© Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters
After 14 hours of marathon talks in Geneva, Russia and the USA agreed on a new ceasefire deal in Syria. A key difference to the February cessation of hostilities deal is that the US and Russia have agreed to coordinate airstrikes on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra). There is a catch — and here is where we get the first signs of the agreement unravelling: pre-conditions of a seven-day cease fire need to be met before strikes can commence.

Under the deal an initial 48-hour ceasefire commences as of yesterday, 12 September. This ceasefire then extends to at least 7 days. Should the ceasefire hold, a Russian-US Joint Implementation Centre (JIG) will be set up to delineate territories controlled by JFS and opposition groups in areas of active hostilities. This amounts to separating terrorists and "moderate" or "sane" opposition.

Russia and the US will share targeting data and coordinate air strikes against JFS and ISIS. To ensure the effectiveness of airstrikes, the US is to persuade opposition groups it supports to separate themselves from JFS forces. Up to this point this has been an exercise in futility, or perhaps intransigence, and is another potential pitfall to unravel the agreement in its embryonic stage.

Under the deal, the Syrian air force will halt strikes against JFS and other opposition groups; instead, the US and Russia will coordinate strikes against JFS.

Unhindered and unrestricted access for vital humanitarian aid forms part of the deal, something that is to be applauded if it can deliver vitally needed supplies to besieged populations. However, it does not address the issue of besieged areas of Syria and is vulnerable to breaches or a breakdown in the agreement.

Sticking Points

The ceasefire comes just as Syrian government-led forces have reimposed the encirclement on opposition forces in the epic battle for Aleppo, dropping leaflets calling for the rebels in eastern Aleppo to lay down their arms. Advances are being made in Latakia and Damascus provinces, while imposing a siege in Aleppo allows forces to prepare advances into the Idlib stronghold of the Islamist Jaysh al-Fateh coalition.

This resembles the situation in February, when the Syrian government had gained the upper hand. This provokes some angst, as back in February the opposition groups used the cessation of hostilities to resupply, rearm and reinforce their numbers. The "intermingling" of "moderates" with al-Nusra was a cynical exploitation of an agreement which afforded Nusra the protection it needed to regroup and prepare for fresh offensives.

The fresh offensive exploded onto the scene at the end of July when reinforced Jaysh al-Fateh coalition forces broke through the siege in Aleppo imposed by Syrian government forces. Intense battles since in the Ramouseh district in southwest Aleppo have seen the changing of control over the military academies, 1070 Al-Hamdaniyah Housing Project and Al-'Amariyah District. The fluctuating status of control has alternately resulted in government-held western Aleppo being cut off from supply lines and Islamist forces' narrow corridors of supply lines being cut off. The reimposition of the siege puts the Syrian government in a position where it can press for surrender of Jihadist forces.

It remains to be seen if the ceasefire allows rebels to regroup and be reinforced, as also happened in April. The crucial element is whether or not the "moderate" rebels break their alliance with JFS. (Some 'Free Syrian Army' spokesmen have said they will abide by the ceasefire if the government does, and they support the fight against JFS. Ahrar al-Sham has said it rejects the deal, making clear where their loyalties lie.)

The talk of separating from JFS is somewhat disingenuous, as are the claims that they are alliances of convenience, or that the imposition of sieges has forced them to cooperate with JFS. The truth of the matter is that rebel groups are in alliances with JFS, such as in the umbrella organisation Jaysh al-Fateh. JFS is a powerful dominant force, particularly in Idlib and Aleppo. They are an experienced, well-armed and -trained group that receives heavy foreign backing. Therefore they are a militarily strategic ally fully embraced by other Islamist and so-called moderate militias.

A commander of a Free Syrian Army Unit explains the depth of the ties with JFS:
"Fateh al-Sham is a faction present on the ground and it takes part in most of the military operations, and the matter of separating it is not possible, particularly given that there are attempts to merge, within some factions, with Fateh al-Sham," Fares al-Bayoush, commander of the FSA unit "Northern Division" said, as cited by Reuters.
The military superiority of JFS presents other rebel groups with a dilemma in assessing the call to break alliances and separate from JFS to enable the US and Russia to isolate and destroy JFS, thus paving the way for renewed peace talks. This dilemma is illustrated in the New York Times:
Armed opposition groups read the deal as ordering them to remove better-armed Nusra fighters from their areas, something they lack the military power to do alone, or else face attack by the United States — a country that has provided some of the rebel groups with training and weapons for years.
There is also the question of whether or not other forces can separate from JFS, even if they want to. As Sam Heller says writing for The Century Foundation, "In the north, the Nusra Front is just too powerful to confront."

To avoid such confrontations, JFS may blend in with the opposition. Will intelligence officials of the US/Russia and their allies be able to discern if there is increased "mingling" of JFS with opposition forces? RT reports that Washington has called on the groups it supports to separate from JFS:
Washington has called on the Syrian armed opposition to stick to the milestone US-Russia deal, calling on militants to part ways with Al-Nusra or face repercussions, a letter written by the US special envoy to Syria said. It reportedly promised rebels a right to retaliate.
The elephant in the room in this new ceasefire equation is Turkey, freshly planted across 90 kilometres of Northern Syria, blocking the Kurds from joining their enclaves in the east and west. Turkey's presence, and its boosting of its Free Syrian Army allies, may instil some confidence and the support needed for opposition groups to break their JFS ties.

There is considerable room for scepticism over Turkey's claims to be fighting ISIS, however there is no denying that their expulsion from Manbij and Jarablus (or was that an agreement?) compromises their supply lines and isolates their caliphate of Raqqa, vulnerable now in the race to liberate it. Just yesterday, the US Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve said the coalition destroyed 10 ISIS supply lines around Raqqa.

Continuing in the vein of scepticism, there are those such as Moon of Alabama who believe, with some merit, that ISIS has not been driven from the border regions, but that rather the border has just moved south. Either way, Turkey continues to make overtures of their apparent good will. Yesterday, Erdogan told reporters of Turkey's plan to send a humanitarian convoy to Aleppo: "Today after sunset under the auspices of the UN or our Red Crescent Society, trucks with food, toys and clothing will be sent through coordinated corridors mainly to Aleppo."

In a portent of what may lie ahead, and which underscores Israel's destructive policy towards Syria, Israeli air strikes in Quinetra targeted Syrian government forces in support of and coordinated with a JFS-led assault. Sabotage even before the ceasefire commences. Israel's role in the destruction of Syria has been paid relatively little attention. Its support of JFS is clear, and once more we see the dominance of JFS in another region, allies in tow as its actions continue to stretch the forces of the Syrian government and its allies.

Let me just clarify that for you: Israel is conducting airstrikes in support ofa mercenary faction in Syria that the US and Russia have agreed, in principle, to conduct air strikes against.

Reliability of the USA

Is the USA sacrificing JFS/Nusra to preserve the other rebel groups? Is Barack Obama, lame-duck president supreme, banking on Syria giving him a defining foreign policy achievement as he prepares to sheepishly vacate the White House? Does this ceasefire offer him that legacy? Has John Kerry managed to shake off dogged neocons infesting the military and intelligence networks? Will the new policymakers in waiting, lined up to show off their neocon warmongering credentials under Hillary Clinton, sabotage a potential breakthrough in the Syrian war, remoulding it as a partition of weakened entities vulnerable to continued US destabilisation of the region?

Political analyst Ammar Waqqaf, in an interview with RT, believes Washington is ditching JFS, adopting a more realist foreign policy, which we can optimistically hope they have borrowed from Moscow's far more productive, realistic approach to solving international crises:
"United States have made a big decision in ditching Jabhat Al-Nusra to preserve the other fighting groups, the other what they call the moderate fighting groups," the analyst told RT, calling it the "cornerstone" of the deal.
The Pentagon continues to be a stumbling block to any outbreak of peace. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, never shy in disgracing himself, stated that President Assad still needs to be gone "as soon as possible." Carter is a first-class honours graduate from the school of "confront, don't cooperate," tirelessly spinning the line of Russia being an "existential threat" to the US: the biggest one too, by the way.

Illustrating the divide amongst the NATO alliance, EU leaders and Turkey responded positively to the US-Russian deal, in contrast to US generals who say they won't cooperate until they see implementation from Damascus and Moscow.

Potential Positives of the Deal

Any optimism that this new ceasefire deal will end the bloodshed in Syria should be tempered by the fact that this isn't the first occasion during all the ravages inflicted on Syria by five years of foreign-sponsored terror that John Kerry has gone running to the Russians when the Russian-Syrian alliance makes gains against 'ISIS' and 'moderates'.

If opposition groups can be convinced to separate from JFS, whilst they will have lost their most powerful fighting force, they will gain credibility in the claims that they are moderate and that they can contribute to a future political settlement which ends the fighting in Syria. JFS can then be singled out along with ISIS for joint strikes by the US and Russia, further isolating and weakening them.

A successful implementation of the ceasefire aids in creating a stable climate and laying the groundwork for a political settlement with groups sharing an interest in settling the conflict by peaceful means.

Lastly, unrestricted humanitarian aid is crucial and morally imperative, the deal specifying that humanitarian aid is provided without obstruction. All provinces of Syria have suffered from being cut off from life-sustaining necessities, some areas attracting the attention of our friends in Western media more than others in their obsession with demonizing Bashar Al-Assad. It remains to be seen whether there is no blocking and sabotage of both humanitarian assistance and the Syrian ceasefire this time around.


The ceasefire officially began yesterday at 7pm Damascus time (16:00 GMT). The Russian Defense Ministry will continue airstrikes on Daesh and JFS/Nusra, as they are not included in the agreement (same as the February agreement). The Russian Reconciliation Center at Khmeimim airbase in Syria established additional special monitoring groups in all provinces to observe the ceasefire and identify violations.
Rudskoy went on to say that contact between the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria and the US monitoring group in Amman, Jordan, should be reinstated.

The Defense Ministry has urged one of the key opposition groups, the Free Syrian Army, to stop military action against Kurdish units in order to aid the ceasefire. The Kurdish forces are seen as one of the most effective powers on the ground fighting terrorists.

The so-called moderate Syrian opposition has issued a statement backing the ceasefire, TASS reports, citing the Al-Arabiya news channel. However, according to the rebel forces the expulsion of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) from the deal "diminishes the chances of success for the agreement reached."

With airstrikes against the terrorists set to continue, Russia has still not received information from the US on the exact locations of Al-Nusra Front militants, said the chief of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, Lieutenant General Vladimir Savchenko. "I want to stress that the fact that the US has still not provided information allowing the identification of the exact operational places of Jebhat al-Nusra in the combat areas is hampering the fruitful joint work on the cessation of hostilities."

The initial 48-hour truce is crucial for delivering aid to the civilian population, especially in Aleppo.
American officials are urging "Syrian opposition" to "commit to the ceasefire and distance itself from Nusra Front" (so says US Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ben Cardin). Their urgings do seem a bit more serious than they did back in February, but will their actions be any less duplicitous this time?