FPI Bulletin: Partial Truce in Syria Threatens to Backfire

By Tzvi Kahn

Foreign Policy Initiative

February 24, 2016

The Syrian cease-fire agreement reached on Monday doubles down on a White House strategy that so far has failed to achieve results. Rather than seek Assad’s ouster and the removal of Russian and Iranian forces from the region, the Obama administration has embraced Damascus, Moscow and Tehran as partners in the hope that diplomacy and goodwill will spur them to reduce their aggression. In reality, the agreement will likely enable the three regimes to consolidate their gains on the battlefield without advancing an end to the conflict.
 
At its core, the deal, which marks the second attempt at a truce after the failure of a February 11 agreement to stop the violence, represents an effort by Assad and his allies to achieve military objectives through diplomatic means. On the battlefield, Russian airstrikes have enabled the Syrian army — bolstered by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — to advance toward the key rebel stronghold of Aleppo. At the negotiating table, the three regimes exploited their dominant military standing to create leverage and set the terms for a deal. In so doing, they presented the Syrian opposition with a grim choice: either accept the demands of their enemies or take blame for obstructing U.S.-backed talks.
 
In principle, the accord aims to halt hostilities among the warring parties by February 27, although it will allow military efforts against such U.N.-designated terrorist organizations as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra to continue. In practice, Russia, Iran and Assad will likely utilize this provision as a cover to continue their onslaught against other opposition groups. This intention is apparent from their vow to continue, within the framework of the cease-fire, their fight against “terrorists,” a term Damascus and its patrons use to describe the entire Syrian opposition, regardless of U.N. designations.
 
As if to emphasize this point, President Assad on Saturday said the cease-fire is “about, first of all, stopping the fire, but it’s also about other complimentary and more important factors, preventing the terrorists from using the ceasefire or the cessation of hostility to improve their position.” On the same day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that Moscow will continue “to provide assistance and help to the armed forces of Syria in their offensive actions against terrorists.” On February 15, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif affirmed that Tehran would not allow opponents of the Assad regime to “regroup” during the cease-fire.
 
Thus, the three regimes reacted to the February 11 agreement by expanding their attacks. Moscow has continued its bombing campaign throughout the country, targeting not only the Islamic State but also rebel forces. On February 15, Russia conducted airstrikes on hospitals and schools in northern Syria, killing some 50 civilians. Meanwhile, Syrian forces, with the help of the IRGC, have continued their advance toward Aleppo as its residents prepare for a total siege.
 
In the face of this carnage, Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Sunday that a “moment of opportunity” had arrived to give “the people of Syria a real choice for their future.” In a statement on Monday announcing the agreement, Kerry, apparently unaware of his interlocutors’ strategy, thanked all the parties for their “committed diplomacy.”
 
Despite his optimism, even Kerry acknowledges that the agreement still requires “commitments from key parties that they will abide by the terms of this cessation of hostilities,” while State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner conceded that details of the agreement still “need to be fleshed out,” including “how this thing is policed, how it’s monitored, how violations are reported.” Another concern stems from a provision in the agreement allowing the “proportionate use of force” by any party “when responding in self-defense,” which could become a pretext for continued aggression by Assad and his allies.
 
Nevertheless, Kerry on Sunday lambasted “cynics” opposing his strategy for failing to offer “a realistic alternative.” In fact, the administration has ignored the counsel of senior officials in his own party, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and former secretary of defense Leon Panetta, who have described the administration’s approach as inadequate and called for an increased military commitment in the region. The administration has also disregarded growing bipartisan calls for a no-fly zone, which could help save the lives of thousands of Syrian civilians. And no less than Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, and CIA Director John Brennan have reportedly stated that Russia will not abide by the cease-fire.
 
At its core, an alternative strategy would create the foundation for a real cease-fire by providing the opposition with meaningful leverage. It would proceed from the premise that any final resolution must result in Assad’s removal from power and the contraction of Russian and Iranian forces and influence. It would reject diplomacy that has the primary effect of ratifying the regime’s battlefield gains. But by treating Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran as partners, the White House risks exacerbating an already grim status quo, and fosters justified cynicism among the very people it intends to help.