The U.S.-Russia agreement on a ceasefire in southwestern Syria, hailed by President Trump as one of the seminal achievements of his bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg, will serve as an early test of Russia’s willingness to work with the Trump administration in Syria. Unfortunately, the agreement leaves open many questions about implementation, and, judging by past practice, is likely to be abused by Russia to help the Assad regime consolidate power. Like the agreement on a collaborative cybersecurity unit, it is just one more indication of how Putin ate Trump’s lunch (or was it dinner?) at the G20 summit.
The ceasefire agreement is formally between Russia, the United States, and Jordan, and applies to a portion of southwestern Syria near the Jordanian and Israeli borders. It reportedly makes geographically delimited “safe zones” off-limits to non-Syrian militias (presumably meaning Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force, though it is unclear if these groups are mentioned by name), as well as al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups. The problem with the agreement has to do with enforcement of these “safe zones.” Who determines what groups get to enter or exit, and if violence breaks out, who enforces a return to the ceasefire? Two of the biggest potential spoilers, Iran and Hezbollah, are not parties to the deal. And yet they are Russia’s closest allies in propping up the Assad regime. In concert with Assad, they have waged a murderous campaign against Syria’s opposition for years. The result is a deal that could well leave the proverbial fox—in this case, Russia—guarding the henhouse.