GAZIANTEP, TURKEY —
The U.S.-Russia negotiated cease-fire in Syria that was negotiated over the heads of militias battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad appears Sunday to be all but dead.
Insurgent leaders and observers of the Syrian conflict warn the legacy of the truce will be to add to the increasingly poisonous relations between the rebels and Washington. They argue the consequences of the cease-fire will be to diminish what scant leverage the United States has left with moderate and Islamist rebels, driving them into closer collaboration with militant groups.
The cease-fire deal has backfired, they say, when it comes to trying to separate Western-approved rebel militias from one of the two jihadist groups Washington and Moscow agreed to target, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra before are branding and formal break with al-Qaida.
Under the cease-fire terms the United States and Russia were to this week begin a joint air campaign against Fateh al-Sham, a group rebels credit as essential in the defense of besieged Aleppo.
On the eve of the cease-fire going into effect, an airstrike, presumed by rebels to have been made by American warplanes, struck a meeting of rebel leaders and killing, among others, Abu Omar Saraqib, a major Fateh al-Sham commander.
Goals vs. consequences
Moscow has been pressing Washington publicly to do more, with Russian General Viktor Poznikhir accusing the Americans of “not taking the necessary measures to carry out its obligations,” and warning that “a breakdown of the cease-fire will be on the United States.”
For U.S. officials it is the blocking of international aid by the Assad regime that is wrecking the cease-fire.
But some analysts say the truce never had a chance from the start.
“The focus on al Nusra was a disastrous decision, whatever one thinks of them,” says Lebanese-American journalist Michael Young, opinion editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper. “By targeting the most effective force in the anti-Assad coalition, the U.S. has put itself in a position where it is seen by the Syrian rebels as collaborating with the Assad regime.And in all honesty is that not what they really want? A decisive shift in the military balance that can end this war?”
Many rebel leaders suspect the cease-fire displays a U.S. desire for the war to end on any terms or at least with a begrudging acceptance of Assad remaining as president.
U.S. officials deny the claim. They maintain that in agreeing to the truce deal they were seeking to alleviate a dire humanitarian crisis by trying to get international aid to 250,000 people in the encircled parts of rebel held eastern Aleppo and to an estimated six million people in other besieged areas of Syria.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says the cease-fire plan was misconceived from the start.
“The agreement was based on a false premise, that the U.S. has more control over the armed opposition than it in fact does, and in that way it gave credence to Russian views that we control the opposition,” he said. “This isn’t the Cold War or the 19th century, where all the major players in armed conflicts like this are the pawns of Great Powers. Russia can obviously influence the Assad regime, but the U.S. has very little control over the opposition.”
Washington control likely lessened
Rebel groups were meeting Sunday to decide their next steps, but they say they would be weakened considerably on the battlefield, if they were to separate from Fateh al-Sham and its allies.And they question what Washington wants them to do, walk away from territory they control jointly with Fateh al-Sham, which would give Assad a military opening, or start fighting them when they are better armed?
“What the U.S. doesn’t understand is that Fateh al-Sham’s formal break with al-Qaida has satisfied many rebel groups,” says General Salim Idris, a former commander-in-chief of the Western-approved Free Syrian Army.“I don't trust the break is genuine, I think it came far too late in this war.But many others do trust them.”
With aid not reaching Aleppo, Idris, says the cease-fire’s days are numbered and it would be hard for the United States to re-build trust with rebels.
What happens when or if the cease-fire breaks down?Aron Lund, an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Program, says, “Whether it would be much different than before the truce deal would, I imagine, depends on how the breakdown happens and what that would do to U.S.-Russian diplomacy, which has been absolutely central to the international discussions about how to handle Syria.”
Michael Young reckons in the aftermath of a formal breakdown in the cease-fire, Syria will return to the war logic that preceded the truce, which he argues Damascus was never really interested in.