Peace a far cry still

Print edition : March 18, 2016

Syrian government forces cross a retractable military bridge on the eastern outskirts of northern embattled city of Aleppo after they retook the area from Islamic State group fighters on February 21. Photo: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP

A woman carries an injured boy inside a hospital after multiple bomb blasts hit Damascus on February 21. A handout picture provided by SANA news agency. Photo: SANA/REUTERS

US Secretary of States John Kerry with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a news conference after the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich, Germany, on February 12. Photo: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP

The “cessation of hostilities” agreement announced seems to be mainly aimed at facilitating speedy delivery of essential humanitarian aid to areas in Syria that are under either rebel or government siege.

With the Syrian national army on the verge of totally liberating Aleppo, the country’s biggest commercial city, and the jehadi forces in retreat from the other sectors, United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a “cessation of hostilities” agreement in the second week of February. The announcement came after a meeting in Munich with the other 15 members of the International Syria Support Group. The agreement, signed with the concurrence of the Syrian government, also called for swift delivery of humanitarian aid to the worst-affected areas. By the third week of February, parts of the agreement have been implemented. Humanitarian relief supplies, under the auspices of the United Nations, have started moving into some besieged areas. Food and other essential commodities have reached four towns and a suburb of Damascus that has been under the control of rebels.

Lavrov, however, made it clear that the fight against self-proclaimed jehadi groups like the Daesh (Islamic State) and the Jabhat al-Nusra would continue notwithstanding the “cessation of hostilities” agreement. The U.N. has designated these as terrorist organisations. The Syrian government and many countries supporting Damascus consider most of the other groups involved in the war terrorist outfits. But these groups have the support of the West and countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Kerry has described the terrorist outfits as “legitimate opposition groups”. It is common knowledge that groups such as the Ahrar al Sham supported by the West and its allies are closely aligned to the al-Nusra Front. The U.S. has been basically relying on jehadists to put into effect their “regime change” plans in Syria. But it persists with the charade that a so-called “moderate opposition” still exists in Syria. Such an opposition does not even have a token presence now.

The “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) that was initially sponsored by the U.S. and its allies is in complete disarray. According to the Turkish Hurriyet Daily, a 14,000-strong FSA force has abandoned Aleppo. Its commander fled to Turkey in November. The so-called moderate rebels have announced that they have appointed Hashem el-Sheikh as the new commander of their unified forces in Aleppo. He was previously affiliated with the jehadist terror group Ahrar al Sham. The FSA has ceded control of the Bab-al-Hawa border crossing to the Ahrar al Sham, which is coordinating closely with the al-Nusra Front. There is already a tacit ceasefire agreement between the al-Nusra and the Daesh. Both groups have decided, at least for the time being, to fight their common enemy—the Syrian government. The control of the crucial Bab-al-Hawa crossing gives the al-Nusra and the Ahrar al Sham the power over the distribution of weapons and funds flowing out of Turkey. This is one reason for the Syrian government forces being keen to consolidate their military gains in a hurry and seal the border with Turkey.

All the same, the agreement in Munich has resulted in a temporary halt in fighting at least in some war-ravaged areas of the country. But the agreement seems mainly aimed at facilitating the speedy delivery of essential humanitarian aid to areas that are under either rebel or government siege. According to the U.N., around 486,000 people are living in areas besieged either by terrorist or government forces. The Russians have emphasised that the current agreement is not a permanent ceasefire agreement. Such an agreement at this juncture would have jeopardised the strategic gains that the Syrian army has made since the decisive Russian military intervention in October last year. Bouthaina Shabaan, a key adviser of President Bashar al-Assad, said that a ceasefire now would only help the terrorists. The Syrian government’s aim, she said, was to retake Aleppo and seal the border with Turkey and stop the flow of fighters and arms. By the third week of February, the Syrian army had reached 25 km from the Turkish border. It aims to seal the border completely and in the process cut the main source of supplies for the rebel forces.

Kerry and Lavrov have said that U.N.-appointed task forces will monitor the distribution of aid and the cessation of hostilities. Any ceasefire violation will be reported to U.S. and Russian officials. Lavrov also emphasised that the new agreement calls for military cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in tackling the terrorist threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been calling for meaningful cooperation in activities such as intelligence sharing and the fight against the Daesh and the al-Nusra Front. But the Obama administration has been reluctant to wage a joint battle against terrorism. Until late last year, the U.S. priority was regime change in Damascus.

Protecting proxies

Now, in the context of the changed ground realities, the U.S. wants to ensure that its proxies in Syria are not militarily wiped out. After expending billions of dollars on propping them up, Washington and its allies want the militant groups they have trained and armed to control territory before the start of peace negotiations. U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey want American boots on the ground in Syria to stymie the Syrian army’s advance and foil the liberation of other cities such as Raqqa and Palmyra that are under the control of the Daesh. Saudi Arabia has been proclaiming loudly it has decided in principle to dispatch troops to Syria with the caveat that they will be under the U.S. military’s leadership.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also said that it is willing to deploy its forces on Syrian territory. Nobody takes the Saudi and UAE announcements seriously because their troops are hopelessly mired in Yemen. U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, however, said in the second week of February that Saudi Arabia had agreed to resume its bombing mission against Daesh targets and had signalled its willingness to contribute “in other critical ways on the ground”.

The Saudis directed their firepower on the hapless citizens of Yemen in the beginning of 2015. The Saudis deployed a few of their F-16s in the Incirlik air base in Turkey in the beginning of February. In the third week of February, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir called for providing surface-to-air missiles to the rebels in Syria. He said that this kind of weaponry had helped to turn the tide against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and helped the jehadi forces there overthrow the government in Kabul.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been urging the U.S. to start ground operations inside Syria on the pretext of fighting the Daesh. The last thing that President Barack Obama wants at the fag end of his tenure is to get into a military quagmire in Syria and in the process ignite a large-scale conflagration.

Besides, the U.S. seems keener at this juncture on propping up the Syrian Kurdish militia, the Peoples Protection Unit (YPG), which has proved to be an effective fighting force against the Daesh and other jehadi forces. U.S. trainers are on the ground helping them in their fight against the Daesh. In the past several months, the YPG has gained control of large tracts of territory from rebel groups backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia along the Syrian border with Turkey. The YPG also has the support of Moscow and the government in Damascus.

Turkey’s role

Turkey, the U.S.’ North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally, considers the YPG a branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Though the U.S. has labelled the PKK a “terrorist” organisation, it has had no compunctions in providing support to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG. “Are you on our side or on the side of the terrorist PYD and the PKK?” asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a recent address, referring to the U.S.’ support for the PYD.

The Turkish state declared an all-out war against the PKK last year after breaking off peace talks. From the second week of February, Turkey has been shelling areas controlled by the YPG and is threatening a ground invasion.

The YPG seems to be on the verge of capturing the strategically located town of Azaz on the border with Turkey. Ankara has vowed to prevent this. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutogulu has said that if the YPG moves towards Azaz, “they will see the harshest reaction”. The Turkish government is at the same time calling for the creation of a buffer zone along the border that would extend 10 kilometres into Syria.

“What we want is to create a secure strip, including Azaz, 10 km deep inside Syria, and this zone should be free from clashes,” said Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akgodan recently. This is an obvious attempt to protect the jehadi groups that Ankara and its allies have been supporting all these years.

The U.S. and Russia have strongly criticised Turkey shelling of Syria’s border areas. The Syrian government has accused Turkey of violating its borders. After the terror attack on a bus carrying Turkish army personnel in Ankara on February 17, in which 20 people were killed, Ankara is once again threatening a ground invasion. The Turkish government is blaming the YPG for the attack. The YPG spokesman has denied the accusation and accused the Turkish government of seizing a pretext “to interfere in Syria and hit the YPG”. He said that his organisation had “no interest in being enemies with Turkey” but went on to add that Turkey should desist from its “policy of supporting terror in Syria”.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned Turkey against a ground invasion, saying that it would have “global repercussions” and that it would not be “a picnic”. In a recent interview, Assad said that “logically intervention is not possible” but pointed out that Erdogan “is a fanatical person with Muslim Brotherhood inclinations”. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was even more specific. He said that a Turkish invasion of Syria could provide the spark for “a new world war”.

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