Op-Ed by SAC's Policy and Advocacy Officer, Shlomo Bolts and Suhayla Sibaai - 08/09/17
President Trump’s Plan for a Syrian ceasefire is in trouble.
Last month, after agreeing with Russia on a ceasefire plan for southwest Syria, Trump was optimistic: “We are working on a second ceasefire in a very rough part of Syria...if we get that and a few more, all of the sudden you are going to have no bullets being fired in Syria.” Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had other plans.
Slowly but surely, Assad has been eroding the general framework that made Trump’s ceasefire possible: a Russian-proposed plan for “de-escalation zones” around each of the main Syrian opposition areas. These zones – patrolled by Russia, Iran and Turkey – are meant to prevent further fighting, including all Assad regime attacks.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster has explicitly said that “such zones are a priority for the United States.”
But Assad is not honoring the zones. On Tuesday, Assad’s military dropped leaflets on a de-escalation zone near northern Syria, warning, “Resistance is futile! Leave [list of towns]...to save your lives.”
Also Tuesday, regime forces launched heavy bombings on a second de-escalation zone in central Syria after local forces disagreed with a Russian peacekeeping proposal. And in a third de-escalation zone near the capital, regime forces launched heavy bombardments and a new offensive on Wednesday.
These attacks are especially harmful because they appear designed to break apart the zones. Assad forces issued threats, negotiated peacekeeping arrangements, and launched new attacks on a regional or town-by-town basis rather than respecting the zones of the ceasefire.
If allowed to continue, this trend will destroy the de-escalation zones and cause the ceasefire to fail like all previous ceasefires.
Trump needs to re-engage for the ceasefire to endure, and it won’t be enough to give Russia carte blanche in Syria. Russia has enabled Assad’s violations. Russia conducted “warplane diplomacy” in the zone near the capital by threatening specific neighborhoods with heavy airstrikes. Russia similarly timed its peacekeeping proposal in central Syria to coincide with escalated regime air raids on the zone.
The deployment of U.S. monitors can keep Assad and Russia honest and restore credibility to the ceasefire. At the moment, the ceasefire lacks a credible commitment from either side.
On the regime side, the heavy presence of regime allies Russia and Iran as monitors might reassure Assad that the ceasefire is safe for him — but it also signals that he is safe to commit violations.
On the opposition side, Russia has already threatened strikes on rebel groups even for debatable violations — but opposition negotiators cannot ignore that past localized ceasefires have meant the besiegement of opposition areas, “kneel or starve” campaigns, and population transfers.
Without monitors considered credible by the opposition, it is unlikely they will commit to a plan rife with perils of the past.
U.S. monitors would be able to quickly observe regime violations firsthand without the disputes over veracity that plagued previous ceasefires. They would be able to observe rebel violations as well, to confirm or refute Assad claims that the other side’s “terrorists” had shot first.
Finally, they could restore U.S. leverage in Syria and serve U.S. interests in countering Iran’s growing influence. Whether or not Trump wishes to make a bargain with Russia, the U.S. needs leverage in Syria if it wishes to constrain Iran from further expansion in the region.
There is already precedent for the successful deployment of U.S. forces as peacekeepers in Syria. Just this March, as tensions between Syrian rebels and Kurdish PYD forces escalated in northern Syria, the U.S. deployed military columns with Old Glory flying high to “deter parties from attacking any other parties other than ISIS.”
Russia has shown repeatedly that it does not want to fight U.S. forces in Syria, and U.S.-Russian aerial deconfliction over Syria has been largely successful. If U.S. forces were to jointly patrol the “de-escalation zones” with Russia, that same success could be repeated on the ground.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the southwest Syria ceasefire the “first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.” If Russian commitment to peace is genuine, Russia should welcome joint patrols with the U.S. because such patrols can serve to cement the ceasefire. Russia has long been requesting military cooperation with the U.S. in Syria and nearly got its wish under President Obama.
Russia should welcome such a proposal from Trump – unless its true goal is not peace, but the enabling of Assad and Iran, in which case Trump will need to act accordingly.
Years of U.S. policy failures in Syria have made U.S. cooperation with Russia in Syria almost inevitable.
However, cooperation does not need to mean surrendering to Russia’s will. U.S. peacekeeping monitors would help constrain Iran’s role, keep Russia and Assad honest, and bring Syria one step closer to peace.
Shlomo Bolts is the policy and advocacy officer for the Syrian American Council. Suhayla Sibaai conducts policy research for the Danish Refugee Council. She was previously the government relations coordinator for the Syrian American Council.