We Asked an Expert What the 'Ceasefire' Between the US and Russia in Syria Really Means

Does this agreement between the US and Russia mean that the conditions on the ground will change, or that we're any closer to actual peace?
24 February 2016, 12:00am

A US aircraft on the flightline at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, in November. Photo via the US Air Force Flickr

On Monday, news outlets including the Associated Press reported that Russian and US officials had agreed on a ceasefire in Syria, slated to go into effect on Saturday. This is being framed as a big deal, with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying in a statement that "We are finally seeing a real chance to bring an end to the long-standing bloodshed and violence." Casual observers, though, might be confused by the headlines: The US and Russia certainly aren't friendly, but they weren't shooting at each other in Syria, so why do they have to sign this kind of document?

In reality, "ceasefire" is a bit of a misnomer here. The agreement doesn't mean that outside powers will stop bombing ISIS or other groups designated by the UN as terrorist organisations. There are a lot of details that need to be hammered out, as well—this is just the beginning of a long potential process that could eventually lead to the Syrian government and some rebel groups reaching some sort of peace agreement.

To find out more, VICE reached out to Omar Lamrani, a Middle-East analyst for the Texas-based conflict forecasting organisation Stratfor, and asked how this is all going to shake out. Unsurprisingly, Lamrani was less than optimistic about this being the end of all fighting in Syria. What follows is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

VICE: Let's clarify one thing first: Is the Islamic State involved in this ceasefire?
Omar Lamrani: The Islamic State is not within the parameters of the ceasefire. The US, and Russia, and rebels, and the loyalist forces will continue to be able to attack the Islamic State.

Is this a good deal from the perspective of someone who would like to see less fighting in Syria?
It's a way to tamp down the fighting, and I think that's the best that can be hoped for as some of the rebel groups get sidelined and the focus becomes more on the extremist groups. This is initially looking positive – meaning we're finally going to have some traction on the ground – but there are still very significant hurdles that have to be overcome for us to actually talk about a meaningful ceasefire.

What are the hurdles?
The ceasefire itself is already limited because obviously the Islamic State is excluded and so is [the al Qaeda–affiliated group] Jabhat al-Nusra. And if Jabhat al-Nusra is excluded, then it's going to be very very difficult to have a ceasefire implemented on the ground because al-Nusra is very widespread amongst the rebellion. So given the fact that with the agreements that we already have so far, the US and Russia are already saying that allies of Russia can strike Jabhat al-Nusra, that means that an actual, meaningful ceasefire across the country is very unlikely to happen in the way that some people might imagine.

What still has to happen before there's an actual reduction in fighting?
Essentially, the next steps are for Russia to go to the loyalist camp – meaning the Assad government, Iran, and other supporters of the Assad regime. We have the Russian defense minister, who is actually in Tehran right now and very likely talking to them about this proposal and some other issues. And then from the US side they'll take it to allies in the region, the GCC, Turkey, and then obviously in the southwest, to the opposition itself.

So the US and Russia have to sort of sell this ceasefire to their Syrian allies?
That is the hope. Russia goes to Iran and says, "Listen, we agreed to this deal with the United States. We think it's a good deal. We think we should take it." And the United States is doing the same with the opposition. Whether that actually happens on Friday has not been determined. I wouldn't say it's clear-cut that the loyalists or the opposition will accept the conditions, because remember: The ceasefire was supposed to happen last week and it didn't.

And just to recap – why is the US now pushing for a ceasefire instead of trying to topple Assad?
The United States perspective is, Things are going really badly on the ground. Let's get the ceasefire. Let's get this conversation moving towards a political transition. And the sooner as we do that, the sooner we can focus on ending this conflict. That's the US perspective, and not necessarily a perspective that's shared by others.

And what might be keeping the rebels from getting on board?
The rebels will be extremely concerned about the fact that Russian aircraft will continue to be able to bomb. That has consistently been one of the prerequisites to any ceasefire – that the Russians stop the airstrikes. Because they look at and say, "Well, the Russians can always go up there, bomb a target, claim it's al-Nusra when in fact it isn't al-Nusra." Potentially, [there could be a situation where] rebels in very close proximity to al-Nusra also get damaged by the strikes. So the US perspective might not be the same perspective as the opposition.

Meanwhile, is this deal like Christmas for Assad and Russia? Are they getting everything they wanted?
They have been pushing for other rebel groups like Jaysh al Islam and Ahrar al-Sham to be considered as terrorist factions. That doesn't seem to have happened here. The biggest issue is that they have the military advantage on the ground, and by agreeing to a ceasefire they essentially give the rebels breathing room.

Are the Kurds involved in this?
The Kurdish viewpoint has always been that they should be included in all these negotiations. So far at Geneva II they've largely been excluded with the promises that later on they will be brought into the conversation, but that hasn't really happened thus far. In terms of Turkey, they just want to be given assurances that Turkey will cease strikes against them. This conversation thus far – with the details that have come out – have not really pointed to anything like that being included. Turkey, as we speak, is currently shelling the YPG.

Should we be hopeful about this deal leading to eventual peace?
To be perfectly frank, the devil is in the details. There are two things that are really going to show us whether this is going to stick. The first thing is: How much buy-in there is into this deal by the opposition and the loyalists on the ground? And the second thing is: What kinds of methods are there by which both sides can integrate their definition of which groups are terrorists or not, and how do they think that will work out on the actual battlefield?

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