Did somebody say ‘ceasefire?’
The day has come. The ceasefire in Syria agreed to by the U.S. and Russia started last night. To put it more precisely, it is expected to start, as the deal hardly goes beyond a humble wish for the time being.
According to the agreement between the U.S. and Russia, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front will be excluded from the ceasefire, meaning attacks targeting these two terrorist organizations will continue. Yet the Syrian regime and other opposition groups, including the Democratic Union Party (PYD) will be “untouchable” and are also allowed to respond in self-defense.
However, there are two main obstacles which make this truce impracticable in the field. First of all, from day one Russia declared that it would “continue to hit ISIL, al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations.” In referring to “other terrorist organizations,” Moscow implied opposition groups supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Secondly, Ankara wants the PYD and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to be excluded from the truce, just like ISIL and al-Nusra. This is why Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Turkey would take any necessary measures against these groups if the country’s security was threatened.
Yet in addition to these visible obstacles, there is also an invisible handicap behind the agreement: The rivalry between the U.S. and Russia.
Washington and Moscow are shaping Syria’s future together, which forces them to cooperate. But this doesn’t mean that there are no conflicting areas or competition between these two powers.
One of the two issues they disagree on and compete for is the PYD/YPG.
Last week U.S. State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner expressed this disagreement clearly. Toner said the YPG’s “attacks” around the Afrin canton (the western part of northern Syria) were counterproductive and that the U.S. didn’t support the YPG’s moves in this region. The point is that YPG forces in Afrin have been receiving air support from Russia.
In other words, the U.S. wants the PYD to be under its control and is concerned that it might fall under the influence of Moscow. Moreover, Washington seems to be warning the PYD to halt its march forward in this area.
This issue seems to have unsettled U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. Bloomberg reported on Feb. 23 that many officials have started to question if the PYD has switched sides. According to the site, the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also found that the Kurds directly coordinated with Russian forces recently during an attack on the headquarters of the CIA-backed Syrian opposition.
According to Bloomberg, many officials argue that the administration should cut off its support to the PYD.
Some others have taken it a step further. The U.S.’ former ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, wrote for the Atlantic Council last week: “The [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK and PYD play a dangerous game when they join Russia in attempting to play NATO allies U.S. and Turkey against each other, and bet on Russia and [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad to protect them in the long run from Turkey and her allies.”
The other conflicting issue between the U.S. and Russia is al-Assad’s destiny.
According to Washington, the time has come to move to the political transition process in Syria. Yet since Moscow fails to cooperate on the “al-Assad-knot,” the U.S. is not hiding its problem with Russia anymore. This is why U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said three days ago that they will move towards a “Plan B” if the ceasefire does not materialize. This could be easily read as a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin, since Kerry also said in the same statement: “If the peace talks fail, Obama would take stronger action against Moscow.”
The Wall Street Journal also reported this week that top American officials such as the country’s defense secretary, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA director argue that Russia won’t abide by the ceasefire. Accordingly, they are calling for new measures to “inflict real pain on the Russians.”
It is exactly this rivalry which lies behind Putin’s effort to showcase this truce deal as a “masterpiece of U.S.-Russia cooperation.” In this way he tries to equate Russia with the U.S., telling the world “we are as strong as the U.S.”
After all, as long as the two powers don’t resolve their basic conflicts, these kinds of ceasefire trials will be of no use.
Then again, this is only the beginning. Things will get even more hectic once we move from seeking a military solution to a political one, since only then will the cake begin to be shared.
Until then the U.S. and Russia will try to manage their rivalry to the best of their ability. And “ceasefire” is what they call this crisis management.