September 21, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The War Drags on in Syria
The fragile Syrian ceasefire that went into effect on September 12 has all but collapsed. The week-long cessation of hostilities (CoH) was specifically designed to allow aid deliveries to besieged towns such as Aleppo; in tragic irony only the Syrian civil war could provide, it was the destruction of an aid convoy by an apparent Russian airstrike that will likely prove the final straw for the delicate ceasefire. Despite months of negotiations between the U.S. and Russia that led to the CoH agreement, the ceasefire remains in effect only in a semantic sense. A war of words and accusations between Moscow and Washington mirrors the increased fighting on the ground in Syria. While the U.S. and its partners insist the CoH has not ended (as it can technically only be ended by an official declaration by either the U.S. or Russia) the fighting has clearly contradicted the rhetoric.
There was little question the delivery of aid to the rebel-held parts of Aleppo and surrounding areas would be the most problematic of the issues covered under the CoH. Aid deliveries to such areas had been delayed since the beginning of the ceasefire. On September 19—the day the UN authorized a humanitarian convoy of 31 trucks from Turkey to Aleppo—the Assad regime declared the CoH null and void. Nonetheless, media reports citing U.S. officials indicate that it was two Russian aircraft that struck the aid convoy, killing at least 12 people, including the local head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society.
The airstrike on the aid convoy came just days after Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to protest a September 17 U.S. airstrike in Deir al-Zour that killed an estimated 60 Syrian troops. The U.S. stated it thought it was targeting forces of the so-called Islamic State—who were in close combat with the regime forces—and issued an apology to the Syrians for the mistake. The Russians issued a statement that accused the U.S. of supporting the Islamic State; both the rhetoric and the reality on the ground have deteriorated since.
With Syrian and Russian airstrikes resuming in Aleppo—along with the strike on the aid convoy that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called a possible war crime—the CoH has effectively ended. Despite this reality, neither the Russians nor the U.S. has officially declared the ceasefire over. The reluctance to do so is less a denial of the obvious than it is an admission that there are no other options beyond the CoH. The CoH was the product of months of negotiations, the result of which was a very fragile ceasefire to begin with. The alternative to the CoH is not just a return to fighting, but likely a dramatic increase in the violence as all sides and proxies push for a military victory. The potential abandonment of even the pretense of a negotiated settlement could push Syria over the edge, and lead to further immense civilian suffering.
Relations between the U.S. and Russia are as tenuous as they have been at any point since the end of the Cold War. Putting aside the posturing and rhetoric, the glimmer of hope that the CoH might allow for slight alleviation of Syrian civilian suffering through aid deliveries has evaporated. As it becomes increasingly clear that the U.S. and Russia are unable to engage in meaningful, sustained cooperation in Syria, any near-term negotiated resolution to the civil war seems a distant possibility.
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