Fragile state

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Relief materials strewn around in Orum al-Kubra town near Aleppo on September 20, the day after a convoy delivering aid was hit by an air strike. Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the conclusion of a news conference following their meeting to discuss the Syrian crisis, in Geneva on September 9. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/AP

Russia and the U.S. were able to come up with a ceasefire agreement for war-ravaged Syria, but the many violations of the agreement and two serious attacks, one on a U.N. aid convoy, may have all but dealt a death blow to the tenuous truce.

The ceasefire that came into effect in Syria on September 9 and was a great relief to the beleaguered people in the parts of the country that have been sucked up in the vortex of war seems to be all but over. It came after five years of relentless war stoked by outside powers. The agreement was negotiated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and United States Secretary of State John Kerry, after long talks in Geneva, and called for a seven-day ceasefire, to be renewed every 48 hours, depending on the military situation on the ground. After that, the U.S. and Russia were supposed to set up a “joint implementation centre” to coordinate attacks and the sharing of information on military operations planned against the main terror groups.

The cessation of hostilities came at a time when government forces had the upper hand in their battle against the myriad terror groups that have rained havoc on a once peaceful country. Turkey entered the fray in Syria in August and finally turned its guns on the Daesh (Islamic State) after initially concentrating most of its firepower on the Syrian Kurds. This also contributed to the changed military scenario in Syria.

Russia and the U.S., which have been backing opposing sides in the Syrian war theatre, had agreed to jointly target the Daesh and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (or al-Nusra Front), both of which the United Nations has designated as terrorist organisations. The al-Nusra Front recently rebranded itself under a new name, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the Levant Conquest Front), in a half-hearted effort to shed its Al Qaeda tag. The Daesh and the al-Nusra Front, bolstered by sophisticated weapons and foreign fighters, are the only two rebel groups doing the real fighting in Syria, aided and abetted by a host of nations, which until recently included Turkey. The U.S. had turned a blind eye to the activities of terrorist groups such as al-Nusra and even the Daesh for many years. Much of the arms it supplied to the so-called moderate rebels ended up in the hands of these two terror groups. Countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have still not distanced themselves from the al-Nusra Front.

Many of the provisions of the ceasefire agreement have not been made public. Also, there is nothing to stop al-Nusra fighters from shaving their beards and joining the so-called moderate forces supported by the West and its regional proxies. The finer details of the ceasefire were negotiated by Russian and American diplomats. The Syrian government and its regional allies were apparently not kept fully in the loop. The Russian side wanted to publicise the details of the agreement but was stymied by the Americans. Vitali Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., told the media that the U.S. was unwilling to share with the U.N. Security Council the details of the joint agreement aimed at bringing about an end to the war in Syria. Churkin said that the Security Council would not be able to endorse the resolution unless it received all the details. Syria had been pressing for a Security Council resolution so that the agreement has international legitimacy. American officials said that their reluctance to make the details of the agreement public was because of concerns regarding some U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria.

Interestingly, around 50 senior U.S. State Department staffers recently issued a critical internal memo demanding that the Barack Obama administration change its stance on Syria and start bombing Syrian military targets as a way of ending the five-year-old civil war, which was precipitated in the first place by American intervention. Many senior officials in the Pentagon and State Department were known to be against the peace plan, viewing it as a concession to the Syrian government and its principal backers, Russia, Iran and Hizbollah. On September 17, the U.S. Air Force targeted the Syrian Army for the first time. According to reports, more than 60 Syrian soldiers who were fighting the Daesh in the Deir-al-Zour area were killed in the attack and 120 soldiers were grievously injured. The attack allowed the Daesh to advance towards a crucial airport under the Syrian government’s control and temporarily claim fiercely contested territory. This development dealt a blow to the ceasefire agreement, which most of the warring parties on the ground were anyway viewing with suspicion. The U.S. claimed that the targeting of Syrian troops was an accident. The Pentagon spokesman claimed that the American planes were under the mistaken assumption that they were targeting Daesh fighters. There are not too many takers for this explanation. After the attack on the Syrian troops was terminated, the U.S. Air Force did not return to bomb the Daesh, which had moved into the territory the Syrian Army vacated.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement the American air strikes “were on the boundary between criminal negligence and direct connivance with Islamic State terrorists”. The statement went on to say that if indeed it was a targeting error “then it is a consequence of the U.S. side’s stubborn unwillingness to coordinate its actions against the terrorist groups on Syrian territory with Russia”. The American side has so far been coy about sharing intelligence with its Russian counterparts. If there had been serious cooperation, the ceasefire would not have been so fragile. Churkin said that the timing of the American air attack “was frankly suspicious”. The Russian Defence Ministry spokesman said that the U.S. was unwilling to enforce the truce on the so-called moderate rebels it propped up. “If the United States does not take steps needed to fulfil the September 9 agreement, then all the blame for the collapse of the ceasefire in Syria lies with the United States,” he said. The Russian Defence Ministry said that there had been more than 199 violations of the ceasefire by the opposition forces.

The Syrian government said that the targeting of its forces by the U.S. was “a serious and blatant aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic and its army”. The statement said that it was further proof of the collusion between the U.S. and the Daesh and “exposed the false claims of fighting terrorism”. Under the terms of U.S.-Russia agreement to fight the Daesh, the Syrian Air Force was prohibited from operating in most areas of the country. In return, the U.S. was supposed to use its influence to end the close collaboration between the Syrian armed groups it supports and terrorist groups such as the al-Nusra Front. The American air attack on the Syrian troops happened at a time when the Syrian Air Force was virtually grounded.

The U.S. acknowledged its responsibility for the targeting of Syrian troops engaged in fighting terrorists in a roundabout way. A senior White House official told the American media that the U.S. had conveyed its regrets to the Syrian government through Russian channels for “the unintentional loss of lives” of Syrian forces. Russia has asked for a detailed explanation from the U.S. of its actions in the Security Council. Russia convened a closed-door emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss the matter immediately after the attack.

After the ceasefire announcement, many towns and areas that had remained inaccessible because of the war had started getting much needed relief supplies. However, on September 19, a U.N. convoy that was transporting aid for the beleaguered population of Aleppo and nearby areas was attacked. Several people, including members of the Syrian Red Crescent, were killed, and food, medical supplies and other relief materials were destroyed. So far, no one has taken responsibility for the attack and the U.N. has suspended the delivery of aid.

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