Column: Syria Ceasefire terms pose major risks for the rebels

Column: Syria Ceasefire terms pose major risks for the rebels

One need not espouse the hardline ideology of Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham to agree with its view that the new “cessation of hostilities”, brokered by Russia and the United States, “will only serve to reinforce the [Syrian] regime and surround the revolution militarily”.

The days leading up to the truce saw the regime and its allies intensify air strikes and ground offensives, killing scores of civilians and undermining trust, which is vital to maintaining a ceasefire.

This has been their tactic in the run-up to every previous truce. As such, Syrian civilians can be forgiven for dreading the very prospect of a ceasefire, let alone having no hope that it will last.

Just hours before the current one took effect, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to retake the whole country. He made the same vow while Russia and the US were hammering out the previous “cessation of hostilities” in February, which collapsed amid repeated regime violations.

Ambiguous ceasefire

This is a clear indication that, to him, such ceasefires are stepping stones to achieving that aim, not to a negotiated political solution.

Indeed, pro-Assad forces continue to besiege rebel-held areas during the current ceasefire.

This tactic, which is a war crime as it entails collective punishment of civilian populations, has proved effective in forcing rebel withdrawals from certain strategic areas.

This is probably why the regime is violating the ceasefire terms by denying aid access to rebel-held eastern Aleppo, and why at the time of writing, no aid had yet been delivered to besieged areas – a recent investigation by The Guardian exposed how the regime controls United Nations aid, and led this month to more than 70 aid groups suspending their cooperation with the UN in Syria.

As with the last truce, there is no indication or hope that the current one will lead to a political breakthrough, even if it does hold – sporadic violations have already been reported.

Last week, the regime once again reiterated that Assad’s position – the crux of the conflict – is not up for discussion.

This position will have only hardened amid recent battlefield gains thanks to Russian air strikes and ground support from Iranian troops, Hezbollah fighters and other foreign Shia militias – all of whom have been reinforced, particularly for the battle over Aleppo.

Meanwhile, Moscow has said that it will continue targeting “terrorists”, without clarifying which groups it means. There is no consensus about which groups are “terrorist”, and Russia’s definition is far broader and more fluid than that of the Syrian opposition’s foreign backers.

The Jabhat Fateh al-Sham dimension

As such, Moscow may feel it can continue to have a free hand in its air campaign, particularly since the text of the agreement with the US has not been made public or even made available to rebel groups.

In other words, they are being given an ultimatum to abide by a deal they have not even seen, or risk being targeted.

In that regard, a central demand is that rebel groups separate their forces from those of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the al-Nusra Front).

This is being presented as something relatively straightforward and a test of rebel groups’ sincerity with regard to renouncing terrorism and seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict.

However, this aspect of the agreement presents grave difficulties and dangerous choices for the opposition, and could majorly benefit the regime.

Firstly, it is far easier said than done given how intertwined the rebel positions are, particularly in the face of recent regime gains.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham played a major role in the recent breaking of the regime siege of eastern Aleppo. This was a major feat that averted that part of the city falling to the regime, which would have been disastrous for the revolution.

A separation of rebel forces from those of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham would leave eastern Aleppo vulnerable to the regime, whose advance was stalled and reversed precisely because rebel forces worked together.

Generally speaking, if the rebels separate, this may entail ceding positions to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. In the short term this would bolster the jihadist group, the opposite of what the “cessation of hostilities” intends.

In the longer term, however, US and Russian air strikes against the group – which would be easier to target if other rebels separate from it – would lead to it withdrawing from certain areas. The subsequent void may well be filled by the regime.

Between a rock and hard place

If rebel groups separate from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the ceasefire collapses – which it almost certainly will – the overall armed opposition will be more divided, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham may target those groups.

When it was al-Nusra Front, it did not shy away from attacking other rebels. For example, it forced two western-backed groups to disband altogether.

If the rebels do not or cannot separate, they risk being targeted by the regime, Russia and even the US. As such, the opposition is stuck between a rock and hard place. The regime and its allies do not face that kind of pressure under this “cessation of hostilities”.

The architects of the agreement are overlooking the extent to which various rebel groups cooperate with Jabhat Faeth al-Sham out of strategic necessity rather than ideological convergence.

With regard to the latter aspect, for example, the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have nothing in common.

Given all these considerations, even if the agreement is not meant to benefit the regime – which can be hotly disputed, particularly regarding Russian intentions – it may do so in any case.

The irony is that this truce may lead to more war or to pacification, but not to peace.

Sharif NashashibiAl Jazeera

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs