This morning John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov met in Vienna to chair a meeting of the International Syria Support Group. As February’s ceasefire agreement has almost completely collapsed now, with fighting taking place in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus, many are pinning their hopes on these new efforts at another truce. Though inherently problematic due to a lack of consensus on which groups are to be considered legitimate targets, and therefore unlikely to last (just like the previous agreement), a cessation of hostilities brokered by the US and Russia remains the greatest hope for a reduction of violence in the short term; images of people returning to the streets shortly following February’s agreement act as a reminder of what is at stake for ordinary Syrians.
Nevertheless, there are several reasons to be less optimistic this time: perhaps most importantly the lack of will to end hostilities by either of the main warring parties. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) continues to consolidate its gains following the recapture of Palmyra from ISIS, and is finally making progress in the difficult arena of the East Ghouta region of Damascus. Likewise, an emboldened Jabhat Al-Nusra, having resupplied in both man-power and munitions, has seized several important sites from the Syrian government over the past few weeks – both in southern Aleppo and more recently in northern Homs – and is unlikely to be willing to give up its momentum.
Moreover, there is now less of an appetite for further agreements with rebel groups in much of government controlled Syria: It was in contravention of just such a ceasefire agreement that the rebel group ‘Ahrar Al-Sham’, alongside Al-Nusra, attacked the town of Al-Zara and massacred the civilians there. Events like this, alongside some important gains for the SAA, make further ceasefire agreements with the various Islamist groups even less palatable than before.
This brings us back to a key point, and the central problem of both these and previous talks: Jabhat Al-Nusra was not included in the previous ceasefire, nor is it to be included in the current round of talks. And yet it is impossible to speak of military developments on the rebel side without invoking the Al-Qaeda franchise, which remains the most powerful and unifying rebel force, and which has been involved in almost all rebel offensives since the truce broke down.
The inability of rebel groups to separate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra has led to a situation of perpetual ambiguity with regards to which groups and sites are (and which are not) legitimate targets for the SAA and Russian Air Force.