As my colleague Adam Garrie has previously reported, on 31st December 2016 the United Nations Security Council unanimously supported Resolution 2336, a Russian drafted Resolution enshrining the Russian-Turkish ceasefire plan for Syria.
Before discussing this ceasefire plan in detail, I would briefly say that it is Russia’s invariable practice to present documents of this sort to the UN Security Council, and to have them enshrined in a UN Security Council Resolution. A good example is the February 2015 Minsk II agreement, when the Russians did exactly the same thing. They also did the same thing following the abortive Syrian ceasefire agreements they negotiated with US Secretary of State John Kerry in February last year.
The reason the Russians act in this way is because firstly it is in their interest and is very much a part of their overall diplomatic strategy to emphasise the pivotal importance of the UN Security Council in the international system – so that they can better use it as a brake to restrain the US – but also because Resolutions of the UN Security Council have the authority of international law, and plans and agreements enshrined in UN Security Council Resolutions therefore carry the weight of international law. This is potentially important in the event that these plans and agreements are breached, since it means that the party which has breached these plans and agreements is violating international law and is acting illegally.
The text of Resolution 2336 is short and cursory, the actual Russian-Turkish ceasefire plan being set out in a series of documents provided by the Russian and Turkish governments to the UN Secretary General and to the President of the Security Council. These documents have not gained wide publicity and are difficult to find, so I herewith set them out in full. I would say that various documents that have up to now appeared in the media (especially in the Middle East media), leaked principally by Turkish sources, and which purport to set out the details of the Russian-Turkish ceasefire plan, were in fact drafts, which were not as of the time of their publication formally agreed. By contrast the text of the documents which I provide below is agreed by the Russian and Turkish governments, and sets out the actual ceasefire plan which the two governments have agreed
Letter dated 29 December 2016 from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations and the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council
We have the honour to forward to you herewith a package of documents concerning the agreements reached today in the context of the settlement of the conflict in Syria (see annexes I-V).
We should be grateful if you would circulate the present letter and its annexes as a document of the Security Council.
Annex I to the letter dated 29 December 2016 from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations and the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council
Statement on establishing the ceasefire regime in the Syrian Arab Republic
With a view to fostering the necessary conditions for establishing a direct political dialogue among all conflicting parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as reducing violence, preventing casualties among civilians and providing unhindered humanitarian access, the Russian Federation, guided by the provisions of Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), proposes to establish a ceasefire regime throughout Syria (excluding areas of combat operations against the terrorist groups Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Nusra Front) from 00:00 hours on 30 December 2016 (Damascus time).
From that time onward, all armed groups of opposing sides and their supporting forces are invited to make the following commitments:
To cease attacks with any weapons, including rockets, mortars and anti-tank guided missiles, and to cease using combat air forces;
To refrain from seizing or seeking to seize territory occupied by other parties to the ceasefire;
To use proportionate retaliatory force (only to the extent necessary for protection against an immediate threat) for self-defence purposes;
The Russian Federation urges the Government of Syria, armed opposition groups supporting a peaceful resolution of the conflict and not affiliated with international terrorist organizations, and States with an influence on the parties to the conflict, to accede to the proposed terms of the ceasefire.
Annex II to the letter dated 29 December 2016 from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations and the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council
Statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey
Press release regarding the announcement of a country-wide ceasefire between the warring parties in Syria
Turkey has been undertaking intensive efforts to end the violence and begin the flow of humanitarian aid in Syria and for the resumption of talks between the regime and the opposition for a comprehensive political solution of the Syrian conflict.
As a result of our efforts, the warring parties in Syria have reached an understanding on a country-wide ceasefire that will go into effect at 00:00 on 30 December 2016. We welcome this development.
Terrorist organizations designated by the United Nations Security Council as such are excluded from this ceasefire.
Turkey and the Russian Federation support this understanding as guarantors.
The parties, with this understanding, are committed to cease all armed, including aerial, attacks and to refrain from expanding the territories under their control at the expense of one another.
Adherence of all parties to this ceasefire is crucial. Turkey and Russia strongly support and will jointly monitor the ceasefire.
The support of the countries with influence on the parties on the ground in sustaining the ceasefire will also be vital.
Turkey played the decisive role in completion of humanitarian evacuations in Aleppo a few days ago and in ensuring the entry of force of the country-wide ceasefire, as of tomorrow.
Hopeful that, with the full observance of the ceasefire to realize a genuine political transition, based on the Geneva communiqué and Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), the regime and the opposition will soon meet in Astana, with the presence of the guarantor countries, to take concrete steps towards revitalizing the United Nations-led political process. Turkey will continue her efforts to that end incessantly.
Annex III to the letter dated 29 December 2016 from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations and the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council
Agreement on the mechanism to record violations of the ceasefire regime declared in Syria that will take effect on 30 December 2016, and on the regime for applying sanctions to violators
The Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey,
Assuming obligations as Guarantors (in the parts designated to each) of the ceasefire regime in Syria that will take effect on 30 December 2016;
Bearing in mind that Syrian armed opposition groups (hereinafter — the Opposition) and the Government of Syria consent to the drafting and adoption of a separate document — an Agreement on the mechanism to record violations of the ceasefire regime declared in Syria that will take effect on December 2016 and on the regime for applying sanctions against violators;
Have agreed as follows:
Article 1. Joint Commission
1. The Guarantors shall establish a Joint Commission that shall serve as the main body to consider all complaints and issues related to violations of the ceasefire regime.
2. The Joint Commission:
(a) Shall administer the activities of checkpoints to monitor compliance with the ceasefire regime by parties to the Syrian crisis (hereinafter — the Parties);
(b) Shall submit proposals to the Parties to hold to account persons guilty of violating the ceasefire regime, and shall also submit proposals to the Guarantors on imposing sanctions on violating parties.
3. Russian and Turkish offices of the Joint Commission shall be located in Moscow and Ankara respectively.
The Guarantors shall establish a direct communication channel between the offices.
Article 2. Checkpoints
1. With a view to recording violations by the Parties to the ceasefire regime, the Guarantors shall establish checkpoints in residential areas in the vicinity of the actual line of contact among the Parties in order to guarantee compliance with the ceasefire regime by the Parties.
Article 3. Imposition of sanctions on violating Parties
1. The Guarantors shall undertake all possible measures to resolve differences among the Parties on compliance with the ceasefire regime and the resolution of conflicts among them.
2. Should the Parties fail to reach agreement, the Joint Commission shall send to the violating Party a demand to cease the violations and to take measures to compensate the affected Party for harm inflicted on its population and infrastructure. If the demand is not complied with, the Guarantors shall apply enforcement measures to the violating Party.
Article 4. Final Provisions
1. This Agreement is concluded for the duration of the ceasefire regime.
2. The Guarantors agree to draft and sign thereafter an expanded version of this Agreement that will elaborate on its provisions.
3. Done at Ankara on 29 December 2016 in three copies, having equal legal force, each in the Russian, Turkish and Arabic languages.
Annex IV to the letter dated 29 December 2016 from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations and the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council
Agreement on establishing delegations to launch negotiations on a political settlement aimed at a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by peaceful means
The Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, having declared a ceasefire in Syria on 30 December 2016,
Confirms that there is no alternative to a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis and that there is a need to launch a political process in Syria pursuant to Security Council resolution 2254 (2015);
Acknowledging the need to fully respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic, safeguard the interests of the Syrian people, cease the bloodshed and guarantee national security, and seeking early stabilization in the country in coordination with the representatives of the Russian Federation, hereinafter — the Guarantor:
1. The Government of the Syrian Arab Republic shall commit to form a delegation, prior to 31 December 2016, to pursue negotiations on a political settlement. The Government of the Syrian Arab Republic shall determine the composition of the Delegation independently.
2. The Delegation shall begin joint work with the Delegation of the opposing side on 15 January, 2017, which shall take place in the city of Astana (Republic of Kazakhstan) with the participation of the United Nations.
3. The outcome of the joint work of both Delegations shall serve as a basis for elaborating, no later than __ _______ 2017, a road map to resolve the internal political crisis in Syria.
4. The work of both Delegations shall be conducted with the support of the Guarantor.
5. This Agreement shall enter into force at the time of signature by the plenipotentiary representative of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and shall become legally binding provided that an agreement with similar contents to this Agreement is signed by representatives of the opposing side, with the participation of the Russian Federation. The Guarantor shall inform the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic about the signature of such an Agreement in the shortest possible time.
Subsequently, both Agreements shall be considered by the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the opposing side, and also by the Guarantor, as a single document regarding the establishment of delegations for the launch of negotiations on a political settlement aimed at a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by peaceful means.
Done at Damascus on _ December 2016 in two copies, having equal legal force, each in the Russian and Arabic languages.
Annex V to the letter dated 29 December 2016 from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations and the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council
Agreement on establishing delegations to launch negotiations on a political settlement aimed at a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by peaceful means
The leaders of Syrian armed opposition groups, hereinafter — the Opposition,
Support the ceasefire regime declared in Syria on 30 December 2016 and accede thereto;
Confirm that there is no alternative to a comprehensive political settlement of the Syrian crisis and that the launch of a political process in Syria must be expedited, as stipulated in the Geneva Communiqué (2012) and in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015);
Acknowledge full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic and the need to safeguard the interests of the Syrian people, cease the bloodshed and enable a State that represents all Syrian people to exercise its authority;
Declare a comprehensive commitment to swiftly stabilizing the situation in the country, with the participation of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey as Guarantors (hereinafter — the Guarantors); and
Agree as follows:
1. By 16 January 2017, the Opposition, with the direct participation of the Guarantors, shall commit to establishing a delegation to pursue negotiations on a political settlement, aimed at a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by peaceful means (hereinafter — the Delegation).
The Opposition shall independently determine the composition of the Delegation.
2. The Delegation shall begin joint work with the Delegation of the opposing side, from 23 January 2017, which shall take place in the city of Astana (Republic of Kazakhstan) with the participation of the United Nations.
3. Based on the outcome of the joint work of both Delegations, a road map shall be drawn up as soon as possible to resolve the Syrian crisis.
4. The work of both Delegations shall be carried out with support of the Guarantors.
5. This Agreement shall enter into force at the time of signature by the Opposition and shall become legally binding provided that an agreement with similar contents to this Agreement is signed by a representative of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic with the participation of the Russian Federation. The Guarantors shall inform the Opposition about the signature of such an Agreement in the shortest possible time.
Subsequently, both Agreements shall be considered by the Opposition and the Government of Syria, as well as the Guarantors, as a single document — an Agreement on establishing delegations to launch negotiations on a political settlement aimed at a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by peaceful means.
Done at Ankara on 29 December 2016 in three copies, having equal legal force, each in the Russian, Turkish and Arabic languages.
In order to get a better understanding of what was agreed, it is also necessary to refer to the Kremlin’s summary of a meeting held in the Kremlin on 29th December 2016 by Russian President Putin with Russian Defence Minister Shoigu and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.
Defence Minister Shoigu was the main speaker at the meeting, a fact which incidentally confirms that the ceasefire plan is the result of negotiations between the Russian and Turkish militaries rather than between the two countries’ diplomats. On 2nd November 2016 I wrote an article for The Duran in which I pointed out that the Russian and Turkish militaries were in direct negotiation with each other, and that the Russians, having despaired of reaching agreement over Aleppo and Syria with the US, were now negotiating directly with the Turks. Here is what I said
Gerasimov is currently engaged in meetings in Moscow with General Hulusi Akar, the Chief of the Turkish military’s General Staff, who is currently visiting him in Moscow.
Having despaired of getting the US to separate Al-Qaeda/Jabhat Al-Nusra from the other Jihadis in Aleppo, and getting them to withdraw, it is likely the Russians are trying to agree the same thing with the Turks. Indeed Gerasimov’s comments today essentially say as much.
Given that the Jihadis fighting in Syria totally depend on Turkey for their supplies, if the Turkish leadership tells them to quit eastern Aleppo there is a possibility that they may finally accept that the game is up and heed the call. The same thing has after all recently happened in other Syrian towns and cities, including in the formerly Jihadi controlled suburbs of Damascus.
Note that Putin’s ultimatum is phrased differently from the way it was before.
The Kerry-Lavrov agreement of 9th September 2016 offered the non Al-Qaeda Jihadis the option of staying in eastern Aleppo after they had separated themselves from Al-Qaeda/Jabhat Al-Nusra, who the agreement implicitly required to leave.
In the subsequent discussions in the UN Security Council that took place around the proposed French Resolution, the Russians made it clear that the Al-Qaeda/Jabhat Al-Nusra was required to leave, and this was the demand the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura supposedly supported, though as I have discussed previously the terms under which he did it actually nullified it.
Now Putin through Gerasimov is demanding that all Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo leave, irrespective of whether they belong to Al-Qaeda/Jabhat Al-Nusra or not.
In other words over the course of the autumn, as the US has hesitated and reneged on its promises, the Russians have quietly raised their demands. They now want Aleppo totally rid of Jihadi fighters and handed over entirely to the Syrian government.
The successful Putin-Erdogan agreement to withdraw all Jihadi fighters from Aleppo, and the Russian-Turkish ceasefire plan, are the fruit of these negotiations, and show the extent to which the Russians have managed to fulfil the objectives they set themselves in the autumn.
In the meeting with Putin and Lavrov on 29th December 2016 in the Kremlin Defence Minister Shoigu explained the essence of the Russian-Turkish ceasefire plan
Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, acting on your instruction, the Defence Ministry, with Turkey acting as intermediary, spent two months in talks with leaders of the groups that make up the moderate Syrian opposition. These groups control the greater part of areas in Syria’s central and northern regions not under control of the government in Damascus. These detachments have more than 60,000 fighters. The most influential field commanders from seven opposition groups took part in the talks.
At the same time, we carried out the same work with the Syrian government. The talks made it possible for the parties to reach a common position and sign these three basic agreements that introduce a ceasefire, establish a monitoring regime, and set out procedures for organising talks on a peace settlement of the Syrian conflict.
The Defence Ministry has established a communications hotline for maintaining cooperation with Turkey, which is acting jointly with Russia as a guarantor of the ceasefire and respect for the agreements reached.
If you decide to let these agreements take effect, we are ready to guarantee the ceasefire’s introduction and organise ongoing monitoring to ensure it is respected.
I think that the conditions are in place now for a ceasefire to take effect on Syria’s territory and establish direct dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition groups that seek to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. This also creates the conditions we need to be able to reduce Russia’s military presence on Syrian territory.
Mr President, the groups with whom the talks were conducted are presented here. (Watch presentation.) They all signed these agreements this morning. In terms of their territorial location, here you see the territory under these groups’ control.
Vladimir Putin: Mr Shoigu, these seven armed opposition groups, what and who do they represent?
Sergei Shoigu: Ahrar al-Sham, for example, has 80 detachments on Syrian soil, together with military hardware, T-55 and T-72 tanks and artillery. In terms of territory, Mr President, this…
Vladimir Putin: How many armed fighters are we talking about here?
Sergei Shoigu: Sixty-two thousand armed people. Over these two months, we spent the bulk of the time on making sure that the maps indicate what we at one point asked our American colleagues to do.
Vladimir Putin: So, these groups are the core, essentially, the nucleus. They make up the main armed opposition forces.
Sergei Shoigu: Yes, Mr President. They constitute the main opposition forces.
These are the areas currently under their control. Here is Aleppo and here is Damascus, and this area is practically entirely under their control. What’s more, they have indicated the exact coordinates of locations and settlements under their control. The same goes for the central region and the situation in the districts around Damascus. Thus, we see that this area is under these detachments’ control.
We have also established a direct communications line with our Turkish colleagues, who are acting as guarantors to ensure that all terms of the agreements are respected, particularly as regards monitoring the agreements’ enforcement. The main purpose of this monitoring work is to ensure that organisations that do not cease hostilities are listed as terrorist organisations, and the same kind of action will be taken against them as is being taken against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra throughout the remaining territory.
The Al-Masdar news agency, which has connections to the Syrian military, has provided a list of the “seven armed opposition groups” that are part of the ceasefire. They are:
1. Feilak al-Sham
19 detachments, total strength: over 4,000 people.
2. Ahrar al-Sham
The full name is Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya.
Over 80 detachments, total strength: about 16,000 people.
Formations of the grouping conduct combat actions in the Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Idlib, Latakia, Hama and Homs provinces.
3. Jaysh al-Islam
64 detachments, total strength: about 12,000 people.
Jaysh al-Islam formations conduct combat actions in the Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, Latakia, Hama and Homs provinces.
4. Thuwar al-Sham
8 battalions, total strength: about 2,500 people.
Armed formations conduct combat actions in the Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia provinces.
5. Jaysh al-Mujahideen
13 detachments, total strength: about 8,000 people.
Armed formations conduct combat actions in the Aleppo city and provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama.
6. Jaysh Idlib
3 large detachments, total strength: more than 6,000 people.
Jaysh Idlib conducts combat actions in the Idlib province.
7. Jabhat al-Shamiyah
5 large detachments, total strength: about 3,000 people.
The grouping’s detachments conduct combat actions in the Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus provinces.
Note that the two terrorist groups – Al-Qaeda (aka “Jabhat Al-Nusra” or “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham”) and ISIS – are specifically excluded.
There is a discrepancy between Shoigu’s numbers and those provided by Al-Masdar for the number of Jihadi fighters covered by the ceasefire. Shoigu puts the number at 62,000, whereas Al-Masdar’s cumulative total is 51,500. Almost certainly the difference is explained by their different sources of information: Shoigu is taking his numbers from the Turks and the Jihadi groups themselves, whilst Al-Masdar’s source is almost certainly the Syrian military.
The key point however is not the difference in the numbers but in the fact that Shoigu confirms that the Russians and the Turks have throughout November and December – in other words throughout the period covered by the negotiations between the two militaries which began at the beginning of November – been doing that which the US repeatedly promised to do but never did, which is delineate the areas controlled by the “moderate” Jihadis so as to distinguish them from the areas controlled by the two proscribed terrorist groups: Al-Qaeda and ISIS. In Shoigu’s words
…….with Turkey acting as intermediary, [we] spent two months in talks with leaders of the groups that make up the moderate Syrian opposition…..At the same time, we carried out the same work with the Syrian government…….Over these two months, we spent the bulk of the time on making sure that the maps indicate what we at one point asked our American colleagues to do.
(bold italics added)
Shoigu’s words to Putin also confirm something else which had already become apparent: Lavrov’s negotiations with Kerry following the collapse of the 9th September 2016 Kerry-Lavrov agreement were diplomatic shadow play. Whilst it was these fictional negotiations between Lavrov and Kerry which continued to hold the limelight, the real negotiations were going on behind the scenes between the militaries of Russia and Turkey, without the US being consulted or involved.
Moreover it is now clear from Shoigu’s words that the Turks made a political decision to come to a settlement with the Russians over Syria by October at the latest, so that the discussions which took place during November and December were of an essentially technical nature: determining what territories the groups that would be covered by the ceasefire actually controlled, getting the groups to sign up to the ceasefire plan, and agreeing the technicalities of monitoring the ceasefire and enforcing it. Most of the ceasefire plan, the text of which I have provided above, sets out the monitoring and enforcement procedures, and confirms that Turkey has agreed to guarantee the compliance of the seven groups who have signed up to it.
Turkey’s involvement in the ceasefire plan as its guarantor is the key to its success. As I said in my article of 2nd November 2016, the various Jihadi groups which operate in Syria depend on Turkey for their supplies of men and equipment. That gives Turkey immense potential leverage over them, and means that if Turkey fully commits to enforcing the ceasefire plan then the seven Jihadi groups covered by it have no choice but to comply with it.
Why did the negotiations between Russia and Turkey succeed, where the negotiations between Russia and the US were such a complete failure?
From the Russian point of view, the ceasefire has given them what they want. The overriding problem the Russians face in Syria is the limited size of the Syrian army. Since this means that the Syrian army cannot be strong everywhere – the key fact which enabled ISIS to recapture Palmyra last month – and since deploying Russian ground troops to Syria has been ruled out, Russian diplomacy since Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 has been aimed at reducing the number of enemies the Syrian army has to fight so that it can concentrate its forces on its two enemies who are the most dangerous: Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
If the Russians really can get seven armed groups amounting to between 50,000 to 60,000 men to stand down, freeing the Syrian army to focus on taking the war to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, then the Syrian army’s limited resources mean it is worth doing even if two of the seven groups are Jihadi groups Russia has previously designated terrorist organisations.
In the meantime, by ensuring that Aleppo – Syria’s biggest city and its main industrial centre – is restored to the full control of the Syrian government, the Russians have not only ensured the Syrian government’s survival, removing the possibility of regime change from the agenda, but have also provided the Syrian army with a secure base in Syria’s populous coastal western regions in which it can rebuild its strength.
As for Turkey, with the prospect of regime change in Syria taken off the agenda following the restoration of the Syrian government’s authority in Aleppo, the Russian offer of a peace conference in Astana to be co-chaired by Turkey provides Turkey with a face-saving – even generous – way out of a commitment to regime change in Syria which has effectively already failed.
The peace conference in Astana is not however just a sop to Turkey. For the Turks a key provision of the ceasefire plan is that any future agreement about the future of Syria to be reached at Astana must be based – in the words of the ceasefire plan – upon “full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic”. In other words any possibility of an independent Kurdish state being carved out of Syrian territory is ruled out.
Will the plan work?
If Turkey’s commitment to the plan is the condition for its success, it is also its major weakness.
As should by now be obvious to anybody who has followed the Syrian conflict at all closely, not only has Turkish President Erdogan been personally committed up to now to achieving regime change in Syria, but he is not someone who has a habit of following through on his commitments with any degree of consistency.
Is he really prepared now to drop his plan for regime change in Syria, and to crack down on the seven Jihadi groups in Syria covered by the ceasefire if or rather when they try to break it?
Is he also prepared to ride out the inevitable violent blowback from the militant Jihadi groups that have now become embedded in Turkish society as a result of his own regime change policy in Syria, of which today’s Istanbul attack is probably merely a foretaste?
Since it is upon Erdogan that the future of this ceasefire agreement ultimately depends, it would be unwise to invest too many hopes in it.
That the Russians are not doing so is shown by the guarded comments of the participants of the Kremlin meeting on 29th December 2016. Putin pointedly referred to the ceasefire agreement as “fragile”, and though the possibility of Russian military withdrawals from Syria was discussed, none were announced.