U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have announced an agreement for immediate humanitarian aid for besieged areas in Syria and a cessation of hostilities to begin within one week. The measures could relieve the northern city of Aleppo, which faces a civilian crisis amid a siege aided by Russian air power and foreign militias backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the agreement was cast in terms that make hopes for a national cease-fire likely premature, says Noah Bonsey, senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group. The broader effort to negotiate a political transition may continue to founder, he adds, because the pro-Assad forces are making progress in their military push.
What are the battlefield conditions that brought the near-encirclement of Aleppo?
Two non-Syrian pillars of this military campaign, Russian air strikes and Iran-facilitated foreign fighters, have been the difference-maker for the regime over the last several weeks because the regime has what is essentially an unresolvable manpower problem. Its rate of attrition has been quite high. It cannot replace manpower it loses with comparably effective Syrian fighters, so it is increasingly dependent on its foreign allies to help it compensate for that growing deficiency.
The Russians are helping with very intense air strikes. The cumulative impact of the Russian aerial [intervention beginning] September 30, and its gradual escalation over time, has started to take a toll within rebel ranks. The Russians escalated that dramatically as peace talks were supposed to begin in Geneva [in early February].
The Iranians help with boots on the ground—foreign militias, or Shiite fighters facilitated by Iran. Many of them are Iraqis, and many are Afghan refugees coming from Iran, facilitated by the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps]. IRGC personnel are also playing a role on the ground.
Do these sieges reflect the strategy of the Assad regime?
The regime’s military strategy, supported and increasingly embraced by its backers, is based heavily on collective punishment, [which is] especially important given the regime’s manpower disadvantage. This is one of the reasons we see such heavy use of bombing that is not indiscriminate so much as it is discriminately targeting civilian areas and civilian infrastructure. This is also why we see the siege tactics, which in some cases bring rebel[-held] areas to the point of starvation.
As civilians leave areas, regime advances can become easier. These tactics are also applied as a means of raising the price of resistance to the communities as a whole, so that communities pressure the fighters in their area to accept what the regime offers as cease-fire terms, but also, effectively, to surrender.
The Feb. 11 meeting of the International Syria Support Group [ISSG] came as fledgling peace talks in Vienna appeared to be at an impasse. Where do these efforts on a political transition stand?
"While the U.S. appears enthusiastic—almost desperate—to get some sort of political process moving, Russia appears far less interested in making the process viable."
The political process is based on the premise of U.S.-Russian sponsorship in which the U.S. is the point man rallying the opposition and its backers to a serious negotiating process, and Russia is to do that for the regime side. The reason this current round of the political process is surrounded by such skepticism is that while the U.S. appears enthusiastic—almost desperate—to get some sort of political process moving, Russia appears far less interested in making the process viable at this stage. Russia’s decision to escalate dramatically its aerial attacks on Aleppo—areas with heavy civilian populations—the very day the opposition delegation arrived in Geneva for talks was the latest in a series of indications that Russia is happy to see this political process stall or, potentially, even derail.
The Russian military intervention is enabling significant gains by the regime and its allies, including a lot of foreign forces. The pace of those gains is now relatively high, so the Russians may see their interest in pushing militarily for as long as they’re able to make progress, rather than beginning a negotiation process now that would eventually entail concessions.
Does the ISSG announcement offer a real possibility of relief for civilians?
The agreement provides a glimmer of hope, at least at first glance. In contrast to the previous ISSG agreements, this one includes clearer and more practical steps that could save lives and provide a means of gauging the commitment to this process among state backers on both sides, as well as their ability to convince their respective Syrian allies to act accordingly.
The Munich statement explicitly calls for the immediate, sustained delivery of aid to besieged areas, beginning this week. Russia had previously agreed in principle on the need for such aid, including in the same UN Security Council resolution that endorsed the basis for Geneva talks, but the regime has continued to block aid to areas it is besieging, and Russia had shown no inclination to pressure Damascus to shift policy. The hope now is that Moscow will finally move to ensure the regime’s compliance. If it fails to do so, that would suggest that Moscow is either unwilling or unable to act as a serious partner at this time.
The Munich statement also calls for a cessation of hostilities to commence within one week; this is positive in theory, but the terms of the agreement may render it meaningless in practice. Like previous ISSG agreements, it permits continued operations targeting the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, both of which are designated as terrorist groups by the UN Security Council.
"The Munich statement also calls for a cessation of hostilities to commence within one week; this is positive in theory, but the terms of the agreement may render it meaningless in practice."
That is problematic for two reasons. First, Russia and the regime often claim to be striking the Islamic State or Nusra when in fact its targets are mainstream rebel groups that participate in the political process. Second, Nusra operates in close proximity with mainstream rebels in some parts of Syria, and thus could easily spoil a cessation of hostilities by continuing its own offensive operations. As I’ve argued previously, a viable cessation of hostilities would require sufficient buy-in among mainstream rebels to deter Nusra from continuing its own attacks and also a commitment by Moscow to prevent Russian, regime, and allied forces from initiating attacks on Nusra positions in areas where rebel factions participating in the truce are present. Without these, a cessation of hostilities that looks good on paper won’t amount to much on the ground.
Does the battle for Aleppo have consequences for the broader course of the war?
In 2014, [the International Crisis Group] published a report that began, "As Aleppo goes, so goes Syria’s rebellion." The center of gravity of the non-jihadi components of the Syrian armed opposition—those elements backed by the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and some other regional states—is in and around Aleppo. It is where they are the strongest groups, and it is also strategically the most important part of northern Syria.
For two years now they have been in a precarious position, with hostile ISIS forces to their east who have been seeking to gain ground held by rebels in the countryside north of Aleppo; the regime, within the city and from its outskirts, has been threatening to do the same; and also Kurdish YPG forces, with whom they've often clashed, to their west.
Russian air power and the influx of pro-regime foreign fighters facilitated by Iran have been able to make a strong push to defeat the non-jihadi opposition in this key part of Syria. They may be helped indirectly by nearby efforts by the YPG to take advantage of the situation and advance from the west, and ISIS, [which] we can expect to take advantage of events from the east. The combination could deal a crippling blow to the opposition in this part of the country, which would put in question the viability of the non-jihadi opposition as a whole. As those groups are defeated, you can expect jihadi groups—Jabhat al-Nusra, even ISIS—to seek to gain recruits.
The regime's backers are enabling it to progress toward what it has been aiming for for some time: the defeat of the state-backed, non-jihadi opposition, so that the war becomes binary, between the regime and Salafi jihadi groups. In that scenario, which is where things seem to be headed, there’s no prospect of political resolution, because jihadi groups and the regime are not going to reach one. The regime would then lobby for other elements of the international community to come to its aid. Jihadi groups, meanwhile, would remain powerful, waging a long-term asymmetrical war against regime forces. This is a worst-case scenario, in which it’s difficult to imagine how the war de-escalates, let alone ends.
Turkey has come under pressure from the UN, among others, to allow in Aleppo refugees massing at its border, the same week as German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Ankara to press for stemming the refugee flow to Europe. How is Turkey managing these competing pressures?
It is becoming less politically and economically viable within Turkey to bear the burden of rising numbers of refugees. Many of these refugees seek to move to Europe. You have complicated negotiations between Turkey and Europe about how to handle that. That helps explain Turkey's reluctance to open the border.
Turkey also has a longstanding goal of seeking to establish what it refers to as a "safe zone" along the border. For years now it has lobbied the United States to help accomplish that by providing a no-fly zone, at least over that limited stretch of border territory. As the numbers of refugees at the border grow, Turkey sees its interest in keeping the border closed: it is seeking to limit major new inflows of refugees and establish a precedent of housing refugees along the border in what it hopes will become a safe zone.
What would such a safe zone entail, given the complications of Russian aircraft in the theater?
Among the requirements of establishing a safe zone—the term itself may be misleading, because how safe the zone would actually be is up for debate—is an end to regime and Russian air attacks in the area. It’s unlikely that the regime and the Russians would agree to that, so those air attacks would need to be deterred or otherwise prevented. Turkey can’t do that alone; it needs the U.S. Air Force to enforce such a zone if the regime and Russia are unwilling to agree to it.
The prohibitive factor is the amount of American investment—politically and potentially militarily—to deter air attacks in that area. The United States sought to avoid that kind of engagement even before the Russian air force was flying all over northern Syria. Now we can expect the U.S. administration to be even more reluctant to seriously consider this option.
This interview has been edited and condensed.