Syria Cease-Fire Faces Deep Skepticism on All Sides

Updated | The Syrian cease-fire agreed to last week by Russia and the United States has reduced violence in the short term, but there are troubling signs it may collapse like previous attempts to end the war, now in its sixth year.

The crucial element of the agreement is a “cessation of hostilities” among all parties involved in the truce. Should the pause in fighting last for seven days, starting at sundown September 12, the beginning of the Muslim Eid-al-Adha holiday, joint U.S.-Russian airstrikes will commence against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The agreement also calls on all signatories to allow for the distribution of humanitarian aid, along with an end to all sieges and the release of all detainees, particularly women and children.

“If implemented and adhered to, this cessation will not only lead to a decline in violence,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, while acknowledging that “significant challenges” could get in the way of that aim.

Already, the commitment to allow humanitarian aid in has not been fully met, with U.N. supply trucks held up at the Turkish border.

The war has taken a catastrophic toll on Syria and the region. Half a million dead, nearly 5 million refugees, 9 million displaced within Syria and a collapsed state have tested the endurance of some of the world’s most accomplished diplomats. The conflict has triggered a refugee crisis of untold dimensions in Europe as well as the dangerous rise of jihadi groups.

Last week, after months of talks, Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, reached agreement, but they face deep distrust in both Syria and at home. In Washington, the Pentagon is suspicious of Russia’s motives and reluctant to engage in the kind of joint operations envisaged by the agreement.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has continually bombed moderate opposition groups and civilians. According to State Department sources, 80 percent of Russian airstrikes have hit moderate and civilian targets, not ISIS.

09_15_syria_cease_fire_01 People gather near burning tyres during a demonstration against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and calling for aid to reach the Syrian city of Aleppo, near Aleppo's Castello Road on September 14. Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

“Russia isn’t a trustworthy or capable partner against extremism,” says Reza Afshar of Independent Diplomat, a consulting group that represents the Syrian opposition. “Its actions have bred extremism.”

He adds, “Over 95 percent of the victims of its strikes are civilians,” noting that Moscow’s actions amount to “a war crime.”

“Russia has shown itself incapable of accurately targeting any combatants,” Afshar says. “They don’t have smart weaponry, even if they did want to target more effectively. And it is clear that they have also willingly joined the regime to collectively punish the population in opposition areas.”

It’s not just Syrian opposition figures who are skeptical about Russia. “ Unless the level of Russian airstrikes dramatically decreases, this cease-fire will not hold,” British Chancellor of the Exchequer and former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Parliament last week.

The problem lies in the definition of terrorist, a term Assad uses broadly to include anybody opposed to him. ISIS and its affiliated group Nusra Front are specifically excluded from the agreement, meaning all sides can continue to attack them. But the front lines around the Syrian city of Aleppo include a range of opposition groups, from so-called moderates who have enjoyed U.S. support to Nusra Front, which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

Many rebel groups see the cease-fire as a chance for Assad’s forces to regroup and get even stronger. In the past, when cease-fires were attempted, they tended to break down quickly and exacerbated the fighting.

“ This deal will pretty much alienate every opposition group, even if they accept it officially,” says Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. “They are afraid that weakening Nusra without guarantees or the means to defend themselves against a now better-positioned regime is not in their interests.”

They’re right, Itani says, so long as their own capabilities do not increase in the meantime. “And/or the Americans do not provide a defense against the regime when it inevitably breaks the cease-fire.”

Turkey, which is driven in large part by its distrust of the Kurds, is equally skeptical. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus has said he is “not optimistic” the cease-fire will be respected by all parties. Turkey has said it will continue shelling Kurdish groups inside Syria “if necessary.”

Turkey is just one of many countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, Iran and the United States, that are looking out for their own interests in Syria. The players are so complex that the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, once said he has never seen “such a cynical war.”

“The U.S. bargain with Russia will also create an opening for [Turkish President] Erdogan’s military/militias to increase operations in the northern Aleppo governorate against Syrian Kurdish fighters,” says Darren White of consulting company Dragonfly Security, who has worked in Syria since the war began.

Another worrying issue with the Russian/U.S. plan is how it will be monitored. State Department officials have acknowledged they are reduced to getting information from limited intelligence sources, journalists and nongovernmental organizations.

Asked about this, de Mistura replied from his Geneva headquarters, “The mechanism is the one which has been already quite well established in this building between the Russians and the Americans.”

But Afshar says, “Nobody is monitoring. The ‘monitoring mechanism’ for this deal is the same as the last cessation at the start of the year.” In theory, Afshar says, “it’s supposed to be monitored by the U.S. and Russia. In reality, that means that there are no consequences for violations of the cessation. The failure to tackle violations by the regime and Russia of the last cessation led to the bloodiest months of civilian killing since the start of the crisis.”

So what can be done to ease civilian suffering and eventually end the war? Afshar says, “The obvious thing to do would be for the U.S. and its allies to state that violations of the cessation will be met with consequences—action to protect civilians.” If the cease-fire is violated, he says, there must be consequences, such as a single missile strike against a Syrian military target. “This kind of approach would act as a deterrence against killing of civilians.”

The U.N. Security Council is due to hold a session devoted to Syria on September 21, part of the General Assembly’s meeting. Some experts doubt the cease-fire will hold up even until then. “If the cease-fire fails over the next seven days,” says Dragonfly Security’s White, “it’s largely back to the drawing board, creating even further delay on any discussions over Syria’s future.”

Correction | This story originally misstated Philip Hammond's title and wrongly attributed a quote from Reza Afshar in the penultimate paragraph to Faysal Itani from the Atlantic Council.