What Does the Latest Ceasefire Agreement Mean for Syria?

Munich, Germany (TFC) – In February 2016, Geneva hosted peace talks that were aimed at ending the Syrian Civil War. Yet these talks soon collapsed as Russian and Syrian forces launched a major air offensive against Aleppo during the negotiations, which displaced tens of thousands of people. The opposition also boycotted talks until humanitarian-related preconditions were met. On 11 February, about a week after the collapse of the peace talks, American Secretary of State, John Kerry, and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, announced at a conference in Munich that a nation-wide ceasefire had been agreed upon. However, given that many previous ceasefires have failed, it is unclear what this ceasefire means for Syria.

The Syrian Civil War started after Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, used lethal force against the mass protests of his regime. Following the use of artillery and airstrikes on unarmed protesters, the opposition transformed itself into a rebellion that aimed to topple the Assad regime. The rebellion made many military gains, putting the Assad regime in a precarious position. Increasing sectarianism and extremism splintered the opposition although without unified political leadership the opposition weakened, leading to a stalemate. Then, gains by the opposition in 2015 prompted Iran and Russia to intervene and deploy troops to Syria to defend the Assad regime.

The introduction of Russian and Iranian forces has since turned the tide of the conflict in favor of Assad, with pro-Assad forces seizing more territory. The increased intensity of the conflict has left many cut off from food and medical access which has put them in a dire humanitarian situation. This has led to a call for local ceasefires so that humanitarian aid can be delivered to those caught in the crossfire. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these ceasefires have since collapsed.

The Geneva peace talks were intended to provide a lasting political solution to the conflict. Once these negotiations collapsed, John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov were unexpectedly able to agree to a nation-wide ceasefire on 11 February 2016. This agreement calls for the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas starting on 12 February and the start of a nation-wide ceasefire within seven days. This agreement excludes terrorist organizations like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and al-Nusra Front who will continue to be targeted.

This agreement naturally raises questions about its motivations and the impact that it will have on Syria. The agreement was supposedly completed for humanitarian reasons. However, if the agreement was actually motivated by humanitarian concerns, then one would expect that it would have called for an immediate ceasefire. As a result, the motivations behind this ceasefire are somewhat ambiguous.

I believe that the reason for the delayed ceasefire can be found in Russia’s conduct in the Ukrainian conflict. During the Ukrainian conflict, there was a similar situation ahead of the signing of the Minsk II Protocol in February 2015. At the time, Russian forces were besieging Debaltseve, which is a strategically important city. During the negotiations, one of Vladimir Putin’s key demands was that any ceasefire accompanying a peace deal would start ten days after the signing of the peace agreement. Had Putin been able to win this concession, it is widely believed that Russian and separatist forces would have launched a massive offensive to seize Debaltseve before the ceasefire went into effect.

The current situation in Syria is very similar to the situation that was present in Ukraine during the Minsk II negotiations. Aleppo, which is strategically and psychologically significant, is currently in a similar position to that of Debaltseve in 2015. As a result, I believe that the ceasefire in Syria is intended to facilitate the seizure of Aleppo. I strongly suspect that in the coming days, Russian and Syrian forces are going to launch a major offensive against Aleppo and storm it before the ceasefire goes into effect. Once the ceasefire goes into effect, the opposition will not be able to launch counterattacks without violating the ceasefire, which would discredit them. This ceasefire is likely to provide the Syrian and Russian forces with a strategic advantage in Aleppo.

Since the US was involved in the Minsk II negotiations, it is very likely that they are aware of Russia’s intentions. This then begs the question of why the US and John Kerry would agree to this deal. It seems to me that the US does not have any other option besides accepting the deal. The reversal in the balance of power on the battlefield has left the US without any military bargaining power. Furthermore, the one week delay in the ceasefire is a much better outcome than Russia’s previous proposal, which offered a ceasefire that would start on March 1. Most likely John Kerry views this option as the lesser of two evils.

It should be clear that this ceasefire deal is an act of strategic diplomacy on the part of the Assad regime and Russia. This deal will likely facilitate the seizure of Aleppo from the opposition, and I expect to see a major ground and air operation to retake Aleppo in the days ahead of the ceasefire deadline. It remains unclear whether the ceasefire will survive an escalation in violence. Sadly, I suspect that the ceasefire would probably collapse in the event of an escalation in the conflict. As a result, it would appear that a peaceful resolution to this conflict is still out of reach.