The gradual erosion of the cease-fire in Syria over the past month is the result of multiple factors shaping the conflict, but one of the underlying reasons is the Obama administration’s failure to carry out its commitment to Russia to get US-supported opposition groups to separate themselves physically from the Nusra Front — the al-Qaeda organization in Syria.
US Secretary of State John Kerry made the promise to separate the groups as part of the understandings underlying the February 22 cease-fire, but never delivered on it. And by the time Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov finished negotiating on how to make the “cessation of hostilities” more effective in the Syrian city of Aleppo on May 2, the Obama administration had effectively withdrawn that concession completely.
The joint US-Russian statement on Monday reaffirming the original February agreement makes no mention of the proximity issue, despite its centrality to the negotiations between the two powers on how to reduce the violence in Syria.
The administration’s vacillation on the issue reflects the reality that the US-supported armed opposition has no intention to withdraw from its close military collaboration with Nusra Front. It also reflects deep divisions within the administration over Syria policy. Obama has leaned toward working with Russia on a cease-fire as an alternative to reliance on the armed opposition to put pressure on Bashar al-Assad, but senior officials in the Pentagon, CIA and US State Department remain strongly committed to ramping up military assistance to anti-Assad forces.
A central issue in the US-Russian cease-fire negotiations in February was the fact that the opposition groups supported by the CIA operate in close proximity to and full cooperation with units of al-Nusra Front. In January 2015, the former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, admitted that the Obama administration had long “looked the other way while the Nusra Front and armed groups on the ground, some of which are getting help from us, have coordinated in military operations against the regime.” That coordination has been formalized in a joint command for Aleppo Province, where Nusra Front controls the administration of the opposition zone in Aleppo city.
Lavrov argued in the February negotiations that opposition forces operating in close proximity to al-Nusra Front and its closest allies could not claim immunity from attacks on Nusra Front. The “cessation of hostilities” excludes Nusra Front forces, which are considered legitimate targets. UN Security Council Resolution 2254, passed in December 2015, also calls on all states to “eradicate” the “safe havens” that Nusra Front had established in Syria.
But as The Washington Post reported on February 19, Kerry was rejecting Lavrov’s demand in negotiations on a cease-fire, insisting that Russians should halt airstrikes on Nusra Front-controlled areas to avoid hitting “moderate” opposition forces. Kerry finally agreed to the Russian demand that the US-supported opposition units separate themselves physically from the Nusra Front forces in order to avoid being hit in Russian strikes against the terrorist organization, as Lavrov revealed in April. Part of the plan for the February cease-fire was a commonly agreed map that would delineate the zones to be occupied by opposition forces, which would be clearly separated from the Nusra zones.
In discussing the cease-fire agreement on February 22, Kerry’s spokesman at the State Department, Mark C. Toner, clearly implied that the United States and Russia were in agreement on the aim of separating the non-jihadist forces from the Nusra Front and its close allies. He told reporters, “If you hang out with the wrong folks, then you make that decision…. You choose who you hang out with, and that sends a signal.”
The Russians agreed to refrain from air attacks on Nusra Front forces until the expected physical separation could be carried out. That concession explains the relative paucity of Russian air attacks against the Nusra Front zones in Aleppo and Idlib provinces from late February through March.
In return the Obama administration apparently agreed to prevail on its allies to halt the flow of arms and troops to Nusra Front and other opposition units in northern Syria, as long as the Russians and Assad abided by the cease-fire. The halt continued through late March, according to Iranian sources described as “high officials present in Syria.” The “cessation of hostilities” resulting from the US-Russian understanding dramatically reduced deaths and destruction in Syria from late February until mid-April.
But Lavrov complained publicly in mid-April that, despite repeated promises by the United States to get the moderates to move away from Nusra Front forces, “those promises are still not fulfilled. A week later, Kerry confirmed Lavrov’s accusation, telling The New York Times editorial board that “it was harder to separate them than we thought.”
Whether or not Kerry actually believed the separation was possible, the process of separation was bound to be resisted by the armed opposition in the absence of a threat to cut off US assistance. So some senior administration officials — including Kerry himself — who had been pushing Obama to be more aggressive in supporting the CIA client opposition groups, had reason to resist the very separation that the US had promised to carry out.
By April 22, the cease-fire began to disintegrate in and around Aleppo, and opponents of the policy of diplomatic cooperation with Russia on Syria launched a counterattack. Unidentified Obama administration officials told Reuters that Russia had “renewed airstrikes against moderate opposition groups” in Aleppo and that “a failure to respond” could “encourage Russia to escalate challenges to U.S. and allied militaries through more provocative Russian air and naval maneuvers.”
The State Department soon acknowledged indirectly that it had abandoned its previous commitment to push for physical separation. Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the US “Operation Inherent Resolve” against ISIS (also known as Daesh) in Iraq and Syria, had let slip the admission that “It’s primarily al-Nusra who hold Aleppo” during an April 20 briefing. But on April 27, State Department spokesman Mark Toner contradicted that admission. He referred to a “misperception” that “some of these opposition groups were in league with Nusra and other terrorist organizations” and that “Aleppo is under Nusra control.”
Toner then quoted from a letter from US Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney to opposition groups that codified the new administration stance on the separation issue. “The Syrian people and revolutionary factions,” it said, must “distance themselves from the terrorists to the maximum extent possible.” The qualifying phrase “to the maximum extent possible” clearly signaled that the United States was no longer insisting on “distancing” by the armed opposition as a requirement.
On May 3, the day after the last phone conversation between Kerry and Lavrov on Aleppo and just before the undefined new understanding applying the truce temporarily in Aleppo was to take effect, at the regular daily State Department press briefing, a journalist asked State Department spokesman John Kirby about the negotiations with Russia on “delineating terrorists from rebels.” Kirby said, “We have seen examples where groups like al-Nusra and Daesh intermingle themselves with others so as to help protect themselves from attacks” — but said nothing about the necessity for the US-supported groups to separate themselves geographically.
Then the same journalist asked whether the US supported the position taken in a statement signed by 37 opposition groups that explicitly refused to recognize any distinction between Nusra Front and other groups. “We the armed groups across Syria will form a single bloc,” it declared.
Only then did Kirby peel back slightly the veil of diplomatic secrecy over the US position. “We want all parties — everybody — to abide by the cessation of hostilities,” he said, “and when we are able to come to an agreement on some additional modalities, to agree to that.” Although the syntax was difficult to follow, Kirby was acknowledging that the US was still dangling the possibility of separating the US-supported armed groups from Nusra Front before the Russians — but only as part of a larger agreement that would presumably involve Russia’s commitment to forcing the Assad government to agree that Assad would step down.
On May 4, Kirby was asked if the United States now expected Russia to stop its attacks on targets in Aleppo, in light of the lack of action on separating the “moderates” from the legitimate targets presented by Nusra Front. Kirby said only that the US demand was for “complete de-escalation” in Aleppo, without any conditions.
The State Department has thus abandoned the commitment it had made in the original cease-fire agreement to ensure that its opposition clients would separate themselves from Nusra Front, while keeping the possibility on the table as a bargaining chip to get the Russians to increase their pressure on Assad.
In the May 9 joint statement, Russia agreed to work with the Syrian government to “minimize aviation operation over areas that are predominantly inhabited by civilians or parties to the cessation,” but it said nothing about Russian airstrikes on the Nusra Front zone. And the United States committed to “intensifying its support and assistance to regional allies to help them prevent the flow of fighters, weapons, or financial support to terrorist organizations across their borders.” But the statement made only the most indirect allusion to the contentious “proximity” issue in referring to working on “a shared understanding” of the territory controlled by Nusra Front.