A cease-fire agreement reached Friday between the United States and Russia is intended to quell fighting in southwest Syria and allow anti-government rebels there to focus on the Islamic State, according to an analyst familiar with the negotiations.
The cease-fire was reported by the Associated Press and Reuters, citing unnamed U.S. officials, as President Trump held his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The deal marks a new level of involvement for the U.S. in trying to resolve Syria’s civil war. Although details about the agreement and how it will be implemented weren’t immediately available, the cease-fire is set to take effect Sunday at noon Damascus time, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss the cease-fire publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Jordan and Israel also are part of the agreement, one of the officials said. The two U.S. allies both share a border with the southern part of Syria and have been concerned about violence from Syria’s civil war spilling over the border.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the agreement is meant to prevent attacks by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad on U.S.- and Jordanian-supported rebel forces in southeast Syria.
“The Assad regime is on the defensive. They don’t have enough forces to go on the offensive so they rely on Iranian militias,” Tabler said. “This agreement keeps those Iranian militias out of the areas adjacent the Jordanian and Israeli borders.”
The deal has been in works for a while, in negotiations in Amman with the Jordanians, Russians and others, he said.
“Some of the heaviest bombing in the last few months has been in that area by the regime,” Tabler said.
The Islamic State is also in the area covered by the cease-fire and will not be party to the cease-fire agreement. The Islamic State is hemmed in against the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, and under attack by U.S. supported rebel forces.
“That’s why wepre supporting those rebels. This agreement should allow those rebels to focus on ISIS and for the regime not to attack rebel forces,” Tabler said.
The question now is whether Russia will be able to enforce the agreement on its Syrian and Iranian allies, he said. “That’s not certain.”
Several previous cease-fires negotiated between the Obama administration and Russia failed after Syrian government forces attacked U.S.-backed rebels, claiming they were terrorists.
The deal is separate from “de-escalation zones” that were to be created under a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran earlier this year. The U.S. was not a part of that deal. Follow-up talks this week in Astana, Kazakhstan, to finalize a cease-fire in those zones failed to reach agreement.
Previous cease-fires in Syria have collapsed or failed to reduce violence for long, and it was unclear whether this deal would be any better.
Earlier in the week, Syria’s military had said it was halting combat operations in the south of Syria for four days, in advance of a new round of Russia-sponsored talks in Astana. That move covered southern provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Sweida. Syria’s government briefly extended that unilateral cease-fire, which is now set to expire Saturday — a day before the U.S. and Russian deal would take effect.
The new agreement to be announced Friday will be open-ended, one U.S. official said, describing it as part of broader U.S. discussions with Russia on trying to lower violence in the war-ravaged country. Officials said the U.S. and Russia were still working out the details as Trump and Putin concluded their more than two-hour meeting on Friday.
The U.S. and Russia have been backing opposing sides in Syria’s war, with Moscow supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad and Washington supporting rebels who have been fighting Assad. Both the U.S. and Russia oppose the Islamic State group in Syria.
The U.S. has been wary of letting Iran gain influence in Syria — a concern shared by Israel and Jordan, neither of which wants Iranian-aligned troops amassing near their territories. A U.S.-brokered deal could help the Trump administration retain more of a say over who fills the power vacuum left behind as the Islamic State is routed from additional territory in Syria.
Though U.S. and Russian officials had been discussing a potential deal for some time, it didn’t reach fruition until the run-up to Trump’s meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit in Germany, officials said.
Before Trump’s meeting with Putin — his first with the Russian leader — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that Syria’s civil war would be high on the agenda. Tillerson said in a statement before departing for Germany for the meeting that the U.S. remained open to cooperating with Russia through “joint mechanisms” to lower violence in Syria, potentially including no-fly zones.
“If our two countries work together to establish stability on the ground, it will lay a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria’s political future,” Tillerson said on Wednesday.
Moscow reacted angrily when the U.S. downed a Syrian jet last week after it dropped bombs near the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces conducting operations against the Islamic State group. Russia warned its military would track aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition as potential targets over Syria and suspended a hotline intended to avoid midair incidents.