Amidst a stunning admission that the Syrian anti-Government forces are not familiar with the ceasefire resolution procedures, or what targets have been jointly discussed between the US and Russia in Syria as the Agreeement required, and silence from the US ceasefire coordination center in Amman, signs that Russia’s legally sanctioned strikes on al-Nusra are being cast as signs that the ceasefire is breaking down (as earlier predicted).
February 28, 2016
Immediately after the ceasefire deadline passed on Friday, February 26th midnight (early February 27th), initial Western media reports were subdued, even expressing surprise that there were no major violations of the ceasefire.
Meanwhile the Russians were busy publicly affirming having not only setting-up a ceasefire coordination and monitoring center in Hmeymim Airbase in Latakia, Syria as required in the US-Syria Agreement but gave briefings to the media in Moscow, updates on social media with links in English to their updates at eng.syria.mil.ru.
In particular they wrote of exchanging maps of targets that were and were not covered by the ceasefire with their US counterparts, and hotlines and procedures to resolve allegations of non-compliance.
The Russians also claimed to ground their attack aircraft – though not their 70+ reconnaissance drones – for the first 24 hours so as to prevent accusations of ceasefire breeches though they reserved the right to begin – as the agreement warrants – of continuing strikes against Al-Nusra apart from ISIS.
Some of the highlights of the coordination centers were also discussed in the weekly Russian Foreign Ministry briefing on Thursday, February 25, 2016 by spokesperson Maria Zakharova.
US Government Hedging
While the US set up its coordination center in Amman, Jordan there was no further official news from the American military.
Meanwhile on Friday, February 26th, the State Department deputy spokesperson, Mark Toner, under intense questioning about details of the anti-Government groups that have committed to the ceasefire, transparency and accountability and mechanisms for compliance verifications was vague and evasive citing secrecy.
Russians Report Ceasefire Violations
During the first 36 hours, the Russian Defense Ministry in a report alleged 9 anti-Government violations the first day – including a car bomb attack – which they collected from various parties on the ground including the Syrian Government, and their own surveillance. They passed this onto the USG center in Amman as required.
They otherwise reported the situation as fairly stable.
The HNC Reports Ceasefire Violations
The Syrian High Negotitations Committee (a rather unwieldy name for a motley crew of anti-Government forces united only in their opposition to Assad and including hardline factions like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam but not their idealogical brethren Al-Nusra) announced that the Syrian Government and the Russians had violated the ceasefire agreement several times and instead of submitting their allegations to either coordination center (even the one run by the USG in Amman) as the Agreement requires they should, they purportedly wrote directly to the UN Secretary General as the AFP correspondent in Beirut, Maya Gebeily tweeted. Furthermore they claimed that the situation was “impossible” and cast doubt on their participation of the resumptions of negotiations on March 7.
Most stunningly, the AFP’s Gebeily tweeted:
In other words, the HNC which signed off the ceasefire agreement, claims to have no knowledge of the procedures for conflict resolution let alone the conflict maps exchanged between the Russians and US militaries!
(Note that the meanwhile al-Nusra leader al-Jolani had demanded that the HNC reject the ceasefire deal in a recording condemning not just Assad and the Russians but the US and the West. And even by Western media admission, al-Nusra is in many cases heavily embedded with HNC groups who are reluctant to abandon their “brethren” (as a journalist who covers the Middle East for several Western organizations put it) given that they were instrumental in many anti-Government victories.)
Let the Disinformation Begin!
On February 25th, 2016 a day before the ceasefire was to begin, I had forecast the Coming Western Media Disinformation Campaign on the Ceasefire Being Broken when once Russian airsrikes on al-Nusra started anew, as legally allowed by the agreement, Western allied Governments and media would accuse Russia of breaking the ceasefire (with no calls for the HNC to disassociate themselves from al-Nusra who an analyst on CNN claimed is a bigger threat than ISIS and US intelligence services claimed in front of the US Congress is a long term threat.)
Disregarding the FACT that the ceasefire procedures for conflict resolution are apparently not being followed by either the HNC or the US military, and the deafening silence from the USG Amman center, hawkish outlets are starting to follow exactly the line predicted.
The Washington Post has started the ball rolling a few hours ago with:
Meanwhile Saudis have accused Syria and Russia of ceasefire violations.
In both these reports, there are no indications that the USG coordination and monitoring center in Amman is being used to channel allegations to be resolved with Russia as the ceasefire agreement requires.
What Happens Next
There are currently two factions within the United States Government who are calling for different approaches on Syria.
The realists who include Secretary of Stare John Kerry seem to genuinely want to resolve the Syrian conflict by allying with the Russians against the larger threats (ISIS and – as recent reported in NBC news – a resurgent al-Qaeda).
Meanwhile the Hawks who include the Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the CIA, are wanting to use this opportunity to “punish” the Russians as a Wall Street Journal (typically favored by the Hawks along with the Washington Post in contrast to the New York Times typically favored by the State Department) article made clear a few days ago.
Obama, is keeping the lid down on this infighting for now with some tough words for Russia to mollify his hawkish critics while quietly pursuing a realism based strategy, but some of the silence from the US Government could be attributed to the debate within the administration not fully resolved.
If the US Government – instead of using the various hotlines and resolution mechanisms available – insists on publicly accusing Russia of breaking the ceasefire, the hawks would seem to have the upper hand. Expect the media to let loose as I forecast.
The next 24 hours should make things clear.