Can Russia succeed in getting Assad to behave?
The much-heralded Syrian “cease-fire” that Russia shepherded through last week is already on a fast track to being annulled. In a repeat of the prior failed cease-fire early last year, the Syrian regime did not hesitate to violate the terms of the agreement, and promptly launched a renewed operation of indiscriminate bombing in the Wadi Barada area outside Damascus.
The regime’s blatant disregard for the agreement is a clear reflection of its extermination strategy. The fall of Aleppo to Iran’s paramilitary forces has only reinforced Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military approach in pursuing ethnic cleansing and reorienting the country’s demographic makeup to create contiguous lines of support and supply linking Hezbollah enclaves with regime strongholds.
Notably, in another repeat of last year’s moribund cease-fire, Assad immediately took advantage of the lull in fighting on one front to focus resources and manpower on strategic neighborhoods and towns in and around Damascus.
Albert Einstein famously said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It seems we are witnessing the very embodiment of that definition of insanity with this latest failure to halt Assad’s war machine.
The armed factions of the Syrian opposition came to a collective agreement to sign the cease-fire based on a concrete set of stipulations that were to be guaranteed by Russia as a way to hold Assad accountable to the terms. Turkey in return would serve as the “guarantor” on the rebel side.
This novel approach seemed promising initially, as it shifted away from the now-obsolete Geneva negotiations hosted by the UN in the past. In the UN negotiations, the US under President Barack Obama was not willing to play a meaningful role in holding the Assad regime accountable for violating Security Council resolutions. Nor was Washington willing to serve as a guarantor with the rebels, as Iran and Russia do with the regime.
If Assad and Moscow were truly committed to defeating Daesh in Syria (which categorically they are not), a cease-fire with Sunni armed groups would have been in the best interests of all sides. It would have allowed Sunni fighters to continue fighting Daesh in the northern Syrian countryside and in the Qalamoun region northeast of Damascus, as they have been since 2013.
Instead, the cease-fire is now on the precipice of total collapse, so the political negotiations scheduled to be held in Kazakhstan now seem to be nothing more than a mirage. The Syrian opposition released a statement on Monday that declared: “The regime and its allies continued their onslaught and committed many breaches... (They) also shelled the Al-Fijeh spring that provides water for millions of Syria.”
For Assad, a cease-fire is merely an opportunity to reload and refit. This development should not come as a surprise to diplomats and analysts. The last cease-fire was leveraged by Assad to renew operations to encircle Aleppo.
Moscow probably calculated that by serving as a guarantor to a cease-fire and follow-on political negotiations, it could attempt to reach a deal in which some Sunni armed groups are co-opted by the regime and allowed a level of autonomy to help fight Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
This strategy, employed by Russia in Chechnya, proved to be an effective and efficient solution to pacification. Co-option is a critical element of asymmetric warfare and counter-insurgency. The only difference is that in Syria, Assad seems to be in no mood to adhere totally to an even remotely sensible outcome that would force him to cede territory to the opposition and halt the bloodshed.
A golden opportunity will be lost. Without Sunni opposition groups, defeating Daesh and Al-Qaeda in their strongholds in Syria will be wishful thinking at best. Is Moscow willing or able to order Assad to abide by the agreed terms of the cease-fire? We will soon find out. One thing is for sure: Repeating the same mistakes and assumptions of the past when it comes to Assad and Syria will only prove Einstein right once more.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.