Scratching the surface of Syria's ceasefire

Scratching the surface of Syria's ceasefire
Comment: The US-Russia ceasefire deal in Syria brings scepticism on rebel front lines, and sees US and Russian interests coalesce, writes Sam Hamad
6 min read
13 Sep, 2016
Russia posing as a benign mediator seems absurd to Syrian rebels [Getty]

"Difficult… very unrealistic", is how Syria analyst Charles Lister quoted a senior figure in a leading Syrian rebel group, speaking in regard to the new deal between Russia and the US regarding Syria. This scepticism towards the deal is shared by many of the rebel forces on the front lines of war against the Assad regime and his allies.

At first glance, and to those unacquainted with the dynamics of the war, the deal seems perfectly acceptable. The main provisions set out by the Russian and American deal-makers have been a "Cessation of Hostilities" (beginning on 12th September) between rebel and regime forces, including a halt to airstrikes on rebel-held civilian areas, and humanitarian aid being provided to all besieged areas of Syria.

From a humanitarian perspective, there could be no complaints about these provisions, but neither the US, nor - even more absurdly when it comes to Syria - Russia, are humanitarian actors. 

Each of these forces has their own interests, and this deal represents not a treaty struck between two forces that have been at odds over Syria, but rather two forces whose interests have been progressively coalescing in Syria over the past few years. 

It's important to understand precisely what these interests are. For Russia, their priority has been to prop up the Assad regime by all means necessary. At first this meant weapons supplies and diplomatic support, but it turned into the brutal intervention against rebel forces in 2015.  

For the US, the main focus is on fighting Islamic State group (IS) - which it sees as a threat to Europe, its Middle East allies and to itself, due to terror, and more immediately, the threat posed to the territorial integrity of its key ally, the Iraqi regime.

There's no incompatibility between the interests of the US and those of Russia in Syria. In 2011, the US understood the fact that Assad was the main destabilising factor, but this has long since passed. And this is perhaps one of the most important factors behind this deal. 

The deal represents two forces whose interests have been progressively coalescing in Syria over the past few years

The US dream is to see the Syrian rebellion end, and for all warring parties to focus solely on IS - the Russian intervention on behalf of Assad essentially ensured that the US would view the Assad regime and its allies as the more appropriate partners in its fight against IS. 

But the US knows that the Syrian rebels have popular support and are not going to disappear - and so the notion of "peace deals" becomes relevant. But, with regards to this deal, it is not so much the case that devil is in the details of the deal, rather that the devil is making the details. 

One of the most controversial elements of the deal is the announcement that the US and Russia will now begin what is essentially joint operations against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS - which was formerly linked to al-Qaeda under the name of the Nusra Front). In fact, the explicit demand made by John Kerry states that if the rebels want to "retain legitimacy" they have to "distance themselves in every possibly way" from IS and JFS.  

This is the US acquiescing to Russian propaganda. The US knows that there is a clear dividing line between the rebels and IS, which is a fascist counter-revolutionary force that has covertly coordinated with Assad against the rebellion. 

There's no incompatibility between the interests of the US and those of Russia in Syria

The demand for rebels to distance themselves from JFS is as equally sinister. The rebels have been forced mostly through sheer pragmatism to ally and maintain peaceful relations with JFS. There is very little ideological affinity between the rebels and JFS, but where it exists, is simply determined by the will of both forces to overthrow the Assad regime and drive out the foreign forces fighting on his behalf. 

JFS are not like IS, whose main aim was to usurp rebel forces and build their "caliphate". Instead, they are much more pragmatically-minded and willing to suppress their undoubtedly problematic ideology for cooperation against common enemies, including IS. There are tensions between the two, but the rebels simply cannot afford to open up a war on three fronts.

As with many of its details, the logistics of this aspect are clouded in secrecy. How, for example, will the US and Russia so neatly delineate areas where JFS have a presence from areas where the rebels have a presence, when they are often intertwined to various different degrees? 

Why would the rebels, who have fought in the most gruelling and brutal circumstances against Assad, abandon theatres of war for only for the US and Russia to bomb one of their allies?

And this is the main absurdity at the heart of this deal.  Russia is not any kind of neutral actor. The idea that Russia intervened in Syria in order to "fight terrorism" and so-called extremist groups like JFS is a monstrous lie – a lie that Russia has cultivated as propaganda to justify its true reasons for intervening, namely to ensure the survival of the Assad regime and to weaken the rebellion. 

Russia, in its propaganda, doesn't differentiate between rebels and JFS - it exploits the nuances in the relationship between the two, to hit all rebel-held areas, to ethnically cleanse civilian areas and gut the revolution of its civil infrastructure.

The demand for rebels to distance themselves from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is as equally sinister

Why on earth would the rebels trust Russia, an entity that seeks their extermination, over even an ideologically disparate ally, such as JFS? 

JFS has played a crucial role in one of the most successful rebel coalitions, namely the Army of Conquest, which is led by the Hamas-esque Ahrar al-Sham and contains groups ranging from secular nationalists to Islamic democrats. This entity, which was formed in Idlib and successfully liberated that city, incorporates JFS and has mostly kept them in check. It was this coalition that broke the siege of Aleppo and that has acted as the armed guardians of civil rule in the city. 

Under this deal, the Army of Conquest would be seen as an ally of JFS and thus worthy not just of Russian airstrikes that it has suffered for over a year, but potentially of US ones too. 

Given that on the weekend before the deal came into effect the Assad regime and Russia murdered over 100 people, the scepticism of rebels to the deal is apposite. Indeed, just yesterday Assad, who has endorsed the deal, vowed to "take back all of Syria".

To many rebels, the deal feels like a trap. As equally absurd as the idea of Russia as a benign mediator is that of the US as somehow speaking for the rebels - the rebels have no representation in this deal. 

One feels that it's more than just irony that sees moderate rebel groups that have in the past actually confronted JFS rejecting the deal. Indeed, the deal could force those rebels who seek a pluralistic and democratic post-Assad Syria, to draw closer with JFS - a dream come true for Russia, Iran and Assad.  

In this respect, it could pave the way for the controlled demolition of the rebellion under the pretext of combating JFS. Unlike the implicit threats by the US to join with Russia's year-long strategy of hitting any group that has proximity with JFS, there is no threat to take action against Assad or Iran, should they break the ceasefire. They have nothing to lose from the deal collapsing, but might very well have everything to gain from it being sustained, and this is precisely what the rebels fear.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.