A nationwide Syrian ceasefire, which has been brokered by Moscow and Ankara, has been unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. The media, even CNN, have been making a big deal of the ceasefire agreement, especially of the fact that it has been effected without the participation of the United States. Who has actually been involved is another question, as some reports claim a tripartite agreement, involving Russia, Iran and Turkey.
In a clip that has been showing repeatedly on RT over the last day or two (31 December – 1 January), Murad Gazdiev waxed enthusiastic at the prospect of a successful ceasefire brokered without US involvement. According to Gazdiev, the ‘troika’ (Russia, Turkey and Iran) ‘are now doing what US promised to do for years, separating moderates from jihadists […]. The troika is getting things done.‘ The clip continues with Ken Livingstone, who affirms that ‘Islamist groups have been excluded‘.
To many people a major question was the identity of these moderate groups, but in his excitement, Gazdiev overlooked this matter entirely. Fortunately the Russian Ministry of Defence has published the list of the seven groups who have signed up to the ceasefire. According to the Ministry, these are ‘Formations of the moderate opposition, which control vast territories in the northern and central part of Syria and which have joined the ceasefire‘.
1. Feilak al-Sham, over 4,000 strong; operate in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and Homs provinces.
2. Ahrar al-Sham; about 16,000; Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Idlib, Latakia, Hama and Homs provinces.
3. Jaysh al-Islam: 12,000; Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, Latakia, Hama and Homs provinces.
4. Thuwar al-Sham: about 2,500; Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia provinces.
5. Jaysh al-Mujahideen: 8,000; Aleppo city,provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama.
6. Jaysh Idlib: more than 6,000; Idlib province.
7. Jabhat al-Shamiyah; about 3,000; Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus provinces.
Thus the backbone of the ‘moderate rebels’, the ‘legitimate opposition’, are Jaish al Islam and Ahrar al Sham, long considered to be extremist organisations in terms of both their sectarianism and their brutality. Jaish al Islam, which has forces in Ghouta, Damascus, is implicated in the Ghouta sarin attack (in its previous incarnation as Liwa al-Islam), shelling civilian areas of Damascus, and using caged women as human shields. Ahrar al Sham is associated with numerous atrocities; including the massacre in al Zara of May 2016. They are also the dominant force in Madaya where the militants sell humanitarian aid at exorbitant prices to residents.
Jaish al Islam, along with al Nusra, is part of the Jaish al Fatah alliance, which claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Tartous on New Year’s Eve, the same day that the ceasefire was agreed. (The Arabic below actually reads ‘Today in in Tartous and tomorrow in Moscow, Russia’)
Until a few days ago Russia too saw these groups as extremist. In May 2016 Russia moved that the UN Security Council recognise both Jaish al Islam and Ahrar al Sham as terrorist organisations, a motion that was vetoed by the US, the UK and France. According to the view Russia’s Vitaly Churkin expressed at the time:
Jaish al Islam and Ahrar al Sham are ‘closely linked to terrorist organisations, primarily ISIL and al-Qaeda’. The groups ‘both give to [ISIL and al-Nusra] and receive from them financial, material, technical and military support’.
All the factions listed by the Russian Ministry, not just Jaish al Islam and Ahrar al Sham, have been operating in Aleppo or Idlib, alongside al Nusra. Aside from Jaish Idlib (based in the al Nusra stronghold of Idlib), they are all complicit in the wanton shelling of civilians in western Aleppo. Most of them refused to join the ceasefire brokered in September, because al Nusra was excluded.
In short they are all terrorist organisations. But moderate terrorists, it would seem. And not just moderate but, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, ‘moderate opposition’.
When Lavrov and Kerry brokered a cessation of hostilities in May 2016, on condition that the moderate rebels were separated from the jihadists that they were cooperating with, many people thought oh good, the US fiction of ‘moderate rebels’ is going to be exposed. But no, Russia has been playing along with the concept of the moderate rebels all year, even though it has been abundantly clear that in Aleppo, for example, all the ‘rebels’, no matter what their theoretical alignment, have been cooperating in their operations, including their war crimes against the people of Aleppo. Now Russia is making another huge concession to the NATO narrative, by redefining Ahrar al Sham and Jaish al Islam as moderate organisations.
Once again, we are asked to believe that groups who eat with, fight with, and have the same mores as al Nusra and ISIS can somehow be redefined as moderate, legitimate opposition in Syria. As Eva Bartlett has said, there are no moderate rebels – from a Syrian perspective they are all committing the same crimes, the same heinous acts (below, from 6.20 mins).
In fact the viability of the ceasefire, or at least its participants, seems to be in some doubt. Fighting has continued: a report has just come through that Jaish al Islam has taken back the Air Battalion base in East Ghouta.
If the ceasefire is successfully imposed, the agreement obliges the Syrian government and the ‘opposition’ to start direct talks in Astana in late January. The Syrian government has agreed, therefore, to sit down and discuss the future of Syria with war criminals who are anathema to the majority of Syrian people. What will they discuss? The options are limited, as the Syrian government have ruled out partition, and also De Mistura’s idea of small Islamist states dotted about Syria. The best case scenario is for all foreign fighters to leave and for Syrian militants to accept democratic rule in Syria (rather than sharia law), but it hardly seems likely.