On February 22, which was a public holiday in Russia, President Vladimir Putin went on national television with a newsflash to announce that, after a phone call with the United States’ President Barack Obama, a US-Russian agreement was secured to declare a ceasefire in the Syrian civil war beginning on midnight, Friday, February 26 (local time). The ceasefire does not cover the Islamic State (IS), al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front), or “other [United Nations]-designated terrorist organizations [unspecified].” Syrian opposition forces that decide to join the ceasefire must report to the Russian military command in Syria or to the Americans, who are expected to exchange notes. Humanitarian relief will be delivered by the UN to besieged civilian population centers. A successful ceasefire must lead to a political solution of the Syrian problem through dialogue (Kremlin.ru, February 22).
The Russian military has established a ceasefire coordination center at the Russian airbase of Hmeymim, close to Latakia. Syrian opposition fighters that agree to lay down arms must register and are promised they will not be bombed. The Russian press is reporting droves of Syrian opposition fighters raising white flags and laying down their arms. The IS, al-Nusra Front and apparently any other Syrian opposition forces that continue to resist will be bombed relentlessly. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced it is in contact with the defense attaché’s office of the US embassy in Moscow, while accusing Turkey of “aggression against Syria,” of working to derail the tentative ceasefire agreement, and of attacking Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria (RIA Novosti, February 24).
The Islamic State has more or less clearly designated zones of territorial control in Syria and Iraq. Al-Nusra Front does not—its fighters regularly join forces with other opposition groups to fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The ceasefire agreement apparently will allow Russia to pound the Syrian opposition at will under the pretext of attacking “terrorists.” To date, the Russian bombing campaign in Syria has focused almost exclusively on demolishing the Syrian opposition and not the IS. After the announcement of the tentative ceasefire, brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, the Russian military and its allies—pro-Iranian Shia militias and al-Assad forces—reportedly do not have any plans to change their mode of operation and initiate a ground offensive to oust the Islamic State from its self-designated capital Raqqa, while leaving potentially dangerous armed opposition groups in their rear. The ceasefire is seen in Moscow as allowing the US a face-saving formula to disentangle from Syria, leaving it in Russian and Iranian hands. Indeed, this would be a great victory for the Kremlin, achieved at a relatively low cost (Expert.ru, February 24).
Washington continues to call for the removal of al-Assad, but Moscow is not prepared to yield anything, acting from a perceived position of strength. The presidential press service has reported that Putin phoned al-Assad, who agreed to cooperate. Moreover, snap parliamentary elections have been announced by Damascus, scheduled for April 13. In today’s war-torn Syria, any elections will surely be rigged, producing a landslide victory for al-Assad and legitimizing Syria as a joint Russian-Iranian protectorate. In March, Syria is seasonally prone to severe sandstorms that may ground the Russian jets at Hmeymim airbase, so a partial decrease in the bombing may happen. Russian propaganda will likely interpret this as a sign of goodwill in support of the tentative ceasefire, but the drive to eliminate the opposition in northern Syria—in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and Homs—will continue, together with action to “close” the border with Turkey with the help of YPG fighters (Expert.ru, February 24). According to Mikhail Bogdanov, Moscow’s deputy foreign minister responsible for the Middle East, the Russian bombing campaign has helped to promote peace in Syria: “Only after the Russian air force smashed the military potential of the terrorists, a dialogue could begin between different Syrian fractions to build a renovated secular state” (RIA Novosti, February 25).
Secretary Kerry constantly argues that the US has no other option in Syria than to work closely with Moscow. But to seek Russian cooperation on Syria no matter the cost—playing the role of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who appeased Adolf Hitler with disastrous results in the run up to World War II—is extremely dangerous. Kerry has emboldened the Kremlin to resort to brute force as a way to push the US into a panicky retreat, while at the same time undermining and degrading the secular Syrian opposition, which may have believed US assurances of aid and support were real. Kerry’s pleading for an end to al-Assad’s rule—“the war will not end while al-Assad is there”—invites only scorn in Moscow. Feeble threats of some unspecified US action, if the ceasefire disintegrates, are routinely dismissed as nonsense—in Moscow’s view, the Obama administration has demonstrated time and again it will do its best not to do anything (Kommersant, February 24).
Key US allies in the region—Turkey and Saudi Arabia—who supported the Syrian opposition in its bid to oust al-Assad, have been equally undercut by the US move to work out a deal with Russia behind their back. Pro-Kremlin commentators express satisfaction that Washington’s Middle Eastern policy is in disarray, with Ankara and Riyadh being the main losers (RIA Novosti, February 24). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan bitterly complained that his government was not consulted by the US as the Kerry-Lavrov deal was being readied. Erdoğan demanded that the YPG be listed as a terrorist organization and excluded from the ceasefire, together with the IS and al-Nusra. Turkish officials vowed to continue to hit “terrorists” (apparently meaning Kurds, including the YPG) wherever they are (Interfax, February 24).
All this is deadly dangerous, and Kerry (supported by Obama) might, indeed, reap a Chamberlain-style harvest for his efforts. The Turks are embittered, isolated and frightened and could lash out blindly. The Kremlin may believe the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have abandoned Erdoğan, and that it is finally time to teach the Turkish leader a stern lesson not to mess with the Russian empire. Moscow is actively developing ties with the Kurds: this month, Syrian Kurdistan (the political wing of the YPG) was allowed to open a semi-diplomatic representative office in Moscow. The head of this Kurdish mission, Rodi Osman, told journalists: “Russia will respond if there is a Turkish invasion [into YPG-held territory],” which could lead to a “big war” (Rbc.ru, February 18).