Monday 12 September, the first day of Islam’s most important annual festival, Eid al-Adha, marked the beginning of a “cessation of hostilities” in the ever-bloody conflict in Syria, according to a deal brokered by diplomats from the United States and Russia. This truce was not the first of its kind in Syria and will certainly not be the last, and on the surface it seemed to have perfectly reasonable, humanitarian-oriented objectives.
The theory was that both rebel factions and the forces fighting on the side of the Assad regime would lay down their weapons in order to create an opportunity for vital aid to reach areas of the country which have been under siege. In the meantime, Assad, Russia, and US-led coalition forces would continue to attack positions under the control of DAESH and of other extremist organisations claiming to represent an Islamic movement. However, many key players on the ground and expert analysts expressed scepticism from the start, referencing the track record of the Assad regime and its regional allies in violating ceasefires and preventing aid deliveries, and noting the difficulties inherent in identifying “extremist” targets in what is universally recognised to be a complicated war.
Less than a week after the deal officially came into force, there were reports of violations from all parties, and an escalation in tension between . . . Russia and the US.
Unfortunately, these reservations have now proved to have been justified. Less than a week after the deal officially came into force, there were reports of violations from all parties, and an escalation in tension between the two main international actors, Russia and the US. First of all, there were delays in the arrival of aid to besieged areas such as rebel-held Aleppo, for which Bashar al-Assad’s office blamed the fact that many staff members were on leave for the Eid holiday – arguably something which, if true, might have been predicted. Meanwhile, while there has certainly been a reduction in armed combat, Syria is still by no means a safe location. Groups such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights have published reports of multiple separate barrel bomb strikes by regime and Russian aircraft in rebel-held parts of Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Deraa, Idlib, and several suburbs of Damascus.
Similarly, Russia has accused rebel groups of violating the truce 199 times, and called on the US to bring them in line, though this seems to be a wilful misunderstanding of the relationship the US has with anti-Assad forces. Although they are frequently described as “US backed”, there is often very little real contact between US officials and rebel militia, and in recent months the US supply of light arms to these groups has dwindled. Indeed, the rhetoric around this deal shows that Secretary of State John Kerry is now undoubtedly shifting his focus away from the ultimate removal of the Assad regime, and towards concentrating on DAESH, which is seen as the greater immediate threat to the United States and its global allies.
The fight against DAESH has in fact brought about the most controversy with regards to the truce, after a US-led attack on the terrorists’ positions in Deir ez-Zour on Saturday killed at least 62 troops fighting with the Assad regime. Of course, it is difficult at this stage to analyse the true cause of this apparent mistake – no doubt some supporters of Assad and his Russian allies will read it as a deliberate attack, but it is also entirely possible that Coalition forces were simply unaware that regime troops were also operating in the area. We are often shown maps, which describe the Syrian conflict by shading areas according to the largest combatant force in that particular region, but that does not mean that other important actors do not have a presence there.
What’s more, this conflict has been defined by tempestuous allegiances of convenience, most notably that between regime troops and DAESH fighters in the context of attacks on regions held by anti-Assad rebels. This means that regime-led attacks on the extremist group have been inconsistent, and, arguably, more in the name of propaganda than anything else. Ever since the start of the anti-regime protests in 2011 and 2012, the Assad government has been keen to brand itself as the only alternative to DAESH-style extremism in Syria, with any opposition forces, regardless of their true ideology, dismissed as terrorists. Given that the regime has access to far more resources and international support – mainly from Russia and Iran – than its opponents, this narrative has gained far more credence than it should have.
Yet more complexity is added by the fact that the divisions between groups involved in the fight against the Assad regime have not remained clear after five years of intense, brutal conflict. In Aleppo, for example, many forces which would easily fall into the definition of “moderate opposition”, (to use one of the media’s favourite catchphrases,) have been forced by circumstance to ally with Jabhat Fatah as-Sham, formerly Jabhat an-Nusra, an organisation with strong ideological links to Al-Qaeda.
In an ordinary situation, working with such a group would clearly be reprehensible, but this is not an ordinary situation. This is war. In this conflict, there is every reason to maintain peaceable relations with the biggest, toughest anti-regime player in your area, even if their ideology makes you sick. It is for this reason that many rebel groups expressed concern about the wording of the US-Russia deal – how will they be able to prove that their cooperation with so-called jihadist groups has come only from strategic necessity? Furthermore, how can parties operating air strikes claim only to be attacking extremists when there is such complexity on the ground? As the US blunder shows, any degree of ignorance or miscommunication can lead to an escalation in tensions, putting the peace needed by civilians living in the conflict zone a little further out of reach.
However, despite the cries of anger coming from the Kremlin after that particular incident, it would seem that international consensus on how to tackle the Syrian crisis is shifting gradually towards the Russian position. Once of the view that Bashar al-Assad and his regime are the key cause of the violence in Syria, the US State Department now falls into the expanding school of thought which holds that, while unpalatable, the Assad regime must be a key partner in fighting extremist forces in Syria. Little credit is given to opposition groups in both majority Kurdish and Arab areas which have achieved many impressive victories in preventing DAESH taking over their towns, which have often only fallen after local forces became overstretched from fighting the terrorists and the regime at once. Instead, it would seem that Western security concerns regarding DAESH and similar groups have begun to outweigh any interest in the rights of Syrian civilians to good governance or political self-determination.
This suits Russia fine, as its policy appears vindicated and it seems less likely that it will have to sacrifice Bashar al-Assad’s role in a future political settlement. Meanwhile, international players which have long claimed to support the anti-Assad rebellion may be willing to drop rebel groups on the ground if such a move was expedient regarding their global and regional interests. While Saudi Arabia may put up some resistance due to Assad and Russia’s relationship with its favourite enemy, Iran, its embroilment in Yemen means that Syria cannot be a priority for the Gulf kingdom.
Overall, then, this deal appears at best to be a simple continuation of the protracted conflict in Syria at both a national and international level. . . .
Here in Europe, it would not be surprising if concerns over terror attacks and the migrant crisis pushed leaders towards a similar compromise to that being made by John Kerry – working with Putin and Assad in the hope of limiting the reach of DAESH and its followers. Unfortunately, this is likely to prove short-sighted for many reasons. For one thing, DAESH does not currently take an active role in orchestrating terror attacks in the West – it simply encourages them, and takes credit for them when they do occur. The existence of this particular group is not the sole reason behind the terror threat to Europe, something which demands a far more nuanced and critical understanding of many contemporary issues.
Secondly, support for Bashar al-Assad and his regime is anything but a guarantor of peace and stability in Syria. Both his authoritarian rule as president up until 2011 and the massive atrocities he has committed against his fellow Syrians since then show that he has little on his mind beyond the preservation of his own power. Moreover, he is sufficiently unpopular that even with foreign backing, he will likely never be able to command any sort of authority in most of the country again. Those who have sacrificed nearly everything they have for his removal will not just disappear if he is given false legitimacy by Russia and the US; no doubt they would continue to resist even in the face of continuing oppression. Overall, then, this deal appears at best to be a simple continuation of the protracted conflict in Syria at both a national and international level; at worst, it represents a misguided short-termism on the part of global state actors, with very little thought for the interests of the people who will have to live with the consequences.