Live Updates: The agreement reached last night in Munich offered delivered an immediate, nor a comprehensive ceasefire. On the morning after, Russian and regime forces continue to conduct air strikes on populated areas.
The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.
Last fall, at the start of Russia’s air campaign in Syria, there was a major shift in Russian state-run propaganda from trying hard to hide the nature of Russia’s involvement in the conflict to bragging about Russian firepower.
Often, that strategy has backfired. Videos released by the Russian Ministry of Defence show, for instance, dumb-fire bombs which Russia says they are not using in Syria. However, so far there have been no real consequences for Russia’s bombing of hospitals, civilians, NGOs, and Western-backed rebels with any of its weapons, including cluster munitions and dumb-fire bombs.
The Russian state news agency TASS released an article today entitled “Three layers of Russian air defense at Hmeimim air base in Syria” that contains pictures of S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missiles and a Pantsyr-S1 anti-aircraft platform:
A Russian Sukhoi Su-24M (NATO reporting name: Fencer) was shot down by a Turkish F-16 fighter in Syrian airspace near the Turkish border on November 24, 2015. In response, the Russian leadership decided to boost the security of the air task force’s planes on mission in Syrian airspace and to step up the air defense of Khmeimim air base.
As far as the surface-to-air missile (SAM)-based defense theory is concerned, it is enough to provide area defense for the key defense industry and military installations at the most probable avenues of approach in low-intensity conflicts , while large-scale military conflicts necessitate area and point defense.
Beefing up the Russian SAM element in Syria with a cutting-edge S-400 Triumph (SA-21 Growler) long-range SAM system has considerably improved the AD coverage of the key facility, Khmeimim AB, and allowed reaching targets flying at higher altitudes and speeds. In addition, the AD element’s survivability and immunity has grown sharply in terms of possible fires- and electronic countermeasures-heavy environment.
The article goes on to mention that more air defense systems are planned to be deployed to Syria, though it seems mainly in the form of sea-based platforms.
The message is clear — if the West is not happy with Russia’s air strikes in Syria, there is increasingly little the outside world can do to stop it.
— James Miller
Last night saw the announcement in Munich that a deal had been reached for a ceasefire in Syria.
But the ceasefire agreement is neither immediate nor comprehensive, with the “cessation of hostilities” to commence in one week.
According to the text of the agreement:
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) members agreed that a nationwide cessation of hostilities must be urgently implemented, and should apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities against any other parties other than Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council. The ISSG members commit to exercise influence for an immediate and significant reduction in violence leading to the nationwide cessation of hostilities.
An ISSG task force is to be established in order to “delineate the territory held by Daesh, JaN and other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council.”
The problem here is that Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) operate alongside various other rebel groups and are spread across swathes of opposition-held territory, over much of which they do not impose exclusive control. This means that it would be extremely hard to target JaN alone without attacking other opposition groups.
It will also have to be seen how effective the task force would be in effectively monitoring and controlling Russian and regime air operations, given that both Assad and Putin have continuously lied about the nature of their targets, claiming that all air strikes have been directed against ISIS, JaN or “other terrorist groups.”
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, subtly mocked the complaints of these practices during the press conference.
The Interpreter translates:
“All these months we have had a rather emotional discussion over who is carrying out strikes on the right or wrong targets. We have repeatedly offered to deal with these issues professionally. Now, with the agreement that the task group will define the areas which are held by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and also other terrorist groups, we have made a very important practical step in this direction.”
Lavrov also said that it was important to note that the agreement called for the full implementation of prior UN Security Council resolutions, including demands the cessation of the “flow of terrorists, militants from foreign states, the illegal oil trade and other contraband.”
This has been previously been used an excuse by the Kremlin for the targeting of vital roads to the Turkish border, most notably the border town of Azaz, through which thousands of refugees are now passing to escape the fighting north of Aleppo.
It should be noted that Lavrov did not mention the UN Security Council demand actually referred to in the text of the agreement, which called for “the end of any discriminate use of weapons.”
Russia has been not only conducting indiscriminate bombing of population centres, often using unguided bombs, but also using cluster bombs on a regular basis.
It was particularly strange to see US Secretary of State John Kerry, sitting next to Lavrov, describing the effects of the air campaign against Aleppo while failing to mention that the jets conducting these strikes belong not to the Assad regime, but the Russian Air Force.
Kerry said that:
“The regime of Bashar al-Assad was violating international law by trying to force surrender through starvation, and with the help of indiscriminate bombing the regime intensified its assault in Aleppo, killing civilians and forcing more than 60 thousand Syrians to flee their homes in search of refuge across the Turkish border. And it is our perception that rather than hurting Daesh, this process is in fact empowering Daesh to take advantage of the chaos.”
Nor is any mention of the huge role played in the war by ground forces from Iran, which is a party to last night’s agreement.
Indeed, Kerry concluded by saying reaffirming the importance of Russia to the process;
“We also agreed in the ISSG that there’s no way to institute a ceasefire, effectively, and no way to produce the access we want for humanitarian assistance, without all of the ISSG members working with Russia and others in an effort to guarantee that the access is provided and that cessation of hostilities actually takes hold. To that end, we have agreed, all of us, to work with Russia in a way that deals with the political, the humanitarian and the military components of this challenge.”
Meanwhile, the morning after the announcement, what can we see so far of progress towards a ceasefire?
The video above purportedly shows two barrel bombs being dropped by regime helicopters on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Daraya this morning.
Isaam Al Reis, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army Southern Front, which is fighting regime and Hezbollah forces in the Daraa province, responded to the Munich deal on Twitter:
Meanwhile Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said today that neither the ceasefire will hold, nor humanitarian access be secured, unless Russia ceases air strikes on opposition groups.
Other observers are equally sceptical:
The situation is worryingly reminiscent of the second Minsk agreement in February last year.
At the time Russian forces had almost completely encircled the Ukrainian town of Debaltsevo. Despite the signing of the immediate ceasefire deal, Russian forces proceeded to assault and capture the town in the days that followed.
With Aleppo cut off from the north and Russian air strikes continuing, Russian and pro-regime forces may well attempt to cripple the rebels over the next week.
— Pierre Vaux