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14 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 9:02am

Syria: The real test facing the US-Russia peace deal

The two nations may have achieved a political milestone but will struggle to halt hostilities on the ground.

By Lina Khatib

Once again a round of cessation of hostilities in Syria is agreed and once again hopes are raised that it will pave the way for a solution to the conflict. But although the United States and Russia appear to be closer than ever regarding Syria, their brokering of the cessation of hostilities agreement after months of talks should not be read as the beginning of the end of the war. On the contrary, this agreement may result in stoking the fires of the conflict even more.

The US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have both presented the latest cessation of hostilities agreement as the first step towards American-Russian military cooperation against what they label as “terrorist” groups in Syria. These groups have been identified as Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (till recently known as Jabhat al-Nusra). The agreement binds Free Syrian Army rebel groups to stop their military activities but it allows the Syrian army (including the air force) to continue to engage in operations in certain areas.

On paper, the agreement appears positive. It shows that there is common ground between the United States and Russia on Syria, particularly that both share an enemy in groups like IS. It also shows that rebel groups fighting under the umbrella of the opposition do answer to their political leaders in the Syrian Higher Negotiating Committee. The agreement is also meant to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, in practice, the mid-term implications of the agreement tell a different story.

A key challenge is that the agreement is based on the assumption that there is a clear line that can be drawn between “moderate” and “extremist” groups in Syria. While groups fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army do not follow an extremist ideology, some of them are cooperating with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, especially after its name change in the wake of its announcement that it is no longer affiliated with Al Qaida.

The reasons why FSA groups cooperate with Jabhat Fateh-al-Sham are not ideological but pragmatic. The group has been consistently fighting the regime throughout its lifetime, its fighters are more experienced, and it is better funded than the Free Syrian Army. Being seen as able to deliver on the frontlines has given Jabhat Fateh al-Sham a sense of local credibility. The fact that US-Russian joint air force activities are meant to target this group means that there is a risk of hitting FSA factions by mistake. As Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has also been one of the leading groups attacking the regime, targeting it while grounding FSA operations will strengthen the position of Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham would then rally more supporters to its side on the basis that it is the victim of a Western conspiracy.

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All this shows that the starting point of the agreement is not optimal. The objective of weakening Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is better achieved through having the agreement halt all regime activities as a starting point. This is not just so that FSA factions have the same chance of recovery as regime forces, but also to strip Jabhat al-Nusra from its raison d’etre, which is fighting the regime.

Regardless of any cessation of hostilities agreement and any increased military cooperation between the USA and Russia, continuation of regime military activity means continuation of the conflict. And even if the United States and Russia do use military cooperation to build mutual trust and eventually reach a political deal to end the Syrian conflict, by the time this happens they may no longer have a mechanism to implement the deal on the ground. This is especially the case if groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham continue to attract military allies from other groups.

The United States and Russia may have achieved a milestone in preparing to launch joint military operations in Syria, but the litmus test is the dynamics on the ground. 

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Lina Khatib is head of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme at Chatham House