By Bassam Barabandi, Hassan Hassan and Faysal Itani
The new US-Russian deal to reduce violence and combat extremists in Syria has been met with a great deal of scepticism among Syria watchers. Scepticism is both unsurprising and understandable, given the poor track record of ceasefires in the country. Indeed, senior American officials have indicated the deal is not going to produce calm any time soon, but they hope it will lead to a reduction in violence.
The deal, agreed between Washington and Moscow on Friday, should nonetheless be judged by its details and in the broader context of the war. We were privy to contents of the agreement yet to be publicly released. Also, conversations with senior American officials and rebel leaders offer insights into what the US seeks to achieve from the agreement and how the plan can strengthen the moderate elements within the opposition.
In many ways, the agreement looks good on paper and can in principle strengthen the opposition by constraining violence and bringing relief to civilian populations in rebel-held areas. The danger to the rebels emanates not from the agreement’s terms but from unanswered questions about the role of pro-government militias and the lack of an enforcement mechanism.
Another key concern is whether the regime will exploit the deal after a changed balance of power and in the absence of a political solution. This is especially worrying because the rebels were explicitly warned by US officials of “dire consequences” if they failed to eject extremists from their areas, although the deal makes no mention of such requirement. Other public statements only warned the rebels against military cooperation with Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS), formerly known as Jabhat Al Nusra.
There are two issues at play in the agreement. The first one deals with cessation of hostilities between the regime and the opposition, and the broader negotiations to reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
The second issue is the joint US-Russian campaign to fight JFS and ISIL. The joint campaign is related primarily to how Washington thinks it is best to cooperate with Moscow against common enemies, rather than each side fights the two groups separately.
The regime can only attack the opposition as self-defence, in areas under its control. The US and Russia have a map of all opposition areas to help delineate the areas over which the regime is not allowed to fly or bomb, according to an American official.
The regime can no longer target opposition forces and claim they were JFS, as it consistently did before, because only the US-Russian coalition can do so and jointly. More importantly, the regime is not allowed to fill a vacuum caused by JFS. The terms relevant to cessation of hostilities are an improvement on previous plans.
From a rebel perspective, the latter stipulation can play out differently in different areas. In eastern Ghouta, where groups such as Jaish Al Islam have long sought to prevent what is now known as JFS from establishing a foothold for itself, the plan could critically tip the balance in their favour. The same goes for the Southern Front, the coalition of Free Syrian Army groups operating mainly in Deraa.
In the north, where profound military interdependence exists between the rebels and JFS, the situation is much more precarious. The regime can potentially break the agreement when the rebels are weakened as a result of air strikes against JFS. As eastern Syria is an open game for the regime, since it is mostly controlled by ISIL, the regime can also take advantage of the deal to take new grounds in areas near Palmyra, in Deir Ezzor and even in Raqqa. The issue of foreign militias fighting with the regime could be central to such effort.
Also, unlike previous deals, groups such as Jaish Al Islam and Ahrar Al Sham are spared attacks unless they decide to attack the regime in cooperation with JFS.
Previously, Russia demanded that the two groups be treated as Al Qaeda jihadists.
Besides cooperation with Russia in Syria, the deal attempts to resolve an issue that has dominated private policy discussions in Washington for years – more than any other issue after the anti-ISIL war: how to disentangle the Syrian opposition from the recently-rebranded JFS and reduce their military interdependence, a situation often referred to as “marbling”. The US has sought to reverse this situation to no avail, but Washington continues to see it as a top priority.
The US-Russian deal may well deliver on its goals of relieving Syrians’ suffering and decreasing the level of violence. These would be important achievements in themselves.
But the plan can only have a lasting, transformative impact on Syria if the US helps the opposition protect itself against the regime, exert political leverage and preserve any gains made against extremists.
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat, is co-founder of People Demand Change. Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Faysal Itani is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East