The United States and Russia are working in lockstep against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria in an ambitious push to end the Syria's devastating war. They reached a breakthrough deal on September 10 to put Syria's peace process back on track. Coincidence or not, but the deal came hours after Russia-supported Syrian military forces re-established their siege of the rebel-held sections of Aleppo, the Syria’s second largest city.
The agreement – a potential «turning point» in the conflict – is the culmination of months of up-and-down talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US State Secretary John Kerry. A previous ceasefire plan announced in January succeeded in reducing violence for several months, but eventually collapsed as fighting resumed in many parts of the country.
The agreement culminates months of frenetic diplomacy that included four meetings between Kerry and Lavrov since Aug. 26, and a lengthy face-to-face in China between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The proposed level of US-Russian interaction has upset several leading national security officials in Washington, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter and National Intelligence Director James Clapper, and John Kerry only appeared at the news conference after several hours of internal US discussions.
Sergei Lavrov said that despite many difficulties on the way, the two sides had agreed to revive a failed truce agreed in February and enable military coordination between the US and Russia against militant groups in Syria. «This is just the beginning of our new relations», the minister said about the cooperation with the US The top Russian diplomat believes the ceasefire would lead to the prompt resumption of negotiations over Syria’s political future.
The plan will begin with a cessation of hostilities in specified opposition-held areas on September 12. Aid will start to be delivered to besieged areas, including the city of Aleppo which has been the site of a mounting humanitarian disaster. The Syrian air force is to stop flying in agreed upon areas where the anti-Assad opposition is present. If successful, it could lead for the first time to joint military targeting by the two powers against Islamic jihadists in Syria.
Seven days after the start of the cessation of hostilities, Russia and the U.S. will then establish a joint implementation centre, where they will share targeting data, and begin to coordinate bombing of militants of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS). The planned strikes against the Nusra are especially important. It is something Russia has long called on the US to do. The group has recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and announced a break in ties with al-Qaeda.
Although the U.S. and Russia both say this is purely an exercise in rebranding, the announcement has allowed the Nusra to work more closely in some parts of the country with the rest of the anti-Assad opposition, including groups that are backed by the U.S. The militant group has played an important role in the battle of Aleppo.
The agreement hinges on compliance by Syria’s Russian-backed forces and U.S.-supported rebel groups, plus key regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia with hands directly or indirectly in the conflict. The Syrian opposition coalition has cautiously welcomed the agreement. Armed opposition groups read the deal as ordering them to remove better-armed Nusra fighters from their areas, something they lack the military power to do alone, or else face attack by the United States — a country that has provided some of the rebel groups with training and weapons for years.
The United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the agreement and said the U.N. would exert all efforts to deliver humanitarian aid. Now the long-stalled peace process under U.N. mediation can resume between Syrian government envoys and representatives of the opposition, while the two world powers focus on battling jihadis.
The plan could pave the way for a political transition, ending more than five years of bloodshed. If the Russia-U.S. deal is implemented, international actors, especially the 17-member International Syria Support Group (the ISSG), could go back to the U.N. resolution 2254 adopted in December 2015, which calls for talks between the Syria’s government and opposition groups with elections to follow.
There has been some cooperation in Syria. For instance, Russia and the U.S. hold regular talks aimed at ensuring aircraft remain at safe distances from each other. The new arrangement goes further by promising a new U.S.-Russian counterterrorism alliance.
Of course, it won’t be a bed of roses. There are sharp disagreements to be reconciled. There is huge uncertainty about what the plan will mean on the ground. The cessation of hostilities applies only to Aleppo leaving out motley opposition forces operating in the province of Idlib and elsewhere, vast areas held by the Islamic State, the Kurds and Turkish military.
Back in history Russia and the U.S. managed to cope with greater challenges. The two great powers put curbs on the running away arms race starting from the 1960s and found a compromise while balancing on the verge of WWIII during the Cuban crisis. They also found ways to avert unintentional accidents that could spark wars. The 1972 inter-government Agreement On the Prevention of Incidents on and over the High Sea is a good example to prove the point.
The agreement averted the threat of war in the Yom Kippur war in 1973. To ward off threats to international security it will be essential to restore the operation of consultative groups of Russia and NATO in the spirit of the 1972 convention for exchanging information about flights by military planes and voyages by naval ships in the areas adjacent to the Syrian shore. Russia and the US fruitfully cooperated in 2013 to deal with the problem of chemical weapons in Syria.
The success of the recent agreement can certainly provide an impetus to military and political cooperation in the fight against terrorism in general and other areas of mutual concern. The need for interaction stems from the common threats to international security, such as the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, terrorism, local crises, and the disastrous effects of the Arab Spring. There no alternative to cooperation. Many Americans understand the need to cooperate with Russia on security issues. Republican presidential Donald Trump has called for a Russia-US alliance.
A lot of his followers support this view.
The agreement achieved on September 10 is a big stride in the right direction to benefit Russia, the U.S. and all those who are willing to establish peace in Syria and ward off the global terrorist threat.