Syria’s crisis will persist until the US steps forward

US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov agreed a ceasefire in Syria, but will it hold? Kevin Lamarque / AP
US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov agreed a ceasefire in Syria, but will it hold? Kevin Lamarque / AP

The images coming out of Syria paint a very different picture of life after five years of war. In opposition-held areas, children are playing in the streets, relieved of the fear of attack by the regime’s barrel bombs or Russia’s more advanced weaponry. In regime-held parts of the city of Aleppo, families sit outside in the evening, enjoying the Eid holiday.

The US-Russian ceasefire agreement has dramatically reduced the level of violence. On Wednesday it was agreed to renew the ceasefire for a further 48 hours.

Despite these encouraging signs, it is hard to find anyone who thinks this respite is leading in short order to a workable peace process that ends with the departure of Bashar Al Assad and his dictatorship. According to US press reports, even John Kerry, the hyper-active secretary of state who has worked unstintingly to try to reduce the death and destruction in Syria, privately does not believe it has much chance.

In Washington, the doubts are expressed openly at the highest level about the success of a deal between two countries with contradictory goals in Syria at a time of rising distrust between them.

The White House has said there are reasons to be sceptical that the Russians, the foremost backer of the Assad regime, will implement the deal.

The Pentagon is even cooler: if the ceasefire holds for seven days, the US and Russian military are due to set up a “joint implementation centre” that will coordinate air attacks in Syria. The idea, from the US point of view, is to stop the Syrian air force from bombing civilians, and to prevent the Russians attacking US-supported “moderate” opposition groups on the pretext that they are terrorists from the Nusra Front, the local Al Qaeda outfit. This is an important strand of the opposition forces, though they have recently rebranded themselves and changed their name. It is excluded from the ceasefire.

The US military’s concerns are well-founded. They are relying on the Russians to ground the Syrian air force and to obey the spirit of the agreement themselves. But there is no stick to enforce compliance. A senior US official said that the only consequence of the ceasefire breaking down is that it will come to an end.

As for the Russians, the defence ministry is highlighting the doubts expressed by major rebel factions about the ceasefire, effectively preparing the ground to blame them for the failure of the agreement.

The rebels have many reasons to be dubious. Though the text of the agreement has not been released, they see it as too favourable to the regime, a thinly disguised step by the Obama administration towards bowing to Russia’s will in Syria. It will split rebel ranks, allowing the regime and its allies to crush the jihadist element and then pick off the “moderates”.

Their fears are confirmed by the delay in providing promised aid to rebel-held areas, a key element of the ceasefire.

A convoy of Turkish lorries is ready to head for eastern Aleppo, where 250,000 people live under government siege. But the regime has effectively rejected any convoys from Turkey, and has failed to secure the access road to allow supplies to go through. Clearly from the regime’s point of view, the “starve or kneel” strategy has worked and it is determined to pursue it.

All this raises the question of why Mr Kerry has devoted so much energy to this agreement. By character he is a man of principle – a decorated Vietnam War hero, in 1971 he campaigned against the war – and he believes he cannot sit on his hands and do nothing while hundreds of thousands of Syrians are killed. He is, of course, aware that his time in office is coming to an end, and he has to think of how history will see his legacy.

But there are solid policy reasons for his actions, even if they cannot be spoken out loud. If Mr Obama’s term is to be crowned by driving ISIL out of its Syrian base at Raqqa, the Americans and the Russians need to be on the same page, or at least reading from the same book. So far they have not been.

The United States sees ISIL as a threat to the homeland, and wants to focus on crushing it. The Russians want to preserve their primacy in Syria, an ally for decades, while relishing their ability to exploit the caution and confusion of the Obama White House.

Given American reluctance to get engaged deeply in Syria, there is no doubt that the Russians hold the keys to any peace settlement. With Vladimir Putin ready to flex his muscles and the Americans holding back, this contest can only go one way.

None of these diplomatic calculations mean that the ceasefire is meaningless. Saving lives is always good. And seeking to align the interests of Russia and the US is useful. It could ease the way for Moscow and Washington to work together at a later stage to rebuild Syria.

But that time has not come yet. Moscow is still in a mood to pocket American concessions. The US is paying the price for talking tough about removing Bashar Al Assad, while not daring to take action to achieve it.

Banking on the victory of “moderate” forces is rarely a winning strategy. Wars are usually won by the more determined side.

There will come a time when Russia no longer wants to be at war in Syria. While the regime forces appear to be winning, the reality is the army is constrained by a lack of manpower and is reliant on outside forces to supply some backbone, while the regime-held areas are infested with thuggery and corruption. Russia will not want to bear this burden forever.

This ceasefire agreement may be a sign of a start of a long process to end the war, but Russia has not yet become a genuine sponsor of a political transition in Damascus. That is still some way away.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps

Published: September 15, 2016 04:00 AM

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