By: Henry Villacorta
On Monday, February 22, the United States and Russia released a joint statement on the cessation of hostilities in Syria. This statement was released after a phone call between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin, in which they discussed current efforts to establish a ceasefire agreement between the Syrian government and the opposition forces. The agreement calls for armed opposition groups to “cease attacks with any weapons, […] refrain from acquiring or seeking to acquire territory, […] and allow humanitarian agencies, rapid, safe, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their operational control.” The same conditions apply to the Syrian Armed Forces with the added stipulation that they must be ready to participate in the political negotiation process led by the United Nations.
While this agreement offers a moment of hope in the efforts to end the Syrian conflict, there are doubts that this attempt to end hostilities will actually have a profound impact on the situation. An important clause in the text states that the conditions of the agreement will apply to all parties involved in military hostilities excluding Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations identified by the UN Security Council. This exemption in the ceasefire agreement will allow the United States and Russia to continue carrying out airstrikes against terrorist organizations while government and opposition forces are urged to refrain from engaging in military hostilities.
In addition, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic released a separate report on Monday. The Commission outlined the current dynamics of the conflict and stated that “the conflict has devolved into a multisided proxy war steered from abroad by an intricate network of alliances.” According to the Commission, the biggest obstruction stopping a peaceful end to the conflict in Syria is now less about the tensions between the Syrian government and opposition groups and more about the engagement of outside forces in counterterrorism efforts, as each side has a different definition of terrorism.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke at an ISSG meeting in Munich about the ceasefire agreement. Lavrov made an interesting statement regarding the tensions between international actors in the Syrian conflict: “During all these months we had quite an emotional discussion on who is […] striking at right targets, who is striking at wrong targets. We have been proposing on many occasions to deal with this issue.” Lavrov supports cooperation on defining the common enemy and determining the correct targets.
While the United State and Russia both claim to be fighting terrorists, in reality, they are supporting opposing sides of the Syrian civil war and their airstrikes have conflicting definitions of terrorist targets. Therefore, the more important issue behind the Syrian conflict is not to cease hostilities between the Syrian Armed Forces and the armed opposition groups, but rather to develop a cohesive strategy against terrorists in Syria.
The American and Russian joint statement supports such a strategy. However, this statement fails to include any mention of mutually agreed upon definitions of terrorist territories. Although the document supports cooperation between the United States and Russia, the agreement’s binding provisions do not require consensus on counterterrorism strategies and, thus, will likely fail to achieve a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The agreement places the responsibility on government forces and opposition groups to end hostilities in Syria. However, American and Russian governments should be held responsible for their involvement in heightened military tensions. Without proper cooperation between the two countries, the humanitarian crisis in Syria will deteriorate—each side continuing to carry out airstrikes against targets they consider to be terrorists.
The United Nations is aware of this dilemma. Their report states, “paradoxically, the international and regional stakeholders that are ostensibly pushing for a peaceful solution to the war are the same that continue to feed the military escalation.” It is crucial for the United States and Russia to work together on counterterrorism efforts in Syria, as their military actions have contributed greatly to the humanitarian crisis. A ceasefire agreement between the Syrian government and opposition groups will do little to improve the situation for the millions of people still living in Syria.
Next month, Syria will enter its sixth year of conflict and the international community should not allow political tensions to play themselves out at the cost of the Syrian population. True commitment to an end of the Syrian crisis will be measured by American and Russian cooperation.