September 12, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Another Cessation of Hostilities in Syria
On September 9, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a cessation of hostilities (CoH) in Syria. In theory, the CoH is meant to pause the fighting, essentially grounding the Assad regime’s air force, and setting the stage for joint U.S.-Russian efforts against the so-called Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The success of the CoH hinges upon how the various parties involved in the war define its terms. While the CoH is a positive step towards a potential resolution to the five-year old civil war, the highly cynical nature in which it is viewed by Syrian rebel groups underscores the agreement’s fragility.
The prospects for the CoH’s long-term success are tenuous; the CoH represents an international solution applied to what, regardless of proxy machinations, is an intensely local and complicated conflict. The Assad regime’s backers have the benefit of solidarity when it comes to supporting the CoH; Assad’s other major supporter, Iran, supports the agreement, in addition to Russia. The rebel side is much less unified. Unsurprisingly, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the rebranded Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, rejects the plan as it entails joint U.S.-Russian strikes against it. The issue, however, is that JFS is deeply intertwined in the overall rebel movement. For its part, Ahrar al-Sham, another hardline Islamist group influential in the overall rebel movement, issued a statement on September 11 objecting to the ceasefire, but not explicitly rejecting it. With JFS and Ahrar al-Sham—the two most powerful groups inside the umbrella rebel group of Jaysh al-Fatah—objecting to the terms of the CoH, the plan is effectively a battle between international aspirations versus local capabilities and facts on the ground.
The CoH takes effect late September 12, and in theory pauses the fighting between the rebels and the regime. Importantly, the CoH calls for the immediate allowance of humanitarian aid to the many besieged areas of Syria, including Aleppo. The vital Costello road into Aleppo is to be demilitarized, and the agreement allows for consistent humanitarian resupply. Neither the regime nor the rebels are supposed to seize territory during the CoH, yet with JFS out of the agreement and Ahrar al-Sham highly wary of it—and no sanction mechanism against regime violations—it is unclear how the ceasefire will hold among the parties responsible for the most fighting.
Problematically, it is unclear under the terms of the agreement what defines a violation of the ceasefire, and what penalties are in place to address violations. With that said, if the CoH holds for a week, the U.S. and Russia will initiate some level of joint effort against the Islamic State and JFS. Though the broader rebel coalition does not view the Islamic State as a partner, the rebels view JFS as a necessary—if unwelcomed—partner in the fight against Assad, making joint U.S.-Russian strikes against the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate problematic for the prospects of the ceasefire. Regional actors such as Turkey and the Gulf countries have invested a significant amount in rebel groups that are intertwined with JFS. Though calls to clearly separate JFS from the broader rebel coalition make sense on the international level, such differentiations become far less obvious the closer one gets to the fighting.
The next week will determine the influence of negotiations between major international powers on modern civil conflicts. The humanitarian situation in Syria remains horrific, and any plan that alleviates the suffering even temporarily warrants serious attention and effort. However, local and regional actors may still view the war as a zero-sum game in which traditional victory remains a possibility. As long as one side believes it can ‘win’ through military means, the political talks are merely battlefield maneuvering of a different sort.
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