U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced last weekend that they had agreed on the details of a cease-fire in the bloody Syrian conflict. Details of the agreement remain unclear, and what little has been revealed makes the deal sound like a truly innovative solution — which means that there is great skepticism about its prospects for success. Nevertheless, even a temporary halt in the fighting is to be applauded if it allows humanitarian relief for long-suffering civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces, the rebels and their supporters.
It is estimated that 430,000 people have been killed during the Syrian civil war and 11 million people displaced, creating the worst refugee crisis since World War II. The situation has been especially acute in Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city and its primary commercial center. As one of the first cities to fall to the rebels, it has had symbolic importance throughout the fighting. The Damascus government has launched several bloody offensives — and is accused of using chemical weapons — to retake the city, but the guerrillas maintain a grip on the eastern half of Aleppo.
The cease-fire announced last week is designed to offer relief to those besieged inhabitants. The United States and Russia would press the parties they support in the conflict to suspend fighting for seven consecutive days. If the pact holds, then the two governments would establish a Joint Implementation Center for cooperation on military operations in Syria that would go after terror groups — those organizations that enjoy neither U.S. nor Russian support such as the Islamic State radicals or the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.
It appears as though Aleppo is relatively peaceful, even though there are reports that efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the city are going slow. Aid trucks with enough food to feed 80,000 people for a month have been waiting for over 48 hours for authorization to proceed. United Nations officials blame the Syrian government for the holdup, noting that Syrian Army forces have not begun to withdraw from a critical road — a condition for a similar rebel pullback — and for not providing passes for the convoys.
The “bedrock of the agreement,” according to Kerry, is grounding the Syrian Air Force. Its flights have been “the main driver of civilian casualties,” with their use of barrel bombs and “indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighborhoods.”
If the cease-fire holds, then the U.S. and Russia would work out joint plans to go after those terror groups and the Syrian Air Force would be banned from flying in areas where “approved” rebel groups are operating. This is, said Kerry, “a more prescriptive and far-reaching approach than we have been able to put together to date.” It is also very controversial.
The first complaint concerns the information that the U.S. will have to provide the Russians to establish “no-fly” zones. The Russian and Syrian governments will be given the precise locations of the Western-backed rebel forces so that they will know where they cannot bomb. If the agreement breaks down, those opposition forces will have to move quickly to avoid being targeted when all-out fighting resumes.
The second problem is that there is precious little trust between the governments in Washington and Moscow. At the Group of 20 summit, U.S. President Barack Obama said he was not sure if the U.S. and Russia could reach and honor an agreement, and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and CIA Director John Brennan have publicly expressed doubts about diplomacy with Russia.
The record does not provide much ground for hope. A cease-fire was agreed on in February, but it collapsed despite the backing of the U.N. Security Council. Subsequent efforts to craft a larger political framework to stop the fighting have made no progress. This cease-fire is designed to restore some hope, however slim, for a negotiated solution to the civil war.
Airstrikes that have left dozens of civilian casualties occurred despite the agreement, and all sides are blaming the other for the violations. Some of the strikes occurred in IS-controlled areas, so technically they are not violations of the deal. Russian officials have said that the peace talks could resume by the end of the month, but opposition forces insist that conditions on the ground are not sufficient to justify such discussions.
The hope for an enduring peace must not flag, but there must be no illusions about the reality of the situation on the ground. Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown no scruples about pressing every advantage in his attempts to crush the opposition, and his chief objective now is to destroy the “moderate” rebel forces so that the West will have no option but to join him in a concerted effort to then destroy the IS forces.
There is the danger that the U.S. will lose its appetite for hard-nosed diplomacy as the Obama presidency winds down. Kerry is to be applauded for his indefatigable efforts to bring peace to Syria, but that must be a real peace. He needs sustained political — and military — backing to ensure that result.
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