Sometimes, and no matter how hard decision-makers try to introduce changes, things just linger as various actors wait for their foes to reach exhaustion. In Syria, after 2011, President Bashar Al Assad and his enemies concluded that they were winning and repeatedly violated whatever agreements United Nations envoys and others brokered to secure ceasefires. Al Assad was unlikely to alter his calculations at that late hour and he proudly informed visitors time and again that his defiance ensured survival and guaranteed eventual victory. His opponents felt the same.
On Tuesday, yet another high-level trilateral meeting grouped American, Russian and UN representatives in Geneva to continue discussions that started in Moscow on July 14 about a new United States proposal for counter-terrorism coordination. A leaked draft of the secret US-Russian deal, presented under the inelegant ‘Terms of Reference for the Joint Implementation Group’ (Jig) label, divided Syria into three specific areas: Area A, which fell under the Damascus regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah partners; Area B, where several warring parties participated in the “Syrian Slaughterhouse”; and Area C, under the exclusive control of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) which is neither.
On paper, the plan is rather complicated, but delves into two principal assumptions — neither of which is likely to endure. First, it sees Washington making specific concessions to Moscow, including sharing intelligence that the Russians lack. Far worse, it also introduces meaningful military coordination with the hope that such efforts will weaken the Al Assad regime by keeping the Syrian Air Force grounded since, presumably, Washington and Moscow would bomb at will. The second flawed concession hovers around the belief that Moscow will dissuade Al Assad and, presumably Iran and Hezbollah, to abandon the military solution and, over time, pave the way for Al Assad’s departure.
Whether the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Jig will update the failed 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord — which ruined the Arab world for a solid century — is difficult to know, although one must acknowledge that the 2012 Geneva I communique, which called for a “transitional government body with full executive powers”, including both government and opposition figures, is now dead. Even the political transition process outlined in the unanimously adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (December 18, 2015), which declared that the international community’s priority was to defeat “Daesh First”, was also placed in abeyance by the latest Jig.
Of course, few should be surprised that past commitments were replaced by newer iterations, but what is difficult to comprehend is the confidence Washington and Moscow seem to have about their intrinsic abilities “to defeat Jabhat Al Nusra and Daesh”. Why should such groups, which have lasted so long, not continue to resist? Have past Russian and American efforts — which grouped numerous allies too — markedly reduced the levels of violence? Has the Syrian Air Force stopped its systematic bombardments of civilian targets and has Damascus accepted any of the numerous initiatives to stop its “slaughterhouse” mentality to usher in a political transition? What would the Jig gain by coordinating its military activities in Syria except to telegraph that the US and Russia were collaborating to end the fighting?
Lavrov and Kerry have an impossible task in Syria, but agreeing to bomb the country, or parts of it on a selective basis, will not end the civil war anytime soon. Even if Washington and Moscow could settle their differences and actually not bomb conflicting targets presumably included in the designated sections in areas A, B and C, the coordination process between the two leading military powers is bound to ricochet. In other words, US bombers would spare Ahrar Al Sham positions, though their Russian counterparts would have no qualms to go after them with a vengeance. Or to fight Jabhat Al Nusra in Area A, but not in Area B, depending on how fast changes occurred on the ground. How would the two sides then react? How much confidence would Americans have in their Russian counterparts and vice-versa?
Equally problematic are conflicting positions about the Syrian Arab Army. What would occur when units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — yes, it is still around — come under attacks by the regime’s forces? Will the Jig go after the Al Assad forces or assist the FSA? Which group will be saved and by whom? Will Washington and Moscow enjoy veto powers over each and how often will such behaviour be tolerated and to what end?
Five years into long and unending wars (as there are several being fought simultaneously) in Syria that continue to kill, maim and destroy, few should harbour any illusions that Washington and Moscow will succeed in redrawing local maps, bring an end to the fighting and start the necessary political transitions. Lavrov and Kerry must be lauded for their sustained efforts though an objective observer ought to wonder why they have devoted so much energy for so few results. No one should harbour any illusions that the Al Assad regime will accept a settlement that will prevent the battle-hardened head of state and his acolytes from staying in power, even if the price is Syria’s inevitable partition, despite America’s and Russia’s gargantuan investments.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the just published From Alliance to Union: Challenges Facing Gulf Cooperation Council States in the Twenty-First Century (Sussex: 2016).