The real reasons why the Syria ceasefire is unlikely to succeed

Rebel scepticism and growing acceptance of formerly Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra group, which the deal seeks to target, adds to uncertainty created by sheer number of players in conflict.
A man carries a victim following an air strike on the rebel-held Syrian city of Idlib on September 10, 2016. The Syrian government is expected to ground its air force under a ceasefire scheduled to take effect from September 12, 2016. Omar Haj Kadour / AFP
A man carries a victim following an air strike on the rebel-held Syrian city of Idlib on September 10, 2016. The Syrian government is expected to ground its air force under a ceasefire scheduled to take effect from September 12, 2016. Omar Haj Kadour / AFP

BEIRUT // As John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov spoke at the end of marathon negotiations in Geneva, their words carried optimism that the Syria ceasefire deal they had just hammered out could be the first step to a lasting peace.

The caveat, of course, is that actors in the conflict will have to abide by the cessation of hostilities, due to go into effect on Monday evening. As past ceasefires in Syria have shown, deals agreed upon by foreign powers – and even by Syrian leaders of both the opposition and government – do not necessarily mean much to the men on the front lines.

The Syrian government has consented to the deal announced late on Friday by the US secretary of state and his Russian counterpart, but getting the rebels on board is expected to be much harder.

Even if opposition leaders give their word, the rebel fighters still need a reason to stop fighting. Getting aid into besieged areas is the biggest reason they have right now, but it is not one that would lead to a lasting peace.

Negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition failed earlier this year, largely because the regime refused to discuss the political future of Bashar Al Assad.

If the rebels feel peace talks remain futile with the government refusing to budge, there is little reason to start a peace process or hold to a long ceasefire.

Trust in Russian and regime commitment to the ceasefire and peace process is almost non-existent among rebels. Attempts at a peace this spring were largely seen by rebels as time-wasting distractions that allowed the government to bolster its forces on key front lines.

The battlefield in Syria is increasingly complicated, making a prolonged cessation of hostilities even more challenging.

The new agreement was not just for a simple ceasefire for Eid Al Adha that would give the opposition and government a chance to rekindle failed negotiations. It was also the resurrection of proposed US-Russian joint military action against Jabhat Al Nusra – the group that was Al Qaeda’s official Syrian branch until late July, when it claimed to have severed ties and renamed itself Jabhat Fatah Al Sham.

As part of the agreement, after the ceasefire holds for seven days, the US and Russia will begin working together to target Al Nusra and other extremist groups including ISIL.

Considered a terrorist group by the US, Russia and other international players, Al Nusra has been barred from any place in a Syrian settlement and is to be excluded from any negotiation process. With nothing to gain from internationally-brokered peace deals, Al Nusra looked to play a spoiler role in previous ceasefire attempts this year.

The difference now is that while Washington and Moscow do not accept Al Nusra’s rebranding and separation from Al Qaeda, many rebel groups do.

Al Nusra has tried hard to recast itself as a group focused on defeating the Assad government, not an extremist group with goals beyond Syria’s borders. And this has largely worked.

Al Nusra now has more clout in Syria than ever before. Factions once wary of Al Nusra have grown closer to the group, thankful for its role in breaking the first siege of Aleppo in August and finally splitting from Al Qaeda.

Al Nusra has been advocating rebel unity since late July and is said to be in merger talks with Ahrar Al Sham, one of the most powerful rebel groups. For many opposition fighters, Al Nusra’s Al Qaeda affiliation was the only obstacle to its integration with the rebel movement.

The US and Russia have previously sought to separate more moderate rebel factions from Al Nusra forces on the battlefield. Given the crowded environment on many front lines and Al Nusra’s military cooperation with rebel groups, this was an unrealistic goal. Now, with Al Nusra’s newfound acceptance, it is almost inconceivable.

Rebels have been mistrustful of previous US efforts to establish peace, despite Washington ostensibly being on their side. Now with the US about to take part in military cooperation with Russia, an Assad ally, their trust in the US will drop even further.

The US and Russia are not the only international power brokers with forces on the ground in Syria. Iran has long had troops in the country while also supporting Shiite militias from Iraq and Lebanon in the war. And last month, Turkey intervened, backing rebel forces with tanks, artillery and air cover to fight ISIL and the Kurdish YPG militia.

The goals of these powers in Syria do not overlap. All are looking to get different things out of the war and ultimately bolster their own influence in Syria and the region. These competing ambitions could complicate efforts toward peace, if rebel distrust, Al Nusra dominance and the government’s refusal to negotiate seriously do not ruin the ceasefire’s chances first.

jwood@thenational.ae​

Published: September 10, 2016 04:00 AM

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