The Road to a Syria Peace Deal Runs Through Russia

Moscow’s decision about whether to continue its air war in Syria will determine the fate of a new cease-fire agreement.

MUNICH, GERMANY. FEBRUARY 12, 2016. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry during a press conference following a meeting of the International Syria Support Group. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander ShcherbakTASS via Getty Images)
MUNICH, GERMANY. FEBRUARY 12, 2016. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry during a press conference following a meeting of the International Syria Support Group. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander ShcherbakTASS via Getty Images)

A new Syrian cease-fire plan was met with a rare expression of praise by the Syrian opposition. But the success of the deal depends on Russia, which has a history of prolonging cease-fire talks to push its military offensives. 

The accord reached in Munich by major world powers calls for a “cessation of hostilities” within a week and immediate access for humanitarian supplies into the war-torn country. In touting the agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned that it amounted to “commitments on paper,” noting that the real test is “whether or not all the parties honor those commitments and implement them in reality.”

Chief among those parties is Moscow, whose unyielding bombing campaign near Aleppo has allowed Syrian government forces, with the assistance of Iranian and Lebanese fighters, to nearly recapture the rebel stronghold. If Russia continues to aid the offensive for another week, Damascus could deal a crushing blow to the rebels, encircle tens of thousands of civilians, and permanently cut off the opposition’s vital supply route to Turkey.

It remained unclear Friday whether the Syrian government or all of the armed opposition groups — who were not represented at the Munich talks — are prepared to abide by the agreement to halt fighting and allow humanitarian access. The Munich deal was approved by the 17-nation International Syria Support Group, or ISSG, which is overseeing international efforts to secure peace in Syria.

There’s another major loophole: The agreement isn’t binding on the Islamic State or al-Nusra front, two of the main targets of Assad and his allies, which leaves Moscow free to continue its air war in Syria. That means fighting in some parts of the country could continue — and even intensify — even if the cease-fire takes effect as scheduled.

Even so, Salem al-Muslet, the chief spokesman of a key opposition coalition, told reporters on Friday that the agreement had “many positive points” but that the group would insist that concrete improvements on the ground take place before peace talks can resume in Geneva.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Bassam Barabandi, a Syrian government defector who now works with the opposition coalition, praised Kerry’s diplomatic push and called on the United States to hold Moscow accountable in the coming days.

“It shows that when the Americans are serious, they can achieve what they want,” he said. “We hope the U.S. will keep pushing for the implementation of the whole deal.”

Kerry and the other nations taking part in the on-again, off-again Syria talks hope that the successful implementation of the new deal could reduce the overall level of violence while allowing desperately needed aid into contested towns and cities. That could, in time, help gradually bring about a political solution to a conflict that has killed at least 250,000 people and given rise to a global refugee crisis.

“The Munich meeting is a breakthrough; the breakthrough we have been waiting for in this disaster,” Ahmad Fawzi, a U.N. spokesman, told FP. “The [U.N.] system is standing by and ready to start delivering the aid as soon as the sieges are lifted.”

Fawzi added that the world body wanted the United States, Russia, and other members of the ad hoc coalition of countries taking part in the Syria talks “to put pressure on the [warring] parties to allow humanitarian access and to stop bombing these areas.”

But a number of things could still go wrong, and experts said Moscow maintains significant leverage over the outcome of the conflict. A key weakness of the Syrian cease-fire is that it remains unclear which armed groups in Syria will still be fair game for Russian attacks. There is broad agreement that the war on the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front will continue after a national cease-fire agreement is implemented. But the ISSG has never agreed whether other armed Islamists groups, including Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, which are backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, will enjoy cover from a cease-fire. Ahrar al-Sham, a member of the HNC, is fighting alongside al-Nusra Front as part of an anti-Assad coalition.

If Russia continues to bombard those two groups, it could further strengthen the position of Assad and crush the rebels’ dream of overthrowing him militarily. On Friday, Assad vowed in an interview with AFP to retake all of Syrian territory “without hesitation.” Earlier this week, Russia’s U.N. envoy said that Moscow is “unapologetic” about its air campaign. As of Friday, Russian fighter jets continued to bomb targets in northern Syria.

To some observers, the agreement demonstrates the lack of options the United States now has. “There is no real way to penalize Moscow for its military escalation, so the West is effectively trying to buy off Russia with one more diplomatic initiative,” said Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Another key obstacle remains al-Nusra Front, which has been integrated into the ranks of many of the Western-backed opposition groups in western Syria, but is also listed as a terrorist organization. The group has the military wherewithal to undermine any truce between the Syrian government and other armed opposition groups.

“Given the Russian and regime habit of targeting mainstream rebel groups while claiming to hit [the Islamic State] and Nusra, the fact that the ISSG agreement allows for continued attacks against those two groups could ultimately render a ‘cessation of hostilities’ meaningless,” said Noah Bonsey, the Syria expert at the International Crisis Group.

But he said Moscow’s agreement to allow in aid deliveries to besieged areas “is significant.”

“Russian credibility is now more directly on the line — if they won’t, or can’t, ensure the regime’s cooperation on aid access now, it would suggest there is little reason to continue to view Moscow as a partner in a political process at this stage,” he added.

But even ostensibly noncontroversial issues, such as the delivery of humanitarian aid, can go haywire. Michelle Barsa, a Syria expert with the Institute for Inclusive Security, a group that works with Syrian civil society organizations, said the cease-fire agreement would ideally prompt a lifting of the Assad regime’s siege followed by humanitarian aid drops to distressed Syrians in contested areas. “But what we hear about aid drops is once it hits the ground, it is confiscated by the government security apparatus and redistributed selectively by pro-regime forces,” she said.

The primary fear is that the latest agreement could see Russia repeat an age-old tactic: promising a future cease-fire while continuing to fight for more territory on the ground — a strategy it was accused of deploying in eastern Ukraine last year, noted Alexander Kokcharov, a senior Russia analyst at IHS Country Risk.

A year ago this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a cease-fire agreement in Minsk designed to end the fighting between the Ukrainian government and Moscow-backed rebels.

But six days later, the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, a strategic rail hub, was taken over by separatists. Eventually, a truce did take hold, but only after pro-Russian separatists captured the town. That, he said, should inject a note of caution into the current Syria talks.

“Russia’s commitment to a cease-fire should not be taken [at face value] by the other cease-fire agreement signatories,” Kokcharov said.

Photo credit: Alexander Shcherbak/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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