Just days after the US – Russian agreement on Syria, and to no-one’s surprise, the problems are mounting.
Various Jihadi groups are refusing to dissociate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra. Though there appears to have been a falling off in the fighting, some fighting is still taking place, and Russian troops on the Castello road have been caught on film coming under fire.
The Russians are complaining that the US is still not providing information on Jabhat Al-Nusra that it promised, and has failed to force the Jihadi groups it sponsors to dissociate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra and to observe the ceasefire.
Meanwhile the air is thick with arguments about the provision of humanitarian aid to Jihadi controlled eastern Aleppo. Jihadi groups are blocking the aid the UN is providing, complaining that it is not what they want, and because they say they reject the US – Russian agreement under which it is being provided, whilst the UN – entirely predictably – is blaming the Syrian government. Needless to say there is no sign of any withdrawal of Jihadi fighters from eastern Aleppo by way of the Castello road.
In the midst of all these charges and counter charges the Russians are calling for the text of the agreement with the US to be published whilst the US is saying no – a fact which incidentally all but confirms that it was the US that made the major concessions in order to reach the agreement.
The fact that the agreement is secret makes it effectively unenforceable since both side can say it says whatever they want. Thus the US has been all but saying over the last few days that the agreement requires the grounding of the entire Syrian air force, something which it is clear that the agreement does not say.
One of the reasons the Russians say they want the agreement made public is so as to remove this difficulty, thereby making the agreement properly enforceable. They also say that they want the agreement enshrined in a Resolution of the UN Security Council, which would make it legally binding on all parties, including the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, the Jihadi fighters, and their foreign sponsors. Needless to say, precisely for that reason, the US opposes the idea.
As for the agreed joint bombing campaign by the Russians and the US against ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ashley Carter’s Pentagon – as might be expected – is completely unenthusiastic, and is dragging its heels. Already reports are appearing in the US media – obviously inspired by the Pentagon – which purport to identify various alleged practical difficulties with the proposed joint operation.
The degree of ill-feeling between the US and Russian militaries in Syria is illustrated by their rivalry over which of them was responsible for the death of the prominent ISIS commander Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Weeks after the Russians claimed to have killed al-Adnani the US is now claiming to have killed him in a drone strike.
It is too soon to write off this process. However I would repeat here what I said about it in my previous article
“Words of caution are in order. The mere fact that the Russians are taking control of the Castello road in place of the Syrian army and that the US – Russian agreement apparently requires the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo to evacuate the city does not mean that the latter will happen.
Already there are reports that various Jihadi groups are rejecting the agreement Kerry and Lavrov agreed in Geneva on Sunday. It seems far more likely and far more in character that the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo will dig in rather than evacuate.
The US – Russian agreement does not therefore mean that the battle of Aleppo is over. What it means is that a faction in Washington – which however does not mean the entire bureaucracy in Washington – has now rather grudgingly coming round to accepting the fact that the battle is lost.
In order to save something from the wreckage it is therefore trying to save the lives of the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo and to preserve them as a coherent force by agreeing face-saving terms for their withdrawal. The fact the Jihadi fighters will not appreciate the effort and will almost certainly refuse to do what the US has agreed for them is another matter.”
(bold italics added)
Whilst the faction in Washington – which surely includes Obama and Kerry – which wants “to save the lives of the Jihadi and preserve them as a coherent force by agreeing face-saving terms for their withdrawal” – is still there, the opponents within the Washington bureaucracy to this approach – whose fierce resistance held up the signing of the agreement on Sunday by 9 hours – are also still there. Moreover they have allies on the ground in Syria in the form of the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo and across Syria, who are also nowhere near close to giving up or dissociating themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra, as the US – Russian agreement requires them to do.
The prospects of this agreement therefore depend on the bureaucratic infighting underway in Washington. Whether Obama, Kerry and the other foreign policy realists in Washington in the last weeks of Obama’s administration are able or willing to face down the hardliners in order to make this agreement work is open to doubt. However if they don’t then the agreement will unravel – just as did the previous agreement reached in February – at which point the fighting will resume with a vengeance.