TSG IntelBrief: A Ceasefire for Some in Syria
February 23, 2016
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The United States and Russia have tentatively agreed to monitor an open-ended ceasefire between Syrian regime and rebel forces, with the notable exclusion of groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra
• The Assad regime and its backers have agreed to a ceasefire despite recent military momentum
• The Islamic State will seek to conduct more mass casualty bombings such as the February 22 attacks in Homs and Sayyida Zeinab in order to keep the fighting going
• Regardless of the ceasefire’s limited long-term potential to end the conflict, it is a positive step that will allow the delivery of badly needed humanitarian aid.
On February 22, the United States and Russia announced a tentative agreement to monitor a ceasefire between forces aligned with the Assad regime and the numerous rebel groups fighting it. The cessation of hostilities, planned to begin on February 27, will pause the Russian airstrikes that have helped the regime gain significant momentum in recent months. The announcement has been met with justified pessimism, given the previous failed attempts at a nationwide ceasefire. However, the initiative—months in the making—is a meaningful positive step.
Like every aspect of the war, the ceasefire was complicated in its inception and will be doubly so in its execution. The ceasefire excludes the so-called Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ‘other terrorist organizations designated by the United Nations.’ This suggests that groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, which have extremist tendencies and ideologies, will not continue to be targeted by the various air forces conducting airstrikes in Syria. Delineating who among the rebel groups will and will not be considered a terrorist has been difficult, given both the intertwined nature of the groups and Russian and Syrian insistence that anyone fighting the regime qualifies as a terrorist.
The high-level talks that preceded the announcement reveal the high stakes of the ceasefire. Just before the announcement, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the issue; a day before, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made an unannounced visit to Iran to speak with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the unfolding ceasefire initiative. Following news that the Saudi-sponsored High Negotiations Committee group of rebel factions have reached a tentative agreement, it appears at least on paper that the ceasefire will go into effect on February 27.
No one needs the Syrian War to continue as much as the Islamic State. The prospect of any real and lasting reduction in fighting between all sides has the potential to turn the war into a more concentrated battle against the Islamic State. A ceasefire that still allows for the targeting of terrorist groups hurts the Islamic State more than it would Jabhat al-Nusra, as the Islamic State has not co-mingled among other rebel groups as has the al-Qaeda affiliate. The areas where Jabhat al-Nusra holds some sway will likely be the areas most vulnerable to ceasefire violation. In some areas it is impossible to delineate where Jabhat al-Nusra positions end and those of ‘acceptable’ rebels begin. When the ceasefire map is drawn, the areas that will be easiest to define—and thus, to continue to target by air—will be those held by the Islamic State.
Any prospect for peace, however fragile or far-fetched, is a death sentence for the Islamic State as it currently exists in Syria. It was able to achieve its current position because of the fractured nature of its opposition. Any semblance of conflict resolution allows erstwhile rivals like Russia and the United States to cooperate with intensified pressure against Raqqa and other strongholds.
The Islamic State’s determination to derail any positive developments can be seen in its February 22 attacks in Homs and Sayyida Zeinab, which are among the most deadly bombings over the entire course of the war. The deliberate targeting of Sayyida Zeinab, the most revered Shi’a site in the country, and the Alawite enclave in Homs killed at least 140 and injured hundreds more. As the Islamic State reverts from proto-state to one of the world’s most powerful terrorist groups, mass casualty bombings will likely increase.
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