the notion of a military resolution as it is still receiving support from Moscow and Tehran, it says.

But the opposition is reassured about its future role because of the clashes between Washington and Moscow, even if it is still worried that it will be driven into negotiations that do not aim at a full political transition and will keep Al-Assad in power during and beyond the transitional phase.

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