An uneasy ceasefire
THOUGH initially the ceasefire in Syria is holding, none of the external parties to the conflict seem likely to achieve its aims, and thus not only is the ceasefire unlikely to hold, but the next stage of the conflict is likely to see Pakistan get involved where it has previously stayed out.
The ceasefire seems to be an indication that the USA has finally reconciled itself to the fact that it is not going to find a replacement for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Russia has become involved, alongside Iran, and both want Bashar to remain in office. The USA has two interests in the region: oil and Israel. Syria does not export oil, but it has tradi- tionally exported influence. US support for Israel is because of the clout its supporters have in domestic US politics (and it should not be forgotten that all this is happening in an American presidential election year, with a 'secular Jew' running for one party's nomination). Though Bashar's father Hafez fought two wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973, he and his son have left Israel in occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967. Israel, and the USA, do not want Bashar replaced by anyone who might disturb that status quo.
It might appear paradoxical that Iran is also supporting Bashar in view of its stance on Israel, but it is apparently doing so because of its opposition to the Islamic State (IS). IS has won over territory from both Syria and Iraq, both ruled by Shia rulers. However, while the Iranian regime shares not just sect but also sub-sect with the Iraqi regime, being both Ithna Ashari (Twelvers), Asaad is an Alawi, and thus a Sevener. IS considers all three regimes outside the pale of Islam.
Another stakeholder is Turkey. Syria and Iraq were both part of the Ottoman Empire less than a century ago, while Iran was its great regional rival for centuries. Another part of the puzzle for Turkey has been the Kurds. Minorities in both Syria and Turkey, where the USA wants to use Kurdish militias as 'eyes' for its bombers and ' boots on the ground' for itself, they represent a route for Russia to get involved, because the main fighting force is communist. It was allied to the old USSR in the Cold War days, and it should not be forgotten that Russian President Vladimir Putin is an old KGB man and thus heir to old foreign connections. The increased Kurdish autonomy in Iraq apparently does not satis- fy Kurdish leaders, who look to their alliance with the USA to bring gains in Syria. That destabilises Turkey, which has a motive for replacing Bashar by someone who can hold on there. It is not just the Kurd issue; It should be remembered that Turkey and Syria are immediate neighbours. When Russia is mentioned, it is almost inevitable that the Russian naval base at Latakia is mentioned. Not only is it the only Russian base in the Mediterranean, but it is intimately linked to the naval base at Crimea, to which it can only obtain passage through the Dardanelle Straits- which pass through Turkey.
The US allies in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are also invested heavily in Bashar's removal. A strong reason is being allied to the USA, another is sectarian. The sectarian conflict is because they want to do down Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as its main regional rival, while Qatar is its camp follower.
However, it seems that those states which want the regime removed share a bottom line with those wanting to support Bashar: they do not want him replaced by a regime they do not control, or which does not share common goals with them. It seems that, unlike in Egypt, where Sisi was found to replace Hosni Mubarak after Morsi was found unsuitable, no one has been found in Syria acceptable to the Syrian people, not even enough to survive even if imposed. Those who want Bashar replaced are thus driven by FOTA, or Fear Of The Alternative. The Alternative is not easily discernible, but it lies somewhere in the congruence of the fears of the parties both for and against Assad. The wishes of the Syrian people count, but so repressive has been the regime of the Assads that no opposition structures have been left unsmashed. Indeed, this scorched-earth policy would explain the survival of the regime, not just the loyalty to it of the Alawites and other minority groups.
It is interesting to note the groups which will not be included in the ceasefire. Once a ceasefire meant just that: a ceasing of fighting. Now, however, it is supposed to be partial. The parties to the ceasefire will continue to fight some parties, apparently those they consider beyond the pale. Because of the difficulties implied, Russia has applied a blanket ceasefire. However, the Jabhat An-Nusra and IS are among the groups to which the ceasefire does not apply. It is interesting that the excluded groups are those fighting for the Caliphate's restoration. Indeed, IS claims it has already restored the Caliphate.