Analysis 02-27-2016


Does the New Syria Ceasefire Mean a Turnaround in Syria?

There’s a wide spectrum of opinions about the effectiveness of the new deal reached by Russia and the US on halting hostilities in Syria.  Secretary of State John Kerry defended US efforts to forge a Syria ceasefire with Russia, even as lawmakers questioned the deal and Pentagon officials acknowledged skepticism that it will work.

Kerry was challenged on the ceasefire, as he presented the administration’s final budget request for the State Department to Congress a day after Obama and Russian President Putin finalized the agreement.   The administration is asking Congress to approve $50.1 billion for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in fiscal year 2017, including $14.9 billion in a special fund that will focus, in part, on destroying ISIS and dealing with the crisis in Syria and Iraq.

Kerry spoke of Russian backing being the key to the deal being reached, despite tensions between the two countries over competing military operations in Syria.  He said that without support from Moscow, the ceasefire couldn’t have happened and more than 100 trucks of badly needed humanitarian aid wouldn’t have been delivered this week.

“Without Russia’s cooperation I’m not sure we would have been able to have achieved the agreement we have now or at least get the humanitarian assistance in,” Kerry said.

The agreement reached by Obama and Putin requires all sides to agree to adhere to the ceasefire deadline, which applies to all groups except ISIS, the al Qaeda off-shoot al Nusra and any other group deemed a terrorist organization by the United Nations.

The Syrian government said it would end its combat operations, while the opposition has indicated its acceptance will depend on whether the Syrian government ends its sieges and Russia ends its air strikes.

But, there is considerable doubt as to whether the deal would actually “stick.”  In fact, senators from both sides of the aisle had serious doubts.

Kerry, himself also expressed concerns.  He admitted that the pact is fragile but argued that it is the only way to end the civil war.  If the guns fall silent “and lives are saved, then that’s to the benefit and it doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to have a positive outcome in the political process,” Kerry said.  But he stressed that a ceasefire remains “the best way to end the war and it’s the only alternative if we’re going to have a political settlement.”

Kerry also told senators that if attempts to reach a political solution in Syria fail, the administration has another path forward that will become apparent in the next few months.

“There are certainly Plan B options being considered,” said Kerry. “Assad himself is going to have to make some real decisions about the formation of a transitional governance process that’s real.”

At this point in time, there appears to be some broad agreement on both sides for the deal.   Turkey has welcomed reluctantly the ceasefire plan, but is under pressure from the UN to allow entry to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from the fighting in the Aleppo area.

But, there is doubt in Damascus that Turkey is serious about the deal.  Syrian government believes Turkey has acted as a supply line for foreign fighters supporting both the “moderate” opposition and ISIS.  The Syrian government stressed the importance of sealing the borders, halting foreign support to armed groups and “preventing these organizations from strengthening their capabilities or changing their positions”, in order to avoid wrecking the agreement.

The High Negotiating Council – an umbrella organization for many Syrian opposition groups backed by the west and Saudi Arabia – said late on Monday that it accepted the terms of the ceasefire. However, it added that the plan was dependent on ending all sieges, allowing in humanitarian aid, releasing all detainees and ending bombardments by ground or air. 

Plan B

Kerry said he will move towards a “Plan B” that could involve a partition of Syria if the planned ceasefire does not materialize, or if a genuine shift to a transitional government does not take place in the coming months.

“It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer,” he told the US Senate foreign relations committee on Tuesday.

Kerry did not advocate partition as a solution and refused to specify details of a Plan B, such as increased military involvement, beyond insisting it would be wrong to assume that Obama would not countenance further action.

Kerry suggested partition could form part of an eventual solution, saying “this can get a lot uglier and Russia has to be sitting there evaluating that too. It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if it is much longer”. It is the first time Kerry has spoken of partition, although some believe Putin would not go along with such plan and consider this kind of threat as posturing.

The reason for raising such possible partition is that the current deal is vague enough that it may not stop hostilities.

For one thing, the choice of the term “cessation of hostilities” rather than “cease-fire” is intentional. The latter indicates a more permanent situation that includes mandated steps under international law. That’s not what Washington and Moscow agreed to. Their deal hasn’t actually been signed by all the parties fighting on the ground. And the fundamental disagreements between the US and Russia are still unresolved.

The question of who stops fighting is also unclear.  The deal applies only to groups not deemed to be “terrorists” and that determination will supposedly be made by Washington and Moscow with the proper deference to UN designations.

On Tuesday, Syrian President Assad said his government is prepared to abide by the terms. “The Syrian government announces its acceptance of a halt to combat operations on the basis of continuing military efforts to combat terrorism against Daesh, the Nusra Front, and the other terrorist organizations linked to it and to the al Qaeda organization, according to the Russian-American announcement,” a statement reads.

But Damascus also warned that foreign interference (i.e. from Turkey or Saudi Arabia) threatens to undermine the deal. “Foreign support to armed groups should be halted” in order to “prevent these organizations from strengthening their capabilities or changing their positions, in order to avoid what may lead to wrecking this agreement.” In other words, if Ankara and Riyadh continue to support rebel forces, Damascus will continue the fighting – with the support of Russia.

Another problem is that there are no clear fronts and “terrorist” rebels are everywhere. Russia will always be able to claim that its warplanes are targeting parties not subject to the agreement because the situation on the ground is fluid.

The deal “leaves a significant loophole by allowing further attacks, including air strikes, against Islamic State, Nusra and other militant groups,” Reuters noted earlier this week, adding that “Bashar al-Zoubi, head of the political office of the Yarmouk Army, part of the rebel Free Syrian Army, said that would provide cover for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies to keep attacking opposition-held territory where rebel and militant factions are tightly packed.”

“Russia and the regime will target the areas of the revolutionaries on the pretext of the Nusra Front’s presence, and you know how mixed those areas are, and if this happens, the truce will collapse,” he remarked.

Reuters went on to say, “Rebel officials said it was impossible to pinpoint positions held by Nusra.”

“For us, al-Nusra is a problematic point, because al-Nusra is not only present in Idlib, but also in Aleppo, in Damascus area and in the south. The critical issue here is that civilians or the Free Syrian Army could be targeted under the pretext of targeting al-Nusra,” said a senior opposition figure, Khaled Khoja.

It’s not just the Russians who will find a reason to continue to carry out raids.  Expect Turkey to continue its assault on the YPG in the Azaz corridor on the excuse that the group is simply the Syrian arm of the PKK, which both Ankara and Washington identify as a terror organization.

Some observes in Washington noted, in the end, the key to ending the civil war may hinge on what happens in the next few days in Aleppo.  If Aleppo is on the verge of being retaken by government forces, Russia and Syria will continue military operations despite international criticism.

They add, “if Aleppo is completely retaken by government’s forces, it will effectively break the back of the rebellion. At that time, a cease-fire, in fact, could effectively freeze the government’s gains in place, allowing Assad and Putin to dictate the terms of negotiations”.

A former official told the Monitor, “if Syrian government and the Russians think that the capture of Aleppo has decisively broken the rebellion, they may just ignore the deal entirely and push to retake the whole country.  Assad clearly is thinking in such terms as he told the AFP news agency just hours after the deal was announced that his forces would retake the whole country.” 

Is This the End?

The former official (who wish to remain unidentified)   remarked “although an end of hostilities would be welcome, the chances that this deal will lead to the end of the Syrian civil war are slim”.  He continue “Thanks to Russian help, Syrian Arab Army is coming close to a major victory in Aleppo – a victory that could keep him in power.  Russia and Assad will not let a deal stand in the way of total victory.  At best, they may end hostilities just to solidify their recent gains”.

All indications suggest that Turkey will not let up on the Kurds.  Erdogan has made it clear that he will use the Syrian civil war as a way “to destroy the Kurdish threat to Turkish unity”.  In fact, the Turkish deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, warned on Tuesday that Turkey would continue those attacks in the coming days “if necessary.”

Although the Saudis have indicated that they are behind the deal, they still want to unseat President Assad and install a friendlier Sunni government.  They will not tolerate a deal that cements President Assad’s territorial gains.

And, since ISIS and Nursa are deemed terrorist groups, fighting will continue against them and they have the incentive to spoil the deal by continuing to wage war.

In the end, many of these groups will look at the “Plan B” and ask themselves if continued hostilities and hoping for the possibility of partition to serve themselves better.  Clearly, the Kurds would be the ones to benefit the most from any drive toward partition.  They have increased their cooperation with Russia and in a sign of its warming relations with Russia, the YPG’s political wing, the PYD, was rewarded with a diplomatic mission in Moscow earlier this month.  If Russia and Assad ignore the deal, expect the Kurds to continue fighting to enlarge their territory.  The Kurdish militia is currently closing in on Azaz, a rebel-held city near the Turkish border that has become one of the biggest prizes in the battle for northern Syria.  If they are close to capturing it, they will have every reason to ignore any ceasefire.

And, Israel might prefer a partitioned Golan Heights buffer between itself and a central Syrian government.  It would also want a weakened resistance forces presence along its northern border.




Fear Grows as Islamic State Spreads Terror Network Digs in Deep in Afghanistan, Libya
By Peter Brookes
Heritage Foundation
February 5, 2016

As if they didn’t have enough to deal with already, the Pentagon has a new problem to panic about: the rise of Islamic State (aka ISIS) affiliates in Afghanistan and Libya.  While we’ve known that ISIS has been spreading beyond the Middle East, creating allies and claiming “provinces,” there has been limited U.S. military activity against it outside the Syria-Iraq theater.  That may be changing.  In Afghanistan, where there is already concern about a Taliban resurgence as the United States weighs its future involvement, ISIS has made itself known through its usual violent tactics. Islamic State-Khorasan is reportedly responsible for suicide attacks, kidnappings and strikes against U.N., Afghan and Pakistani targets, including a Pakistani consulate.

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Afghanistan: The Uncertain Impact of a Year of Transition
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 22, 2016

A previous Burke Chair report has addressed the fact that it has now been a year since U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat forces formally left Afghanistan. It has also addressed the fact that a wide range of indicators warn that the Afghan government and Afghan forces are losing at many levels: politics, governance, economics, security, and popular support.  This report has been updated to include a wide range of additional indicators. This report also reflects the fact that the Obama administration is revising its plans for Afghanistan, extending the military train and assist mission from a planned end in 2016 to well beyond 2017, and gradually adapting the size and nature of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan to reflect the fact that the various threats to the Afghan government and Afghan forces are gaining in military terms and in their political presence, control, and influence.

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By Cole Bunzel
Carnegie Endowment
February 18, 2016

Since late 2014 the Islamic State has declared war on Saudi Arabia and launched a series of terrorist attacks on Saudi soil intended to start an uprising. In a further attack on the Saudi kingdom, the self-declared caliphate has claimed to be the true representative of the severe form of Islam indigenous to Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism. These two very different versions of an Islamic state are at war over a shared religious heritage and territory.

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By Intissar Fakir and Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck
Carnegie Endowment
February 11, 2016

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American Foreign Policy Council
February 23, 2016

Henry Kissinger famously remarked some time ago that Iran must decide whether it wants to be “a nation or a cause.” For decades, U.S. presidents of both parties have been trying to coax Tehran toward the former and away from the latter.  Most recently, the U.S.-led global nuclear agreement with Iran – with its scores of billions in sanctions relief that President Obama hoped Iran would invest to improve the living standards of its people – was designed to convince Tehran to abandon its revolutionary ways and become a nation in good standing.  But if Tehran’s political crackdown before its upcoming Feb. 26 elections for the Assembly of Experts and Parliament is any indication, the Islamic Republic shows few signs of moderating its ideological impulses. Thus we should expect more of the revolutionary fervor that drives Iran’s efforts to destabilize Sunni regimes, impose its will on their successors and, in that way, advance its hegemonic ambitions.

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Saudi Brinkmanship in the Syrian War
By Brandon Friedman
Foreign Policy Research Institute
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By Başak Kale
German Marshall Fund
February 22, 2016

The civil war in Syria has displaced nearly half of that country’s population creating more than 5 million refugees and 7.5 million internally displaced persons. In the summer of 2015, Europe was overwhelmed with these mass population movements. According to the EU’s border agency, FRONTEX, just under 900,000 refugees and irregular migrants crossed the EU’s sea borders via the Eastern Mediterranean route in 2015.[1] The result in the EU has been panic, disorder, and the disruption of the free movement of people in the Schengen area. Turkey, meanwhile, has had an “open door” policy toward Syrian migrants since 2011, hosting more than 2.7 million refugees with limited international support. As more refugees have started making their way to Europe, Turkey has been criticized for not managing its borders effectively and becoming a “highway” for the transit of refugees and irregular migrants. However, Turkey is less a highway than a “dam” that is being overtopped and is now flooding toward the EU. And with the recent Russian bombings in Aleppo, the refugee crisis is only getting worse.

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By Fabrice Balanche
Washington Institute
February 23, 2016
PolicyWatch 2569

On February 22, U.S. and Russian officials announced a ceasefire in Syria, with the Assad regime declaring shortly thereafter that parliamentary elections will be held on April 13. Neither development offers much cause for optimism. In fact, Moscow and Damascus are complying with the UN peace plan laid out in Security Council Resolution 2254 only under their own conditions, and only temporarily. Thus far, President Vladimir Putin is still one step ahead of Washington and its partners in the ongoing Syrian chess game.

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