New Syria Cease-Fire Set To Begin Monday The United States and Russia have struck a deal to join military targeting of ISIS in Syria, starting with a cease-fire that goes into effect on Monday. But previous efforts have fallen apart.
NPR logo

New Syria Cease-Fire Set To Begin Monday

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/493436461/493436462" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
New Syria Cease-Fire Set To Begin Monday

New Syria Cease-Fire Set To Begin Monday

New Syria Cease-Fire Set To Begin Monday

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/493436461/493436462" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The United States and Russia have struck a deal to join military targeting of ISIS in Syria, starting with a cease-fire that goes into effect on Monday. But previous efforts have fallen apart.

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

A new cease-fire in Syria is set to begin Monday. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hammered out the deal last night. But the big question is whether it will actually work when so many other deals have failed. NPR's Alice Fordham joins us. Alice, the plan was announced overnight Friday. Can you tell us what's in it?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: As far as we understand from what Kerry and Lavrov said, it's kind of a sequential plan. So the idea is it starts off with a cease-fire. The Syrian air force is grounded in many areas where the opposition is. The opposition is expected to stop fighting.

Now, if that holds for a certain period of time and if aid access is allowed to areas that are besieged, mostly by the regime, then there will begin a period of military co-operation between the United States and Russia focused on targeting extremists - the group they consider to be part of al-Qaida and ISIS - without hitting the more moderate opposition, Russia, Syrian regime's ally, has been accused many times of striking.

SUAREZ: When you talk about the combatants in this particular war there are so many, and they don't share war aims. What are the reactions been from the various factions here?

FORDHAM: From the regime's side, it has thus far been muted. Although, before the deal, a regime spokesman indicated that they thought it would be good if the United States decided to co-operate with their ally, the Russians. From the armed opposition that we've been able to speak to, there has been some anger and some mistrust. They say they still have a lot of questions. Foremost is, what guarantees do they have? They see that there are no measures in place if this agreement is violated either by the Syrians or by the Russians. And then they feel that they haven't really been consulted very extensively.

And then the political opposition, the people who will be doing the negotiation in the event that peace talks restart, have also raised concerns that there's no consequences for violations. And they've shown a reluctance to really look beyond the first few steps of this sequential plan because they say, well, you know, first of all, we have to understand that there really will be a cease-fire. And their confidence in that hasn't been increased by the fact that there has been a spike in fighting since the announcement was made yesterday.

SUAREZ: Piggybacking on just that idea, what are the chances of people stopping shooting at the appointed time on Monday?

FORDHAM: Well, this is, in some ways, a continuation of an effort that was started in February and then subsequently put on hold because there were problems. But both the opposition and the regime demonstrated, at that time, that they are both able and, to a certain degree, willing to stop fighting. It was a very significant lull in hostilities. The opposition maintains that it lasted about 10 days. They say that it was broken largely by the regime. So I think it will probably start. But lots of analysts have pointed out that there are so many steps in this sequence of events for this plan that if one of them goes wrong, then it has the capacity for the whole plan to be derailed.

SUAREZ: The city of Aleppo was specifically mentioned in this plan. Why is it so significant?

FORDHAM: Well, the city of Aleppo is divided in two, basically, and has been for some time. Half of it is held by the opposition, and half of it is held by the regime, broadly speaking. Most recently, the regime has been able to make some gains, which has meant that it has been very difficult to get supplies - military supplies, but also just food and medical aid - to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who still live in the opposition-held area.

And heavy fighting has meant that it has been more difficult to get supplies into the regime-held side. A large part of the deal rests on both sides stopping preventing access for aid and medical supplies getting into either area. And there's been heavy fighting around there, so it's not clear that that's an easily achievable goal.

SUAREZ: This is the result of marathon negotiations between Lavrov and Kerry. If this agreement fails, what are we likely to see happen next in Syria?

FORDHAM: Well, no one really knows. And there really aren't a lot of good options, which is why, despite the fact that this deal is built on really shaky foundations in a way, so many people, particularly international diplomats who have been trying for years to find a solution to this problem, when you speak to them, you can just hear the hope in their voice that despite all odds this might work, this might make a difference.

SUAREZ: That's NPR's Alice Fordham. Alice, thanks a lot.

FORDHAM: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

In New Truce Plan For Syria, Plenty Of Reason For Skepticism

Syrians run for cover during reported government air strikes in the rebel-held town of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, on Sept. 9. Under the plan announced Friday, hostilities are to cease starting at sundown Sept. 12, the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday. Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images

Syrians run for cover during reported government air strikes in the rebel-held town of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, on Sept. 9. Under the plan announced Friday, hostilities are to cease starting at sundown Sept. 12, the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday.

Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images

After marathon talks, and with caveats and reservations, the U.S. and Russia announced a plan for a truce and military coordination in Syria — and it's easy to find reasons it could fail.

As Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged, the agreement sits on a foundation of profound mistrust and comes after a similar effort, introduced in February, gradually fell apart.

But diplomats have pushed hard because they see it as the only realistic path toward larger goals in Syria: reducing overall violence, winning permission from the regime to aid besieged people, resuming stalled peace talks and effectively beating back extremists groups.

Acknowledging the difficulties, one U.S. administration official this week said, "We look around at the range of possible solutions and ... this remains, we think, the most promising way that we see in front of us to try to get this horrible situation to a better place."

On the ground in Syria, some rebel fighters, who long ago lost faith in the earlier deal, say they would probably participate in another ceasefire after bruising months of airstrikes and sieges.

Seeking reasons why this deal would succeed, insiders point out this plan is broader than the ill-fated deal in February.

Kerry and Lavrov say that Russia has persuaded its ally, the Syrian government, that its air force will not fly combat missions in areas where the opposition is present — areas which will be delineated by the U.S. and Russia.

U.S. and Russia plan to work together

Lavrov says if a ceasefire holds for a week, and both the regime and the opposition allow access to aid — particularly to the northern city of Aleppo — then the American and Russian air forces will work together through a joint operations room to target ISIS and other extremists.

A letter from the U.S. special envoy to Syrian rebels before the deal was finalized said the Russians and U.S. won't attack more moderate rebel forces, even when they were working closely with an al–Qaida affiliate.

For Russia, analysts say the main incentive to make this work would be the prospect of direct military-to-military cooperation with the U.S. — a powerful draw that would further legitimize Russia as a key player in the region and ease its isolation.

Kerry struck a realistic note even as he announced the new initiative.

"It is an opportunity and not more than that until it becomes a reality," he said.

His many notes of caution are understandable. The U.S.-Russia deal in February also began with a cessation of hostilities — a quasi-truce which restricted fighting to frontlines and said offensives should only be directed at the Islamic State and Syria's al-Qaida affiliate.

A brief lull

There was a lull in fighting initially, and it was meant to be accompanied by the Syrian government's lifting of tight restrictions on aid to the many rebel-held areas it surrounds, and then peace talks.

But all three pillars of the agreement crumbled.

Negotiations on delivering aid to rebel areas are ongoing but glacial. The regime maintains control on quality and quantity of aid. In Daraya, near Damascus, one abortive delivery was accompanied with a hail of artillery.

Peace talks that began in Geneva in February were halted in April. The opposition walked out, citing a steady increase in regime attacks on civilian areas. Violence has stayed low in the south but is now raging in the north and west, with civilians in rebel and regime areas reporting heavy casualties.

On peace talks, the gaps are vast. The main Syrian opposition group reiterated in London this week that they will insist in negotiations that President Bashar Assad must step down within six months of a transitional process beginning. Assad and his allies are equally insistent that he must remain in power.

Prospects for aid access are also dim, including for the eastern part of Aleppo, where the opposition has been in control in recent years. The area has recently been intermittently besieged since Assad's forces cut off a supply line for hundreds of thousands of people. The U.N.'s negotiators gave a dismal press conference Friday.

"Not just August, but actually July was also extremely disappointing," said the emergency relief coordinator Stephen O'Brien. "The convoys are not going, are not rolling, at the moment in Syria."

Syrian government has employed sieges

The government's siege tactics and denial of aid have been working for the Assad regime. Rebels negotiated a surrender and left one of their strongholds, Daraya, near Damascus, and are in the process of doing so in two more areas.

And the cessation of hostilities, the pause in fighting that is the basic premise of this deal, is also not guaranteed. It has to hold before any of the more complicated steps can be taken. But both the regime and rebels are currently fighting hard, particularly around Aleppo in the north, but also in other places, including close to the central city of Hama.

Stumbling blocks in the negotiations were believed to hinge in part on disagreement between the Russia and the U.S. on which groups are dangerous extremists, and therefore are still considered legitimate targets despite the truce in other areas.

The group considered to be Syria's al-Qaida affiliate — despite a rebranding — is probably now more integrated with other forces than it was a few months ago.

And some analysts question the wisdom of negotiating with the Russians at all. Obama spoke this week about "gaps of trust." Syrians in opposition areas believe Russian airstrikes deliberately target civilian infrastructure, in an effort to depopulate their areas.

When Mark Ratney, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, wrote to opposition forces in an effort to convince them of the deal, he said, "Allow me to be frank with you: Dealing with Russia was very difficult, because it was very difficult to hold these talks with the Russians when they were killing Syrians daily."

In general, rebels told NPR they would abide by a new truce, but only if promises to allow access, especially to Aleppo, were kept. One rebel spokesman, Bassam Hajj Moustapha of the Nourreddine al-Zinky movement, balked at the prospect of a Russian-led truce while eastern Aleppo is still besieged. He called it a "humiliating and degrading agreement."

Alice Fordham is NPR's Beirut correspondent. Alison Meuse contributed reporting to this story.