Why Trump’s New Syria Cease-Fire Is An Empty Gesture

Photo via Associated Press

The United States may have successfully brokered a Syria cease-fire hand-in-hand with its long-time geopolitical foe Russia, but make no mistake: The agreement is little more than a baby step toward any real resolution for a sprawling conflict that threatens to ensnare all countries involved.

The collaboration between the United States, Russia, and Jordan to broker a ceasefire in Syria’s southwest was publicly announced July 7 following a meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The actual ceasefire, which was solidified last week but entered into force on July 9, covers three provinces in southwest Syria: Quneitra, Sweida, and Daraa, a border region whose capital is widely considered to be the cradle of the country’s revolution.

While much about the deal appears still in flux, its enforcement reportedly involves a strict no-fly zone and the cessation of hostilities among the main pro-regime and rebel groups operating within the designated area. The United States, Russia and Jordan will apparently maintain a joint monitoring post in Amman, and Russian officials have stated that their country’s military police will play a role on the ground.

But while the cease-fire represents slight progress toward slowly de-escalating Syria’s seemingly everlasting conflict, celebrations — including proud tweets from Trump — are severely premature. Syria, almost unrecognizable after six years of war, faces near-intractable problems, issues the deal doesn’t fully address. Meanwhile, the real details of the agreement remain disturbingly unclear.

According to a senior State Department official who spoke to the Washington Post, the plan amounts to a geopolitical scrimmage: If the deal is successful in Syria’s southwest, where the conflict is relatively straightforward, then perhaps it can eventually work in the country’s more complex theaters, places where Russian and Syrian warplanes are increasingly competing with U.S.-led coalition jets for space in the skies. But such a prospect is far closer to fantasy than reality; Transposing the same kind of arrangement to a place like opposition-controlled Idlib province, an area teeming with rebels of varying ideological stripes, hardly seems plausible.

Indeed, applying the deal to other parts of Syria would require that the cease-fire be clearly understood in the first place — which, at the moment, it isn’t. While U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Germany on July 7, said the United States has a “very clear picture of who will provide the security forces,” he added that there are “a few more details to work out.” Presumably, those details involve how the deal will actually be implemented on the ground and methods for corralling the various factions in each camp into obeying its guidelines — no short order given the panoply of groups involved.  

Other State Department officials have provided little added clarity. Speaking during a July 11 press conference, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that while Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov “likes to talk a lot,” monitoring mechanisms “are all still being worked out,” a sentiment shared by the Department of Defense, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump confirmed to Task & Purpose. Nauert also refused to clearly specify the exact boundaries of the cease-fire zone defined under the agreement, saying that a map of the area “might be classified at this point.” (When contacted, the State Department declined an interview and referred Task & Purpose to the transcript of the press conference.)

As the White House celebrates, U.S. military commanders themselves appear unaware of the role they may play in the cease-fire. Buzzfeed reported July 10 that military officials have yet to receive specific instructions pertaining to the agreement. When contacted by Task & Purpose, Stump said that “DoD officials were present at the negotiations and did provide technical advice to U.S. negotiators.” However, he said, “at this time the Department of Defense only engages in operational deconfliction with the Russian Ministry of Defense as a means to increase the safety of Coalition forces in and above Syria, and to mitigate the risk of unintended escalation,” adding that “this does not constitute cooperation.”

A U.S. Marine waits to guide a troop movement armored vehicle (TMAV) towing an M777-A2 Howitzer to a firing position in Syria, May 14, 2017.U.S. Marine Corps photo

Numerous cessation of hostility deals, including agreements back in February and September of 2016, have all failed, crumbling under the weight of the inexorable realities of the Syrian conflict. Their collapse was largely due to negotiators’ inability to gain real buy-in from the actual forces locked in combat on the ground, an issue that may doom the new agreement as well. And with the main players in Syria still disagreeing over fundamental components of the conflict — including the fate of Syrian President Bashar al Assad — it’s hard to imagine any lasting cease-fire holding.

Moreover, the main fighting forces on the ground — a muddle that includes fighters from Hezbollah, non-extremist rebels and jihadist groups — were not included in the negotiating or the signing of the deal, making the task of actually enforcing it that much more difficult. Indeed, when asked if negotiators were talking with officials in Iran — a country continues to provide crucial military assistance to the Syrian regime — Nauert only added that she has “no information on that.”

The deal’s vagaries will only further complicate the monitoring and enforcement process. In fact, infractions may have already taken place, according to the High Negotiations Commission, an opposition umbrella group. The HNC released a statement July 11 declaring that pro-Assad forces have violated the deal fifteen times. The same day, rebel fighters shot down a Syrian warplane flying outside the edge of the zone. And while Nauert said the clashes between pro-government forces and rebels occurred “outside the area,” uncertainties about the agreement — everything from the zone’s delineation lines to who will police it — will only diminish its effectiveness.

Despite Trump’s rosey tweets, the ceasefire is unlikely to be the catalyst that drives the Syrian conflict toward a negotiated conclusion. And while Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, should be applauded for not overselling the deal, her comments underline the true nature of the problem: Syria’s conflict, a war that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people, won’t be wrapping up any time soon. In describing the agreement, Nauert might have said it best: “Optimism is perhaps too strong of a word, but I think it’s promising in a certain sense that we’ve been able to get this ceasefire.”


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