The recent agreement among world powers for a ceasefire in Syria is being met by bipartisan skepticism on Capitol Hill, with most lawmakers citing an inability to trust Vladimir Putin to stop fighting.
“If Vladimir Putin was serious about reaching a diplomatic solution, he would stop his disgraceful bombing campaign immediately,” the California Republican said Friday.
The skepticism comes from both Republicans and Democrats, and it is being echoed by Syrian opposition leaders and analysts. It underscores the growing feeling that the U.S. is losing leverage in Syria, where the Assad regime, backed by Russian airstrikes, has made significant gains against moderate rebels supported by the United States.
The plans for the cease-fire, which officials are technically calling a “cessation of hostilities,” were announced early Friday after intense negotiations in Munich between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The cease-fire is due to take hold in a week, while humanitarian aid to stricken areas will immediately be increased. But there are some notable caveats to the cease-fire agreement that could unravel it before it takes hold.
For one thing, it requires confirmation from opposition forces, which are hardly unified, and the Assad government. It also doesn’t forbid the various parties from battling terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. The problem, critics say, is that Russia and Assad often label moderate groups as terrorist outfits or insist opposition fighters tied to moderate forces are actually Islamic State or Nusra jihadists.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he hopes the cease-fire takes hold, but indicated he didn’t have high hopes. “I support efforts that have a chance of stopping the violence and bloodshed in Syria,” he said. “I am strongly skeptical that the Russians and the Assad regime are acting in good faith, but I will certainly keep an open mind.”
And Julianne Smith, a former adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who is now with the Center for a New American Security said Putin has given the U.S. plenty of reason to believe Russia’s gestures toward a peaceful resolution are hollow.
“Russia’s behavior over the last two years and its track record in adhering to international agreements has been extremely discouraging, leaving many of us skeptical” about the latest agreement, Smith said. She added: “We can’t forget timing. This is the Munich security conference weekend. Russia likes to use big international forums like this to show the world, particularly Europe, that it is a constructive partner and not an aggressor.”
Why should Vladimir Putin or President Assad want a cease fire? They’re on the verge of a crushing victory in Aleppo. Using indiscriminate bombing attacks on civilians, the Russians are slowly tightening the noose around Syria’s largest city and rebel stronghold.
Putin is winning because he has chosen to commit to total victory. And what of the U.S.?
In the seven days before the announcement early Friday that a cease-fire might go into effect in Syria in another week, Russian forces hit more than 100 times as many targets within the embattled nation as a military coalition that includes the United States.
Exactly how the cease-fire proposed at an international conference in Munich would work is still being decided. The agreement announced by Russian and U.S. officials said “a nationwide cessation of hostilities … should apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities” except the Islamic State, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate — Jabhat al Nusra — “or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council.”
Since Russia considers any organization attacking the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad a terrorist group, the question arises of just how its efforts might change.
And those efforts are substantial, as a weekly report by the Russian Ministry of Defense makes clear. In a report posted Thursday on its website, the ministry noted that its jets flew 510 combat sorties and hit 1,888 “terrorist objects” in Syria. The previous week’s report claimed 464 sorties that hit a total of 1,354 “terrorist objects.”
Daily reports from the U.S. military for the same period indicate a much lower level of activity: 16 targets struck in Syria. The reports also said those forces hit 91 targets in Iraq.
The reports suggest Russia has been far more aggressive than the United States has leading up to the cease-fire proposal.
The U.S. has little or no influence in Syria because we have no real strategy to win. We demanded the ouster of Bashar Assad and then meekly gave in to Russian demands that the tyrant be allowed to stay on as a “transitional figure.” With the recent advances by Assad’s forces, augmented with Shia militias loyal to Iran and Russian air power, the issue of a ceasefire may become moot when government forces emerge triumphant.
Skepticism over a Syrian ceasefire is well deserved and Russia will almost certainly prove that point shortly.