Tomorrow will mark the beginning of a new ceasefire agreement in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia. This is not the first attempt at a ceasefire in the country, nor will it likely be the last. For a number of reasons the current deal will likely not bring peace to the war-torn country, in the near to medium term.
While the auspices of the current US/Russia are rather vague, a few things can be said for certain, based on statements made by either side.
Firstly, the deal itself concerns the direct conflict between the Assad Regime and some rebel forces fighting against it. It does not include the fight against jihadi groups like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) and their ‘associates.'
Secondly, the deal has been agreed upon by Russia, the US, the Assad Regime and reportedly at least 97 individual rebel groups.
Finally, the deal will come into effect at midnight (00:00) tonight, and involve a so-called ‘cessation of hostilities’, before humanitarian assistance is deviled to civilians in war-ravaged areas.
Despite major parties signing on to this deal, is far from comprehensive. Moreover, the agreement leaves a lot up to interpretation, and could easily be a political maneuver by Russia and the Assad regime to buy more time in their fight against rebels.
The primary reason why this ‘cessation of hostilities’ is unlikely to ever fully materialize comes down to who Russia and the Assad regime view as ‘Jihadi terrorists’. Russia has officially said that it would continue to attack groups which it considers affiliates of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. This is problematic for any peace deal, as almost all major rebel groups in the country have at one point or another cooperated with or fought alongside JaN – most recently as part of the ‘Jaish al-Fateh’ operations room. As such, with the widest possible interpretation, all rebels could still be legitimate targets for Russian air strikes.
More worrying, a map has emerged today purportedly from the Russian Ministry of Defense, showing which areas it considered under “ceasefire” tomorrow. These areas make up only a small percentage of rebel held territory (mostly along the front lines), meaning that bombing of other areas is likely to continue unabated. Should such bombing continue, it is likely rebel groups would likely rapidly cancel the ceasefire from their side, as it would be suicidal not to.
Another reason why this deal is unlikely to work is that JaN is actively working to undermine it as well. The group has refused to join any deal (it is unclear if they were ever offered) and have urged other groups to also abstain from the cessation of hostilities. Their attacks are likely to continue, and given their distributed positions across rebel-held areas of Syria, it could make retaliation difficult. Any operations against Nursa, would almost certainly also hit other rebels, causing the ceasefire to rapidly crumble.
One final reason for doubting the likelihood of a real cessation of hostilities is that the international leaders who brokered the deal are themselves skeptical of success. Speaking at a press conference yesterday US President Obama said:
“None of us are under any illusions - we're all aware of the many potential pitfalls and there are plenty of reasons for scepticism, but history would judge us harshly if we did not do our part in at least trying to end this terrible conflict with diplomacy.”
Today as well, Salem Al Meslet a spokesman for High Negotiations Committee which represents rebel groups said they had “major concerns” that Russia would take advantage of the deal according to AP. Finally, echoing these comments, Turkish PM Erdogan warned of the deal strengthening Assad and leading to ‘new tragedies’.
While the deal, which will go into effect tonight, may indeed help stop the fighting in some areas of Syria, and improve the lives of at least some civilians, it is sadly likely to fail. A more comprehensive and transparent deal needs to replace it, with clear definitions and an effective method of enforcement. Should this not happen, the war in Syria is likely to grind on without any real solution.