The ceasefire which Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin agreed should go into effect in along southwestern Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel on Sunday, July 9, is a hodgepodge of unknown factors with vague prospects – even by the rickety standards of that six-year war.
Whether or not it holds is of less concern to Israel than the military presence of Iranian and Hizballah forces on its borders. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made this point at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, after putting those concerns before President Vladimir Putin last Thursday and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before the Trump-Putin encounter at the G20 summit on Friday.
Both assured him that Israel’s concerns would be taken into account. But neither spelled out what practical form that consideration would take.
The ceasefire deal they forged at Hamburg with great fanfare turns out to be no more than a generic title for a still unwritten piece of work on the prospective military and political cooperation between the US and Russia. Up until the Sunday noon deadline, nothing was heard from Tehran, Damascus or Beirut on if and how they intended to uphold the truce.
Jordan alone is celebrating the ceasefire and claiming it as a major feat. According to spokesmen in Amman, American and Jordanian drones and warplanes will jointly monitor the cessation of hostilities and the rebel-held areas of Daraa and Quneitra will become autonomous rebel-ruled regions, as a model for the rest of the country.
Such reports are without foundation. The Americans and Russians have not yet filled in the details of the new arrangement, such as who will supervise the truce, which troops will police it – or even the demarcation line boundary around the demilitarized enclave.
In preliminary discussions, Moscow proposed deploying Russian military police as monitors. This was rejected by the Americans as tantamount to handing southwestern Syria over to Syrian ruler Bashar Assad. Instead, they proposed posting US or international forces in the Deraa and Quneitra areas (See attached map). But here the Russians dug in their heels, refusing to allow the number of US troops in Syria to increase.
No one knows where Tehran or Damascus stands on this question either. No doubt, once the details are in place, Russian and US diplomats will be scrambling to bring their allies aboard before the ceasefire breaks down.
Given all these uncertainties, the truce announced in Hamburg is not expected to hold water for long. In Syria, there is never any shortage of willing ceasefire-breakers.
Israel has kept a low profile on these deliberations, although the Golan and its northern border are at high risk from the latest turn of the Syrian war, but also from any external deals for its termination.
In reference to the ceasefire, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Sunday: “We are still learning the details of the deal and its connotations for southwestern Syria and Iran’s deepening presence in Syria. We reserve full freedom of action to do what is necessary in our security interests,” he said, repeating “full freedom of action.” The minister added that Israel is deeply concerned that the Islamists in flight from liberated Mosul may head west out of Iraq. That concern, he said, is shared by Saudi Arabia and other Middle East nations.
Netanyahu and IDF chiefs continually reiterate that the presence of Iranian and Hizballah forces on Israel’s border is unacceptable. But this did not stop Presidents Trump and Putin from coming to terms on a deal that leaves both those forces at Al-Baath on the outskirts of Quneitra, just 3km from Israel’s Golan border, or in parts of Deraa, which is 36km east of the Golan (and 1km from Jordan).
This constant Israeli official refrain by the Netanyahu government is as much practical use as its insistence that Iran will not be allowed to pump advanced weapons for Hizballah to Lebanon through Syria, when in practice, the Lebanese Shiite group is free to help itself to those weapons in Syria while fighting on its different fronts – whether Israel likes it or not.