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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Who Gains From Syria's Fragile Ceasefire

As the Russia-US brokered deal for ceasefire agreement enters the third day, it is still unclear if the deal described as "last chance " for Syria can in fact halt the humanitarian catastrophe underway in Aleppo and other regions of the embattled Arab country. The level of mistrust among all actors in the region is so high that even if no civilian fatality has been reported since the commencement of the ceasefire,the humanitarian aid has yet to reach the besieged population. Much has changed since I last blogged about the situation in Syria but not the brutalities and mistrust which makes lot of people wonder if this cessation of hostilities has been largely accepted by all sides to look for a solution or simply buy time to consolidate their positions,rearm and work out new strategies. What adds to the skepticism is the fact that the trust deficit is not just between middle eastern actors but also between US and Russia who are already on the opposite sides in the Ukrainian conflict. The effort to break the siege of Aleppo to deliver humanitarian aid could well have led to a full fledged proxy war between US and its regional allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Russia and Iran. This is perhaps another reason why the US and Russia agreed to the ceasefire deal but how long it can hold cannot be predicted given the complex situation in the war ravaged country.


Blood-soaked Syrian kid whose picture went viral
With ISIS degraded to an extent but not really eliminated,the focus of the world has been more on Aleppo which is in the midst of a savage battle between the rebels and the Syrian regime,it's allies and affiliated militias. Despite repeated attempts and heavy air strikes by the Russian,major part of the region continues to be under rebel control. As Syrian forces grow weary,last month has seen indiscriminate and hugely disproportionate air strikes on Aleppo killing scores of civilians,flattening hospitals as the world looks in horror. It is perhaps this large scale human disaster that finally brought the US and Russia together to attempt at bringing peace. According to the deal, all parties to the conflict are to abide by cessation of hostilities for seven day ( of course the deal does not include ISIS an Nusra Front) to facilitate delivery of humanitarian aids to besieged population after which the US and Russia would set up a joint intelligence group and a command centre to identify and attract ISIS and Al Qaeda fighters. From the American point of view, the deal includes major concession from Russia and its allies since for the first time they have implicitly accepted a distinction between what US and allies call "moderate rebel groups" and terrorists such ISIS and Al Qaeda and also the agreement to ground Syrian Air force which has been raining incendiaries on rebel held towns,devastating them. But John Kerry's efforts are likely to bear fruits for his allies if the deal works out of which he himself doesn't appear so sure.
Aleppo reduced to rubble by incessant air strikes
Of course, the reason is that the chaotic theatre of war in Syria involves so many groups with their own varying agendas that it is impossible to predict what the outcome could be. In my last post on Syrian civil war I tried making sense of alignment of forces but the configuration has changed. The Free Syrian Army,as a cohesive organisation,seems to have ceased to exist,all that remains is the label used by splinter groups. The key non-state players apart from ISIS appear to be Syrian regime supporters (Hezbollah,Shia militia,Iranian troops,Baathist militia all under command of Syria/Iran) ,the  SDF ( led mainly by Kurdish group YPG but also including Arab fighters,Assyrians,Turkmen and other minority groups) and a motley collection of rebel groups backed by Turkey,Saudi Arabia,Qatar. Most of them are also backed by the West and the US. The two most powerful groups in the alliance are the Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham). It is the latter group which poses the biggest problem. Also known as the Nusra Front,this militant group has been from the beginning operating in Syria as a part of Al Qaeda. It has had a complicated relationship with ISIS, fighting against it as well as cooperating with it depending on circumstances. Recently, the Nusra Front has decided to rebrand itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham cutting off its ties with Al Qaeda.

This move is mostly seen as an effort to present the organisation as a localised  movement dedicated to free Syria from Assad and not part of a global jihadist network so as to win over support of locals and rebel militant groups. However, it is doubtful if the organisation has really abandoned Al Qaeda ideology. Unlike its fall out with ISIS which saw almost a civil war like situation between the two terror groups, the separation of Nusra Front from Al Qaeda was most amicable with the Al Qaeda head even giving blessings to the former. However, the US doesn't buy it and the joint US-Russian offensive after the designated ceasefire period is to be carried out against both ISIS and JFS and herein lies the problem for the US in particular. Though it has emphatically asked moderate rebel groups to disassociate themselves from JFS,there are no clear signal that these groups are willing to follow the diktat unconditionally.

The hardliner and one of the most powerful group Ahrar al Sham particularly seems ambiguous on it future plans as JFS is considered the strongest force among its alliance partners. Besides tactical alliance among small groups on the front lines and reported irregular movement of rebel militants would make it increasingly difficult to identify JFS militants from members of other groups in the region. Even as I write,there is news that 60 Syrian soldiers have been killed in US airstrike, which is unlikely to be deliberate. US has already committed to attack the JFS but even if it hadn't, it couldn't have ignored JFS which already holds sizeable territory. Unlike ISIS, Al Qaeda is known to use deception as an instrument of strategic warfare. For instance it has been seen that when faced with overwhelming force Al Qaeda goes underground resurfacing after the threat has passed. Thus taking on ISIS and ignoring JFS could be disastrous to the region.  

It is perhaps for this reason that the Pentagon and the US Defence Secretary have not been happy with the deal. The deal remains shrouded in secrecy but it seems more than likely that it lets Assad remain entrenched,even though US/West intervened in Syria to support ouster of the Syrian president. Further,there is a great probability of US/Russia attacking the very groups US has backed all these years, either by designating them extreme or simply being unable to distinguish them from JFS militants. Pentagon also has apprehension that US would be giving away its strategic intelligence information to Russia and gaining very little in return. It is but obvious that the US would have to share details about the moderate rebel groups it backs and wants to protect from further attacks by Russia/Syrian forces but in case the ceasefire fails, the Russians would know who and where exactly the rebel groups are and would in all probability target them.

This would be a serious setback to the 5 year old US backed rebellion against Assad regime and a strategic victory for Russia that entered the war to ensure Assad remains in power. Of course US also has to handle the conflict between its NATO ally Turkey and the Kurdish armed groups it has been supporting in the fight against ISIS and whom Turkey designates as terrorist group. There have already been skirmishes and there are likely to flare up again in future which the US has to rush to de-escalate. At this point it seems that if the ceasefire doesn't hold, the US would suffer a diplomatic setback if not get pulled into a quagmire. Meanwhile, Russia having achieved its objective is likely to be seen not only as the dominant regional power but also a resurgent global power. 

Update : The UN aide convoy en-route to Aleppo was attacked and 18 trucks destroyed by what UN initially called air strikes by Syria and Russia but after Russia's vehement denial, it has retracted statement saying there was no conclusive evidence on the nature of attack. 



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