Failing Syrian Truce Fuels Question of Whether It Had Chance

  • Syrian battlefield filled with forces from at least 4 nations
  • Only Russia and U.S. want peace deal to succeed: analyst

A cease-fire meant to instill trust between the U.S. and Russia and clear the way for talks on ending Syria’s civil war has only deepened suspicion on all sides and raised fears that the country will collapse even further into violence.

By Tuesday, a day after a United Nations aid convoy was hit, White House officials blamed either Russia or Syria -- saying they were the only two actors with jets in the area. Americans later privately said it was a Russian Su-24 bomber, the New York Times reported. Russia has denied involvement but earlier accused the U.S. of allying itself with the Islamic State after U.S.-led coalition jets killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers in a strike over the weekend. The U.S. said that attack was a mistake.

A damaged truck in Orum al-Kubra, near Aleppo.
A damaged truck in Orum al-Kubra, near Aleppo.
Photographer: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

The unraveling of the cease-fire, the latest effort to halt a humanitarian disaster in the country’s 5 1/2-year civil war, highlighted the difficulties of waging diplomacy in a conflict when so few of the governments involved have any interest in peace. It also demonstrates how the Middle East has moved on from an era where the Cold War powers hold sway over actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals much closer to the current conflict.

“The only parties that really want this to succeed are Russia and America,” said Randa Slim, director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at The Middle East Institute in Washington. “Everybody else, the ones who have the highest stakes in the conflict, the best case scenario is they don’t care, but the bulk of them really want to spoil it.”

For a QuickTake on Syria’s civil war, click here

Russia’s Defense Ministry responded late Tuesday to allegations that it attacked the aid convoy by releasing drone video that spokesman Igor Konashenkov said “clearly shows terrorists in a pickup truck” with a large-caliber mortar gun accompanied the vehicles in an area near Aleppo controlled by rebels. It’s “unclear” from the footage what happened to the militants later, he said in an e-mailed statement.

Since street protests broke out in 2011 during the “Arab spring,” Syria’s cities and deserts have turned into a battlefield filled with Islamic State terrorists, Kurdish fighters, armed opposition groups of various stripes and military forces from Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the U.S.

For Iran, President Bashar al-Assad has offered Syria as a crucial transit route to fund its Hezbollah proxies and serves as a bulwark against the sort of Sunni Islam propagated by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has funded rebel groups and insists that Assad must step down.

Intelligence Sharing

“Of all the players here, the one that is prepared to sacrifice the most and frankly has sacrificed the most are the Iranians,” said Aaron David Miller, vice president for New Initiatives at the Wilson Center and a former adviser at the State Department. “Even if the U.S. could work out some deal with Russia, you still have the Iranians to deal with.”

In its current form, the deal is supposed to bring seven days of quiet and allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to trapped civilians. Russia and the U.S. would then share intelligence to coordinate air strikes against the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

That plan, which the Pentagon has appeared wary of, exposes a fundamental flaw of the deal: U.S. promises of cooperation with Russia have raised suspicion among the opposition, which sees Washington as no longer acting in its interests.

Rebel Positions

“The problem with the deal, the reason why it’s viewed suspiciously inside Syria is that it’s seen as favorable to the regime and Russians,” said Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The American role in the Syrian conflict has become toxic” as far as the opposition is concerned, he added.

It was almost exactly a year ago that Russia entered the Syria conflict, deploying its jets to bomb rebel positions. Once on the defensive and losing ground, Assad’s forces now have gained back territory from the rebels, while Russia has won use of an Iranian air field to launch attacks, bolstering its claim to influence in the Middle East.

“This has been a tremendous success for Russia across the board -- I don’t see why they would want to bring this to a close,” said David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute. “Not only in fighting terrorism, killing Russian jihadis, and reestablishing a role in Middle East, but sticking a finger in the eye of Washington.”

‘Red Line’

Turkish forces are also now pushing deeper into Syria, to create what they call a “safe zone” the size of the Grand Canyon, where rebels can be sheltered and trained. It now controls a 900 square-kilometer (350 square-mile) area inside Syria. That may just be the start, judging by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments this week.

The U.S. has struggled to implement a sustained policy in Syria since the conflict emerged. Initial efforts to arm and train “moderate” rebels cost millions of dollars with little to show for it. President Barack Obama’s declaration of a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces was abandoned in return for a deal to remove them from the country, which didn’t stop the regime from allegedly deploying chlorine bombs. And five years after Obama said it was time for Assad to step aside, the administration now only mentions his departure as part of a broader, open-ended political transition.

Kerry’s Legacy

The success or failure of the cease-fire will be tied to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s legacy. Kerry, whose website touts the 1.3 million miles and 89 countries he has traveled to since 2013, has been a proponent of sustaining talks and making deals, even when the likelihood of success is at best a long shot. In Syria, that hasn’t panned out.

“He really does believe that diplomacy or perhaps the force of his personality is sufficient to create even some political space to improve the situation,” Miller said. “What is lacking in Syria is the ownership by the parties themselves to assume responsibility to care enough about this to take the risks required in order to create that political space.”

Throughout the cease-fire negotiations, Kerry acknowledged that the deal was imperfect but said his motivation for continuing is that the alternatives are worse.

“I have to say to all of you, sure, this is less than perfect,” Kerry told reporters Sept. 12. “This is perhaps one of the most complicated places in the world. But let me ask you: Flawed compared to what? Compared to nothing? Compared to daily violence that absolutely guarantees a future of even more violence and possible sectarian explosion in the region?”

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