It’s Putin Who Will Make or Break the Syrian Cease-fire

Every party has an interest in observing the truce, but whether it leads to a longer-term dialog depends above all on Russia.

A Syrian boy holds a toy gun as he plays soccer with others between destroyed buildings with graffiti that reads "Syria al-Assad," in the old city of Homs, Feb. 26, 2016.
AP

Although the first day of the cease-fire in Syria passed successfully, it’s too early to heave a sigh of relief. John Kerry and his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov, the two statesmen who made the provisional cease-fire deal, are the first to admit there’s no certainty it will endure.

It seems that the explanation for the quiet that reigned on the first day and perhaps – at least it is to be hoped – the next few days, lies in the fear shared by each side – the Syrian regime, the rebel militias, Turkey and Russia – of being blamed for violating the agreement. In addition, each party has, at least at this stage, an interest in adopting the truce.

Russia, which grounded its airplanes yesterday “to avoid mistake and misunderstandings,” cannot break an agreement it initiated and jeopardize its chances of dictating future strategic moves in the region. The rebel militias, apart from Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, which are not part of the cease-fire agreement, need some time for regrouping, rearming and renewing supplies, as well as enabling aid for civilians to be brought into the areas they control.

Turkey, which stopped bombing the Kurdish rebel bases shortly before the truce came into effect, said it would continue to strive to have the Kurdish forces in Syria classified as terror organizations. But, as is its custom, Turkey won’t be the first or only one to break the truce. On the face of it, the only party that doesn’t have an interest in keeping the deal at the moment is Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces are deployed in several advantageous positions on the main routes around Aleppo, in the Daraa area and in the Latakia region. But the Syrian army can maintain the closure, which is strangling many towns and villages in Syria, and try to get concessions from the militias in them, even without firing a shot.

On the other hand, the delicate fabric of interests could unravel at any moment, either because of a provocation by one party or another or due to a conflict between militias, which could spark wider fighting.

It will take a few days to see whether the cease-fire, which is supposed to last for two weeks, not only endures but enables humanitarian aid to be supplied to besieged areas, as called for in the agreement. No less important, this will also give an indication of whether the truce can lead to the next move. The problem is that nobody knows what the next move is. Ideally, a cease-fire should provide a chance for special UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and the militias’ leadership to negotiate an agreement in principle on holding a dialog between the regime and the militias.

But the cease-fire cannot guarantee that the Saudi-supported militias, for example, will agree to talk to the Syrian regime’s officials while Hezbollah is still active in the field. It also cannot guarantee that the Kurdish rebels, which Turkey is fighting against, will have a seat around the negotiation table. This could lead to the collapse of the entire agreement because the Kurds are seen as allies of Russia and the United States in the war against ISIS.

Beyond these difficulties, there still is no consensus on a role for Assad in negotiations on Syria’s future. Washington may have agreed to leave Assad in power during the caretaker government period, but not beyond that. Assad, however, hasn’t agreed to this yet. Nor is there any Russian commitment to end Assad’s term as president. The Syrian president has already announced parliamentary elections in mid-April, a move which will give him public legitimacy to continue in his post, although the elections will be held only in territories ruled by his army.

Even if the cease-fire holds for two weeks, this is hardly enough time to prepare the platform for the strategic dialog in Syria. So at the end of that period, not only will it be necessary to extend the cease-fire, but the UN envoy will also have to convince the parties that there’s an basis for a dialog.

This will be de Mistura’s challenge. He will have to enlist mainly Russia, as it seems that Washington will agree to any plan, as long as it isn’t dragged into an escalation requiring boots on the ground.

Russia, whose massive military involvement has brought about a strategic change in the status of Assad and the Syrian army, will now wait to see if its actions have been sufficient to persuade the militias to sign an agreement — or whether it must renew the fighting until they do.

It is doubtful that the militias will want to put Russian ability to the test again — and herein could lie the best chance of the truce yielding an agreement.