Peter Brookes: Russia uses cease-fire to own benefit

A cease-fire is a cease-fire, except when it isn’t – at least that seems to be the case when it comes to Russia’s political-military intervention in the now 5-year-old Syrian civil war (really a regional one).

While the pause in the fighting is intended to allow much-needed humanitarian aid to flow to suffering Syrian civilians, early on Russia seemed to be playing fast and loose with the supposed “cessation of hostilities” that began last Saturday.

According to news reporting, Moscow continued its devastating air campaign in support of its longtime ally, Damascus, in violation of the agreed-to break in battle.

While the armistice doesn’t apply to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State (aka ISIS) in Syria, it does apply to other fighting units, including the Kurds and other paramilitary forces.

But, it’s pretty clear that the Kremlin likely considers any groups opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad as “terrorists,” too.

Indeed, some news reports allege that the cease-fire was short-lived, coming to an end when the Russians began bombing rebel (that is, regime-opposition) targets again on Sunday –  the long-standing focus of the country’s air campaign.

Reuters cited a Western diplomat as noting that the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said that Russian “air strikes had fallen from 100 to about six to eight a day, so there needed to be some perspective about the situation.”

I guess you can tragically put that in the category of “good news,” considering conflict violence levels and the thousands of reported Russian air raids (sometimes on questionable targets) since entering the war last September in support of the Assad regime.

On Monday, reports indicated that the cease-fire was shaky at best, but holding despite a number of alleged violations. An Associated Press report Tuesday claims to have witnessed inactive jets at the Russian air base in Syria.

So what should we make of this?

First, if the Russian air base visit wasn’t some sort of Soviet-era “Potemkin Village” ploy, the Kremlin isn’t doing much about hitting ISIS or al-Qaeda, one of the reasons that Moscow offered for entering the war.

Also, Russia can restart its bombing campaign any time it wants, easily claiming this or that violation by one of the parties. It’s already pointing a finger at Turkey, which shot down a Russian fighter last year in Turkish airspace.

Of course, during the pause in fighting, its pilots and crews can get some rest or be rotated back to Russia. Also, planes can be worked on, its forces resupplied and commanders can evaluate battlefield tactics.

Then, too, it can also strategize with its Damascus allies about the upcoming Geneva peace talks, possible next steps in the military campaign as well as gather intelligence on “enemy” targets for future use.

Lastly – and what may be most troubling – is that it’s likely that Moscow is relatively satisfied at the moment with its position and that of Damascus in this war, meaning that getting a lot of give from Russia on the future of Syria won’t be easy.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald.  Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email:BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.