In a significant development on Saturday, Russia and the United States announced a ceasefire plan for the “cessation of hostilities” between the Syrian government and opposition militia groups in the war-torn country. The agreement will be implemented from Monday evening. Reports indicate that the agreement will see the Moscow-backed Bashar al-Assad regime conclude military operations in areas held by the opposition. Both the US and Russia have agreed to set up a joint centre to fight militant outfits such as the Islamic State group and the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (an al-Qaida-linked group previously known as the Nusra Front) seven days after the end of fighting and the delivery of much-needed aid. US Secretary of State John Kerry said the Syrian opposition was ready to end its fight against the Assad government, provided the latter held up its part of the deal. He added that the end of the fighting also required humanitarian access to “all besieged and hard-to-reach areas”, including the town of Aleppo. But there was no mention of lifting the sieges and restoring freedom of movement of goods and people. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Assad government was “ready to fulfil” the provisions of the ceasefire pact.
However, he clarified that the Syrian Air Force will continue to conduct airstrikes in areas outside those “singled out for Russian-American military cooperation”. These “areas” are yet to be defined by either side. This makes it hard to gauge whether the Syrian government will hold up its part of the deal. On the other side, however, the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has been known to fight alongside US-backed opposition fighters. In return for the Assad government’s assurances, the US hopes to persuade the opposition groups it has been backing with arms and logistics to de-link themselves from the Nusra Front forces. One point of clarity between both Kerry and Lavrov is that a ceasefire can lead to a political transition, with the Secretary of State saying that the agreement is “more prescriptive and far-reaching than any proposal to date”.
Despite the announcement of a ceasefire plan, there is little clarity whether it will work. Media reports from Washington indicate that the Obama administration is deeply divided on the subject. There are fears among some in Washington that transition period could create a power vacuum, leaving the West Asian vulnerable to the likes of Iran, Russia, and other militant terrorist groups. Washington’s suspicion stems from Russia’s apparent failure to hold up an agreement for the ceasefire agreement that was reached in February. This agreement, backed by a UN Security Council resolution, fell apart weeks later when the Assad-led forces made their way into Aleppo backed with heavy artillery from Russia. Meanwhile, there is a feeling among the opposition fighters that the US seems willing to back out to oust the Assad government.
The trust deficit between the Syrian opposition and the international community continues to widen, although the deal holds out the possibility of at least a temporary cessation of violence. To the uninitiated, the civil war in Syria began in 2011 following massive protests against the Assad regime. The Syrian government has been accused of committing gross atrocities against civilians with its use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons. On the flip side, credible reports have emerged detailing the role Washington played in fuelling the rise of IS in Syria. “A year into the Syrian rebellion, the US and its allies weren’t only supporting and arming an opposition they knew to be dominated by extreme sectarian groups; they were prepared to countenance the creation of some sort of “Islamic State” – despite the “grave danger” to Iraq’s unity – as a Sunni buffer to weaken Syria,” according to The Guardian.
Coming back to the ceasefire plan, one must note that the devil always lies in the detail. “And Russia and the United States will target areas where they both agree Nusra or Islamic State fighters are present,” according to the New York Times report on Saturday’s ceasefire plan. “What that really means hinges on how Russia and the United States define legitimate opposition groups that cannot be targeted under the deal, and how they define areas where Nusra is present." There is a lack of clarity on what truly represents the balance of forces fighting within rebel-held territory. Neither the key players—the Assad regime and the opposition—nor their regional and international sponsors have agreed on the list of opposition groups to be excluded from the target list, which currently includes IS and the Nusra Front. Without arriving at a consensus on that list, the proposed ceasefire plan will break down. Moscow has more than once stated that all opposition groups opposed to Assad are terrorists and that no so-called “moderate” opposition exists. Russia's claim has some merit. Last year, a Russian pilot was reportedly killed by Syrian Turkmen rebels.
These fighters—linguistically and ethnically Turkish—have been backed by the US to dislodge the Assad regime. But reports indicate that they have also been fighting alongside militant Islamist rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. A more glaring example is the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group—an ultraconservative Islamist entity, which is part of the Jaysh al-Fatah, an alliance that includes the Nusra Front. Besides a lack of clarity on what opposition groups will be considered “legitimate”, the ceasefire plan also fails to account for the presence of foreign Shia militias such as the Hezbollah, which has been fighting on the Assad government’s side. The Lebanese militia group has been deemed a terrorist group by Washington.