Difficulties in step one
In a significant breakthrough, the Syrian government has agreed to stand by the ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia. The main anti-government opposition group has also agreed to a cessation of hostilities. But the catch here is that both sides seek the fulfillment of key conditions before hostilities are set aside.
The Syrian government, sponsored by Russia, has agreed to a ceasefire on the condition that attacks on Islamic State, Al-Nusra, and other UN-identified terrorist groups continue. The united opposition to the Syrian government, sponsored by Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, wants an end to air strikes by government forces. But there is a lack of clarity on whether the Riyadh-backed Syrian opposition truly represents the balance of forces fighting within rebel-held territory. If there is a significant disconnect, these talks will neither bring about the desired result nor a ceasefire. Efforts to include a myriad of rebel forces in the talks will come at a significant logistical cost. Neither side has agreed on a list of terrorist groups to be excluded from the nationwide ceasefire.
There is a consensus that the ceasefire will not apply to the Islamic State, Al-Nusra front, and some other militant groups. Without arriving at a consensus on that list, the agreement will breakdown. Despite all official efforts towards arriving at a consensus over Syria, certain irreconcilable strategic interests remain. Besides targeting the Islamic State, Russia’s military involvement in Syria has also focused on targeting US-backed anti-Assad rebels.
Moreover, Moscow has more than once stated that all those groups opposed to Assad are terrorists and that no so-called “moderate” opposition exists. Russia’s claim does have some merit. For example, one of two Russian pilots, who had ejected from the plane that was recently shot down by Turkish forces, was reportedly killed by Syrian Turkmen rebels. The Turkmen rebels, who are linguistically and ethnically Turkish, have been backed by the US-led western powers to dislodge the Assad regime.
According to western sympathisers, they have mostly aligned with non-jihadist anti-Assad rebel groups. However, certain ground reports indicate that they have also been fighting alongside militant Islamist rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. A more glaring example is the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, which took part in a recent Riyadh-sponsored conference of rebel fighters. It is an ultra- conservative Islamist group, which is part of the Jaysh al-Fatah, an alliance that includes the Al-Nusra front. After years of a debilitating civil war, Syria desperately needs some peace and normalcy. But the first step in achieving that is fraught with potential landmines.