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Question of Nusra Front likely to bedevil Syrian cease-fire talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announce an agreement for a possible cease-fire early Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, in Munich.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announce an agreement for a possible cease-fire early Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, in Munich. AP

After four years of carnage in Syria, the bar for good news is so low that the word “cease-fire” sounded encouraging when Secretary of State John Kerry announced early Friday in Germany that world powers had reached an agreement intended to pause fighting in the conflict.

Within a day, however, professional observers of the war had concluded that the development is fragile at best, with make-or-break issues left unaddressed, starting with whether both the Syrian government and the rebels would even accept the terms.

Supposing it makes it past that basic hurdle, the agreement then faces an even tougher challenge: the determination of which fighting groups are terrorists and which are acceptable partners to implement the deal, which doesn’t cover terrorist groups. A task force co-chaired by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to tackle that issue, a perennial dispute that threatens the viability of peace talks.

The “cessation of hostilities” deal hammered out in Munich under United Nations auspices excludes the Islamic State and al Qaida’s Nusra Front by name. While the Islamic State has few friends among rebel factions, the Nusra question is more complicated, given the group’s entrenchment in eight of the nine areas rebels control and its record of cooperation with Western-backed rebels.

The Nusra Front, known in Arabic as Jabhat al Nusra, operates in or has access to virtually every rebel-held area, and its leader has vowed to keep fighting the government of President Bashar Assad no matter what peace plan foreign powers attempt to impose. The Munich agreement doesn’t stop Russia – or the United States, for that matter – from attacking Nusra positions. With Nusra fighters scattered across so much territory, it’s hard to imagine even a brief cessation of hostilities, much less a broader cease-fire.

Nusra is completely embedded within the Syrian opposition and therefore retains the ability to spoil even localized cease-fire agreements.

Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria specialist

“It all depends on what the intentions are of the Russians,” said Fred Hof, who led the State Department's early response to the Syrian uprising and is now with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. “If the Russians decide the central interest is continuing the military campaign and marginalizing or neutralizing all alternatives to Assad and ISIS, then the fact that Nusra elements are spread all over – Idlib and Aleppo provinces – gives them kind of a permission to do what they want.”

The State Department doesn’t dismiss the steep challenges ahead. Spokesman Mark Toner reiterated to reporters Friday that a “cessation of hostilities” is not the same as a durable agreement to end the war. Echoing Kerry, Toner called it “a pause” in hostilities and sounded sober about its prospects for success.

“A cease-fire is more the end of a conflict in most people’s minds and judgments – that’s not where we are,” Toner said.

The Institute for the Study of War released a report this week assessing the Nusra Front’s strengths and the problems it presents for U.S. strategy in Syria. Researchers found that Nusra is uniquely positioned for longevity, its strength derived from perceived legitimacy as a primarily Syrian group with religious credentials, a reputation for mediating rebel disputes, control of humanitarian aid, well trained and disciplined forces and a willingness to ease its heavy handedness when it senses locals becoming uneasy.

“The issue here is that Nusra is completely embedded within the Syrian opposition and therefore retains the ability to spoil even localized cease-fire agreements,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria specialist at the institute and one of the authors of the report.

“Nusra can access almost any piece of terrain that the Syrian opposition holds. It is present on almost every front line in some way,” she added.

The picture gets even murkier with a section of the Munich agreement that excludes not only Islamic State and Nusra but unspecified “other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council.”

Western refined experts must know that not all terrorists in Syria are walking with black flags and writings on their backs about belonging to a terrorist grouping.

Russian Defense Ministry

On the ground, that reads as a threat to ultraconservative Islamist groups such as Jaysh al Islam, also known as the Army of Islam, and Ahrar al Sham, perhaps the largest rebel group whose founders had ties to al Qaida. Syrian regime ally Russia considers them terrorist groups, and the United States has deep misgivings about their ultimate goals for Syria, but they enjoy popular support from the ground and, in strategic areas, are vital to the rebel cause.

“If Russia continues to strike these groups, the cessation of hostilities is likely to collapse,” warned Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy institute, in a statement on the Munich deal.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday rejected criticism that its targeting in Syria is overly broad, saying in a statement on the ministry’s website that Moscow conducts a multi-layered intelligence assessment before identifying a target. It also acknowledged, however, that its targets extend beyond the Islamic State, suggesting that it would be unrealistic to expect Moscow to stop hitting the groups it considers terrorists.

“Western refined experts must know that not all terrorists in Syria are walking with black flags and writings on their backs about belonging to a terrorist grouping,” the Russian statement said.

The confusion over terrorist labels plays right into Moscow’s hands, analysts warned, and there’s little Kerry could do to save the Munich deal if Russian strikes help derail it.

“He is asking Russia, Iran and the Assad regime to set aside the strategy and tactics they’ve been pursuing for the sake of saving lives and starting a real diplomatic process that leads to real transition in Syria,” Hof said.

“More power to him if he can talk them out of doing what they’re doing,” he added. “But it’s going to be problematic because leverage-free diplomacy doesn’t have a history of success.”

Matthew Schofield contributed to this article from Berlin.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

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