The deal keeps Russian assistance to Assad in place, while also bringing in the US to bear against his enemies in al-Qaeda. Can Washington truly be expected to go against Assad's greatest enemy?
Patrick Cockburn, a top veteran reporter from the Middle East has a series of insighful articles on the new Russian-American deal on Syria over at The Independent. (1, 2, 3, 4) In them he explains why the deal could actully work, what that depends on, any why it could also just as easily unravel.
Why the deal could actually work
This one is simple. The deal could work because Washington and Moscow have so much invested in it:
The ceasefire agreement in Syria between the US and Russia is the most important development in Syria since the Russian military intervention on 30 September last year.
It is so significant because it is an accord reached after 10 months of negotiations between the heaviest and most influential hitters in the conflict.
They should be in a position to persuade or compel their allies and proxies to abide by a truce, however reluctant they may be to do so.
There is a further reason for guarded optimism: this is agreement between the US, a superpower under challenge, and Russia, seeking to regain its superpower status which it lost with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Neither side can easily afford the failure of their gargantuan diplomatic efforts for peace in Syria. If the peace initiative does collapse, as happened with a previous less-detailed effort in February, then the international authority of both countries will be diminished instead of being enhanced – as it will be if they end the war.
In Cockburn's opinion this could well turn out to be a historic deal which goes a long way towards setting Syria towards peace and final settlement at the negotiating table. Whether he is right or not it's refreshing to see commentary that is something other than knee-jerk partisan cynicism.
What success of the deal depends on
This one is also painfully simple. It all hinges on wether Moscow and particularly Washington are really ready to reign in their allies:
As US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the historic deal, they were still sounding more than a little uncertain as to whether they could deliver the desired outcome.
Mr Kerry said the “bedrock of the agreement”, spelled out in detail in five unpublished documents, will be Russia’s ability to put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to stop using his air force to fly combat missions against the opposition.
He said that Syrian air force bombing was the main cause of civilian casualties and the ceasefire “should put an end to the barrel bombs, an end to the indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighbourhoods”.
This may well be true of Russian pressure on Assad, but equally significant will the ability of the US to put pressure on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to supply Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda Syrian affiliate recently relabelled as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Salafi-jihadi armed groups, with the weapons and money necessary to launch another offensive.
Turkey welcomed the ceasefire, but is unlikely permanently to weaken the very groups through which it exercise its power in northern Syria.
And why it could all go belly up
Cockburn notes the plan also includes a fatal weakness -- it is very favorable for Assad but damaging for the jihadi-infested opposition.
The deal mandates a joint US-Russian war versus al-Qaeda which the rest of the opposition is instructed to seperate itself from. However al-Qaeda represents the backbone of the rebellion, so this would mean the armed struggle against the Damascus government would be hugely weakened and Assad correspondibly strengtened.
This guarantees there will be huge resistance against actually implementing the deal from virtually everyone in the US-backed camp. The "intermingled" rebels on the ground, the Saudis and the Turks, and the American deep state in the CIA and the State Department (and with the help of much of the regime media) -- all will be dragging their feet and looking for ways to sabotage the deal.
Under such pressure it is easy to imagine Obama's traditionally weak-kneed administration will after a while renege on the deal (and of course blame Russia and Damascus for its failure).
How will al-Nusra react to being targeted along with Isis?
Here is one the weaknesses of the agreement. The non-Isis armed opposition in Syria has long been dominated by Islamists, but the Islamists fighting groups are dominated by Nusra. Its discipline, high morale, experience, popularity and, perhaps most important, ability to deploy suicide bombers in large numbers, make it the backbone of armed opposition. But the US and Russia envisage the “moderate” opposition distancing itself geographically from al-Nusra which will then be bombed by the US and Russians.But why should al-Nusra wait for this to happen? For them, the peace plan agreed in Geneva is a war plan directed against themselves.In other words, they have no incentive to cease firing and, even when backed by US and Russian airstrikes, there is no moderate opposition fighting force strong enough to replace them. Some al-Nusra leaders may well feel that if they are going to be treated like Isis, they might as well think about establishing better links with that organisation – though it will be difficult for them to forget the inter-jihadi civil war of 2013-14.
Could the whole agreement come unstuck?
Yes, because not everybody acts in their own interests – this is a good deal for Russia, Iran and the Syrian government – but a damaging one for the opposition. Put simply, it does not have a credible military force capable of replacing al-Nusra and Isis as opponents of the Syrian government.
In other words, the Russian diplomacy has secured a deal which may just be too good for Assad for the US to ever implement it. The US has poured significant political capital into the deal with Russia, but it has invested even more into its regime-change war versus Bashar Assad. Is US really now willing to wage war against its best assets in the war versus the Syrian state?