US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands after agreeing on new steps they said could make a difference in Syria, Moscow, July 15, 2016. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Press Association. All rights reserved. On 9 September 2016 in Geneva, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, came to an agreement about Syria. If you rely on the mainstream media in Britain for your information about the ongoing conflict in Syria, you will probably think the agreement was for a ceasefire followed by the provision of humanitarian relief to besieged populations, in particular, in the eastern part of the city of Aleppo, which is under the control of anti-government forces – but that Russia broke the ceasefire on 19 September 2016 by attacking a humanitarian UN convoy on its way to eastern Aleppo and since then has been engaged along with the Syrian government in a ferocious attack on eastern Aleppo.
In fact, the agreements between the US and Russia – there are actually five of them – were much more fundamental than that. In one of them, the US agreed to join with the Syrian government and Russia in taking military action against Jabhat al-Nusra, the erstwhile al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which plays a leading role in the armed opposition in the northwest of the country, including in eastern Aleppo. To facilitate this, the US undertook to separate the so-called “moderate” groups in the armed opposition (some of whom are armed and supported by the US) from al-Nusra with whom they co-operate. This extraordinary proposal has gone largely unreported by the mainstream British media.
This extraordinary proposal has gone largely unreported by the mainstream British media, when a headline along the lines of “US to join Assad in fighting al-Qaeda” would not have been inappropriate. Had this proposal been put into effect, the US air force would have been giving air support to the Syrian army and its allies, Hezbollah and Iran, in their battle against al-Nusra and, by so doing, bolstering the Syrian government, headed by Bashar al-Assad.
The US and Russia already engage (independently) in military action from the air against Da’esh (aka ISIS or ISIL), the other al-Qaeda derivative in Syria. In Geneva, they proposed to establish a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to co-ordinate military action from the air against both. Standing beside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the press conference announcing the agreements, John Kerry said: “US and Russian experts will work together to defeat Da’esh and Nusrah”.
(For unknown reasons, initially the US didn’t want the text of the agreements made public. Russia was happy to have the text published but respected the US desire to keep it secret. Bizarrely, when on 21 September 2016 the UN Security Council met to discuss the situation in Syria, the members did so without the text of the agreements before them. However, it is now available on the US State Department website here).
Attack on humanitarian convoy
The agreements also proposed the reinstatement on 12 September 2016 of the ceasefire arrangements which were first put in place back in February 2016. These arrangements did not preclude taking military action against Da’esh and al-Nusra. On this occasion, after the ceasefire was in operation for seven days, the JIC was due to be established.
But the US has refused to establish the JIC, using as an excuse for not doing so an attack on a UN humanitarian convoy on its way to eastern Aleppo on 19 September 2016 for which the US immediately blamed Russia (see Another Kerry Rush to Judgment on Syria by Robert Parry in Consortium Newson 24 September 2016). The convoy was in opposition-controlled territory at the time. Russia (and Syria) have denied responsibility for the attack, but following it the US has refused to proceed with the plans to set up the JIC.
Whose interests were served?
If you are trying to identify who is responsible for an act of this kind, it is common sense to ask whose interests are served by it. Russian interests were certainly not served by this act: as we will see, they have spent almost a year trying to persuade the US to (in John Kerry’s words) “work together to defeat Da’esh and Nusrah”. It is inconceivable that they would have deliberately committed this act which predictably scuppered the detailed proposals they had patiently negotiated with the US for this purpose. And the possibility that they did it by accident is vanishingly small.
It is also inconceivable that the Syrian government committed this act deliberately: it would be extremely unwise of them to wreck proposals dear to the heart of their most important ally, without whose military intervention they might have collapsed last autumn. Also, there was a possibility that, if the proposals were implemented and the US joined the fight against al-Nusra, the group’s military capacity would be severely damaged and the government’s military position would therefore be strengthened.
By removing the possibility of US military action against al-Nusra, the attack on the UN convoy served the interests of the armed opposition and it is therefore most likely that the perpetrators came from that quarter.
Al-Nusra: a US-designated terrorist group
Al-Nusra is on the US State Department’s list of designated terrorist groups. It was added by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2012. To be precise, it was deemed to be an extension into Syria of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq and it was added to the list of aliases for that group, which was already designated. Now, apparently, the US has reversed its stance and is prepared to target al-Nusra as well as Da'esh, in co-ordination with Russia.
As I have said, al-Nusra plays a leading role in the armed opposition in the northwest of Syria, often in co-operation with “moderate” groups, including groups armed and supported by the US.
Lest there be any doubt about this, here are the words of Robert Ford in February 2015:
“For a long time, we [the US] have looked the other way while the Nusra Front and armed groups on the ground, some of whom are getting help from us, have coordinated in military operations against the regime.”
Robert Ford was US Ambassador to Syria until he resigned in February 2014.
Here are the words of Colonel Stephen Warren in April 2016:
“It's primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities.”
He was the spokesman for the US anti-ISIS military campaign in Iraq and Syria.
Here are the words of Staffan de Mistura speaking to the Security Council on 25 September 2006:
“We have seen information from other sources that tell us more than half of the fighters present in eastern Aleppo are al-Nusra. We have also seen reports alleging the intentional placement of firing positions close to social infrastructure, inside and aside civilian quarters.”
He is the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria.
Here are the words of Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin at the Security Council on 25 September 2016:
“[Eastern Aleppo] is under the control of more than 20 armed groups totalling about 3,500 combatants. The main force consists of about 2,000 units of Jabhat Al-Nusra. They are armed with tanks, armoured vehicles, field artillery and rocket launcher systems, … as well as dozens and dozens of other pieces of military hardware, including heavy weaponry. Needless to say, such hardware is anything but homemade; I believe it continues to be supplied by generous Western patrons with the connivance of the United States leadership of the coalition.”
I am not in a position to verify the accuracy of this information from Churkin, but it was not challenged by the US or any of its allies at the Security Council.
The US has tolerated its client groups co-operating with al-Nusra, despite it being designated as a terrorist group and despite the fact that, because of this co-operation it has been the recipient of US-supplied weapons. It is, of course, illegal under US law to “provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization” and an individual who does so can expect to spend the rest of his life in jail.
While the US has been mounting airstrikes against Da’esh since September 2014, it has largely left al-Nusra alone despite it being al-Qaeda under another name, against which the US is supposed to have been fighting a “global war on terror” for the past fifteen years. There is little doubt that the US has left al-Nusra alone because it has been militarily effective against the Syrian government – for the US in Syria, putting pressure on the Government has in the past at least taken precedence over fighting the “global war on terror”.
But now, apparently, the US has reversed its stance and is prepared to target al-Nusra as well as Da'esh, in co-ordination with Russia. It would be unwise to bet on it actually happening.
Divided opinion on deal in Washington
After John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov made a deal in Geneva on 9 September 2016, the assembled journalists had to wait around for five hours for it to be announced at a press conference, while Kerry persuaded Washington to accept it.
It took all that time because there is a sharp divergence of opinion within the Obama administration, in the Pentagon about military co-operation with Russia and across the administration about the present US policy in Syria.
The document Approach for Practical Russian-American Efforts against Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra agreed at Geneva on 9 September 2016 is concerned with the setting up of the Joint Implementation Center and prescribes its first task to be to:
“share intelligence and develop actionable targets for military action against Nusra in designated areas”.
But on 22 September 2016, the chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that any such military coordination with Russia would be “extremely limited” and that “the military had no intention of forging an intelligence sharing arrangement with Russia”. That has a smell of insubordination about it.
(Dunford was also asked what it would take for the US to “control the airspace” over Syria, that is, to impose a no-fly zone. He replied:
“Right now, Senator, for us to control all of the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia.”
“Right now, Senator, for us to control all of the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia.”
Perhaps, this remark was aimed at would-be President Clinton, who since she left office in the State Department four years ago has talked incessantly about imposing a no-fly zone in Syria.
As regards policy towards Syria, there is a substantial body of opinion across the administration – in the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA – in favour of military action against the Syrian government and/or ramping up military assistance to the armed opposition rather than destroying an important player in it, as agreed with Russia in Geneva.
Various people in Washington have proposed US military intervention against Syrian government targets with the objective (they say) of forcing it to negotiate. For example, last June 51 State Department officials signed a memo urging such a course of action.
And a former acting CIA Director Michael Morell has proposed in a TV interview that US policy in Syria should be to make Iran and Russia “pay a price” by arming local groups and instructing them to kill Iranian and Russian personnel in the country. He has recently endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.
The Washington Post condemned the deal in the following terms in an editorial on 12 September 2012:
“When Russia launched its direct military intervention in Syria a year ago, President Obama predicted its only result would be a quagmire. Instead, the agreement struck by Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Friday with his Russian counterpart offers Mr. Putin everything he sought. The Assad regime, which was tottering a year ago, will be entrenched and its opposition dealt a powerful blow. The United States will meanwhile grant Mr. Putin’s long-standing demand that it join with Russia in targeting groups deemed to be terrorists. If serious political negotiations on Syria’s future ever take place — an unlikely prospect, at least in the Obama administration’s remaining months — the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers will hold a commanding position.”
Russia's key objective
Establishing co-operation arrangements of this kind with the US has been a key Russian objective in Syria since it intervened militarily in support of (and at the invitation of) the Syrian government in late September 2015. Establishing co-operation arrangements of this kind with the US has been a key Russian objective in Syria since it intervened militarily.
The initial military intervention itself has been successful in that the regime which last autumn was in danger of being overthrown has been stabilised. As President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a BBC Hardtalk interview on 29 September 2016:
“You know what is important about Russia’s operation in Syria: Da’esh and Nusra are not sitting in Damascus.”
The murderous anarchy which would have accompanied a Da’esh/Nusra victory causing millions more Syrians to flee their homeland for Europe has been averted, at least for now. And alongside its military intervention, Russia embarked on a political initiative to attempt to bring about a political settlement based on what is left of the Baathist state.
The last attempt at political negotiations in early 2014 under the so-called Geneva framework got nowhere. There, the opposition was represented by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which demanded that the Syrian government immediately transfer power to a transitional authority without President Assad. The Syrian government refused – and that was that.
This was a completely pointless exercise since the SNC was not representative of the opposition groups fighting in Syria and, in the highly unlikely event of a deal being done, they would have been powerless to help bring the war to an end. The BBC reported that as a fact before the “negotiations” began: on Newsnight on 20 January 2014, standing in Turkey on its border with Syria, Ian Pannell said:
“If these talks actually happen … those fighting on the other side of the border won’t be represented and they are unlikely to be persuaded by any deal.”
If there was to be any hope of success then those around the table had to be prepared to make a deal with the Syrian government. So, there was no point in having Da’esh or al-Nusra and its associates around the table – they would have to be defeated militarily and there was no hope of a functional political settlement until that was done. And if it was done, or was on the way to being done, the rest of the armed opposition would be more likely to make a deal with the Syrian government. That is why Russia set out to persuade the US that they should take military action together against Da'esh and al-Nusra – and a year later it succeeded.
At the insistence of Russia, an International Syria Support Group (ISSG) was established to attempt to bind all the parties to the conflict – including states on opposite sides such as Iran and Saudi Arabia – into this diplomatic process. The ISSG met for the first time in Vienna on 30 October 2015 “to discuss the grave situation in Syria and how to bring about an end to the violence as soon as possible”, to quote from the communique issued afterwards.
(The parties represented at that meeting were China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States.)
The participants “reached a mutual understanding” on a series of points, according to the communique, including (obviously) the need for an end to the war and a political process leading to a new constitution and elections. The first point was:
“Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental”
The phrase “secular character” to describe the Syrian state was not in the earlier Geneva Framework – it was agreed by Lavrov and Kerry at the end of September 2015, presumably with the object of helping to determine which opposition groups would take part in the peace process and which would be excluded.
(As for the “territorial integrity” of the Syrian state, it has been violated by Israel for nigh on half a century, ever since it took over the Golan Heights by force in 1967, ethnically cleansing around 100,000 people in the process. It’s long past time for Israel to be compelled to restore the territory to Syria.)
Significantly, point 6 states:
“Da'esh, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants, must be defeated.”
And at the next ISSG meeting on 14 November 2015 (the day after the ISIS attacks in Paris), it was agreed to add al-Nusra to the list of “terrorist” groups that have to be defeated and to which a ceasefire would not apply. A statement issued afterwards said:
“Regarding the fight against terrorism, and pursuant to clause 6 of the Vienna Communique, the ISSG reiterated that Da’esh, Nusra, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants and endorsed by the UN Security Council, must be defeated. … The ceasefire would not apply to offensive or defensive actions against Da’esh or Nusra or any other group the ISSG agrees to deem terrorist.”
In other words, military action by any party – the Syrian Army and its allies and the US and its allies – against Da’esh or al-Nusra would not be in breach of the ceasefire that was envisaged. Shortly afterwards, the Security Council endorsed military action against Da'esh and al-Nusra.
Framework endorsed by the Security Council
Shortly afterwards, the Security Council endorsed military action against Da'esh and al-Nusra, in Resolution 2249 passed unanimously on 20 November 2015. This endorsement was re-iterated in Resolution 2254 passed unanimously on 13 December 2015, which stated:
“[The Security Council] Reiterates its call in resolution 2249 (2015) for Member States to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al-Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the ISSG and determined by the Security Council, pursuant to the Statement of the ISSG of 14 November 2015, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Syria, and notes that the aforementioned ceasefire will not apply to offensive or defensive actions against these individuals, groups, undertakings and entities, as set forth in the 14 November 2015 ISSG Statement;”
From that point onwards, all UN members states, including the US and its allies, were supposed to do everything in their power to suppress al-Nusra, which was then and still is a major force in the opposition to the Syrian government.
February cessation of hostilities
A cessation of hostilities was announced by the US and Russia on 22 February 2016 to start four days later. The story of the next six months, as told by the mainstream media in Britain, was one of unending breaches of the cessation by the Syrian army and its allies.
Almost entirely missing from the story was the fact that under the terms of the cessation, only those anti-government groups that had formally notified their acceptance of the cessation to the US or Russia were no longer to be targeted. Military action against Da’esh or al-Nusra was not proscribed at all under the ceasefire agreement, which states:
“Military actions, including airstrikes, of the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Russian Armed Forces, and the US-led Counter ISIL Coalition will continue against ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council.”
So, military action by the Syrian army and its allies against al-Nusra was not in breach of the ceasefire agreement. It could hardly be otherwise since military action to “eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Syria” was endorsed unanimously by the Security Council in December 2015. The story of the next six months, as told by the mainstream media in Britain, was one of unending breaches of the cessation by the Syrian army and its allies.
Al-Nusra launched a major offensive in early April 2016 south of Aleppo, with the support of other groups. As Charles Lister reported in Foreign Policy on 4 May 2016:
“Beginning around March 20, the al Qaeda affiliate convened a series of meetings with armed opposition groups active in northern Hama, Latakia, and southern Aleppo, with the intention of persuading them that their interests were better served in fighting than in supporting the political process in Geneva. …
“Three weeks later, simultaneous offensives were launched in all three operational zones — all led by Nusra Front. Within hours, Nusra Front had regained its status as a necessary opposition ally in its bitter and brutal revolutionary struggle, while the moderate opposition reassumed secondary importance.”
Was the Syrian government expected to refrain from responding to this?
(For an account of the ceasefire breakdown and American media misreporting of it, see How Media Distorted Syrian Ceasefire’s Breakdown by Gareth Porter in FAIR on 11 August 2016).
US promised separation
The February ceasefire agreement attempted to address the problem of opposition groups, which had agreed to the ceasefire, being caught up in military action directed against al-Nusra. It specified that the US and Russia would work together “to delineate the territory held by Daesh [and] Jabhat al-Nusra” and,
“to develop procedures necessary for preventing parties participating in the cessation of hostilities from being attacked by Russian Armed Forces, the US-led Counter ISIL Coalition, the Armed Forces of the Syrian government and other forces supporting them”.
At times, the US administration went further and suggested that groups on ceasefire should separate themselves physically from al-Nusra, otherwise they were legitimate targets. That was the impression given by State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, in briefing on the day the cessation was announced. Asked if the US was calling on “the Syrian opposition moderate groups to stop fighting alongside al-Nusrah” to avoid being “targeted from Russia or the Syrian regime”, he replied:
“… we, the ISSG, have been very clear in saying that al-Nusrah and Da’esh are not part of any kind of ceasefire or any kind of negotiated cessation of hostilities. So if you hang out with the wrong folks, then you make that decision. … you choose … who you hang out with, and that sends a signal.”
At a State Department briefing on 27 May 2016, it was revealed that groups that had agreed to abide by the ceasefire were sent a letter by Michael Ratney, the US Special Envoy for Syria, stating:
“The Syrian people and revolutionary factions must continue to reject terrorism in all its forms and distance themselves from the terrorists to the maximum degree possible.”
Sergei Lavrov was adamant that physical separation had been promised and had not been delivered. On 25 April 2016, he told a press conference:
“… we have long coordinated [proposed?] a simple solution for non-terrorist groups that want to join the ceasefire and the subsequent political process as patriotic forces but have suddenly found themselves on the terrorist front lines. This solution is that they should physically leave the areas that are next to terrorists. US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke for this solution at an ISSG meeting back in January, if I'm not mistaken. When we were asked not to bomb certain areas around Aleppo because not only Jabhat al-Nusra but also “good” opposition forces could be deployed there, we agreed that our American partners would use their influence to move “good opposition forces” away from the terrorist front lines, so that nothing would prevent the routing of the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist group. The United States has not fulfilled the firm promise it made two months ago.”
This despite the fact that, according to Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, senior US officials had assured Russia that it would take only “two to three weeks” to complete.
In an interview with the New York Times on 22 April 2016, John Kerry confirmed that the objective was to separate “members of the Al Nusra Front” who “were terrorists not party to the cease-fire” and “insurgent groups that oppose Mr. Assad and have agreed to the cease-fire”. But, he said, it “has proven harder to separate them than we thought”. And he admitted that, “there’s a Russian impatience and a regime impatience with the terrorists who are behaving like terrorists and laying siege to places on their side and killing people”.
After the February ceasefire, the US promised separation but didn’t deliver.
September ceasefire arrangements
The September ceasefire arrangements announced by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov on 9 September 2016 promised separation even more explicitly. The agreement, entitled Reducing Violence, Restoring Access and Establishing the JIC, is clear:
“Delineation of territories controlled by Daesh, Nusra, and moderate opposition forces remains a key priority as does separating the moderate opposition forces from Nusra. Nusra and Daesh shall enjoy no safe haven anywhere in Syria.”
Having failed to separate the so-called “moderate” opposition from al-Nusra in the aftermath of the February ceasefire, it’s puzzling that the US made this promise again – and went on to agree to co-ordinate military action with Russia against al-Nusra.
This time Michael Ratney, the US Special Envoy for Syria, threatened “moderate” rebels with unspecified “severe consequences” if they didn’t separate from al-Nusra, saying in a letter to opposition groups on 10 September 2016:
“We urge the rebels to distance themselves and cut all ties with Fateh of Sham, formerly Nusra Front, or there will be severe consequences.”
(Quoted in Al Qaeda’s Ties to US-Backed Syrian Rebels by Gareth Porter in Consortium News on 13 September 2016).
At his press conference with Lavrov announcing the deal, Kerry said:
“If groups within the legitimate opposition want to retain their legitimacy, they need to distance themselves in every way possible from Nusrah and Da’esh. ...
“So the warning we give to opposition groups who have up until now found it convenient to sort of work with them is it would not be wise to do so in the future. It’s wise to separate oneself.”
And at a briefing on 15 September 2016, State Department spokesman Mark Toner, agreed under questioning from journalists that opposition groups would be “targeted” if they failed to physically separate themselves from al-Nusra by the time the US and Russia had established the Joint Implementation Center and were ready to strike al-Nusra targets.
At this press conference, Kerry was also at pains to emphasise that the US was serious about dealing with al-Nusra:
“I want to be clear about one thing particularly on this, because I’ve seen reporting that somehow suggests otherwise: Going after Nusrah is not a concession to anybody. It is profoundly in the interests of the United States to target al-Qaida – to target al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, which is Nusrah, an organization that is opposed to a peaceful transition, an organization that is an enemy of the legitimate opposition, an organization that is currently plotting attacks beyond Syria’s borders, including against the United States.”
On the face of it, it’s odd that a US Secretary of State felt the need to make a case for the US fighting the “global war on terror” in Syria. Most likely, those remarks are aimed at his opponents in the US administration who regard al-Nusra as a valuable anti-government asset that should be left alone and for whom putting pressure on the Syrian government takes precedence over fighting the “global war on terror”.
Lavrov responded to this in his remarks at the press conference, saying:
“And I’m very glad that John said a very important thing. He said that the US is firmly aimed to fight Nusrah and those who believe that the fighting with Nusrah is a concession to Russia are wrong. That is a very important … statement, because a lot of people supposed that the US are really not very desirable to fight with Nusrah; they just keeping Nusrah as Plan B for overthrowing of the regime. So today’s statement of John is greatly welcomed by me.”
Establishing the Joint Implementation Center
The agreement Reducing Violence, Restoring Access and Establishing the JIC describes how the Joint Implementation Centre was supposed to function.
Its first task was to “share intelligence and develop actionable targets for military action against Nusra in designated areas”. This information should include,
“lists of Nusra leaders as well as coordinates of the locations of Nusra training camps, storage sites for weapons, munition, and equipment, command and control centers, concentrations of personnel, weapons and military equipment, and supply routes, in addition to other Nusra-related targets.”
Its second task was to “designate a set of targets for airstrikes by Russian Aerospace Forces and/or US air forces related to Nusra operations”. Once US/Russia airstrikes begin, Syrian air force activities – fixed and rotary wing – were to cease within the designated areas of US/Russia operations. However, Syrian air force activities would continue against Nusra outside these areas.
According to the agreement, “the process of target development through the JIC and airstrikes against Nusra targets by Russian Aerospace Forces and US air forces will be ongoing and continuous” and the JIC “will also work immediately to maximize independent but synchronized efforts against Daesh”.
This is a serious plan to diminish the military effectiveness of al-Nusra and therefore of the Syrian armed opposition. Since al-Nusra cannot be defeated from the air alone, had the plan been implemented, I assume that the Syrian army and its allies, Hezbollah and Iran, would have continued ground operations against al-Nusra and that the air strikes by the US and Russia would be co-ordinated with these ground operations.
Envisaged outcome of agreements
Had the US-Russia agreements been implemented as proposed, the situation now would be as follows:
(1) a ceasefire on the ground and in the air between the Syrian government and its allies (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) and the “moderate” opposition
(2) air strikes by the US and Russia against al-Nusra in designated areas, co-ordinated with ground operations by the Syrian Army and its allies
(3) air strikes by Syria and Russia against al-Nusra outside these areas, co-ordinated with ground operations by the Syrian Army and its allies
(4) military action against Da’esh as before, but with increased co-ordination between the US and Russia
Note that this means that the Syrian air force would have been largely grounded.
A necessary condition
A necessary condition for this to come about was that the “moderate” opposition formally accept the terms of the ceasefire. The indications are that the US failed to persuade several important groups to do so – representing perhaps as many as 70% of the total of “moderate” fighters.
This would not be surprising given that the terms of the ceasefire required support for the “full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254”, which, inter alia, calls upon UN member states to “eradicate” al-Nusra’s “safe haven” in Syria. So, by accepting the terms of the ceasefire, opposition groups were acquiescing in the destruction by the US and Russia of al-Nusra, an important player in the armed opposition with whom many of them co-operate and whose absence from the battlefield would greatly strengthen the government’s military position. It looks like the US failed to persuade as much as 70% of the 'moderate' fighters to accept the ceasefire.
“Moderate” groups that wanted to take part in the ceasefire were required under its terms to confirm their acceptance to the US or Russia, who were then supposed to inform each other. In practice, the US was the compiler of the list of acceptances since it had an ongoing relationship with these groups. The US has been less than forthcoming on which groups formally signed up and which refused – I have been unable to find any statement by the US on this crucial issue.
What is known
What is known is that on 11 September 2016, one of the largest groups, Ahrar Al-Sham rejected the ceasefire proposal on the grounds that it would benefit the Syrian government and that it excludes certain opposition groups, for instance, al-Nusra, with which Ahrar Al-Sham co-operates closely. And the next day 20 other groups issued a statement rejecting the ceasefire on similar the grounds. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told a press conference on 17 September 2016 that these 20 groups “in our assessment comprise 70% of the so-called moderate fighters”.
At a State Department briefing on 14 September 2016, a journalist asked if these groups who had rejected the ceasefire would be targeted by the US and Russia air forces along with al-Nusra. Spokesman Mark Toner did not answer that question but replied:
“I can tell you that our special envoy, Michael Ratney, who works very closely with the moderate Syrian opposition, is in touch with them and working very closely with them to explain the details of this and to convince them to support it. We understand that’s our responsibility in this, just as we call on Russia … to exert its influence on the regime.
“Likewise, within the ISSG we call on Turkey, we call on Saudi Arabia, other members of the ISSG to exert what influence they have on the various parties on the ground.”
In other words, two days after the ceasefire began the US was still trying to persuade “moderate” groups to formally sign up to it and was urging Turkey and Saudi Arabia to persuade their client groups in Syria to do likewise. At that time, the business of getting “moderate” groups to comply with the ceasefire was clearly a work in progress for the US.
What the Russians say
Under the terms of the ceasefire, the US was supposed to keep Russia informed about groups that had formally accepted the ceasefire. So, what has Russia said on the matter? Here’s what Sergei Lavrov told the Security Council on 21 September 2016:
“I mentioned the list provided to us by our American partners of the 150 or so organizations named as participants in the ceasefire regime, but for a long time now, and officially since 12 September, more than 20 of them have declared that they will not comply with the agreement. That list also includes Ahrar Al-Sham, which, by the way, when drafting resolution 2254 (2015), we proposed including on the list of terrorist organizations, together with another group, Jaysh Al-Islam.”
Though Lavrov doesn’t say so explicitly, it appears that the US didn’t keep Russia informed about which “moderate” groups had formally accepted the ceasefire, otherwise he would surely have been more explicit.
Earlier, on 17 September 2016, when scepticism was being expressed in Washington about the full implementation of the agreements, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin suggested at a press conference that the US had lost all influence over the “moderate” groups. Here is what he said:
“It may well be …. that the US is trying to hide the fact that it has allowed the situation to get out of control. As you well know, we have said on many occasions that in February we were told by high-level American officials that it would take them two to three weeks to ensure that so-called moderate opposition distances itself from Jabhat-al-Nusra. It never happened. …
“Then we received assurances from the United States that as we recommit, renew the cessation of hostilities they will make sure that the so-called moderate groups recommit also to this cessation of hostilities. But what we heard instead was that 20 of those groups which in our assessment comprise 70% of the so-called moderate fighters almost immediately declared that they were not going to comply with the renewed cessation of hostilities regime.
“So, the way it looks is that the US has allowed the genie to get out of the bottle. Having been arming, preparing, training various opposition groups, ignoring the fact that they have been working with Jabhat-al-Nusra and other terrorist groups, ignoring the fact that many of those groups that they regarded as moderate groups were resorting to terrorist tactics, and now they’re … not about to listen to those in Washington who are trying to reach political agreement.”
US influence on “moderate” groups
A necessary condition for the success of the strategy agreed between the US and Russia for moving towards a possible settlement in Syria was that the US and its allies had sufficient influence over the “moderate” opposition to persuade them to co-operate with the agreed strategy.
It now looks as if the US failed to persuade important “moderate” groups to sign up to the latest ceasefire. The central purpose of the deal was to bring about a ceasefire between the government and the “moderate” opposition (and to ground the Syrian air force almost completely) while the US and Russian air forces dealt with al-Nusra. This was no longer possible if the “moderate” opposition, or a significant proportion of it, refused to sign up to the ceasefire and therefore would, under the terms of the ceasefire, be legitimate targets along with al-Nusra.
The US has a list of the “moderate” groups that accepted the terms of the ceasefire and those that refused. But they are unlikely to publish it since it would probably confirm that the “moderate” opposition is, in Vitaly Churkin’s words, “not about to listen to those in Washington who are trying to reach political agreement”.