international analysis and commentary

Syria’s failed ceasefire and Assad’s war on terrorism

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After five years of incessant hostility that often alluded to the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and witnessed the birth of the so-called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called “caliphate”, a ceasefire was reached on February 27 between the forces loyal to Assad and the varied array of rebel groups. The ceasefire was planned and announced by the US, which supports a few opposition groups, and Russia, which supports Assad. Two groups were excluded from the truce: the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and the local Al-Qaeda branch that is known as the Al-Nusra Front (‘the Support Front’).

Under the leadership of the Al-Qaeda head, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Nusra is not only waging a war on Assad’s regime, but also fighting the Al-Baghdadi’s men who in turn consider the Al-Qaeda group members as “heretics”. Recently, Al-Nusra launched an attack on Al-Eis, a village southwest of Aleppo. Al-Eis is of crucial strategic importance in the region because of its location on the supply route between the governorates of Hama and Aleppo. The village overlooks the strategic main highway known as M5 that links Aleppo and Homs, which is under the control of government forces, to the capital of Syria, Damascus. On April 1, the day of the attack, Al-Nusra released a statement in which it claimed responsibility for the attack and declared perpetrating the assault with three suicide bombers and military vehicles.

An apparent weak point in this ceasefire, among others, is the porosity of the group often referred to as the “moderate rebels’ front”, which comprises secular rebel groups but certainly also jihadist factions that are ideologically affiliated with Al-Nusra. There is thus an ideological and strategic affinity between Al-Nusra and the Islamist factions who are represented in the Free Syrian Army, which is theoretically included in the ceasefire agreement.

This intricate correlation permitted the Al-Qaeda group in Syria to launch the assault on Al-Eis and violate the ceasefire that was put into effect a few weeks ago. Even though the Islamic State and Al-Nusra are excluded from the agreement, Al-Nusra continues to coordinate its operations with other rebel groups, some of which are protected by the ceasefire agreement. The assault on Al-Eis was in retaliation for the regime’s air force’s March 31 air raid on Deir dl-Safir, a rebel controlled village on the outskirts of Damascus.

The Russian Coordination Center that is monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire along with its US counterpart from the Jordanian capital Amman, has condemned what it perceived as “serious violations” by the Syrian rebels. The rebels, however, claim that they were only responding to the Syrian government’s attempt to block the M5 highway. According to the Los Angeles Times, the media spokesman for the Free Syrian Army group Division 13, Zakariya Qaytaz, declared, “This violation of the ceasefire is the answer to the violation of the ceasefire by the regime.”

Despite the ceasefire, the most violent battle front is still that of Aleppo. Since the beginning of the truce, this is where the fiercest battles between the government forces and the rebels have taken place. On April 5, the fighting was aggravated by the downing of a Russian fighter jet and the capture of its pilot who subsequently appeared in a video released by Al-Nusra.

The Lebanese newspaper Annahar quoted the Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abd al-Rahman, as claiming that military operations in Syria have escalated. After its expulsion from Palmyra, the Islamic State launched a violent attack on the outskirts of northeastern Damascus. Meanwhile, government forces are only 20km away from the city of Al-Sukhna in the governorate of Homs, near Deirez-Zor, the second Islamic State stronghold in Syria after Al-Raqqah. The Islamic State is also suffering defeats on the borders between Syria and Turkey, where rebel factions and Turkish military units are positioned. Making their struggle even harder are the raids by the anti-ISIS international coalition and the recent Russian airstrikes.

The subsequent significant loss of ground by the Islamic State has driven the organization to adopt a new strategy that aims to replicate the Iraqi-Syrian scenario in Libya, where the Islamic State has established three provinces: Barqa (Cyrenaica), Fezzan, and Tripolitania. It has since succeeded in making the Libyan city of Sirte its de facto capital in North Africa. According to what was broadcast on the Libyan TV station Libya Channel on April 5, ISIS has decreased the salaries of its fighters in Syria and Iraq and increased those of its fighters in Libya. These wages could be as much as double those of their “colleagues” in Syria and in Iraq. On January 13, the official website of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights mentioned that the ISIS financial department in Al-Raqqah has recently decided to reduce its fighters’ salaries due to “exceptional circumstances”.

The first evaluation of this semi-ceasefire will take place in Geneva on April 13. So far, the Syrian opposition has clearly stated its rejection of a transitional government that the Syrian President could be a part of especially since Assad himself has claimed he would endorse such a government. More decisive than the Alawites and their opposition, however, are Russia and the US. While Washington clearly favors the removal of Assad, it has not objected to his possible role in the future of Syria. In this view, a transitional government could ensure his gradual exit from the scene.

On March 24, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in hopes of convincing him to put some pressure on Assad. To demonstrate that he still decides the fate of his country, Assad has announced that he will hold parliamentary elections on April 14. The Alawite regime’s policy of promoting invincibility was reinforced by its recent military victory against the Islamic State in Palmyra. The defeat of the Islamic State was also a defeat for the opposition that aspires to overthrow Assad.

According to the regime, this victory reinforces its claim that only the “Lion of Damascus” can defeat the Islamic State. Assad maintains that the war he wages is against terrorism, and not against his political opposition. As once declared by the Mufti of the regime, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, Assad’s battle is against terrorism that threatens Syria, the region, and even Europe.