Some of the guns have gone quiet in Syria.
It’s nearly 24 hours into the Syria ceasefire arrangement, and despite several reported instances of fighting and explosions, independent observers say there have been no civilian casualties since the ceasefire came into effect around noon on Monday.
This is, without question, a good thing. But the US-Russia deal over Syria that created this ceasefire is about much more than just a short-term halt in fighting. It’s part of a broader push aimed at fighting terrorism and ultimately brokering a deal to end the conflict. The deal calls for, among other things, Bashar al-Assad to stop bombing rebel-held territory, the rebels to halt their military cooperation with al-Qaeda-linked extremists, and the United States and Russia to coordinate their military campaigns against jihadist groups in Syria.
Success, then, won’t be measured by whether this ceasefire holds for 24 or even 48 hours. It will be measured by whether the deal actually functions as a first step toward getting the rest of the agreement to work.
To understand whether the ceasefire is actually furthering this agreement — or whether it’s doomed to collapse, like so many of its predecessors — there are basically three things to watch for in coming days: what counts as a violation of the ceasefire, whether Turkey decides to keep fighting, and whether US-backed Syrian rebels really do decisively part ways with their jihadist partners.
1) What counts as a violation?
Under the terms of the deal, the ceasefire has to hold for a week before the next step (direct US-Russia military cooperation against the jihadists) begins. The problem is that we have no idea what counts as a violation of the ceasefire.
The actual text of the agreement is still secret, and public comments about the ceasefire pact have been contradictory. In his statement announcing the deal, Secretary of State John Kerry has called it both a “cessation of hostilities” and a “sustained reduction in violence” — which imply very different things about the level of violence that will be acceptable during the ceasefire.
The upshot of ambiguity is that we don’t actually know what qualifies as a ceasefire violation — what level of rebel attacks on the regime will Russia tolerate, and how badly Washington will allow Moscow to batter American allies on the ground before throwing in the towel. We just don’t know.
There are other points of ambiguity in the agreement.
For example, the ceasefire explicitly doesn’t apply to military operations against jihadist groups like ISIS or the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). But we also know that under the terms of the deal, rebel and government forces are required to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged city of Aleppo — and specifically through a large thoroughfare called Castillo Road, which is supposed to become a demilitarized zone.
But it may not be possible to implement both of those provisions. Al-Masdar News, an agency favorable to Assad’s regime, is reporting that Syrian special forces will not withdraw from Castillo Road, and will continue offensive operations against JFS in the city.
Let’s assume this is right. Would this constitute a violation of the ceasefire — or, more precisely, a violation severe enough that the United States would consider the agreement null and void? It’s impossible to say for sure, because we don’t know what the deal defines as a ceasefire violation.
The key here will be watching the reactions of the actual signatories, the United States and Russia. The ceasefire is entirely a creation of a deal they negotiated; if they decide it’s over, then there’s little chance that regime or opposition forces will abide by it.
If American and/or Russian officials seem angry about a particular area in which fighting is continuing to rage, or about a failure to allow in humanitarian aid, that’s a very bad sign for the ceasefire holding.
2) What will Turkey do?
There’s a second major issue as the ceasefire takes hold: the question of what Turkey, America’s most frustrating NATO ally, will do in response.
Nominally, this agreement is about creating conditions under which the US and Russia can go after extremists together, including ISIS. The most effective Syrian faction in fighting ISIS is the country’s Kurds, specifically the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. The YPG, which controls a lot of territory in northern Syria, has agreed to abide by the terms of the ceasefire.
But it’s not clear if Turkey, which invaded Syria on August 24, sees things exactly the same way. The Turks see the YPG as extension of a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey, called the PKK, which has carried out a string of terror attacks inside Turkey. Ankara worries that any territory conquered by the YPG could become a de facto safe haven for the PKK, potentially fueling separatist sentiment among Turkey’s sizable Kurdish minority.
So the Turkish invasion of Syria, sold as a counter-ISIS operation, was widely understood to be a counter-YPG intervention. Indeed, shortly after invading, Turkish forces began battering YPG emplacements. The United States was very unhappy; the Department of Defense publicly labeled the Turkey-YPG fighting “unacceptable.”
What does this all mean for the ceasefire? Well, for one thing, it shows that the ceasefire is partial even if it’s implemented to the letter. The agreement is mostly about the regime-rebel war and the counter-extremism campaign — which are two major conflicts in Syria but not the only ones.
Moreover, it’s not clear how the US will react if Turkey keeps shelling the YPG. One of the goals of this agreement is to put together a broader coalition against ISIS. But if the Kurds, an important part of any such operation, are too busy fighting Turkey to take part, it might be hard for the ceasefire to meaningfully impact the situation on the ground. So what does the US do if its ally is messing with its agreement?
3) Will moderate rebels actually part ways with the extremists?
One of the big problems for the US’s counter-extremism campaign is the interconnection between the rebels and JFS. Unlike ISIS, which seized territory by attacking other rebels, JFS (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) 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 more moderate 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. But according to Lister, the rebels — who have otherwise accepted the terms of the ceasefire — are refusing to decouple from JFS.
Will they eventually make the split? That’s hard to say. First, it’s not clear if the rebels think the risk is worth it: 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 that has shown itself to be militarily proficient and willing to undertake risky — and bloody — missions.
It’s also not obvious 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 oust it from jointly held territory at an acceptable cost.
If they don’t, then the agreement is in a lot of trouble. The next stage of the agreement — US-Russia intelligence sharing and cooperation in a campaign against ISIS and JFS — is premised on the idea that JFS targets can be separated from rebel ones. If they can’t, then the US faces a grim choice: Collapse its agreement with Russia, or attack rebels fighting a dictator that it (nominally) opposes.