The debate has now shifted to whether or not the Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire should be extended for more than the designated seven days. Washington announced that it is ready for an extension, but Assad said, through a communiqué on Syrian state TV, that Damascus considers the ceasefire to have expired already. While it is true that the ceasefire reduced the number of civilians killed by Russian and regime air strikes, this relatively positive result was thinning rapidly.
Russia and Assad approached the ceasefire on two tracks. They kept the momentum of their diplomatic and military offensives up while trying to mobilize global opinion in support of their way of handling the situation in Syria in general.
The two allies warned that the opposition was “regrouping”. But the truth is that it was the regime forces that were redeploying on several fronts around Hama, Homs, south and southeast Damascus, and Aleppo.
As just mentioned, the ceasefire had been rapidly unraveling since the outset. Systematic violations were steadily increasing in areas and tempo alike. Homs, south of Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib, and Qunaytera are but some of the fronts that witnessed largescale violations. And as expected, the Assad regime’s forces and Russian planes continued targeting the areas of their choice based on their own agenda and regardless of any commitments given during the Lavrov-Kerry talks.
The excuse given for the regime’s and the Russian’s violations is, as expected, the presence of fighters belonging to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), previously called the Nusra Front. In Jobar, east of Damascus, for example, Russian and regime planes bombarded civilian areas, claiming they were under the control of JFS, while everyone knows that in fact they are under the control of Failaq al-Rahman, which is a totally different organization.
Damascus and Moscow claim that most of the Syrian opposition groups coordinate with JFS. But how can any rational person assume that the opposition groups will not coordinate with JFS if they all come under the deadly reach of the same killing machine? How can any rational person assume that they should not coordinate if the Russians, Assad, and his allies refuse to provide any reasonable grounds to start meaningful peace talks, and when Assad says that he intends to kill them all?
Even the humanitarian aid which was presented as a central argument in marketing the Kerry-Lavrov deal, did not reach the besieged areas of Aleppo. The Russians and Assad’s forces are in control of the Castello Road, which was designated to route the aid to eastern Aleppo. The regime cosmetically redeployed its forces, which are still in control of the road, to strategic points around it to continue overlooking its dusty track. Russian planes hover over the road on a regular basis. The road was designated as a demilitarized path for humanitarian assistance. It is now anything but demilitarized.
Furthermore, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said on September 19 that Syrian planes had struck a humanitarian aid convoy. Assad’s airstrikes targeting the UN convoys coincided with Damascus’s declaration that the ceasefire was over. The objective was always to bomb and starve hundreds of thousands of Syrians under the pretext of fighting terrorism. This is Assad’s punishment for his people for daring to oppose his rule.
The ratio of ceasefire violations is divided 4:1 in in favor of the regime and Russian militaries. It has become abundantly obvious that the investment of Secretary John Kerry in pursuing a joint effort, justified on occasion as based on humanitarian considerations, is coming to its end. No results, either on the humanitarian level or on the political level, have been achieved.
For, as we have argued repeatedly in previous issues of Middle East Briefing, Secretary Kerry’s effort was ill-structured, deprived of any leverage on the ground, unsupported by a coherent strategy related to the Syrian crisis, and merely based on Russian-Assad-Iranian goodwill, which proved scarce in this case.
We all know that this administration has never been serious in its attempts to end Syria’s crisis. Seriousness in this case implies providing the proper pre-conditions to allow a reasonable solution to emerge. The lack of any coherent effort to end the crisis contributed to the escalation of killings in Syria, but it mainly deprived the US of any remaining respect or influence in the region. The legacy here is one of net loss for both the US and the Syrian people. If Kerry’s administration systematically chose a “do-nothing” policy, which contributed to this human tragedy in Syria, the Secretary will have limited grounds to establish any humanitarian credentials by such a naïve effort, which he started with the Russians.
Moreover, Kerry’s approach was ultimately leading to a quasi-legalized partition of Syria. The effort perceived a solution by which the current de facto partition could very well turn into a permanent partition de jure. But this road is rejected by all true Syrians. This will make it a prescription for continuation of conflict.
Furthermore, Syria’s national identity, which is founded on the principle of “the unified homeland”, is the main line of defense against violent Jihadist groups that do not recognize national identities to start with. Compromising the integrity of Syria as a unified nation is not only rejected by all Syrians of all religions and sects, it is also a bad policy. If Syria is to be divided by a Russian-American deal, the war will continue to regain the unity of national soil, regardless of any external dictates. The ultimate objective should be, at all times, to maintain the integrity of Syria’s territories and the sovereignty of its governing structure. Syrians, on both sides of the fence, will always refuse any other choice, whoever recommends it.
The Syrian crisis will be the dominant topic when leaders of relevant countries meet at the UN later this month. Erdoğan, fresh from regaining relevance, carries with him a project to expand Turkey’s area of control, the so-called Safe Zone (SZ), across the borders with Syria. Already, the Shield of the Euphrates, a force of armed Syrian groups supported by Ankara and active in northern Syria, is progressing fast towards al-Bab, one of the last ISIL strongholds in Syria apart from the organization’s self-claimed capital in Raqqa. The deal with Erdoğan is to agree on seriously fighting ISIL in return for clearing the area from the Kurdish YPG. The transaction is working fine and Erdoğan is offering to enlarge the area assigned to him all the while remaining west of the Euphrates as deal states.
Just prior to his departure to New York, Erdoğan said that Turkey is ready to extend the scope of its military activities. “As part of the Euphrates Shield operation, an area of 900 square kilometers has been cleared of terror so far. This area is pushing south. We may extend this area to 5,000 square kilometers as part of a safe zone,” he said in a news conference.
Obviously, Erdoğan’s efforts to squeeze ISIL from the west coincides with the countdown for the final battle for Mosul. Reports from Iraq indicate that the battle for Mosul may come as an “October Surprise” in the US presidential elections.
Furthermore, it is thought that Assad sending 1,000 freshly trained troops to Deir al-Zour was part of a silent race towards Raqqa. Assad’s soldiers were bombed by coalition planes a few hours after their arrival. The race is on for who will appear in optics as giving the final blow to ISIL.
If Assad takes Raqqa, he will be reintroduced to the world as the “conqueror” of the capital of ISIL and the champion of fighting terrorism, not as the butcher that he really is.
On the other hand, the plan seems to be allowing ISIL fighters a way out of Mosul to western Iraq, then into Syria, where they will be hammered mercilessly by coalition planes and the Syrian Democratic Forces.