On Sunday, the new ceasefire in Syria negotiated between Russia, the United States, and Jordan, appeared to be holding. As is customary, President Donald Trump took to social media to praise the deal. “Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!” he tweeted.
Other members of his administration are less sanguine. In a background briefing on July 7, a senior State Department official cautiously highlighted that the agreement would be limited to southwestern Syria and that, like previous such attempts, could very well collapse. The Pentagon, according to BuzzFeed, has been left out of the loop on the plan, and many of its key details have yet to be made public, Foreign Policy reported this week.
Indeed, while the new plan offers some advantages, it falls short in alarming ways. It requires forces loyal to the Syrian government and those belonging to the non-jihadi opposition, generally lumped into the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front, to halt attacks. Foreign fighters, including forces mobilized by Iran, are not to be allowed in areas near the Syrian borders. Humanitarian aid is to flow into the area and refugees will be permitted to return to their homes. But to secure these things, Trump cast his lot with Putin, relying on him both to quell the bloodshed throughout Syria and broker a political settlement that it cannot deliver on its own. The deal also circumvented Iran, ignoring on-the-ground realities and guaranteeing opposition from Tehran to even this limited deal. It’s a strategy that could offer benefits in the short term, but won’t treat the larger Syrian ulcer eating away at stability in the Middle East.
What would a durable deal in southwestern Syria look like? It would provide immediate humanitarian gains, and would help forestall the additional displacement of refugees towards Jordan. It may even enable some of the over-600,000 registered Syrian refugees in the country from areas covered by the deal to return home. A lasting ceasefire might also further contain ISIS. A small, ISIS-aligned fighting contingent near the Golan Heights occasionally skirmishes with the moderate Southern Front. If the fighting between the Southern Front and the Syrian government halts, the Southern Front could focus on that ISIS contingent—an outcome the Americans and Jordanians seek.
In that event, the Syrian government could shift its forces away from southwestern Syria and direct them against ISIS. Of course, it’s just as likely that the Syrian government would move its forces to the Damascus suburbs where it is doggedly fighting to capture the few remaining towns held by the non-ISIS opposition. The new plan does not extend to those suburbs. More fighting there might actually displace and kill thousands more civilians.
A foundational challenge confronting the deal will be forcing its players to respect its most basic terms. In places like Aleppo, ceasefires were announced by the United States and Russia in February and September 2016; they collapsed. In the wake of such failures, the Syrian government and opposition traded accusations that the other side had broken the agreement—both, in all likelihood, had a strong case. A credible monitoring force is critical to ensuring a cessation of hostilities. While Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on July 6 that Russian military police would serve as monitors, there is no agreement on this yet (one is expected “within days”).
The nature of this deal also misunderstands the objectives of the parties involved. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that Moscow and Washington essentially have the same goal in Syria. But that’s far from apparent. For Washington, the main goal in Syria since mid-2014 has been to destroy ISIS. The Trump team has said Assad has to go, but that this is not the immediate priority. Moscow, by contrast, has sought to reinforce Assad against domestic and international pressure, refusing to hold his regime accountable for using chemical weapons and rejecting any condemnation of its war crimes, like indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the targeting of hospitals and aid convoys. In the Russian analysis, all roads to stability in Syria run through Assad.
Thus, even if Moscow knew the Syrian government breached a ceasefire, it wouldn’t punish Damascus sufficiently to change its behavior. It doesn’t want to de-stabilize Damascus or hurt its own reputation as a reliable ally. Moreover, temporary cessations in fighting bolster the Syrian government, which can shift scare troops from a quieter front to a more active one. As the Syrian government’s position improves, Russia’s leverage diminishes.
Without some kind of new pressure, the Syrian government won’t change its treatment of ceasefires—probing, testing, and pushing, often against a single village in order to improve its tactical position. Syria’s leaders are brutal but patient; they understand it will take years to bring the country back under their control.
But perhaps the biggest question left unanswered is Iran. If this deal endures, it would help address the security concerns of Israel and Jordan, key U.S. allies, surrounding Iran. Jordan’s King Abdullah was one of the first Arab leaders to warn of the emerging, Iran-controlled Shia Crescent stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. In March, the Iran-backed Nujaba Movement militia announced it would turn to fighting Israel once the Syrian opposition was defeated. In the months and years ahead, Israel may have to contend with sizeable Iran-armed, Iraqi-Shia militias, as well as Israel’s old nemesis, Hezbollah. The new Russian-American-Jordanian deal, if it survives, would forestall forward advances closer to Israel and Jordan by these Iran-backed militias.
What Iran has to gain from this plan is unclear. Tehran, like the Syrian government itself, was not party to these negotiations, and has reacted with caution. Iran, not Russia, is Assad’s biggest source of support, and that support limits Putin’s leverage. Iran also wants Assad to retake all of Syria. Given the threats from Iran-backed Iraqi militias, there are more Iraqi-Shia fighters ready to enter the fray in Syria. Respecting the deal doesn’t seem to fit into this schema.
Iran’s critical role in Syria highlights a shortcoming in the negotiations that led to the new deal. In the Cold-War era, America and the Soviet Union, powered by their military might, could largely determine the outcome of “wars of liberation” in developing countries. In 2017 in Syria, that hasn’t worked: Either the Russians have been insincere or they lack sufficient leverage over Iran and Syria to compel any respect for ceasefires. If the new plan holds, the Trump administration wants to build upon it to negotiate further agreements, even ones backed by no-fly zones, in other parts of Syria.
But without securing acceptance from Iran and the tens of thousands of troops in Syria under its control, such a plan won’t work. The Russians brought Iran into their Kazakhstan-based Syria talks for this reason, while the Americans have limited themselves to observing, not negotiating. Until Washington accepts that diplomacy with Iran is necessary to ending the Syrian conflict, it will be left on the outside, detached from any role in building a lasting peace.
America also risks forfeiting its role in shaping the contours of a future Syria. Tillerson has said that the country must be stable in order to prevent ISIS from rising anew. But if a ceasefire process does actually work and expands, it will produce a Syria dominated by different factions: the Assad government, Syrian Kurds, and Syrian Arabs—a de facto divided Syria (partition is a dirty word in the Middle East). Such a Syria, surrounded by meddlesome neighbors, would be unstable, and mired in endless peace talks, like the moribund Geneva peace talks. The Assad regime, backed by Iran, would continue nibbling away at opposition-held territories.
In such a scenario, the resentment among the Sunni-Arab communities that facilitated the spread of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria since 2011 would continue to feed recruits into their next iterations. The ceasefire has positive dimensions, but on the biggest questions—preventing the further dissolution of the Middle East—it hasn’t much to offer.
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