John Kerry’s new ceasefire in Syria, launched last week after negotiations with Russia, is an admirable effort to bring a measure of peace to a shattered land. But it’s almost certainly doomed to fail — despite the diligence and even passion that the United States Secretary of State has devoted to it.
Too many forces, from Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government to Al Qaida’s Syrian offshoot, don’t really want the ceasefire to last. And it’s not clear that anyone can stop them from blowing it up — least of all the administration of US President Barack Obama, which has sworn off military intervention on the ground.
Here’s how the deal, negotiated by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is meant to work: The Syrian government and Syria’s moderate rebels — the ones supported by the US — are supposed to stop shooting at each other. (So far, they’ve mostly complied.)
The extremists of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Al Qaida aren’t included; nobody expected them to cooperate. (The Al Qaida branch in Syria, formerly called Jabhat Al Nusra, has rebranded itself as the Front for the Conquest of Syria, but it’s the same outfit.)
If the truce holds for seven days, the US and Russia will set up a joint centre to coordinate their air forces in attacks against Daesh and the Front for the Conquest of Syria. At that point, the Syrian air force, which has dropped thousands of primitive “barrel bombs” on its own citizens, will be required to stop attacking rebel-held zones. Routes will be opened to allow humanitarian aid convoys to bring food and medicine to areas that the government has besieged.
And then, if all goes well, the government and the rebels will start negotiations to end the war for good.
That would be a remarkable diplomatic achievement — especially in view of the limited leverage the US has applied so far.
Here’s why it’s unlikely to work:
The two great powers involved in this conflict, the US and Russia, both want a truce. Nevertheless, their basic goals are still far apart. Kerry wants to push all sides into negotiations to set up a new Syrian government that would ease Al Assad out of power.
The Russians, who had sent troops and planes to Syria last year to bolster Al Assad, mainly want to stabilise the government.
Al Assad not only wants to keep power, but he also wants to use the ceasefire to improve his military and diplomatic positions. That’s what he did, with help from the Russians, during a brief ceasefire earlier this year.
Opposition leaders hope the truce will end the government’s siege of the rebel stronghold in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, but they fear that the broader effect will be to weaken their forces and strengthen the government.
Finally, Daesh and the Front for the Conquest of Syria have already rejected the truce and can be counted on to try to foil it — in part to avoid becoming the only remaining targets for air strikes.
There are practical problems, too, beginning with this: How is the truce going to be enforced?
“For a ceasefire to work, you need a monitoring group on the ground — and there isn’t one,” Robert S. Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, told me.
If the Al Assad government violates the agreement, what then?
“Without a Plan B, there is no useful ‘or else,’” warned Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center on the Middle East. (As Plan B, he recommended US strikes against the Syrian air force, an option that Obama has turned down.) And there’s a longer-term risk, Hof added: If the US and Russia succeed in defeating the Front for the Conquest of Syria, what’s to stop the Al Assad government from restarting its war against the smaller, weaker opposition?
Finally, there’s still no clear path to success in the peace negotiations Kerry wants to start — even if the government and the rebels show up. “Saying that we’re going to get everyone to the negotiating table isn’t really a strategy,” Ford said. “It’s going to take a lot longer, and the opposition is going to need a lot more support.”
Kerry deserves credit for the work he’s done to get this ceasefire started. Even a brief truce is better than none. I lived in Beirut during the early years of Lebanon’s civil war; days with ceasefires, even shaky ones, were generally safer than those without.
If the truce holds and humanitarian aid flows, Obama may even avoid the fate of leaving office with his Syria policy a symbol of unbroken failure.
However, it doesn’t look likely. This peace plan depends too heavily on two scarce commodities: The wisdom of Syria’s armed factions and the goodwill of Russian President Vladimir Putin. There’s an old rule in the Middle East: It’s hard to go broke if you bet on pessimism.