Hassan Hassan
Hassan Hassan
Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
The agreement also shows that localized efforts to halt hostilities in Syria have potential, and may be more realistic than trying to broker a nationwide deal.
Members of Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies stand at the entrance of the Abu Duhur military airport after they seized the base on 9 September 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Members of Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies stand at the entrance of the Abu Duhur military airport after they seized the base on 9 September 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Syrian Islamist rebels linked to Al-Qaeda have struck a wide-ranging ceasefire deal with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. If it holds, the agreement will in effect cede sovereignty of the city of Idlib, create a de facto no-fly zone and freeze the conflict in several hotspots.

The 25-point deal was brokered by Iran, acting for Damascus, and by Turkey, representing the rebel coalition Jaish al-Fateh, which includes the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. The deal, which urges UN monitoring and implementation, covers 14 towns in the north and south of the country, where intense fighting along sectarian lines had devastated the ranks of all those fighting, taken a bloody toll on civilians left in the area and ravaged towns and infrastructure.

The accord may not hold, especially now that Russia is scouting targets in the ceasefire zone and after reports that renewed clashes erupted between the two sides when pro-regime forces fired into Taftanaz, a town north of Idlib specified in the deal. But the deal itself and the circumstances that led to it are worth pondering.

Concessions of sovereignty

If it holds it will be a remarkable development in the Syrian conflict. Rebels are claiming the deal as a strategic triumph at a time when Russia is sending extra forces to help prop up Assad’s regime, and Western voices that once called for the president’s ousting are apparently softening. It also follows a three-month offensive by pro-Assad Hezbollah forces to clear Al-Zabadani, a southern city near the Lebanese border. It suggests that, even as the tide of foreign opinion is turning towards him, Assad is so hard-pushed he is willing to accept unpalatable realities on the ground in return for military breathing space.

Sources from Jabhat al-Nusra said terms were seen as favourable to Jaish al-Fateh. The jihadi coalition’s chief cleric, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, also heralded the deal as a historic victory for the anti-Assad forces.

Most important, the agreement prohibits the regime from flying helicopters or planes in certain areas controlled by Jaish al-Fateh in Idlib, even to drop aid and ammunition to fighters on the ground. That deprives Damascus of the air power that has been perhaps its biggest advantage over rebel forces, sowing both death and fear around the country.

The deal stipulates that neither side can set up new bases or trenches on the immediate frontlines. That should mean, in effect, buffers will be created between the two warring sides. Both parties are prohibited from enforcing any humanitarian or logistical blockade outside Foua and Kafaraya, from the regime side, and Madhaya, Baqeen and Serghaya, from the rebel side.

The terms improve on ceasefires previously reached between the government and the rebels in multiple areas near Damascus and Homs. They also seem more substantial and comprehensive than the 'local freezes' proposed by the UN envoy to Syria, Stefan de Mistura, which failed to convince the two sides. If it holds, the agreement will provide a breathing space for communities and fighters living in these towns and allow the jihadi groups to govern these areas almost uncontested. Until now regime shelling and blockades have made it hard for rebels to govern even in areas where they have firm military control.

Idlib, near the Turkish border, could become the first city to be viably governed by anti-Assad forces outside territories controlled by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The accord specifies that 'each side will ensure safety and security and the implementation of the terms inside the areas under its control', a rare concession of sovereignty.

Political winners

After the fall of Idlib, the Islamist rebels had agreed to share power with the political opposition in diaspora, who even suggested members would relocate to the city to help lead from inside the country, but constant shelling prevented the establishment of a viable administrative council.

Rebels in the north had been trying to force the regime to end its aerial bombing campaign by both clearing all nearby areas and also through more punitive retaliation against towns dominated by Shias or Alawites.

The deal is partly a product of such a strategy, after Jaish al-Fateh made a string of military gains in April. It has used the ceasefire deal to demonstrate its ability to negotiate with Iran, the top supporter of the regime on the ground, and now faces the challenge of setting up a functional government.

If the rebels can convince civilians they are capable politically as well as militarily, it will probably strengthen the coalition and boost their efforts to expand elsewhere. However, the deal has also bolstered Iran’s role as a central military and political actor in the conflict, building on its position as negotiator for the Assad government in the Homs truce last year. The fact that this development comes amid the deployment of Russian forces in Latakia suggests that the Russian and Iranian efforts to bolster the regime are complementary.

De-escalation in the key Shia towns of Foua and Kafaraya in Idlib and in the border city of Al-Zabadani, combined with increased support for the regime’s remaining strongholds near ISIS-held territory, namely the Kweiris air base between Aleppo and Raqqa and the Deir Ezzor airport, will help Assad’s government consolidate its defences in the western and southern parts of the country.

Overall the agreement shows that localized efforts to halt hostilities have potential, especially in areas where militant factions such as Jaish al-Fateh are well-organized and powerful, and may be more realistic than trying to broker a nationwide deal.

The episode highlights that, despite deep differences, regional countries can work with local groups to reach solutions based on facts on the ground. It is this reality that should shape the thinking of the West towards a solution in Syria.

This article was originally published in the Guardian.

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