Castello Road in Aleppo.

Photographer: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

U.S.-Russian Syria Deal Lacks a Key Element: Trust

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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This time is different, or so U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would have us believe. A new Russian-U.S. agreement to ensure a cessation of hostilities in Syria, indeed, goes further than previous efforts, but the lack of mutual trust between the negotiators has the potential to turn the deal into a clone of the less-than-successful Minsk cease-fire agreements for Ukraine.

The agreements, five separate documents, won’t be published, ostensibly to prevent Islamist groups from disrupting the humanitarian effort that should follow the deal. That in itself is a good sign: It means the sides are really going to try to implement it rather than argue publicly about who’s to blame for renewed violence. But it also means only the general outlines of the deal are available.

The U.S. supposedly has a promise from the moderate Syrian opposition -- whichever of the hundreds of warring groups now represent it -- and Russia has a promise from the Bashar al-Assad regime that they will stop fighting in Aleppo; withdraw from Castello Road, the ravaged city’s main supply artery; and allow humanitarian cargoes to come in. 

Apart from that, the Assad regime is to stop bombing opposition-held areas, even if they are controlled by the group formerly known as al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate. (It now calls itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, but Kerry and Lavrov only refer to it by the old name). Then, if these terms are met for a week, the U.S. and Russia will set up a Joint Implementation Center that will serve as a conduit for information sharing and as a coordination venue for strikes against Nusra and the Islamic State.

This is an agreement whereby neither side loses face. The U.S. gets Russia and the Assad regime to stop hitting opposition fighters indiscriminately while claiming they are all terrorists. Once the JIC is up and running, presumably, there will be no strikes without U.S. coordination. Russia gets a commitment from the U.S. to fight Nusra -- something it suspected the Americans weren’t planning to do because, as Lavrov said at his joint press conference with Kerry early on Saturday, they were “just keeping Nusra as Plan B for overthrowing of the regime.”

The Syrian parties get something out of the deal, too -- but it appears weighted toward Assad. Both his and moderate opposition forces are exhausted and depleted, and they need the pause. Assad’s troops had the upper hand in recent days, having restored the siege of Aleppo after a brief setback, so theoretically, they should be less happy about the cease-fire. But Nusra has recently been the strongest, most combat-ready rebel force in the Aleppo area, and if the U.S. agrees to fight it, Assad is OK with standing back and letting the big boys unleash hell on his most dangerous enemies. 

He knows eventually he will have to negotiate with the U.S.-backed opposition: He was never going to wipe it out completely, and the U.S. will force it to be reasonable at the negotiating table. It’s Nusra and Islamic State that Assad is really worried about. They are implacable, and they won’t stop fighting until defeated.

The U.S. is in a weak position in Syria because the forces it backs sometimes fight against each other. When Turkey recently sent troops across the Syrian border to clear it of Islamic State fighters, it also pushed against the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which denounced the attack as an “occupation.” Other U.S.-supported groups fought alongside the Turkish forces.

Apart from strengthening Russian President Vladimir Putin’s negotiating position, this U.S. weakness is also a threat to the deal. There’s lots of room for disagreement on whom to bomb as dangerous radicals. The lines between groups and affiliations are often blurry. Besides, Turkey’s interests are not entirely aligned with those of the U.S., and by rights, it should have been a party to the talks.

“No one is building this based on trust,” Kerry said at the press conference. That, too, is a problem. When there is no trust, agreements have to be extremely specific and complex, strictly specifying areas in which Russia and the U.S. will fight together and others that are off limits to them and their allies. That’s much harder than drawing such lines in eastern Ukraine: It’s often unclear which group really controls an area and where these group’s affiliations lie in the constantly changing patchwork that is Syria after five years of war.

In the worst-case scenario, the truce won’t even hold because some obscure rebel group decides to take a village, Assad’s forces retaliate, and Russia claims that the U.S. is backing terrorists again. But even if everyone maintains the cease-fire as agreed, there are numerous pitfalls. To name just two, the U.S.-Russian coordination may fail because of irreconcilable differences, and Assad may fight on with quiet Russian backing while Lavrov shrugs, claiming a lack of decisive influence on the Syrian regime.

The biggest problem, however, is that there is no inkling of how political issues will be addressed after a putative U.S.-Russian victory over Nusra and Islamic State. Unless the two big players agree on a joint solution to push for, there will be too much uncertainty for local players and too many reasons to keep fighting. The Minsk agreements actually included a political deal, but it didn’t fully suit either side and so they chose to ignore it, creating a semi-frozen conflict. In Syria, even that outcome now looks too good to be true.

The U.S. and Russia appear to be determined to take baby steps to build the trust necessary for a more permanent solution. The optimism, at least, should be commended.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net