March 20, 2016

Syria: No “Cessation of Hostilities” So Far

Yohannan Chemarapally

WITH the Syrian national army on the verge of totally liberating Aleppo, the country's biggest commercial city and the jihadi forces in retreat from the other sectors, the US secretary of state, John Kerry and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, announced a “cessation of hostilities” agreement in the second week of February. The two officials made this announcement after a meeting in Munich with the other 15 members of the International Support Group for Syria. The cessation of hostilities agreement signed with the concurrence of the Syrian government had also called for the swift delivery of humanitarian aid to areas worst affected by the fighting. By the third week of February, parts of the agreement have been implemented. Humanitarian relief supplies, under the auspices of the UN, have started moving into some besieged areas. Food and other essential commodities have reached four towns and a suburb of Baghdad that has been under the control of rebels. The Russian foreign minister however made it clear that fight against self proclaimed jihadi groups like the Daesh (Islamic State) and the Jabhat al Nusra would continue notwithstanding the “cessation of hostilities” agreement. Both these organisations have been designated terrorist organisations by the UN. The Syrian government and many of the countries supporting Damascus, consider most of the other groups involved in the war also as terrorist outfits. But they have the support of the West and countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Kerry has described the terrorist outfits as “legitimate opposition groups”. It is common knowledge that groups like the Ahrar al Sham supported by the West and its allies are closely aligned to the al Nusra Front. The US has been basically relying on jihadists to put into effect their “regime change” plans in Syria. However Washington still insists on carrying on with the charade that a so-called “moderate opposition” still exists in Syria when they now do not even have a token presence. The “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) that was initially sponsored by the US and its allies is in complete disarray. According to the Turkish Hurriyet Daily, a 14,000 strong FSA force has abandoned Aleppo and its commander had fled to Turkey in November. The so-called moderate rebels have announced that they have appointed a new commander for their unified forces in Aleppo. He is one Hashem el-Sheikh who was previously affiliated with the jihadist terror group, Ahrar al Sham. The FSA has ceded control of the Bab-al-Hawa border crossing to the Ahrar al Sham, which is coordinating closely with the terrorist al Nusra Front. There already is a tacit cease fire agreement between the al Nusra and the Daesh. Both the groups have decided, at least for the time being to fight their common enemy – the Syrian government. The control of the crucial Bab-al-Hawa crossing gives the al Nusra and the Ahrar al Sham the power over the distribution of weapons and funds flowing out of Turkey. This is one reason why the Syrian government forces are keen to consolidate their military gains in a hurry and seal the border with Turkey. TEMPORARY HALT All the same, the agreement in Munich, has resulted in the temporary halt in fighting at least in some war ravage areas of the country. But the February agreement seems mainly aimed at facilitating the speedy delivery of essential humanitarian aid to many parts of the country that were under either rebel or government siege. According to the UN, around 486,000 people are living in areas besieged either by the terrorists or the government forces. The Russian side has emphasised that the current agreement is not a permanent cease fire agreement. Such an agreement at this juncture would have jeopardised the strategic gains the Syrian army has made since the decisive Russian military intervention in October last year. Bouthaina Shabaan, a key adviser of President Bashar al Assad, said that a cease fire now would only help the terrorists. The aim of the Syrian government she said, was to retake Aleppo and seal the border with Turkey and stop the flow of fighters and arms. By the third week of February, the Syrian army had reached 25 km from the Turkish border. It aims to seal the border completely and in the process cut the main source of supplies for the rebel forces. Kerry and Lavrov have said that both the distribution of aid as well as the cessation of hostilities will be monitored by UN appointed task forces. The reports of cease fire violations, if any, will be presented to American and Russian officials. Lavrov also emphasised that the new agreement calls for military cooperation between Russia and the US in tackling the terrorist threat. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has been calling for meaningful cooperation, like intelligence sharing, in the ongoing fight against Daesh and the al Nusra Front. The Obama administration has however been reluctant to wage a joint battle against terrorism. Till late last year, Washington's priority was regime change in Damascus. With the realities on the ground having changed, the Americans want to ensure that their proxies in Syria are not militarily wiped out. After expending billions of dollars propping them up, Washington and its allies want the militant groups they have trained and armed to control territory before the start of peace negotiations. America's allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, want American boots on the ground in Syria to militarily retrieve the situation and stymie the Syrian army's advance and foil the liberation of other cities like Raqqa and Palmyra that are under the control of Daesh. Saudi Arabia is loudly proclaiming that a decision has been taken in principle to dispatch troops to Syria with the caveat that they will be under American military leadership. The UAE too has said that it is willing to deploy its forces on Syrian territory. Nobody takes the Saudi and UAE announcements seriously with their troops hopelessly mired in Yemen. The US defense secretary, Ashton Carter, however said in the second week of February that Saudi Arabia had agreed to resume its bombing mission against the Daesh targets and had signaled its willingness to contribute “in other critical ways on the ground”. The Saudis had diverted their firepower on the hapless citizens of Yemen since the beginning of last year. The Saudis have deployed a few of their F-16's in the Incirlik air base in Turkey in the beginning of February. In the third week of February, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, called for providing surface to air missiles for the rebels in Syria. He said that this kind of weaponry had helped to turn the tide against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and helped the jihadi forces there overthrow the government in Kabul. GROUND OPERATIONS INSIDE SYRIA Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been urging their patron, the US, to start ground operations inside Syria on the pretext of fighting the Daesh. The last thing President Obama wants at the fag end of his tenure is to get into a military quagmire in Syria and in the process ignite a large scale conflagration. Besides, Washington at this juncture seems keener on propping up the Syrian Kurdish militia – the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) which has proved to be an effective fighting force against the Daesh and other jihadist forces. American trainers are on the ground helping them in their fight against the Daesh. In the last several months the YPG has gained control of large tracts of territory from rebel groups backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia along the Syrian border with Turkey. The YPG also has the support of Moscow and the government in Damascus. Turkey, America's NATO ally, considers the YPG a branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Though the US has labeled the PKK a “terrorist” organisation, it has had no compunctions in providing support to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing – the YPG. “Are you on our side or on the side of the terrorist PYD and the PKK”, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyp Erdogan said in a recent address, referring to America's support for the PYD. Since last year, the Turkish state has declared an all-out war against the PKK after breaking off peace talks. Since the second week of February, Turkey has been shelling areas controlled by the YPG and is threatening a ground invasion. The YPG seems to be on the verge of capturing the strategically located town of Azaz on the border with Turkey. Ankara has vowed to prevent this from happening. The Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutogulu, said that if the YPG moves towards Azaz, “they will see the harshest reaction”. The Turkish government is at the same time calling for the creation of a buffer zone along the border that would extend 10 km into Syria. “What we want is to create a secure strip, including Azaz, 10 km deep inside Syria and this zone should be free from clashes”, the Turkish deputy prime minister, Yalcin Akgodan said recently. This is an obvious attempt to protect the jihadi groups that Ankara and its allies have been supporting all these years. Washington and Moscow have strongly criticised Turkey's shelling of the Syria's border areas. The Syrian government has accused Turkey of violating its borders. After the terror attack on a bus carrying Turkish army personnel in Ankara on February 17 that killed 20 people, Ankara is once again threatening a ground invasion. The Turkish government is blaming the YPG for the attack. The YPG spokesman has denied the accusation and accused the Turkish government for a pretext “to interfere in Syria and hit the YPG”. He said that his organisation had “no interest in being enemies with Turkey” but went on to add that Turkey should desist from its “policy of supporting terror in Syria” The Syrian president, Bashar al Assad has warned Turkey against a ground invasion saying that it would have “global repercussions” and that it would not be “a picnic”. In a recent interview, Assad said that “logically intervention is not possible” but pointed out that the Turkish president, Recep Erdogan, “is a fanatical person with Muslim Brotherhood inclinations”. The Russian prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev was even more specific. He said that a Turkish invasion of Syria could provide the spark for “a new world war”.