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Obama's big deal to work with Russia on Syria, explained

Here’s what the agreement does, why it matters, and how it might fail.

John Kerry Attends UN Security Meeting On Syrian Conflict
John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov.
(Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Late on Friday, the United States and Russia came to a massively important agreement: After months of seemingly failed negotiations, they agreed to a joint plan for ending the war in Syria.

The proposal, announced by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is incredibly ambitious. The basic idea is for the US and Russia to get the Syrian rebels and the Syrian government, respectively, to stop fighting each other temporarily — so the US and Russia can start jointly attacking both ISIS and an al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria more effectively.

The ultimate goal is to use the ceasefire and the anti-extremist campaign as a foundation for a permanent, negotiated peace agreement.

“If this plan is implemented in good faith,” Kerry said at the announcement, “negotiations could take hold.”

To say there is no guarantee this will work is to understate things dramatically. The Syrian conflict is really complicated, with a lot of different combatants fighting for their own specific goals. There’s a reason every prior attempt to impose a ceasefire in Syria has failed — though this one does seem more serious.

So here’s a guide to how the deal works, why it could end up being such a big deal — and the myriad ways in which it could fail.

Step 1: Ceasefire

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad.
(Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

The first step in the plan is to slow down the war. Beginning at sundown on Monday evening, when the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha begins, there will be a “nationwide cessation of hostilities” between rebels and Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

It’s unclear if this means a complete end to fighting, as Kerry seemingly contradicted himself on this point during the press conference. On the one hand, he called for it to include an end to “all” attacks and attempts to seize territory. On the other, he referred to it as a “sustained reduction in violence,” which suggests it’ll be something less than a complete ceasefire. The level of violence that would qualify as a violation of the ceasefire is less than crystal clear.

But one thing it definitely includes, per Kerry, is an end to airstrikes against rebel-held territory by Assad’s air force. Under the agreement, there will be a defined area of Syria (Kerry didn’t say where exactly) in which Assad will not fly his air force. These airstrikes have caused massive civilian casualties and displaced even more people, so the hope is that stopping them will help save lives.

This provision, according to Kerry, is critical. If Assad violates it, then the deal is off.

“This step is absolutely essential,” he said. “It is the bedrock of this agreement.”

In addition to the ceasefire provisions, both sides are expected to help ease humanitarian suffering — specifically by opening up aid corridors into the city of Aleppo, a major front in the opposition-government war.

Now, you might have noticed something weird about this plan: This is an agreement between the US and Russia, not Assad and the rebels. Yet it’s Assad and the rebels who are expected to take all of the major first steps.

But the US has provided lethal and nonlethal aid to various rebel factions, and Russia provided weapons to Assad and began directly bombing rebels about a year ago. This gives the two powers some leverage over the main opposing factions. The US has contacts and some sway with the rebels; Russia has the same with the regime. The idea is that they will each use their leverage to pressure their guys to respect the agreement.

But it’s far from obvious that they have enough sway to pull this off.

The biggest initial problem is Assad grounding his air force. Clearly, he thinks airstrikes on rebels are a vital military tool. If he decides the benefits from the strikes outweigh those of the ceasefire deal — perhaps encouraged by his other key ally, Iran — then there’s precious little Russia can do to stop him.

Step 2: Separate the “good” rebels from the “bad” ones

Al-Qaeda affiliated fighter in Syria.
A Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighter.
(Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s not just the regime that will be asked to give up something major as part of this deal. The rebels, too, are expected to do something major: to end their de facto alliance with the extremist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS).

For most of the conflict, JFS was al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, known as Jabhat al-Nusra. In August, Nusra announced that it would henceforth be operating independently, and adopted the JFS name to signify its newfound independence.

Experts, by and large, didn’t buy it. “The evidence is clear,” terrorism scholars Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Joscelyn write in Foreign Affairs. “Nusra’s rebranding as JFS does not represent a genuine split from al-Qaeda.”

The problem, though, is that JFS is deeply integrated with rebel forces. Unlike ISIS, which seized territory by attacking other rebels, Nusra/JFS has always focused on fighting Assad. Because the group emerged as one of the most effective anti-Assad fighting forces early in the conflict — thanks, in part, to assistance from America’s “allies” in Qatar — other rebels welcomed their support. The result is that ISIS became isolated and far easier for international forces to target, while JFS remains relatively sheltered because of its deep integration with rebels.

“There is no hiding the fact that mainstream opposition forces are extensively ‘marbled’ or ‘coupled’ with JFS forces on frontlines,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, writes. “This is not a reflection of ideological affinity as much as it is merely a military necessity.”

Under the terms of the agreement, rebels are expected to undo this tight coordination. “The task of separating terrorists and moderate opposition and physical separation of them on the ground is enshrined in the document which we have agreed upon today as a key priority,” Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said at the joint presser.

The logic here is intimately tied up with the end of airstrikes. The Assad regime has frequently argued that its airstrikes on rebels are actually targeting JFS positions. This is false — Assad has actually encouraged extremism among the rebels as a way of deterring US intervention against him. But it’s hard to prove him wrong, because JFS is so deeply integrated into the overall rebel coalition.

In order to make sure Assad is adhering to his side of the agreement, and no longer bombing rebel-held areas, the rebels need to be actually separated out from the al-Qaeda-linked terrorists — terrorists who, as Kerry emphasized, also have an interest in attacking the United States.

There are two major problems with this provision.

First, it’s not clear why the rebels would want to kick out JFS. US support for the fight against Assad has been extremely limited in the past (it has been much more willing to help rebels fight ISIS) — especially when compared with Russian support for Assad. By contrast, JFS has been an invaluable on-the-ground partner. If you’re a rebel, you have to be worried that this agreement is a quiet Russian gambit to weaken the rebels before resuming hostilities.

“The armed opposition in Syria now faces what is perhaps its biggest and most momentous decision since they chose to take up arms against the Assad regime,” Lister writes. He continues:

Having spoken with leadership figures from several dozen armed factions in recent weeks, I can say that not a single one has suggested any willingness to withdraw from the front-lines on which JFS is present. To them, doing so means effectively ceding territory to the regime, as they have little faith in a long-term cessation of hostilities holding.

Second, it’s not obvious the rebels actually can kick out JFS even if they want to. JFS is quite strong in pure military terms, and it might be impossible for rebels to kick it out of joint territory at an acceptable cost.

“Deal tells rebels: ‘remove’ Qaeda from your areas — which they lack power to do,” Anne Barnard, the New York Times’s Beirut bureau chief, tweeted after the agreement was announced.

This agreement, then, runs up against one of the fundamental dynamics of the Syrian civil war: The rebels care far more about survival and defeating Assad than they do about ideological purity. Whether American pressure will be significant enough to overcome the military convenience of the JFS alliance is very much an open question.

Step 3: Russia and America team up on the extremists

A control map of Syria, as of September 1.
(Thomas van Linge)

If the ceasefire holds for seven days, the United States and Russia will start doing something unprecedented: They will launch a joint, aligned military counterterrorism campaign.

This military campaign will operate in an area that the United States and Russia have already agreed upon. In order to coordinate this campaign, the two countries will set up something called the Joint Implementation Center (JIC). At this center, US and Russian officers will share intelligence with each other, and coordinate air campaigns against both JFS and ISIS.

One of the major tasks of this center is to distinguish between rebel and extremist targets inside the zone of cooperation.

“The military men and the special representatives from Russia and the US will be engaged ... in solving practical matters of delimitation and separation of terrorists from the moderate opposition,” Lavrov said.

US-Russian military cooperation hasn’t exactly been common since World War II — there was that whole Cold War thing, after all. The two countries also have very different tactical approaches. Russia is noticeably less concerned about killing civilians, for one. This raises a host of practical issues, as Barnard and her colleague David Sanger explain:

If the bombing of Nusra sites results in civilian casualties — which is almost inevitable given how militant extremist groups and civilians are closely located — there are bound to be accusations about who is responsible.

Moreover, Pentagon officials are concerned that Russia will use the targeting data to learn more about how American forces identify and attack targets, at a moment when forces from the two countries are often in close proximity around Europe.

Perhaps the biggest practical concern, though, is what happens if the rebels don’t complete step 2.

Neither Kerry nor Lavrov was clear on what happens if some relatively moderate groups refuse to separate from JFS. Do these groups become legitimate targets for the US-Russian coalition? If so, this agreement seems like it could end with the United States serving as Assad’s air force, bombing the legitimate opposition America claims to support.

Now, suppose the US doesn’t bomb “marbled” territory — but Russia or Assad does. Then what? Does the United States condemn its nominal partner for targeting JFS and scuttle the agreement? Or does it condemn the rebels for failing to uphold an agreement the United States made on their behalf?

The point here is that there are lots of different ways this agreement could fail on the ground. That owes to the complexity of the agreement itself, a multi-step proposal that can only function if each prior step functions exactly as it’s supposed to.

This kind of Rube Goldberg agreement is itself a product of the complexity of the Syrian civil war. The conflict has so many different moving parts, and so many different parties, that there isn’t a simple way to create the conditions for a durable ceasefire and anti-extremist campaign. This is probably the best plan the two powers have formulated yet — but there are still many ways in which it can fail.

Step 4: A peace agreement between Assad and the rebels

syrian rebel aleppo
A Syrian rebel fighter in Aleppo.
(Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

The ultimate aim of this whole process is a peace agreement. Stop the fighting and sideline JFS, and theoretically the government and the main rebel factions might be able to come to terms.

“This ceasefire, if it could be implemented, would be extremely helpful [in getting] all of the interested parties to be back at the table for the first really serious negotiation since this concept has existed,” Kerry says.

Sure, maybe! But at its roots, this war is about a dispute over the nature of the Syrian state, not Islamic extremist groups.

Bashar al-Assad’s government is staffed, principally, with members of the small Alawite religious minority. The opposition, by contrast, draws from the 90 percent of Syrians who are Sunni Muslims. The conflict is basically about control of government: whether Syria will remain an Alawite dictatorship or whether the Sunnis will actually get a say in their own governance.

This is about "a minority based regime, allied with other minorities along with privileged elements from the majority population, ruling over a poor and often dysfunctional state that does not tolerate dissenters,” Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, writes.

And this fundamental conflict over what the Syrian government will look like will not be resolved by separating JFS from the opposition and bombing it. In fact, the causation runs the other way: So long as the opposition and Assad continue to fight over the future of Syria, it will be nearly impossible to marshal a ground force that could stamp out JFS. Indeed, some rebels will likely welcome their aid in the fight against Assad no matter what America says.

So while this agreement may be aimed at ultimately producing a negotiated agreement, it actually doesn’t address the basic dynamic of conflict. It might create conditions where it’s easier to talk about them, at least in the short term. But in the long run, the prospects for any real peace in Syria will be decided by one thing, and one thing only: the capacity for the opposition and the government to come to some kind of political agreement that they can both live with.