Wednesday 16 Oct 2019 | 22:55 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

Latest publications

Syria: A farewell to arms

Last week’s confirmation that the CIA-run program to vet and arm Syrian rebel groups in the north of the country was coming to an end was a tacit acknowledgement of the flaws in the scheme. It should also have come as little surprise as, if there has been one thing that Trump has been consistent about, it has been his view of the priority in Syria. Trump has tried to simplify what is a complex conflict by saying the focus was on the defeat of Islamic State and that essentially everything else (including regime change) was secondary to that. As to his view of the CIA-run program of training and arming rebel groups, Trump told The Wall Street Journal last year: 'Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who those people are.'

There are two main views as to the efficacy of the decision to pull the plug on the program. One group protests that such a move yet again cedes Syria policy to Russian (and Iranian) interests and that this represents a ‘loss’ for Washington. The other argues the decision strengthens the hands of Islamist groups, even though there is little evidence the US-backed groups were much of an ameliorating factor on their behaviour. In one Washington Post opinion piece, Trump was accused of trading US leverage (such as it is or was) for nothing.

The reality is that it had been difficult to roll out the program effectively in the chaotic environment of northern Syria. The legal obligation to limit the flow of arms to a conflict zone where end users couldn’t be absolutely guaranteed, shifting loyalties, and unrealistic expectations on the part of the rebels all conspired against its success. Add to this the entry of Russian forces to guarantee their interests in Syria (which have been, still are and will likely remain much greater than Washington’s), and it was inevitable the program would end. If a policy designed simply to achieve a stalemate and force parties to negotiate a political solution is faced with a situation where it can’t achieve that aim, then all that remains is a policy that continues to provide the military means to kill people without the likelihood of a political solution resulting from those actions.  

Naturally advocates of the program can always offer a ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ retrospective, but in some cases programs with either uncertain, or even impossible aims (trying to apply just enough pressure - but not too much - while also striving to account for all weapons even though the CIA didn’t control them was always too big an ask) just can’t succeed. Still, there were reasons at the time for trying it, perhaps the most convincing of which was trying to corral cashed-up Gulf states with little care for end users, or Turkey’s laissez faire approach to border control, into some semblance of systematic (read controlled) support.

Of course, while it appears the armament tap is being turned off in the north, it may well continue in the south where a separate dynamic exists given the concerns over the proximity of pro-Iranian groups close to the Israeli border. A local ceasefire brokered with the help of the Russians (although Washington is at pains to say this event was not linked to the cessation of the CIA arms pipeline) appears to be holding relatively well. But as this lengthy but worthwhile piece argues, while killing off the fatally-flawed arms program may well make sense, there is a strong argument for Washington to maintain a line of non-lethal humanitarian support to those same groups. It’s the least it can do after all.  

Defence exports to the Gulf: No price on values

A recent interview with Christopher Pyne in his capacity as Minister for Defence Industry was somewhat unusual in the way in which he apparently advocated defence export-led closer engagement with Middle Eastern countries.

The problem with defence exports, of course, is that ideally we would like our customers to reflect our own secular liberal values, thereby ensuring that the use of such exports would be subject to the type of constraints that parliamentary democracies impose on their militaries. But this world does not exist, and to governments, defence trade is like other any other trade sector – subject to certain constraints of course, but at the end of the day a business. And there is no better example of where business trumps values than the Middle East – the Gulf states are voracious consumers of defence equipment and the main exporters spare little effort in trying to entwine the monarchies, emirates and sultanates in their arms exports webs. It is a potentially lucrative and extremely competitive environment. But perhaps more importantly, it is a potentially morally difficult one. 

Minister Pyne’s view that we could use defence exports to cement closer relations with the United Arab Emirates because ‘...why wouldn't we want to cement our relationship with a country like the UAE, which shares many of our values…’ is breathtaking in its naivety. Let’s be frank here. The UAE is happy to have Australian and other Western nations based in their country because it suits their purposes and sends a clear message to its real enemy Iran that Abu Dhabi has friends that Tehran doesn’t. Our basing arrangement reveals a commonality of interests, not a sense of shared values. They are not signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nor the Refugee Convention, and they have in the past few years come under criticism for a range of human rights issues. And yesterday the Washington Post reported a claim from US intelligence officials that Abu Dhabi may have been responsible for hacking Qatari government news services and planting a story that set off the current blockade of Qatar. The UAE has denied the claim.

And if the gap between values held by Australia and the UAE is large, then that between Australia and Saudi Arabia is a chasm. Yet in December last year the Minister issued a media release in which he said that 'promoting Australian defence exports has underpinned the Minister’s visits already to the United States and the Middle East and will be his key priority for his visits to Saudi Arabia.’ Given both Saudi and Emirati forces are still involved in their ill-conceived military intervention in Yemen (in which both sides stand accused of human rights violations) more than two years after it began, the pitfalls in exporting defence equipment in this environment are readily apparent, as the UK has found. And even short of a full-scale conflict (as is the case in Yemen), the willingness of regional states to suppress political expression can also provide headaches for defence exporters. When Bahrainis called for political reforms in March 2011, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent forces to help the Bahraini government suppress the protests. As Saudi forces drove along the causeway, the presence of Canadian-built vehicles brought its own concerns as to the end use of such equipment.

This is the environment into which the Minister is seeking to export Australian materiel. On the one hand, trade is trade, and as he has pointed out there are always protocols in place to restrict the purposes for which export materiel can be used (although the degree to which the end users adhere to them requires a degree of trust). But what we should always be clear-headed about is the degree to which it is our interests, rather than shared values, that tie us to states in the region. And if the Minister wishes to be the chief salesman for defence exports to the Middle East, then he should also be highly informed about the customers to whom he wishes to sell.

Stalemate in Qatar dispute

It was Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone who uttered the famous words ‘I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse’. In the current imbroglio between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc, the 13-point list of demands issued by Riyadh could well be described as making Doha an offer it can’t accept.  We are led to believe the demands included the closure of al-Jazeera television, the downgrading of diplomatic relations with Iran, the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar and the payment of reparations for the opportunity costs claimed by the document’s authors. And a reporting mechanism to check adherence monthly for the first year and then annually for the next decade.  And Qatar was given just 10 days to accept these terms. There is obviously no way that a state could agree to such attacks on its sovereignty.   

Tension between Qatar and its neighbours is not new, but this time both the public nature of the dispute and the significant diplomatic and economic sanctions against Doha are of an order of magnitude not seen previously. For all the talk of sponsoring terrorists and of a too-close relationship with Iran, perhaps the most open point of friction is Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Gulf states understand that it is political Islam in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than terrorism or Iran, that is a real existential threat to them. Doha’s support for Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups was the key element of the last diplomatic imbroglio between Doha and its neighbours in 2014. 

There are, of course, other contextual aspects involved. These include an emboldened Saudi Arabia that is looking to establish itself as the regional leader now it feels the Trump Administration has done away with the Obama Administration’s circumspection regarding Riyadh’s ability to be a force for regional stability. There is also a belief that Doha has not followed through with the actions expected of it following the 2014 diplomatic upset. And there is the need to demonstrate how essential Sunni Arab solidarity is in the face of fears that Iran and its proxies are on the move.

The problem of course at this point is the nature of the 13 demands made by Riyadh. Satisfying these would require complete capitulation by Qatar. The making of such precipitous demands bears an unflattering resemblance to Riyadh's equally hard-nosed but poorly thought out military action against Yemen. Punitive action without any clear sense of a strategic end state can often weaken a state's power rather than enhance it. If Saudi Arabia can't make Doha dance to its tune, then Riyadh runs the risk of further reducing regional states' confidence in its leadership capabilities. Last night's meeting in Cairo of the boycotting states' foreign ministers produced a statement and a commitment to meet again later in Bahrain and the statement's principles may serve as the basis for future negotiations, replacing the existing draconian demands.

With support from Turkey and Iran, and a bifurcated response from Washington between the White House and the State Department, there is little pressure on the Qatari ruling family from outside the Arab League. For their part, those who authored the 13-point list would surely have known what they were asking was too onerous to ever be agreed to (if they didn't, it exhibits the type of hubris that doesn't bode well for the future) and militarising the dispute is not a realistic option. So there are few options open to bring an end to the dispute. Riyadh and its allies could perhaps squeeze members of the Qatari business elite and use them to pressure the al-Thanis from within, but the ruling elite can also play the Qatari nationalism card and draw on enormous national wealth to survive.    

Qatar of course has some of its own weapons that it can employ – it has already announced a 30% increase in its production of LNG (with potential downsides for other expoters including Australia) - and half of UAE's electricity needs are met by Qatari gas through a jointly-owned pipeline. And although there is a port ban for Qatari vessels the supertankers that often carry a mix of crudes from different countries appear to be exempt.

This dispute may well continue for longer than many anticipated when it began. As the Kuwaitis act as the mediators and go-betweens in this drama, and the region goes into its school holiday slumber, it is likely to be a long, hot summer of negotiations. 

Lifting the veil on jihad

In April 2015 a fresh-faced Australian-born doctor appeared in a slick Islamic State video extolling the virtues of making hijra to what he portrayed as a utopian Islamic society. The video showed the doctor, Tareq Kamleh, in a pristine and well-equipped paediatric ward tending to a premature baby.

Fast forward two years and the picture is somewhat different, as shown in this video, released yesterday. Kamleh's clean-cut face now sports a wispy beard and he no longer looks fresh, while the hospital surrounds are less salubrious as the dystopian Islamic society that Kamleh helped create crumbles around him. This time the children he tends to are dying, a tragedy that is a grim and apt analogy for the violent and intolerant caliphate that Kamleh and thousands of other Western Muslims rushed to join. Aside from a reminder of the tragedy of war, what is particularly interesting about this video is that part-way through (around 3:15) Kamleh's humanitarian guise gives way to an AK-47 wielding jihadi speaking from an underground cave calling for true Muslims to join the hopeless fight but to also realise that their jihad should not be geographically defined. The video ends by telling President Trump that Kamleh is glad US soldiers are in Syria because jihadis love death more than they love life. A familiar if somewhat tired jihadi refrain.

This latest video, that shows Kamleh has gone about as far from the Hippocratic Oath (or Declaration of Geneva in modern parlance) as a doctor can, is a timely reminder to people who rely on social media grabs to determine the actions of someone traveling to Syria or Iraq allegedly to provide ‘humanitarian support’. That 2015 video of Kamleh in a paediatric ward should have fooled no one (it certainly didn't fool the authorities who charged him with three terrorism offences) as to his true intentions. Clearly he and Islamic State only showed what they wanted us to see.

The same holds for others who have travelled to Syria to join IS or al-Qa’ida but, wishing to avoid the legal unpleasantries that membership of a terrorist organisation brings, claim they have gone to provide humanitarian aid. This type of fabricated claim has been a constant feature of this conflict since its earliest days. Adam Brookman from Melbourne, for instance, claimed he entered Syria to provide humanitarian assistance without any evidence of links with a humanitarian aid group. Authorities didn't believe it and charged him. Another Australian Muslim convert, Oliver Bridgeman, has also presented himself as a humanitarian aid worker, largely through the selected release of video clips that show him working with children, and a soft expose on 60 Minutes. Again, the authorities have formed a different view of his activities, and in March last year issued an arrest warrant for 'incursions into foreign countries with the intention of engaging in hostile activities'.

In the social media age in which we live, it is right to be cynical about those who claim to be traveling to jihadist conflict zones for humanitarian purposes only. Unless they also provide verifiable evidence of connections with legitimate humanitarian aid groups, their claims should carry little weight. Whatever other purpose it serves, Tareq Kamleh’s latest video is a jarring demonstration of the jihadi propensity to cite humanitarian activities in a bid to disguise their true motivations and actions. The Lowy Institute will be releasing a research paper on this issue later this year.  

Saudi succession shuffle

Today's announcement that Saudi Arabia's King Salman has reshuffled the line of succession in favour of his son Mohammed bin Salman is surprising, but not unexpected.

MBS, as he is often referred to, has been moved from Deputy Crown Prince to Crown Prince, while Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), the King's nephew, has been moved aside as Crown Prince, and has also lost his powerful position as Interior Minister.

The move itself was not unexpected given that Salman has been concentrating power in his son's hands from the moment he became King in 2015. MBS rapidly became the key figure in the country's internal and foreign policies, but MBS also knew that his chances of becoming King might have been forestalled if his father died before he could consolidate his power, especially vis-à-vis his key rival in the family, MBN.

What is more surprising is the timing. There were few hints that the King was about to make such a dramatic move. Less than a week ago the King stripped MBN of his powers to oversee criminal investigations. This suggested that the gradual process of consolidating MBS's position was continuing. Why strip MBN of some of his power if you are going to remove him from power altogether just a few days later?

We can only guess at what might have brought matters to a head: perhaps MBN cavilled at the recent moves; perhaps the aged King's health has deteriorated in some way; it may also be that MBN's health was a factor here, given that he too has reportedly been in poor health.

Such is the opacity of moves within the Saudi Royal Court that it is always going to be a guessing game – even for members of the royal family.

The move itself is not an unprecedented one. The Saudi royal family has a long history of shuffling and reshuffling the succession. In the past it has made decisions to jump princes in the line of succession if they were considered unsuitable to become King.

King Salman himself removed his brother, Prince Muqrin, from the post of Crown Prince shortly after coming to power, giving the job to MBN. That move was significant because it was the first time that a member of the next generation had become Crown Prince. Prior to that, all the Kings of Saudi Arabia had been sons of the founder of the modern Saudi State, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.

Nevertheless, the turnover in senior positions in the Kingdom has been very rapid since Salman became King. This may have generated discontent within the family. The question is, however, whether that discontent would be sufficient to cause members of the family to challenge either King Salman or MBS, or to link up with domestic forces opposed to them.

History shows us that Saudi royals might grumble and moan but they tend to stick together in the knowledge that if the family goes down then everyone in the family goes down too. And it is difficult to see where the challenge to Salman or MBS might come from, given how assiduously they have centralised power and how few senior princes there are left in the family. If I had to put my money on anything, I would bet that this move will pass unchallenged.

Nevertheless, what makes me a little more cautious about continuing to wager on Saudi stability are the aggressive reforms and policies that MBS has been driving in a country long known for its conservatism and caution.

MBS has led the Saudis into an inconclusive war in Yemen, albeit one that is not causing too many Saudi casualties (although it has been a humanitarian disaster for the Yemeni population). His economic reform plans have been ambitious and have met with resistance. He was also probably behind recent moves to isolate Qatar that now seem to be overreaching, with the United States starting to question them.

As Interior Minister, MBN was also heavily credited with successfully containing the terrorist threat within the Kingdom. Should terror attacks resume, should the war in Yemen become costlier in Saudi treasure or blood, or should MBS's economic reform plans fail, it may give some in the family or in the country motive or opportunity to challenge the young Prince's position.

This would be a bold move and there are real questions about how anyone might actually go about challenging MBS. Here the role (and health) of MBN could be a factor and it will be interesting to see how the former Crown Prince responds to his demotion in coming days, weeks and months.

Syria: The battle for the east

Sryian President Bashar al-Assad claimed in September 2016 that he intends to re-establish control over the whole of Syria, and recent actions indicate this remains his strategic aim.

In the west of Syria, realising he did not have sufficient combat power to defeat the armed opposition militarily, Assad and his allies have instead adopted a twin approach of 'containing and negotiating' with the rebels. The fall of Aleppo to Assad’s forces may not have been strategically significant in and of itself, but it was a major psychological blow, and the regime used it to good effect by portraying the societal benefits of a ‘return to normalcy’ after years of conflict and ‘persuading' rebel groups to undertake a negotiated settlement (such as Waer in Homs and Wadi Barada near Damascus).

These settlements have the additional benefit to the regime of concentrating many of Assad’s opponents into the one area. Thus a mixed group of secularists, 'light' Islamists (less violent, domestically focused) and 'heavy' Islamists (more violent transnational groups such as al Qaeda and affiliates) is created, causing tensions to flare internally and allowing Assad to portray them all as being part of a broader terrorist threat.

Furthermore, negotiated settlements have allowed Assad to free some of his manoeuvre forces to head east (and to a lesser degree south). There are plenty of indications that he has indeed commenced this redeployment along multiple axes, as explained in this Aaron Lund piece. This Russian military briefing claims (from 15:20-15:50) Syrian forces have advanced to the the Syria-Iraq border south of Abu-Kemal. Syrian state TV also released pictures of what it claimed were Syrian troops at the border.

The south-eastern part of the border, however, has become somewhat problematic. A small number of US and coalition special forces troops have been operating in the vicinity of al-Tanf border crossing within Syrian territory. And, while they had enjoyed a degree of independence since they seized the border crossing from ISIS more than a year ago, they did come to the attention of Russian aircraft last year and to ISIS attention through a local counter-attack earlier this year. Now, as Damascus’ focus has shifted east, provocations in the form of land and air incursions into the area have commenced. On 18 May a convoy of pro-Assad forces was warned and then fired upon by coalition aircraft. Last week another small pro-Syrian force north of al-Tanf was engaged, and an Iranian-manufactured drone was shot down after firing on anti-Assad forces in the same area. In the last few days the US has deployed the HIMARS artillery rocket system into al-Tanf.

Some have claimed that eastern Syria is now up for grabs between US-backed and pro-Assad forces, with a possible post-Raqqa move for anti-Assad forces to take over the Euphrates River valley, including the strategically important Deir az-Zour. Another view is that the US is dedicated to stopping the establishment of a mythical ‘Iranian highway’.

But neither of these claims is based on reality. To begin with, the US and the rebel forces it supports in the southeast are small and lack armoured manoeuvre capability. Assad regime forces are now located to their north and look set to increase their number. The Syrian military has maintained a brigade under siege in Deir az-Zour, and it is difficult to see any way the US could actively support forces that would essentially be used to relieve the siege of Syrian military forces in that city. Equally important, Washington's point man on ISIS, Brett McGurk, was quoted in a 7 June press conference in Baghdad referring to the US ground force presence in Syria as saying: 'the mission is to fight Daesh. When the fight against Daesh is over, we won’t be there.'

As for the argument that Iran seeks a land bridge to the Mediterranean, nobody has yet explained why Tehran would want a vulnerable 1000km stretch of road passing through four countries in order to transport arms to its ally Hizbollah in Lebanon, a force it already supplies effectively through its Damascus airbridge. Perhaps the Assad regime’s desire to seize crossing points to Iraq has more to do with restoring international commerce and gaining the revenue such crossings produce, much as US-backed rebels controlling the Tanf crossing have started to do.

The manoeuvring between pro-Assad forces and US-backed groups in the east is interesting to watch, but observers should be wary of drawing too many conclusions about the ability and willingness of the US to influence long-term events there. The US presence is tactical and temporary, a fact fully appreciated by those who are there for the long term.  

Mindanao: In the face of a new, united threat, Duterte courts unorthodox alliances

The conflict in the Philippines’ city of Marawi has now claimed the lives of 100 people, and President Rodrigo Duterte is committed to his May 23 imposition of martial law for the entire southern island of Mindanao (in which Marawi is located). In the face of a newly-united radical Islamist opposition, Duterte appears to be trying to build a coalition of his own between government forces and various separatist groups. However, it is unclear if such an alliance will materialise, given these groups’ concerns with Manilla’s declaration of military rule. Moreover, the degree to which the President’s current strategy can effect lasting positive change in Mindanao remains uncertain.

Since last week, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have been fighting an amalgamation of two distinct radical Islamist groups: Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader, pledged his loyalty to the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, while the Maute group explicitly aligned itself with IS somewhat later, in 2016. On May 23, government forces attempted to capture Hapilon in Marawi, but encountered joint resistance from both Hapilon’s forces and members of the Maute group, which sparked the current conflict. In March of this year, Sidney Jones wrote on The Interpreter that the relatively recent alliance-building between Hapilon, the Maute group, and other IS-aligned organisations enables more unified opposition to the government in the southern Philippines. The Marawi crisis would seem to be bearing out this claim. The Philippines’ leaders must accept that they are engaged in conflict with a newly-organised enemy that presents a more focused threat.

Duterte’s recent actions suggest that he believes a good response to united opposition is some unorthodox alliance-building of his own. Over the weekend, Duterte offered an olive branch to the Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the MNLF and MILF, respectively) the largest and most established groups that have fought the government for increased autonomy for the Philippines’ Moro Muslim minority. Unlike Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, neither Moro group has aligned itself with IS. Duterte proposed that fighters from the two groups could receive pay and other rewards for fighting alongside the AFP against Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. The AFP in turn would benefit from the separatists’ battle experience and knowledge of local terrain.  

Duterte claims to have received a pledge of 5000 troops from MNLF leader Nur Misuari, but there have been no corresponding claims from Misuari himself. A May 29 meeting with MILF leaders appears to have been productive; MILF leaders welcomed the idea of their troops being used to support civilians trapped in Marawi, but  did not make explicit troop commitments. Moro group leaders may oppose Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, but they may also be concerned that Duterte will turn on them under the auspices of martial law, perhaps after the threat from IS-aligned groups dissipates.

The President also called for military cooperation from the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which has been leading its own nation-wide, anti-government insurgency  centred in Mindanao. On Monday, one of the group’s key advisers said that the NPA is opposed to Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group’s violence against civilians, and expressed interest in cooperating with the government in the conflict in against Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. However, the Duterte administration recently backed out of the fifth round of ongoing peace talks with the communists after the CPP called on NPA forces to attack government troops imposing martial law in Mindanao. Given these mixed messages, government cooperation with communist militants is far from a sure thing.

The MNLF and the MILF have been engaged in peace talks with the government for decades, though these talks have moved slowly, with intermittent interruptions from outbreaks of violence. Meanwhile, a ceasefire agreed to in July 2016 between the government and the communists collapsed completely in February of this year. As mentioned above, the negotiations that have occurred since have been fitful at best.

Duterte’s new openness to rebel groups may represent a break from these groups’ troubled peace negotiations with the government. However, it would be dangerously naïve to presume that Duterte’s recent actions will bring about a lasting brighter future for Mindanao. Malcolm Cook of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies points out that Duterte already declared a national state of emergency in September after a Maute-linked bombing in Mindanao’s Davao City – and yet this was not sufficient to prevent the Marawi conflict. A recent editorial in Rappler, a Philippines news website, similarly notes that 'It [martial law] plays to our penchant for shortcuts, until it hits home. It makes us forget the real problems that have made terrorists thrive in the region.'

There are many obstacles to Duterte’s ambitious goal of an AFP-NPA-MNLF-MILF coalition. And even if such an alliance comes to fruition, it should not be seen as a means to achieving lasting peace in the southern Philippines.

Syrian safe zones: Not there yet

Last Thursday in Astana the latest agreement that attempts to establish some limited cessation of hostilities in Syria was signed. The signatories (and hence guarantors) were Turkey, Iran and Russia. Given this is the fourth attempt at a cessation of hostilities, prospects for its success appear slim. The opposition groups represented staged a walkout over a number of issues, not the least of which was the acknowledged role for Iran.

The plan allows for the creation of four zones, within which offensive military operations will cease (except against Islamic State or al-Qaeda-linked groups), as will Syrian aircraft missions above these areas (although Russian aircraft will continue to fly in a defensive role). Essential services would resume, and humanitarian aid delivery would be unobstructed. Outside of these areas, the conflict would continue.

Washington has been cautious about the proposal. It sent an observer to the Astana talks for the first time, but it also quickly rejected an idea espoused by a Russian envoy that the flight restrictions outlined in the agreement would also apply to US aircraft. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was circumspect, saying the US was examing the plan but had many questions still to be answered.

There are plenty of difficulties with the proposal including: the delay in defining the exact limits of the zones and who and how each would be protected; the absence of a conflict-resolution mechanism; and the definition of al-Qaeda-aligned groups who could continue to be engaged within the zones. The Syrian government, for example, has previously defined all armed opposition elements as terrorists, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said that non-AQ groups must not only disengage from any affiliation with AQ-aligned groups but actively work to expel them from the zones. He has also dismissed any role for UN monitors, although the proposal will itself likely go to the UN for ratification.

So another attempt at trying to impose a limited cessation of hostilities is attempted, as the UN Geneva-based political process continues. Turkey and Russia have reported ongoing violations of the ceasefire, but also an increase in the number of armed groups joining the agreement and of inhabited areas joining in the reconciliation process. Neither claim has been independently verified, of course.

On the one hand any agreement that brings relief to civilians, even if temporarily, needs to be supported. But the lack of trust between sides has not disappeared. Cynics might say that such ceasefires simply allow the Syrian government to redeploy assets to other areas, reduce operational tempo, and plan and re-equip for future operations while trying to negotiate localised outcomes in populated areas. When looking at Syria, it's hard not to be cynical.

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