Syrian ceasefire or shortcut to Aleppo?

TEHRAN, Sep. 21 – Russia and US recently agreed on a ceasefire in Syria that didn’t seem promising and enforcing at all, noting the facts on the ground.

G20 Summit in China, which was attended by Russian, American and Turkish high officials, was considered an ample opportunity to discuss one of the most critical issues of the international scene: Syrian crisis. However hopes faded as no white smoke emerged after the meeting between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 4, on the sidelines of the summit. Calling the meeting “candid, blunt and businesslike” Obama said “we had some productive talks about what a cessation of hostilities would look like for Russia and the US to focus on our common enemies,” adding that regarding “the gap of trust that exists” the gaps are not closed yet. Putin, more optimistic, underlined that Russia would strengthen counter-terrorism ties with United States and even said an agreement could be reached in the next few days.

Talks was then continued by Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Foreign John Kerry on the sidelines of the G20 Summit the same day, which was dedicated to According to the ministry, the sides discussed "further steps to assist in resolving the conflict in Syria, including the task of consolidating the cessation of hostilities and the Russian-US cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups,” according to a statement by Russia Foreign Ministry. "There still remains a couple of tough issues that we need to work on," Kerry said after the meeting during a press conference announcing that the talks will continue.

Lavrov and Kerry resumed talks on Syrian political process and joint fight against terrorism in Geneva on September 9, while Lavrov had met with UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura a day earlier. It was German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier who revealed what was going on behind the closed doors in Geneva; "The most important thing for now is a humanitarian pause for Aleppo, and it would be preferable to make it last for 48 hours. Talks are currently being held on implementing a ceasefire for between seven and 10 days."

The marathon of exhaustive talks ended late Friday. The agreement reached by US and Russia, albeit not a comprehensive ceasefire but a temporary cessation of hostilities, was put into action at sundown on September 12, involving halting all attacks, including airstrikes, by all parties. The agreement also requires unimpeded humanitarian access to areas in need, including Aleppo, and depends on all forces pulling back from strategic Castello Road. Next step, if the sides respect the ceasefire for seven days, would be establishing a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) by Russia and US, separating terrorists from moderate groups and finally joint airstrikes against terrorists.
Yet, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stressed that there still remains a lack of confidence in US-Russia cooperation and negotiations on Syria; “"Despite all the problems, despite the lack of trust, which continues to emerge, despite attempts to sabotage what we agreed upon today, we have managed to work out a package," Lavrov told reporters. "Today’s document is not the only one, there are actually five of them," which both Lavrov and Kerry rejected to talk about. Not surprisingly, Kerry stressed the importance of aid to Aleppo during the presser held immediately after talks; "Both pro-government and opposition groups will be required to provide safe, unhindered and sustainable humanitarian, commercial and civilian access to eastern and western Aleppo," he said. "Neither the opposition nor the government will be permitted to attack or to take territory held by the other or…to obstruct the delivery of humanitarian goods."

The deal received acclaim nearly all around the world, the most important of which was the approval of the agreement by Syrian government. Damascus has been informed of the deal, agreed to it and the cessation of hostilities will be applied to the city of Aleppo for humanitarian purposes, SANA reported on September 10.
The so-called opposition also hailed the deal when Bassma Kodmani, the opposition's High Negotiations Committee (HNC) spokeswoman, announced that moderate groups would re-organize and distance themselves from the radical groups. She underlined that in return government forces should end the "strategy of surrounding whole areas and besieging them."

However, despite all hope and optimism the temporary cessation of hostilities agreement brought up in international scene, the nature of the deal doesn’t seem so strong to bear the heavy weight of an almost 5-year-long war. The agreement is even considered fragile and weak as it is pursuing far-fetched aims as separating the so-called moderate opposition groups from terrorists, which is in fact impractical, let not say illogic. The issue was also one of the major causes that bring the February agreement of ceasefire to a failure. No doubt the ceasefire has so far reduced the violence paving the way for deliver of humanitarian aid to the country, particularly the besieged Aleppo where both sides are in dire need for. Still, US and Russia are aware that the agreement would barely reach its final stages, if it could stand the several violations both sides are currently blaming each other for. Being realist, US, concerned by recent developments in the region, specifically rapprochement of Russia to Turkey and the achievements of Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies in strategic Aleppo as well as it’s fading role in Syria, is trying to bye time for itself and its allies in the region to turn the situation around. The temporary halt of violence on the terrorist’s side is due to repairing and regrouping as the core of the anti-government militia is Syria are groups like ISIL and former al-Nusra Front (current Jabhat Fatah al Sham) and their several affiliates who have no interest in political talks and solution as their ultimate purpose is to topple down President Assad and the democratic government and to establish their caliphate, an essential part of which is in line with US is seeking in Syria. Talking about Syrian crisis, it should be always kept in mind that it was US and its western allies who inflamed the conflict for regime change and invaded the Arab country under the pretext of fighting terrorism against the will of Damascus. Hence, the ceasefire deal, at its American prospect, is another time-buying plot to help the insurgents recover, particularly in strategic Aleppo where they have been encircled by government forces. Noteworthy, the truce states trucks should be allowed to travel into eastern Aleppo, which is held by terrorists and insurgents, without the need for written permission from the Syrian government and without stop in checkpoints. This would have no other meaning than lifting the siege, giving breathe time to terrorists and supplying them with arms and goods, or the so-called “humanitarian aid”, as they have been heavily weakened by Syrian army recently. Yet the greatest challenge would remain the separation of moderate terrorist, what Lavrov has called the top priority for both parties of the ceasefire. This is the point where many believe that the brokered truce would fail, as that would be impossible to differentiate between thousands of terrorists and hundreds of groups affiliated to each other and overlapped. The major problem, as well, would be the notorious al-Nusra Front, which includes several opposition groups US doesn’t want to target.

On the other hand, the temporary ceasefire would negatively influence the Syrian army and its allies in Aleppo. Ceasing attacks and air strikes and the possible delivery of aid to the terrorists may halt the advancements of Syrian army in battlefield Damascus. But from a different point of view, the Syrian government may also take advantage of the temporary ceasefire to reinforce its army and forces.

The confidentiality of some parts of the deal, however, sets the ground for negative speculations. US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said at a briefing "There are some operational details, areas of sensitivity, we do not believe would be in the interest of the agreement, or in anyone’s interest, to share,” while Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called on US to publicize the deal; "In order to brush away any doubts on how we will fulfill our commitments in the way in which they were stipulated in the agreement, we suggested revealing these agreements and not keeping them secret, as our American partners wanted," he said, adding that Russia has nothing to conceal.

Overall it seems that Russia is the key player of the fragile Syrian ceasefire. With its increasing influence in the region stemming from its consistent and productive policies in the region, Russia has the upper hand in Syrian crisis and it should be noted that its presence in the Syria has been authorized by Damascus. The US-Russia truce, whether successful or not, once again bolsters Russia’s role and position in the region, demeaning the US as a superpower. It is now on Russia to not only convince Syria follow the ceasefire – as the two have so far proved to be loyal to – but also should have an eye on the United States to abide by the deal and stick to its commitments in convincing terrorist and armed groups to hold their fire.

Parnaz Talebi has done her MA in North American Studies in Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran.

News Code 119884


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