The Syrian ceasefire, which the United States and Russia agreed on February 12 and which was supposed to take effect on February 19, had seemed to amount to little more than granting Russia a week of internationally-legitimated time to press its aggression against Aleppo and then blame the rebellion for breaking the ceasefire when the rebels refused to freeze the fighting on the new frontlines. Of course, it has turned out worse than that: with the agreement of another ceasefire on February 22, due to take effect on February 27 at midnight, Russia has had two weeks to make gains.
As it happens, the Russian-enabled offensive against Aleppo by the pro-regime coalition—led by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and various foreign Shi’i jihadist forces under IRGC control, including Lebanese Hizballah, various Iraqi militias, and Afghan Hazara refugees—has somewhat stalled.
It was always doubtful that the pro-regime forces could militarily crush the rebellion in Aleppo; the presence of foreign forces is strongly indicative of the regime’s shortage in manpower. And even if the moderate opposition in Aleppo could be destroyed, the regime could not hold the territory—thereby creating a vacuum that would inevitably be filled by ISIS.
As it was, the pro-regime coalition was even weaker than it appeared, losing ground to ISIS in areas it had already ostensibly secured, namely as-Safira Plains in southern Rif Aleppo. In late 2013, the regime pushed the rebels from as-Safira, claiming it was retaking a local chemical weapons production facility and shoring-up a path to the coast so it could ship its chemical weapons out of the country, in accordance with the deal Russia made on Assad’s behalf, which spared Assad from airstrikes in retribution for the Ghouta massacre and re-legitimized Assad as a partner in chemical disarmament.
On the evening of February 21, Jund al-Aqsa (JAA), Imarat Kavkaz v Sham (Caucasus Emirate in Syria), the Turkistan Islamic Party, and ISIS attacked the pro-Assad forces’ supply line along the Aleppo-Khanaser road and captured various points. (All of the non-ISIS groups here are at least foreign-led, if not majority-foreign, and are affiliated with al-Qaeda, except for JAA. Last week, essentially the entire senior leadership of JAA and numerous fighters—apparently encompassing about 40% of the group—defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria. This might be because JAA had shown signs of slowly being taken over by ISIS; certainly ISIS had infiltrators in JAA and the rump of JAA appears to be pro-ISIS.)
The Russians, therefore, might actually be happy now to have a bit of breathing room to consolidate before they push on. After all, the main aim of Moscow’s intervention—to secure Assad—has been achieved militarily for the short-term, and the long-term stratagem of rehabilitating Assad internationally by eliminating all non-terrorist insurgents is proceeding apace. A ceasefire cannot work, of course, but there are diplomatic gains from pretending it can, and Russia seems to have taken them all, among other things getting the U.S. to agree with Moscow that any snags preventing a political settlement are the opposition’s fault.
Blaming the opposition for the lack of peace is an old habit of the Obama administration. It is not surprising that it happened over Geneva III, since the process was—as anyone could see, even before it began—fundamentally weighted to the regime because Russia had helped turn facts-on-the-ground so decisively in the regime’s favor, at least in its core zones. This meant that either the West forced the opposition to accept the regime’s terms for peace (which remain essentially total victory) to keep the process going or the process collapsed.
The new element is the U.S. using the threat of Russian atrocities to cajole the Syrian opposition into surrender.
Hadi al-Bahra, the former ETILAF president, said on Wednesday that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Syrian opposition: “We are clear, if you don’t choose be part of [the ceasefire] then you are choosing to perhaps make yourself a target.” There are echoes of an incident from earlier this month.
At the London donor conference for Syria on February 4, according to one of the Syrians who was there, Kerry was asked by a Syrian civil society activist to push the Russians harder to stop (and to stop Assad) bombing and starving civilians. The Higher Negotiating Committee (HNC), the opposition delegation to the Geneva III peace conference, had said it would only sit down with the regime once it stopped its aerial bombardments of civilians and blockading of humanitarian access. But Kerry’s policy was that this was an unfair precondition that should be part of the negotiations. Kerry lashed out at any suggestion that the opposition had more to lose by participation: “It’s going to get much worse [if HNC refuses to come to the table]. This will continue for three months, and by then the opposition will be decimated.”
When an aid worker pointed out that, rather than the regime de-escalating (as the U.S. did) while the negotiations were going on, the Geneva III process was being used as cover for the pro-regime offensive in Aleppo, Kerry reportedly said that the regime’s gains were actually caused by the opposition’s refusal to negotiate under fire and starvation-siege. “Don’t blame me—go and blame your opposition,” the Secretary of State allegedly said to the aid worker (which was later denied by Kerry’s spokesman.)
As the above makes clear, Russia has correctly sensed that the US wants the process of peace rather than having any concept of peace, so Russia has decided to allow them the process, provided Russia can continue to do everything it wanted to do in Syria—and the U.S. has happily played along, even using Russia’s threats to checkmate the opposition, which is ostensibly its own side. The most telling example of this was Russia’s victory in the wrangling over what to do about al-Nusra during a ceasefire.
The U.S. had asked for the ceasefire to include a cessation of Russian attacks on al-Nusra, at least initially. Easy to caricature—and for Iranian and Russian propagandists to cast as sinister and indicative—as “America calling for protecting al-Qaeda,” it was in fact an attempt to protect the moderate and U.S.-supported Syrian opposition. Al-Nusra has embedded itself into elements of the rebellion and Russia is not wrong—in some areas—that the rebels and al-Nusra are militarily indistinguishable, even if this is a tactical arrangement and not an ideological one. But Russia’s aim is not empiricism in service of defeating extremists; it’s saving Assad by giving itself political legitimacy to treat all armed opponents of the regime like al-Qaeda. Russia already claims that everything it hits is either al-Qaeda or ISIS. It is for this reason—Moscow’s terminal mendacity—that there is any truth in the claim that America was asking for a halt to attacks on al-Qaeda. In order to protect U.S. assets and prevent Russia from making the conflict a binary one between Assad and the terrorists, attacks on al-Nusra had to be stopped, too. As ever, the U.S. caved. The ceasefire allows continued attacks on al-Nusra.
Foreshadowing how the al-Nusra exception to the ceasefire will work in practice, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said:
We, the ISSG [International Syria Support Group], have been very clear in saying that al-Nusra and Daesh [ISIS] 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 [on] your own who you hang out with, and that sends a signal.
In other words, the U.S. gave permission, in advance, for Russia to bomb any armed opposition group it likes and provided Moscow with the ready-made excuse that the group was collaborating with al-Qaeda, so has only itself to blame. Thus, in the last two days the U.S. has sent the message that any rebel not actively fighting al-Nusra and any rebel who resists a peace process that is working against the rebels can expect to be bombed by Russia—and the U.S. has no objection to this.
While the pro-regime side has this massive loophole to continue its war as planned, the rebellion—assuming the U.S. orders rebel units it supports to abide by the ceasefire and once again restricts rebel access to weapons—will be debilitated from protecting itself during the period when it is pretended there’s a ceasefire, and will be politically and militarily weaker afterwards. If Syrians come to see U.S. policy as collusion with Russia to put down the rebellion, they can be forgiven.