by Mark N. Katz
On October 3, the State Department announced the suspension of U.S. efforts to work with Russia to bring about a ceasefire in Syria. This is in sharp contrast to just a few weeks ago in September when Washington was raising expectations about how “this time would be different” with the newly reached Russian-American Syrian ceasefire agreement.
This agreement was to be implemented in two stages. The first part involved a ceasefire beginning September 12 that all sides were to observe, except for attacks against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the new name for the Nusra Front after it reportedly severed its ties to al-Qaeda). All sides were to allow humanitarian relief to reach besieged areas, including Aleppo.
If this part of the agreement held for seven days, then the U.S. and Russia would work together (starting on September 19) to defeat both IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly warned Syrian opposition groups working with the latter that, “It’s wise to separate oneself”—presumably, to avoid not just Russian but also American air strikes. At this stage, the Syrian government’s air force would cease operating in these areas.
This second part of the ceasefire agreement, though, never materialized because the first part broke down quickly. Not only has the Syrian government blocked humanitarian assistance to rebel-held sections of Aleppo, but Russian and Syrian air forces are conducting a ferocious bombing campaign against the city.
Since the Syrian opposition is now largely on the defensive, the first part of the Russian-American agreement—the cessation of hostilities—was more beneficial to it than to the Assad regime. The second part of the agreement, though, was more beneficial to Damascus and Moscow. For American forces to join with Russian forces in targeting the jihadist opposition—including opposition forces connected to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—would have significantly marginalized this opposition and alienated its regional supporters (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey).
Since the second part of this ceasefire agreement was to its decided disadvantage, the Syrian opposition had a strong incentive to undermine the first part. Moreover, despite its initial expression of support for the agreement, the Assad regime’s statement of intent to reconquer all of Syria made clear that it did not favor the ceasefire either. It apparently did not appreciate Moscow’s agreeing to the Syrian opposition enjoying any sort of protection even after separating itself from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The Assad regime’s violations of the ceasefire, then, were intended to prevent the sort of joint Russian-American collaboration that would have tied Damascus’s hands.
Moscow would have had the strongest incentive to restrain the Assad regime and even overlook ceasefire violations by the non-jihadist opposition in that first week in order to obtain the joint coordination of American forces in the second week. In addition, Russian cooperation with America on Syria would have strengthened Moscow’s appeals for the West to end the economic sanctions imposed after the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea.
But the extreme mutual mistrust between the Russian and American governments undermined the deal. Moscow was especially livid when U.S. air strikes hit Syrian government forces. Russia dismissed American claims that this was an accident. After all, Moscow does not believe that its opponents do anything accidentally.
Another obstacle to implementing the ceasefire, though, was the continued disagreement between Washington and Moscow on the ultimate fate of Assad. The Obama administration maintains that Assad must eventually go. Although it’s not really doing anything to further this goal, U.S. rhetoric is too much for Moscow, which claims that Assad is the strongest force in Syria fighting terrorism and so should be supported by all.
Lastly, and most importantly, the ceasefire failed because neither Washington nor Moscow could prevail on their respective allies in Syria to abide by it.
If the conflict in Syria is ever going to be resolved or even just halted, it will take far more than Russian and American agreement. Regional actors (including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) as well as most (if not all) of the protagonists inside Syria must also agree.
Such an agreement will, needless to say, be very difficult to achieve. The next administration, though, would be better off attempting this more complex task than the seemingly easier one of reaching an agreement with Russia alone, which cannot be forced on regional and local actors. Washington and Moscow simply do not have the capacity to halt, much less resolve, the Syrian conflict by themselves.
Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin.