World powers have agreed to implement a nationwide «cessation of hostilities» in Syria. The breakthrough was announced on Feb. 12 at a meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich. The cessation would go into effect next Friday, Feb. 19, with terrorist groups continued to be targeted (the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria).
The document was signed by 17 nations, including Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on behalf of Syrian opposition and Iran’s top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif representing Assad’s government. If executed, the accord, forged by the ISSG, would mark the first sustained and formally declared halt to fighting in Syria since the civil war began in 2011, early in the Arab uprisings.
The diplomatic breakthrough will pave the way for opposition and government parties to meet again under the auspices of the UN in the coming days.
The ISSG communique outlines three key areas of agreement. First, a UN task force, co-chaired by Russia and the US, will begin meeting on February 15 to draft the «modalities» for the cessation of hostilities and the pathway to cement them into a permanent ceasefire. The task force will also agree on which areas are judged to be under terrorist control and, therefore, legitimate to target with air strikes. Second, another UN task force will be established to ensure full compliance by all fighting groups in Syria. Aid drops by parachute and by convoy will begin immediately, the ISSG communique states.
Third, the ISSG reiterated the urgency of going back to the UN-brokered negotiation process.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about «working together» and «progress made».
«We have our common determination to help alleviate sufferings of the Syrian people and we hope that this will be achieved. This is especially important given that some of recent events relating to the humanitarian problem in Syria related to refugees only and they had nothing to do with the destinies of a huge number of internally displaced people. So we have reasons to hope that we have done a good and useful job today and that it will be implemented in practice», said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in his remarks at the press-conference convened after the agreement was reached.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the truce would be a «pause», adding that it remains to be seen whether the numerous forces fighting in Syria will honor their commitments under the deal.
The document has special importance as it emphasizes the military dimension – a qualitative leap on the way to cooperation of international efforts. The accord provides the framework for expanding the existing US-Russian coordination on air force flights over Syria to cover their direct collaboration in broader aspects of military operations in the war-torn country.
The event also testifies to the fact that the US Middle East policy and the anti-Russian approach have failed. Perhaps unwillingly, Washington has to introduce inevitable changes in view of the recent events in Syria.
Dana Tyrone Rohrabacher, the US Republican congressman who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, writes in his article published by the National Interests on February 11, «We should have negotiated over the future of Syria without making it conditional on Assad’s departure (Moscow refused to participate in the charade of a «negotiation» with an already determined outcome). Syria in all likelihood might have averted the mayhem and chaos now engulfing a large part of that country. Russia would not be engaged militarily there, and Europe would not now be drowning in a flood of refugees who will not assimilate but are ready to assassinate».
In his remarks on US policy on Russia, the influential lawmaker emphasizes that «there is no evidence whatsoever that Russia, as when it was the Soviet Union, is embarked on a wanton course of global expansion». «Obviously, some highly influential people can’t accept that and leave the Cold War behind, their mindsets and careers linked to a lingering enmity between the Kremlin and the White House. In particular, they can be found as think tank strategists and arms merchants», Rohrabacher points out. He stresses that the current US administration has adopted «petulant policies towards Russia», the country that could be an ally against a mutual enemy such as radical Islam.
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The Syrian government, backed by Russian air strikes, has recently launched a major offensive from the north of Aleppo and captured several strategically important towns earlier this month. Damascus is clearly on the way to gaining control over the eastern part of the country.
The upcoming seizure of Aleppo by the Syrian government forces is going to be a turning point in the war. Besides, it will testify to the fact that Russia is winning in the psychological war with the US.
According to the Guardian editorial, the «events on the ground are not only working against a breakthrough, but raising increasingly profound doubts about the coherence of US and western strategy».
«To fix US policy at such a critical stage of the conflict may well be impossible», the Guardian writes, adding «If ever there was a symbol of western failure in Syria, this is it».
Before the Russian military operation started, the US, Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia were counting days till the fall of Assad’s government. The post-Assad Syria and the Islamic State topped the agenda. A few months later Assad is regaining control over the country with Russia’s support and nobody can stop it.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have recently stated their readiness to put boots on the ground if the US supports the plan. US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, tentatively welcomed the prospect of ground troops from Saudi Arabia, though in a modest role providing special forces or helping to train local forces, rather than the full-scale Islamic coalition to fight the Islamic State, previously hinted at by Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia and its allies don’t care about the reasons that are making Washington shy away from a full-fledged invasion. If the US says no, it’ll be considered as an act of betrayal. And it would not be the first time. In 2013 the Saudi kingdom even refused its UN Security Council seat in protest of US refusal to bomb Syria after the alleged use of chemical weapons. Now the US-Saudi relationship is in real jeopardy. The «Islamic caliphate» threatening Riyadh, the ongoing conflict with Iran, low oil prices – Saudi Arabia faces a host of problems the US can’t help to solve. It’s rather symbolic that Saudi King Salman is reported to visit Moscow in mid-March. The event will become the culmination of ongoing regular high-level contacts between Russia and Saudi officials.
Russia has been recently visited by the majority of Persian Gulf states rulers (the king of Bahrain was the last to visit Sochi on February 8). Now the king of Morocco, the leader of the country not directly involved in the events in Syria, is going to visit Moscow for the first time in 14 years. Arabs view Russia as an influential actor in the Middle East. Russia is perfectly fit to be a negotiator to mitigate the differences between the Sunni Arab states and Iran.
They all learn lessons. For instance, after it spoiled the relations with Russia, Turkey has lost the opportunity to influence the events in Syria. It has actually become irrelevant when it comes to the problem of Syrian Kurds. President Erdogan has put national security of his country in jeopardy. Hardly anyone in the Arab world is willing to follow his example.
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The Russian Middle East policy bears fruit to introduce needed changes and turn the tide toward peaceful settlement of the drawn-out Syrian war.