Middle East Ticker

Russia’s Shaky Ceasefire in Syria, the Islamic State’s Deadly New Year’s Attacks, and Kerry’s Valedictory on the Peace Process

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, January 3, 2017, 10:30 AM

New Syria Ceasefire Holding for Now

Russia followed through on its promised pivot to peace talks by pushing through a new ceasefire in Syria last week. The plan, which was reached with rebel groups through a back channel moderated by Turkey, was announced last Thursday, December 29, and went into effect in the early hours of Friday morning. Russian officials have said they see the ceasefire as a prelude to peace talks, which are being planned for the end of January and will be held in Astana, Kazakhstan.

As the New York Times reported, the planned negotiations are “a far cry from Geneva, where previous talks hosted by the United Nations have been held,” but U.N. officials, including U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, have expressed cautious optimism about the truce. On Saturday night, late on New Year’s Eve, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of the ceasefire and calling for "rapid, safe and unhindered" delivery of humanitarian aid throughout the country. Many of the details of the arrangement have not been made public by the parties to the ceasefire, but its backers in Ankara and Moscow have defended the deal. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called it “a window of opportunity that has been opened and should not be squandered,” and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hopes President-elect Donald Trump will support the deal and talks in Astana after his inauguration later this month. However, discussions so far have avoided the most contentious issue, the fate of the Assad regime, and have not included several key players in the conflict, including Iran and several powerful rebel groups.

The ceasefire is still in its early days and it’s unclear whether it will last until the negotiations can take place. While the truce is holding, both sides have reported violations: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that rebels attacked Assad regime positions in Hama province, and on Saturday rebels said that regime forces had attacked 33 rebel positions across the country, including airstrikes against strategic areas near Damascus.

Islamic State Claims Credit for Deadly Attacks

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for horrific attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad over the last week. The attack in Istanbul was carried out by a man armed with an AK-47 who massacred 39 people at a New Year’s Eve party at the Reina nightclub before fleeing the scene; he remains at large. An American survivor, Jake Raak, who was shot in the attack, said the gunman sprayed the crowd with bullets and then shot injured people lying on the floor. A statement from the Islamic State released yesterday said the attack targeted foreigners and non-Muslims celebrating an “apostate holiday” in retaliation for the Turkish intervention in Syria.

The Islamic State has also carried out a series of bombings in Iraq in recent days. Bombings on Saturday and Monday killed at least 63 people in Sadr City, a Shia neighborhood of Baghdad. The attack on Saturday consisted of several bombings, starting with a suicide bomber who drew a crowd of day laborers by saying he was looking for people to help with a job. Another bombing targeted the city of Najaf on Sunday.

The attacks come as the Islamic State’s territorial control has become increasingly threatened. The U.S.-backed campaign to retake the city of Mosul, now in its third month, renewed its push to control the eastern portion of the city last week. While the fight has been a slow and grinding battle against entrenched Islamic State militants, Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, the top U.S. military official in the coalition, said forces are seeing progress. In an interview with Reuters on Sunday, Martin explained that the IEDs the Islamic State are using in the battle are getting less sophisticated over time, suggesting the group is running out of explosives and bomb technicians. “They've got a finite amount of resource that are on the eastern side and the fact that their capability is waning indicates that those resources are starting to dwindle,” he said.

John Kerry Lays Out U.S. Position on Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process before Leaving Office

Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry followed up on the controversial decision for the United States to abstain and allow U.N. Security Council resolution 2334 pass two weeks ago with a valedictory speech on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The speech, delivered at the State Department last Thursday, was a clear, if long-winded, articulation of U.S. policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Kerry laid out five guiding principles for U.S. policy in support of the two-state solution, including the security of Israel’s borders, Israel’s character as a Jewish state, and recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of both states. “This may well be the first time that the United States, at least in such a highly visible public forum rather than in the negotiating room, talked about Jerusalem as the capital of two states,” former negotiator Aaron David Miller wrote after the speech, though it “has been an assumption of most serious negotiating efforts since the 2000 Camp David summit.” The speech also featured a defense of the U.S. abstention in the Security Council vote and scathing criticism of the Israeli government’s settlement policy.

Reviews of the speech were mixed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had spent the previous week accusing the United States of conspiring to pass UNSC resolution 2334, called the speech "unbalanced" and said it was "obsessively focused" on the settlement issue. The Obama administration’s former envoy, Dennis Ross, described the speech as something Kerry had “to get off his chest.” Ross said that Kerry was correct in assessing that maintaining the status quo will lead to a one-state solution, but disagreed with Kerry’s “all or nothing approach,” which Ross said “always produces nothing.” Others praised the speech for its clarity. “It was much more balanced than the U.N. Security Council resolution,” Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security, said on PBS Newshour. The speech “really did address the question of Palestinian incitement and support for violence...but also gave, I think, the most eloquent explanation we’ve seen of what the problem with the settlement problem is.” The speech also was welcomed by some senior political figures in the Arab world, though the New York Times noted that “Underlying those reactions...was the knowledge that the Palestinian issue does not resonate as strongly among Arabs as it used to, and that Mr. Kerry’s proposals will almost surely have no impact on the administration of President-elect Donald J. Trump.” Trump, for his part, tweeted a response to Kerry’s remarks: “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but.......not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”

Many analysts expressed bafflement about the timing of the speech; with less than a month to go before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Kerry’s remarks were almost entirely a toothless reiteration of principles that the new administration has signaled it intends to disregard. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called it “one of the most puzzling things I have ever seen in politics.” “Why at a time when the country urgently needs effective political opposition to an alarming new regime that is entering office with vast power but little democratic legitimacy did the Obama administration choose to lash out ineffectually in a way that unites his successor’s coalition while dividing his own party?” Yglesias asked the day after the speech. Many dismissed the speech as being irrelevant almost as soon as it ended. However, the speech serves as a line in the sand about where U.S. policy stands at the end of 2016. As Kelsey Atherton, a writer for Popular Science, noted succinctly on Twitter, “Every late-stage move in the Obama [administration] is about defining the norms as they stand, to indicate clearly when Trump crosses them.”