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The “Day After” Syria’s Ceasefire Failure

John Kerry was right to present the ceasefire deal in Syria as a last chance to keep the country in whole. But this “last chance” is too slim to hope for its success. We are then left with what we wrote last May related to the partition of Syria (May 11, 2015, “Iran’s Plan B: the partition of Syria”).

As we intend to focus this week on the “day-after” the collapse of the ceasefire, we will briefly first touch upon the most relevant developments which accompanied the announcement of the ceasefire by both the US and Russia due to those developments’ potential impact on the current preparations for the post collapse of the “cessation of hostilities” deal.

The first is that ISIL suddenly intensified its operations in an open message to all concerned parties. The message reads like: “Ceasefire? What ceasefire? Have you forgotten that we are here?” And ISIL can indeed disrupt the ceasefire, if it ever starts in any serious way, flare emotions through a chain of targeted terrorist attacks and continue until it ceases the ceasefire.

Second, there are high expectations in the region and in the US that Assad and Russia will not respect the ceasefire. They may not break it openly in the beginning, but the slightest breach would be met with a response that will certainly push the ceasefire out of stage.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, CIA director John Brenan and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford expressed varying degrees of pessimism about prospect of Putin-Assad-Iran readiness to implement the ceasefire in goodwill. The trilateral alliance’s battle for Aleppo is in midway, and this alliance sees prospects of victory materializing slowly on the ground.

Third, Syria’s non-terrorist opposition groups are also skeptical about chances of success. A good portion of those groups accept the ceasefire. The portion which refuses would continue the fight. For a ceasefire to work, the majority of those who shoot at each other should silence their guns. But if a considerable minority carries on, there would be no ceasefire.

Fourth, it is enough for the Russians to bomb a group to make the others abandon the ceasefire. The map of areas of control of various armed groups in Syria is maddeningly entangled and intricate. There is no way for the Russian air raids to exclusively target those who breach the ceasefire. If the groups which accepted the deal are targeted, they will abandon this deal immediately.

Fifth, a ceasefire may be considered by some groups in the opposition as an attempt to split the general body of the opposition even more. Those who would abide be the de-escalation plan would be attacked by other groups of opposition which keep fighting. The trilateral alliance of Russia, Assad and Iran would then bomb both. The net losers in this case would be those who accepted the ceasefire.

Sixth, the Turks, who said they accept the ceasefire, are on the edge. They see that their worst nightmare is coming true. PKK friendly groups are assisted by both Russia and the US to fight ISIL in return for giving them control over the Strip of territory bordering Turkey.

Turkish Military reportedly deploys ATILGAN Pedestal Mounted Stinger System to border with Syria. Currently, the only factor that is stopping the Turks from entering Syria is the presence of Russian forces there. NATO told the Turks bluntly that the alliance will not rescue Ankara if it provokes a confrontation with the Russians.

Erdogan is left only with helping the opposition discretely even more. The anger in Ankara is in such high levels that qualitative arms supplies from Turkey to specific opposition groups should not be excluded. This will certainly lead to significant escalation in the north of Syria. Erdogan should not be cornered. It is a risky endeavor.

It is ridiculous to say that the US assisted YPG “may” have ties with Moscow. Just get back to the battle of Menagh base to see how the YPG was coordinating with the Russian Air Force. People are not stupid. The YPG has turned into a Russian-American manifestation of working together. That seems great, but the catch here is that the YPG fought against other US backed opposition groups. Therefore, the US is assisting a group that fight other US backed groups.

What will happen then in the “day-after” the ceasefire in Syria?

Only if the Russians did not respect the deal, or if Assad intentionally broke it, would the idea of a Safe Zone (SZ) in the north of Syria be revived. The SZ would be established with direct participation from the Turks, the Arab and Islamic countries and with an umbrella from NATO.

But if the ceasefire collapses, the left game would be the real Kerry-Lavrov deal: Partition.

The idea of SZ is important in solving the problem of refugees for the Europeans, reducing the burden on neighboring states and providing help to Syria’s civilians. But what about Syria’s crisis? Safe Zones are no solution for this crisis, they are merely a tranquilizer to the pain of conscious in major capitals, the pain of hunger of tens of thousands Syrians and the political-economic tension around the refugees issue in hosting countries particularly in Europe.

One can assume safely that the ceasefire will not hold. The Russians have an interest to make it hold, but Assad has an interest to break it without being caught red-handed. As this is clear to many, it should have been clear to the officials who worked on this endeavor. Why then go down this road instead of simply working harder to improve the balance of power so that Syria might get a better chance to reach a reasonable political deal?

The question should be addressed at the Obama administration. It was Washington that stopped all its allies from providing the opposition with qualitative arms, and it was Washington which staged the comic play of training and equipping five Syrian rebels on a bill of several million dollars to close that door of a real assistance to the opposition.

It is obvious that a major diplomatic endeavor like a ceasefire requires a proper balance of power on the ground. It also requires clear perceptions among the relevant parties of potential and credible bad consequences if they carry on, and a degree of mutual exhaustion.

None of this exists in any way now. One is inclined to believe that the ceasefire is merely a thin cover for a post-ceasefire deal of sorts. The Kerry-Lavrov deal-that is to say the partitioning Syria, Would ultimately save Putin from a prolonged engagement, implement Iran’s Plan B and help the EU stop the refugees flux.

Features of a post-ceasefire deal, or properly put: post-failure-of- ceasefire deal, are surfacing. It goes along the following lines:

– Russia, Assad and Iran will control west Syria, including, potentially, Aleppo if they can capture it within a reasonable timeframe. Lavrov wanted to postpone the deal, including the ceasefire, until his forces and allies capture Aleppo. But that was doomed to take several months.

In any case, with or without Aleppo, the Russians will try to secure a buffer security zone around “their” territory in the west. But they will never drop the claim of a unified Syria under the control of a friendly power. This claim would give them a free ticket to bomb wherever they want whenever they want. After all, it is “their” country.

– There is a possibility that a multi-nation Islamic force will enter Syria’s east to fight ISIL and may help secure a Safe Zone. The real command of this force will rest in the hands of NATO, which will delimit the boundaries of the forces’ moves. It is not clear yet what will the Turks do with Kurds in the northern areas of the east. But this whole move will never happen before the Russians secure “their” areas in the west of Syria under Assad’s role. The assumption that the idea of forming this NATO led force is raised in order to implement it before the Russians demark their territories is false. Promoting this idea as a sign of US confusion or a possible “solution” is misleading.

– The idea falls perfectly within the US-Russian “understanding” that once the west is secured under the Russians’ control, the US will move to take out ISIL with the help of NATO and the proposed Islamic force in the east of Syria. The US accepted to give the Caesar the west of Syria in return for keeping the east to fight ISIL and solve the European allies’ problems. This also fits Putin’s understanding that Russia cannot carry on the fight for long. The deal saves Putin, Assad, the Iranians, the Europeans and everyone else except the Syrians.

– A revival of diplomatic efforts would perhaps take place once ISIL is defeated and a partitioned Syria is a fact on the ground.

Why is all this problematic and wishful?

The idea that a partitioned Syria will settle down in a stable equilibrium around the demarcation lines between the west and the rest is a self-deceiving thought. Images of a Syria that does not “export” refugees (SZ would host them), where Assad is happily sitting in his palace in Damascus and the Arabs and the opposition, in coordination with NATO, fight ISIL in the east is false, unrealistic and wishful.  Russia-Assad-Iran can control a certain territory one day and lose it the next. The central point is who can fight longer. When people speak of Russia’s “endgame” in Syria, they have to understand that in such cases of lack of a balanced political solution, there are no “endgames”. Was n’t the US surge in Anbar an “endgame”? Or was it?

The Syrian opposition sees that Putin will deplete his financial reserves sometime in early 2017. Assad went bankrupt morally and financially when he shot peaceful protestors and pushed Syria into this impasse. Iran is hit hard by low oil prices.

“Winning” a war does not mean a thing if the adversary still keeps the will and the means to carry on fighting. Assad said before that he won, to only say few months later that he is losing for lack of manpower. Those who speak of an Assad victory should first define “victory”. The US surge in Iraq “won” Anbar. But how come we have another insurgency?

Is the ceasefire a good initiative or a bad one? The question is wrong? For it is meaningless to call for a ceasefire while the balance of force is not conductive to a cessation of hostilities and while the energy of the two warring sides is still abundant.

And for those who keep parroting the question: “What is the alternative?” they got to simply start from thinking of changing the balance of power on the ground in order to reach any credible point where a ceasefire and diplomacy stand a chance.

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