Syrian opposition and the ‘realism’ of US-Russia deal

Despite its apparent failure, the US-Russia ceasefire deal on Syria is bound to surface at the UN General Assembly summit

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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Despite its apparent failure, the US-Russia ceasefire deal on Syria is bound to surface at the United Nations General Assembly summit. Aleppo will also feature among deliberations in New York and will certainly test the honesty and determination of its stakeholders.

Everyone will exploit the tragedy of the displaced and refugees to feign sympathy, while everyone will deny their involvement in the murder of half a million Syrians and the destruction of their ancient cities and infrastructure, to secure themselves a stake in the reconstruction of the country after finishing their realignments there. The heads of states and their delegations will flock to the UN General Assembly hall to deliver their speeches, while the members of the Security Council will convene their club and consecrate the ceasefire deal, should it last till then.

No one dares to challenge a deal concluded by Washington and Moscow to impose a ceasefire and cooperate militarily against ISIS and similar groups, including Jabhet Fateh al-Sham formerly known as Jabhet al-Nusra. But many will be quietly betting on the collapse of the ceasefire, because the deal has some fundamental flaws that makes it all but unsustainable.

Some will argue that the Syrian opposition has no choice because Ankara has welcomed the deal and the Gulf states have not vetoed it if for anything then the fact that it deliberately exempted Iran-backed militias from accountability and scrutiny, when the rebels by contrast are being demanded to disband. Some will say that the cessation of hostilities has become an important resort as the political transition remains shrouded in ambiguity and humanitarian aid is obstructed.

Barack Obama addressed the world from the UNGA platform for the last time as president. He will receive attention but it will not be comparable to the enthusiasm and curiosity he was met with during his first speech there eight years ago. Obama will be judged from the Syrian lens no matter how much he tries to avoid it by convening a summit on refugees and no matter how hard he tries to push the attendees to credit him for his nuclear deal with Iran.

If the ceasefire survives and Russia’s promises pan out, Obama may survive the blame and reproaching. If the deal collapses, the burden will fall on John Kerry, who will be bombarded with criticism from all sides including the US military. Perhaps everyone is approaching battle fatigue, because continuing open ended wars and quagmires is suicide, regardless of the appearance of having a victor and a vanquished party today.

The US-Russian deal effectively terminated the momentum for holding the Syrian regime accountable for the use of chemical weapons

Raghida Dergham

In who’s interest?

One key new development following the deal between Kerry and Sergei Lavrov is that US planes could now bomb groups designated as terrorist after refusing the US-Russian designations. Iran, her militias, and the regime in Damascus will benefit as the US helps destroy their foes, and this explains why they rushed to welcome the deal that Russia told them is in their interests. For its part, the Syrian opposition’s survival is once again on the line, and in the hands of regional and international players.

No one wishes for the bloodletting in Syria to continue except for ISIS and similar groups. But the other stakeholders in the Syrian tragedy are in need for an exit strategy from their predicament, and to avoid being dragged to a deeper quagmire, especially Russia and Iran. It will be the political process and its outcome that will determine whether the truce and the deal will collapse or not. If the axis of Russia, Iran, Assad use the temporary truce and deal to seek victory on the basis of victor and vanquished, then the Syrian crisis could last for a long time still and become Even more complicated. Other parties may want to benefit from a humanitarian truce to regroup, and therefore, it is the duty of the US and Russia to plan for contingencies.

Some say the truce’s collapse is inevitable because of the multiplicity of the agendas of the factions and their sponsors, and the difficulty of a diplomatic breakthrough as long as the situation on the battlefield does not allow it. Thus there are calls to be modest about expectations and be more realistic.

Richard Hass, head of the CFR, wrote in the Financial Times that the alternative is to change the facts on the ground by establishing safe zones and humanitarian zones with air cover and troops from the rebels and friendly neighboring countries. This line echoes previous Turkish ideas about safe zones, and no-fly zones.

Either way, the implication is that the prospect for ending the Syrian war is not plausible in the near future, according to Hass. Neither a nationwide ceasefire nor a transitional post-Assad government is in the cards, he adds, meaning that the best thing to be done now is to establish safe areas to reduce humanitarian suffering in Syria.

One of the key players in Syria’s neighborhood is Turkey, which has entered the war for two goals, namely, ISIS and the Kurds. Ankara had no option but to welcome the deal, but that does not mean it will approve the designation to come of Syrian rebel forces as either terrorist or moderate. President Erdogan is intent to get the Kurdish militias designated as terrorists, challenging the US position that sees them as allies in the war with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where the looming battle of Mosul is crucial. Turkey’s allies in the rebel ranks are also not satisfied with the US-Russian designations and exemptions of the factions in Syria.

But do the Syrian factions have the power to do anything if realpolitik forces their backers to endorse the US-Russian terms? The answer lies with the leaders in the Gulf capitals concerned and the Turkish leadership, in light with what has been agreed upon and declared during the press conference last week of the Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers: beginning with reiterating the call for Assad to step down and responding to rumors about Turkish willingness for him to remain during an open-ended transitional period, and not ending with the need to support Syrian Rebels especially n Aleppo.

The military equation remains in the heart of the future of the truce, but there is little trust between local, regional, and international players, as well as between the Syrian opposition and the US administration.

Regime accountability

In reality, the US-Russian deal effectively terminated the momentum for holding the Syrian regime accountable for the use of chemical weapons. Once again, Kerry and Lavrov exempt the regime from accountability. Indeed, the recent agreement protects the Syrian government from accountability, despite damning evidence by the UN inquiry against Damascus, in violation of international resolutions and even US-Russian agreements.

Most likely, the truce will remain in place, with the deliberate decision of Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow, meaning to ensure the UN meeting in New York proceeds positively, without Russian raids, regime barrel bombs, and Iranian militias being the center of attention, and without mention of the need to hold the regime accountable for its chemical attacks.

There is also a battle of perceptions and public opinion, and Damascus and its allies stand to lose if the public opinion turns against them because of the scenes of shivering children burned by outlawed weapons. Some concessions were thus necessary to buy time, but also for military calculations especially for Aleppo, where Iranian backed militias sustained heavy losses.

As usual, John Kerry was ready to shake hands with Lavrov, who gave Kerry a carrot and kept many sticks in both their hands. Lavrov understands Kerry well and knows his weaknesses, whether toward Iran, or his hostility to the Syrian rebels and their backers.

The moderate Syrian opposition seriously questions the intentions of and deals made by the Obama administration, and is not willing to fall in line by default. For one thing, this would mean signing its own death warrant. Indeed, the recent deal entails ordering Syrian rebels to destroy one another, and threatens joint US-Russian operations to finish the mission in case any rebel factions fail to do so.

A permanent truce is imperative as is a grand deal to end the war in Syria, as part of the grand deals between the US and Russia and in the region, however, all of this appears unlikely to happen today.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 16, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

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