February 29, 2016
On February 22, the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. As a first reaction, even the most optimistic observers remained cautious. Pessimists were easier to find. Indeed, on the one hand this is a positive development, at least an effort to bring some but not yet enough specificity to the hitherto broadly expressed concept of a ceasefire. And, most importantly, this is the first time since the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons that Russia and the US have a detailed agreement regarding the Syrian conflict. On the other hand, the complexity of the situation on the ground with nearly a hundred fighting groups, shifting alliances, lack of monitors are huge challenges. Some analysts believe that some groups would use this lull as an opportunity to regroup, rearm and get reorganized. One could say, therefore, that the Joint statement marks the beginning of what may prove to be a frustrating “ceasefire process” with many violations, ups and downs and with more than one devil in the details.
Following the adoption of the Joint Statement President the White House issued the “Readout of the President’s Call with President Vladimir Putin of Russia”. This was a short text which said that President Obama welcomed the understanding reached between the US and Russia and also emphasized the importance of the fulfilment by combined Russian-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine of their obligations under the Minsk agreements. President Putin’s special address was longer and more optimistic. He spoke of Russia’s American partners. But he also referred to many examples in recent history where one-sided actions not sanctioned by the UN, which favored short-term political or opportunistic interests, had led to dramatic results. He mentioned Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. In other words, the agreement on the cessation of hostilities did not prevent the two presidents from voicing their grievances.
Annexed to the Joint Statement was the “Terms For Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. Both the Assad Government and the High Negotiation Council of the opposition confirmed their acceptance of these terms and the UNSC it through Resolution 2268. Russia and the US are now expected to delineate, with other members of the ISSG’s Ceasefire Task Force, the territory held by “Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council” which are excluded from the cessation of hostilities. In the Joint Statement and its Annex this phrase was repeated six times.
It may be worth remembering in this respect that when the ISSG met in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Jordan agreed to help develop among intelligence and military community representatives a common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists, with a target of completion by the beginning of the political process under UN auspices. The UNSC, through Resolution 2254, welcomed the effort being conducted by Jordan and expressed a readiness to consider expeditiously the recommendation of the ISSG for the purpose of determining terrorist groups. Since US-Russian Joint Statement does not refer specifically to any terrorist organizations other than Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, it appears that the list is still pending. Agreement on who is a “moderate” and who is a “terrorist” may present difficulties in a region characterized by murky relationships but lack of it may become a major obstacle to cessation of hostilities.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been a game changer. It has shown that Russia remains a major actor in the Middle East and that she has the hard power to make a difference on the ground. The intervention has also energized diplomatic efforts to stop the violence. Now Russia needs to show that it also has a peacemaking capacity. The peoples of the Middle East are desperate for some semblance of peace and stability and Syria offers Russia a great opportunity.
The Obama administration has wisely refrained from a major military intervention in Syria and containing the conflict through cooperation with Russia could be a relatively low-cost way of handling an impossible situation.
On February 23, Secretary Kerry said that partition of Syria could be part of ‘plan B’ if peace talks fail. According to the Guardian newspaper, the US Secretary of State told the senate Foreign Relations Committee that it “may be too late” to keep Syria as a whole and suggested that Washington would support partition if ceasefire is unsuccessful. Kerry did not advocate partition as a solution and refused to specify details of a plan B, such as increased military involvement, beyond insisting that it would be wrong to assume that Barack Obama would not countenance further action.
A few days later former CIA Director Michael Hayden told the CNN that the world was witnessing the melting down of the international order, particularly the borders drawn at Versailles. He referred to Sykes-Picot. In terms of the U.S. position in the world, Hayden said that America is doing a good job at what he called the “close battle,” or immediate fights but lagged in the “deep battle,” which is stopping people planning to do harm to the U.S. three to ten years down the road.
“Iraq no longer exists. Syria no longer exists. They aren’t coming back. Lebanon is teetering and Libya is long gone,” Hayden said. He added that there is a war within Islam, the Sunni fighting the Sunni and the Sunni fighting the Shia and also struggle with what the West calls “modernity”.
Pandora’s box of the Middle East is open. What triggered that, when and how no longer matters. The region is in unprecedented chaos. The Syrian conflict has turned into a messy proxy war. It has led to great loss of life. It has created a humanitarian disaster and a huge refugee problem. The countries of the region may see a lot more coming out of that box unless they get their act together.