The Lavrov – Kerry agreement has collapsed.
The ceasefire the agreement was supposed to put in place has never come into effect. The Jihadis – far from separating themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra as they were required by the Lavrov Kerry agreement to do – instead united with Jabhat Al-Nusra and have exploited the Syrian military’s temporary stand-down to launch more attacks on Aleppo.
Further east near Deir Ezzor the US air force attacked Syrian military positions defending the city’s airport, allowing a Syrian defence line to be overrun by ISIS fighters. I have already explained why I do not believe that this attack was a mistake.
Perhaps not coincidentally, at a time when the US was on the diplomatic defensive over its air strike on Deir Ezzor, reports have appeared of an attack on a convoy providing relief supplies near Aleppo.
The US is accusing either the Russians or the Syrians of launching an air strike against this convoy. The Russians and the Syrians deny this and are hinting that the convoy was not attacked by aircraft at all but was attacked by ground missiles launched by local Jihadi fighters.
Regardless of the truth about this incident, amidst a deteriorating military picture movement of all relief convoys across Syria has now been brought to a stop.
In light of the Jihadi attacks on their positions, the Syrian military – and implicitly the Russian air force – have now confirmed that they no longer consider the ceasefire to be in effect. Though Lavrov and Kerry are meeting again the Kremlin has said that it has “little hope” of the ceasefire being revived.
This has been ill-starred agreement from the start. To see why that was so, it is merely necessary to look at the negotiations that led up to it.
An agreement was supposedly reached between the Russians and the US in February, which required the US to arrange for Syrian opposition fighters to separate themselves from the two Jihadi terrorist groups – ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra – in return for a stop to attacks on them by the Russian air force and the Syrian military.
The agreement was never implemented. The Syrian opposition fighters, instead of separating themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra, joined with Jabhat Al-Nusra, and tried to exploit the cessation of attacks on them by the Russian air force and the Syrian military by launching a succession of offensives.
Reports began to circulate in April of a major Jihadi offensive being in preparation, with large numbers of military supplies being sent to the Jihadis via Turkey from their foreign sponsors amongst the Gulf Arab states. A joint Jihadi headquarters was set up to manage this offensive, whose objective appears to have been the capture of Aleppo.
The US appears to have been involved in these preparations for an offensive, with US Secretary of State Kerry making threats in May that action would follow if the Russians did not submit to US demands for a “political transition” in Syria (ie. Assad’s removal) by 1st August 2016. As the Moon of Alabama correctly reported, it is a virtual certainty these threats from Kerry referred to the ongoing preparations for the Jihadi offensive.
Kerry then had a succession of meetings with Lavrov and Putin in which he presented the Russians with his plan. I discussed these meetings previously (see here and here). All the indications are that the terms Kerry offered the Russians were a place in the US led coalition against ISIS in return for their agreement that President Assad should step down. I said that these terms would be unacceptable to the Russians, and so it proved.
Whilst these negotiations were underway the fighting in Syria restarted. By late July the Syrian military with Russian air support managed to recapture the Castello road north of Aleppo, encircling the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo.
Simultaneously the major Jihadi offensive against Aleppo was launched, which attempted to storm the city through the Ramousseh district in the city’s south west.
By mid August this Jihadi offensive had however been fought to standstill, allowing the Syrian military to go back on the offensive in the area to the south west of the city at the beginning of September, enabling it recapture the city’s Ramousseh district which the Jihadis had briefly captured at the start of their offensive.
In parallel with all this fighting the balance of the negotiations between the Russians and the US shifted again, with the Russians insisting on a return to what appeared to have been agreed in February – a US commitment to the separation of Syrian opposition fighters from Jabhat Al-Nusra. Following intense negotiations between Lavrov and Kerry and Obama and Putin an agreement to that effect appeared to have been reached in Geneva on 9th September 2016. That the agreement was however obviously unpopular with many people in Washington is shown by the fact that it took 9 hours for the US to commit itself to its terms, and by Washington’s insistence that its terms be kept secret.
A further important indicator that the US was unhappy with the agreement is that US President Obama has never publicly committed himself to it. He has not even publicly commented on it. Instead he has maintained an ominous silence, and has gone to ground.
The unhappy story of how the Lavrov Kerry agreement was negotiated shows why it has now failed. Quite simply the Russians and the US have – as my colleague Adam Garrie has previously said – fundamentally conflicting objectives in Syria, which make cooperation between them all but impossible.
The Russians want to defeat Jihadi terrorism in Syria and bring peace to the country. The US remains obsessively focused on regime change.
Beyond this fundamental difference of objective, there also appears to be an inability of the two countries to understand each other.
The Russian Foreign Ministry never seems quite able to accept that the US would rather see Syria destroyed and militant Jihadism let loose on the country rather than compromise on its objective of regime change there.
One senses that the highly rational and realistic diplomats of the Russian Foreign Ministry find such nihilistic behaviour in the end incomprehensible, and can never quite bring themselves to believe that the US really does think and behave in this irrational way.
By contrast the US never seems quite able to accept that the Russians actually intervened in Syria because they were worried about the threat of violent Jihadi terrorism gaining hold there.
Instead they attribute to the Russians all sorts of cynical ulterior motives – such as holding on to their base in Tartus or getting the US to treat them as equals – which the Russians have never expressed, and almost certainly do not have.
They are therefore constantly baffled that whenever they make offers to the Russians that appear to satisfy these “real” motives they attribute to the Russians in return for the Russians agreeing to regime change, the Russians always say no.
The result is a series of negotiations between the US and the Russians in which the two sides negotiate at cross-purposes, failing to understand each other, so that they end up with agreements which cannot work.
The big question is what happens now. Despite Jihadi gains around Aleppo on Monday – including the seizure of a part of the Castello road – I suspect that with the ceasefire over, and with the gloves off, the Syrian military backed by the Russians will quickly regain control of the situation.
If so then with the situation of the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo becoming increasingly desperate, the future will be decided by how far the US is prepared to go.
I still think it is unlikely that the US is prepared to challenge the Russians head on in Syria by – for example – declaring a no fly zone there, or allowing the Turkish army to come to the rescue of the Jihadis in Aleppo. Such steps would seriously risk an armed clash with the Russians, which I suspect neither the uniformed US military nor the US public in the last weeks of the election campaign would be prepared to countenance. If that is right then the Syrian military will probably win its fight in Aleppo and should secure its control of the city over the next few weeks.
Unfortunately the fanatical language of some of the people in Washington means it is impossible to be sure of this. If a decision is made to escalate then the halt in the movement of relief convoys provides the pretext. Once again the situation in Syria is plunged in uncertainty and has become dangerous.