The Cable

Russia and U.S. Broker Another Ceasefire in Syria

Previous ceasefires have broken down in a matter of weeks. And Israel doesn’t trust Russia to stop Iran’s proxies.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson (L) attend at the ceremony of the signing of an agreement between state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft and ExxonMobil in the Black Sea port of Tuapse on June 15, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/POOL/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV        (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson (L) attend at the ceremony of the signing of an agreement between state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft and ExxonMobil in the Black Sea port of Tuapse on June 15, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/POOL/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States and Russia will announce a joint cease-fire in southwestern Syria on Sunday, according to the Associated Press, just as U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg.

“This ceasefire agreement was reached today in Amman, Jordan,” said a senior State Department official involved in the negotiations. “It is a first step in what we envision to be a complex and robust ceasefire agreement in southwest Syria.”

The official said that an increase in violence in Syria’s southwest had prompted Russia, the United States, and Jordan to seek the creation of a ceasefire there. Expectations for the success of this latest ceasefire, one in a string of unsuccessful attempts, are “modest,” said the official.

 On Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Trump and Putin had discussed a “de-escalation agreement” in their meeting.

Tillerson had floated the idea of a no-fly or ceasefire zone in a briefing on Wednesday ahead of the summit.

“The United States is prepared to explore the possibility of establishing with Russia joint mechanisms for ensuring stability,” said Tillerson, “including no-fly zones, on-the-ground cease-fire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

A National Security Council spokesperson did not immediately respond to request for comment.

If the ceasefire helps protect civilians and leads to less destruction, “then that is obviously a good thing for the Syrians themselves,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who is a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in a phone interview with Foreign Policy.

But “the biggest risk is that the Syrian government will not respect it in the intermediate and long term,” said Ford. Moreover, he said, Tehran supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and “would back the Syrian government if it violates a U.S.-Russia brokered deal.”

But Israel, a close U.S. ally, has expressed opposition to Russian military involvement in any local ceasefire arrangement. According to a July 7 report in Haaretz, senior Israeli officials told an American envoy that Israel would oppose Russian policing of such a zone.

That’s because Moscow is close to Iran, while Israel’s main goal in Syria is to eliminate Iran’s influence there, and push Shiite militant group Hezbollah away from Syria’s border with Israel. In Israel’s view, the United States can be relied upon to warn away and even bomb Iranian-armed groups that may transgress a potential cease-fire zone — as U.S. warplanes did just last month.

Russia, on the other hand, would not be Israel’s pick to police that area, Ford noted.

“The Russians, for many years, have looked the other way while Iran has sent supplies to Hezbollah fighting in Lebanon against Israel,” said Ford. Since Russia never tried to check Iran’s backing for anti-Israel groups, “the Israelis don’t trust the Russians,” he said.

In the past, Russia has displayed an unwillingness to pressure the Assad government to abide by ceasefires. But this time, said the State Department official, it seemed that Russia was serious.

“It was certainly worth our effort and worth our time to test them on this,” said the official.

The specifics of the deal are not yet known, including monitoring agreements on the ground, but the United States and Russia have been secretly discussing the possibility of some kind of safe zone in southern Syria since May.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump criticized Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s support of no-fly zones in Syria, claiming this could result in war with Russia and Iran. He did express support for “safe zones,” though he did not explain how that would be carried out without agreement with Moscow and Tehran, which are allies of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Though the two powers support opposing sides in the six-year-long civil war there, neither Russia nor the United States wish to see the conflict continue indefinitely, and both say they want to defeat Islamic State.

Moscow hopes that a peace agreement would secure Assad’s grip on power. But it could also give breathing room to extremists.  

The ceasefire agreement certainly “is not bad for the United States,” said Ford, “but it doesn’t help resolve the biggest problem the U.S. is facing in Syria, which is Sunni extremism.”

The newly announced deal is separate from the peace talks taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan, between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. In May, the three countries agreed to establish four de-escalation zones in Syria. But on Wednesday, talks in Astana faced a setback as participants were unable to reach consensus on details for the zones.

This piece has been updated to include comments from a State Department official.

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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