U.S.-Russian agreements on Syria break down as the Syrian conflict continues.

 
FREE EXCERPT

Starting in February 2016, the United States and Russia reached a series of agreements aimed at establishing a cessation of hostilities in the Syrian civil war and facilitating a political settlement of the underlying conflict. Although the agreements showed initial promise, various breakdowns led the United States to suspend bilateral communications with Russia regarding maintenance of the agreements by October 2016.

The United States and Russia have each used armed force during the civil war, mostly by conducting air strikes. Since September 2014, the United States has directed air strikes against Syrian positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). (1) Russia's air strikes began one year later at the request of Syria's president, Bashar al Assad. (2) Russia justified its air strikes as targeting terrorist groups and "actively promot[ing] the political process" of settling the conflict. (3) While Russia's assistance has facilitated the Assad regime's expansion of territorial control, opposition groups continue to occupy large portions of the country. (4)

In October 2015, the United States and Russia convened meetings among a group of nations to discuss a potential ceasefire and political resolution to the Syrian conflict. (5) Eventually, this group grew to include seventeen nations and representatives of the Arab League, the European Union, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. (6) The United States and Russia formally co-chair the group, which is now called the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). (7)

On February 22, 2016, the United States and Russia, as co-chairs of the ISSG, agreed to a Cessation of Hostilities (COH), (8) an international instrument directed at three goals: (1) limiting hostilities between the Syrian government and opposition groups; (2) permitting humanitarian aid to reach civilians; and (3) advancing a political settlement to the conflict. (9) While ISIL and the Al Qaeda affiliated group al-Nusra (10) were precluded from joining the agreement, the instrument invited all other opposition groups as well as the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic (Syrian Army) to agree to its terms. (11)

The precise legal status of the instrument was at least initially ambiguous. At a press briefing to announce the undertaking, a State Department spokesperson stated that "it's incumbent on [signatories] to live up to the obligations and to buy into the cessation of hostilities." (12) Subsequent statements have indicated a political agreement. The day after he announced the conclusion of the agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the COH as "this proposed arrangement," (13) and subsequent iterations have been described by the State Department as "an arrangement, in the form of understandings." (14) Russian descriptions of the agreement have emphasized its importance, but have not labeled the COH a treaty. (15)

As a matter of substance, the COH committed all signatories to accept parallel "responsibilities," mutatis mutandis. It listed "[t]he responsibilities of the Syrian armed opposition" as follows:

  1. To take part in the cessation of hostilities, armed opposition groups will confirm --to the United States of America or the Russian Federation, who will attest such confirmations to one another as co-chairs of the ISSG by no later than 12:00 (Damascus time) on February 26, 2016--their commitment to and acceptance of the following terms:

    * To full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, (16) adopted unanimously on December 18, 2015,--including the readiness to participate in the UN-facilitated political negotiation process;

    * To cease attacks with any weapons, including rockets, mortars, and anti-tank guided missiles, against Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, and any associated forces;

    * To refrain from acquiring or seeking to acquire territory from other parties to the ceasefire;

    * To allow humanitarian agencies[] rapid, safe, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their operational control and allow immediate humanitarian assistance to reach all people in need;

    * To proportionate use of force (i.e., no greater than required to address an immediate threat) if and when responding in self-defense. (17)

    In a separate paragraph, the COH then stated that signatory opposition groups would "observe[]" the abovementioned commitments, provided that "the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, and all forces supporting or associated with the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic" also undertook a parallel set of "responsibilities": (18)

  2. The above-mentioned commitments will be observed by such armed opposition groups, provided that the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, and all forces supporting or associated with the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic have confirmed to the Russian Federation as co-chair of the ISSG by no later than 12:00 (Damascus time) on February 26, 2016[,] their commitment to and acceptance of the following terms:

    * To full implementation of UN Security Resolution 2254, adopted unanimously on December 18, 2015, including the readiness to participate in the UN-facilitated political negotiation process;

    * To cease attacks with any weapons, including aerial bombardments by the Air Force of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation, against the armed opposition groups (as confirmed to the United States or the Russian Federation by parties to the cessation of hostilities);

    * To refrain from acquiring or seeking to acquire territory from other parties to the ceasefire;

    * To allow humanitarian agencies[] rapid, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their operational control and allow immediate humanitarian assistance to reach all people in need;

    * To proportionate use of force (i.e., no greater than required to address an immediate threat) if and when responding in self-defense.

    The United States and Russia established a communications hotline to prevent hostilities between the parties to the COH, and a Ceasefire Task Force was tasked with delineating the territory held by various groups and resolving allegations of noncompliance. (19)

    At first, the COH succeeded in diminishing hostilities between the Syrian Army and opposition groups. In February and March 2016, United States officials repeatedly praised the COH. Secretary Kerry stated that the COH had led to an "80 to 90 percent reduction in the level of violence." (20) Moreover, Kerry recognized that the deal had permitted

    the delivery of emergency supplies to communities inside Syria... some of which had not seen assistance in years. More than 300 trucks have now provided aid to least 150,000 people--about one third of the almost half of a million people who are living in absolutely besieged or hard-to-reach areas. (21) Nonetheless, the United States acknowledged that there were ongoing violations of the agreement. For example, Kerry accused the Assad regime of stealing humanitarian supplies and carrying out "[a]erial bombardments" against parties to the COH." (22)

    The United States and Russia attempted to bolster the COH with a follow-up agreement in March 2016. (23) The agreement established a standard operating procedure for the United States and Russia to monitor alleged violations of the COH. (24) Specifically, the agreement required the United States and Russia to exchange information concerning alleged breaches and required all parties to the COH to prioritize peaceful means of resolving disputes. (25) In addition, during a visit by Secretary Kerry to Moscow in March 2016, the United States and Russia agreed to bolster their humanitarian efforts under the COH. According to Secretary Kerry,

    We agreed today that the United States and Russia would push for expanded humanitarian access in order to reach all parts of Syria, while at the same time preventing any party from interfering with the deliveries of essential supplies. We agreed that the regime and the opposition need to begin releasing detainees, and they need to begin as soon as possible starting with those who are the most vulnerable. We agreed on a target schedule for establishing a framework for a political transition and also a draft constitution, (26) both of which we target by August. (27) After approximately one month of reduced hostilities, Russia and Syria announced an April offensive against rebels in Aleppo. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power raised concerns that attacking Aleppo would undermine the COH:

    And on the cessation of hostilities, we're very alarmed by the Syrian prime minister's public announcement that he and the Russian Federation are going to launch an offensive around Aleppo--that would be devastating for the people of Aleppo of course, but also to this intricate process where the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access, and political negotiations are all related to one another. (28) After Russia and Syria began their offensive in Aleppo, U.S. officials stated that the campaign was inconsistent with the COH. On April 28, 2016, the United States condemned an attack against the al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, which the United States claimed "killed dozens of people, including children, patients, and medical personnel." (29) Following the attack, Kerry stated:

    The United Nations today assessed the situation in...

To continue reading

REQUEST YOUR TRIAL