In long and bloody Syria war, this truce may be dif­fer­ent

Malta Independent - - NEWS -

Five years of failed ef­forts to quell the fight­ing in Syria have per­suaded many ob­servers that the war, in­con­clu­sive and cat­a­strophic on a his­toric scale, may not be re­solv­able. A truce ear­lier this year took ef­fect, soon started to fray, then van­ished. But some things are dif­fer­ent this week as a cease-fire bro­kered by the United States and Rus­sia took ef­fect.

The rea­sons for pes­simism are clear. Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad is deeply en­trenched in Da­m­as­cus and seems will­ing to do what­ever it takes to stay in power. He en­joys sup­port not only among his fel­low Alaw­ites, fol­low­ers of an off­shoot of Shia Is­lam, but from Chris­tians and other mi­nor­ity groups. Many fear his au­thor­i­tar­ian rule less than a sce­nario in which se­cu­rity ser­vices col­lapse and the coun­try falls into the hands of Is­lamist Sun­nis.

Mean­while, the fac­tions fight­ing As­sad are be­set by com­pet­ing agen­das and vi­sions for a fu­ture Syria. Grad­u­ally, Sunni Is­lamists have over­shad­owed the orig­i­nal “mod­er­ates” of the Free Syria Army and its splin­ter groups. That lends some res­o­nance to As­sad’s mes­sage that, in ef­fect, he is the least bad op­tion.

The United States has not been ea­ger to wade into this quag­mire. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and its al­lies have lightly armed and trained some of the sup­pos­edly mod­er­ate rebel groups but have re­fused a more ro­bust in­ter­ven­tion and have not sup­ported calls for a no-fly zone in the coun­try’s north. Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia was able to step in, bol­ster As­sad and carve out a lead­er­ship role.

Still, a deeper look at the land­scape does re­veal some move­ment that al­lows a glim­mer of hope that a turn­ing point may have been reached with the truce that took ef­fect on Mon­day.

RE­STRAIN­ING AS­SAD’S MIL­I­TARY

In ac­cept­ing the cease-fire, As­sad vowed to re­cover all the land he lost in the war. But terms of the deal, re­vealed to The As­so­ci­ated Press by US of­fi­cials, ap­pear to freeze in place many of the rebels’ gains. Dur­ing an ini­tial pe­riod, all at­tacks are to stop ex­cept those tar­get­ing the Is­lamic State group, al-Qaeda-linked mil­i­tants and other ji­hadist groups, and peace talks are to fol­low.

Pre­vi­ous talks in Geneva col­lapsed in part be­cause the As­sad gov­ern­ment never fully re­spected a cease-fire timed to fa­cil­i­tate ne­go­ti­a­tions. It claimed it was tar­get­ing al-Qaeda-linked ter­ror­ists, but other rebel groups, as well as a mar­ket­place, a school and a hospi­tal, were also struck. Now that pre­text is gone: If the cur­rent cease-fire holds for one week, the US and Rus­sia agreed to co­or­di­nate strikes against al-Qaeda off­shoots and the Is­lamic State group, and As­sad is to limit mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions to IS ter­ri­tory only.

The next five days are cru­cial. As­sad is still al­lowed to strike alQaeda-linked fight­ers dur­ing this time. But if As­sad re­frains from tar­get­ing other rebel groups, and the US and Rus­sia ex­er­cise their fire­power ju­di­ciously, the con­di­tions on the ground could al­low for talks that Rus­sia’s For­eign Min­istry says could re­sume as early as next month.

AC­CEPT­ING AS­SAD?

Ev­ery pre­vi­ous peace ef­fort has foundered over the in­sis­tence by the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion, backed by much of the world, that As­sad must go — and yet no party has been will­ing or able to do what it takes to re­move him. There are signs, how­ever, that the de­mand is looser now.

Turkey con­ceded last month that it would ac­cept a role for As­sad in a tran­si­tion pe­riod. The US has also qui­etly walked back its call for his im­me­di­ate de­par­ture. None of the dis­course around the cur­rent cease-fire ad­dressed As­sad’s fu­ture — only a “peace process” to fol­low the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties. That may be a rea­son why some US of­fi­cials seem un­happy with the deal and have ap­par­ently balked at re­leas­ing its pre­cise text.

One pos­si­ble av­enue might be to hold gen­uinely free, in­ter­na­tion­ally su­per­vised elec­tions in which As­sad would be able to run. The United Na­tions has said it wants elec­tions to be held next year. A fu­ture with a demo­crat­i­cally le­git­i­mate As­sad may seem im­prob­a­ble, but op­ti­mists may see such a vote as a way to fi­nesse an end to the con­flict.

GREAT POWER CO­OP­ER­A­TION

It is re­mark­able to ob­serve how the Syria war has now made a part­ner out of Putin’s Rus­sia, only re­cently vil­i­fied for seiz­ing Crimea from Ukraine and fo­ment­ing war­fare in that coun­try, among other af­fronts to the or­der of things pre­ferred by the West.

The fear, un­til re­cently, had been of an in­ad­ver­tent clash be­tween global pow­ers — and in­deed Turkey last year flirted with trou­ble by shoot­ing down a Rus­sian war­plane. Now the United States and Rus­sia have agreed to set up a Joint Im­ple­men­ta­tion Cen­ter to de­lin­eate ter­ri­tory and choose tar­gets for co­or­di­nated airstrikes against Is­lamic State and al-Qaeda-linked ji­hadists be­gin­ning next week, ac­cord­ing to US of­fi­cials. That kind of Western-Rus­sian co­op­er­a­tion has rarely been seen and could res­onate even be­yond the Syria con­flict.

But al-Qaeda’s Syria af­fil­i­ate is en­twined with rebels the US backs, rais­ing con­cerns among Pen­tagon of­fi­cials, who worry Mos­cow will tar­get Amer­ica’s prox­ies. Will the am­bi­gu­i­ties of the map drive the two pow­ers apart?

RUN­NING OUT OF GAS

Some wars seem like they could last for­ever — think Afghanistan to­day or the Thirty Years’ War in Cen­tral Europe in the 17th Cen­tury. That tends to hap­pen when no one is win­ning, as es­sen­tially is the case in Syria. But even then, the com­bat­ants tend to even­tu­ally run out of steam, or am­mu­ni­tion, or the pa­tience of the world.

That hap­pened 20 years ago in Bos­nia, another con­flict where tens of thou­sands were killed, masses of refugees fled to north­ern Europe, and the world com­mu­nity grew in­creas­ingly em­bar­rassed at watch­ing from the side­lines. For­eign in­ter­ven­tion in the form of the US-led Day­ton Agree­ment froze the con­flict in place and es­tab­lished an eth­nic-based con­fed­er­a­tive struc­ture in Bos­nia — one that looked un­wieldy but has some­how proven sta­ble.

Could some­thing sim­i­lar be in store for Syria?

The sec­tar­ian ha­treds stoked by Mideast wars and by Shi­ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Ara­bia make some sort of con­fed­er­a­tive sys­tem at­trac­tive to some, who ar­gue Syria’s var­i­ous sects and eth­nic groups can­not be forced to­gether af­ter so much blood­shed.

And af­ter more than 300,000 fa­tal­i­ties, the dis­plac­ing of half the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion, the ru­ina­tion of ma­jor cities like Aleppo and Homs, world im­pa­tience is cer­tainly there, es­pe­cially with so­cial me­dia and the in­ter­net de­liv­er­ing im­ages of the hor­ror as never be­fore.

Through that prism, the ex­traor­di­nary US-Rus­sia col­lab­o­ra­tion can seem like some­thing al­most pre­dictable — and whose time has come.

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