It cannot be doubted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to go “all in” last September initiated an endgame that years of US half-measures in Syria failed to accomplish.
The latest manifestation of the application of Russian power on the one hand, and Washington’s continuing strategic confusion on the other, is the “Joint Statement of the United States and the Russian Federation on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria“, due to come into force at midnight on Saturday February 27.
Whatever the consequences of this latest understanding, they cannot be divorced from the glaring disparities between the local alliances made by Washington and Moscow.
To challenge the Assad regime and ISIL, the Obama administration has tried for almost five years to organise a dizzying array of inchoate, disorganised, and ill-led Islamist factions whose common denominator is their debilitating provincialism and their opportunistic association with ill-defined US objectives.
Say what you want about the opposing coalition of powers supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they do know and agree on who their enemy is, and they are demonstrably capable of uniting in pursuit of victory on the battlefield.
The latest US-Russian agreement on the cessation of hostilities is built on the unstable and inadequate foundation of collective opposition to ISIL, al-Nusra Front, and other unspecified terrorist bad guys.
“The nationwide cessation of hostilities,” explains the Joint Statement, “is to apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities against any other parties other than [ISIL], [al-Nusra Front], or other terrorist organisations designated by the UN Security Council.”
The US-Russian understanding marks a defeat for recent US and opposition efforts to include al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra in the family of factions committed to the agreement and thus place them and the territory where they are present off limits to Russian attack.
The US-Russian understanding marks a defeat for recent US and opposition efforts to include al-Nusra Front in the family of factions committed to the agreement and thus place them and the territory where they are present off limits to Russian attack.
In the days before the agreement was announced, both US and opposition leaders tried to reverse long-standing Security Council prohibitions on dealing with al-Nusra Front and win Russian support for exempting it from the ongoing campaign against ISIL.
Retired generals David Petraeus, father of the “Sahwa” in Iraq, and John Allen, who until November last year coordinated Washington’s anti-ISIL strategy, are among some in Washington who have been prepared, however fitfully, for an alliance of convenience in Syria with al-Qaeda’s local agent.
They argue that the cadre supporting al-Nusra Front can be considered a legitimate part of the US-led battle against ISIL.
Allen, in a little-noticed September interview with Al Arabiya, voiced support for this idea.
“Nusra and other groups – we want them to be able to create for themselves an area that they control and to help us to eliminate [ISIL], and in so doing create the capacity of the Syrian people to be a voice in the political process as well. That’s the goal.”
Since September, the Russian campaign, endorsed by the UNSC 2254 in December, targets al-Nusra Front, as well as ISIL, along with broad definition of circumscribed terror groups.
The resolution calls upon states to“prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, al-Nusra Front, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with al-Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council”.
The exclusion of al-Nusra Front from protected parties in the just-completed cessation of hostilities agreement supports Moscow’s broad offensive against opposition-held territory that has been under way since September.
“I think Russia is counting on Nusra being embedded throughout opposition areas in the country, so they can deal with the ceasefire as they please,” explained a former UN official.
Nevertheless, this latest agreement, in contrast to UNSC 2254, appears to offer some al-Qaeda wannabes and the territories where they are present the opportunity to win a respite from the Russian-led military campaign.
The cessation of hostilities therefore represents a victory of sorts, at least on paper, for US-coalition efforts to maintain the staying power of Islamist groups, some affiliated with al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda, that are not on the UN terror list; that play a key role in the rebel campaign against Assad today, and that have been key targets of the Russian assault in recent months.
Other than al-Nusra Front and ISIL, the cessation of hostilities excludes only those fighters designated by the UNSC as terrorists.
The most recent UN Sanctions List, last updated on February 11, names 242 individuals and 74 entities. Of the latter, fewer than five are present in Syria.
Russia’s adherence to this list would greatly reduce legitimate targets of its military campaign.
The ability of Washington to make strategic gains as a result of this agreement is nevertheless undermined by the endemic pathologies of the opposition.
So for example, the State Department recently refused the opportunity to call upon its Syrian allies to stop fighting alongside al-Nusra Front so as not to be targeted by Russia or Damascus.
The ranks of groups in Syria joining al-Nusra Front continue to increase.
“That’s for them, frankly, to resolve,” noted the State Department spokesman on February 22.
Even as this process unfolds, the ranks of groups in Syria joining al-Nusra Front continue to increase. Such groups continue to work in tandem with al-Nusra Front, and on occasion with ISIL.
On February 21 for example, units of Jund al-Aqsa, which does not appear on the UN list, and ISIL worked in tandem to cut the regime’s main supply route to Aleppo.
The cessation of hostilities is meant to put a stop to such collaboration and the attendant attacks by the regime and its allies.
It is unlikely, however, that the Russian-US condominium is currently strong enough to destroy such alliances in favour of a political process that excludes them in favour of a political process in which the Assad regime continues to play a dominant role.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.