Syria’s frag­ile cease-fire

Our view: Odds of real part­ner­ship with Rus­sia are slim, but we must try

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

The cease-fire in Syria bro­kered by the U.S. and Rus­sia last week ap­pears largely to be hold­ing af­ter it went into ef­fect on Mon­day, de­spite what were de­scribed as spo­radic, mi­nor vi­o­la­tions of the ac­cord. In the next few days we should know whether the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties can last long enough to per­mit des­per­ately needed hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to reach the be­sieged res­i­dents of Aleppo and other cities that have been cut off by the fight­ing for months. More im­por­tantly, it should be­come clearer whether Rus­sia can be counted on to work with the U.S. to restart peace talks aimed at end­ing the five-and-ahalf-year civil war that has dev­as­tated the coun­try, killed more than 400,000 peo­ple and driven mil­lions more from their homes.

U.N. of­fi­cials are cau­tiously op­ti­mistic that aid con­voys could soon set out to de­liver food, fuel, med­i­cal sup­plies and other es­sen­tial goods to civil­ians who have been trapped by the fight­ing all sum­mer. The first pri­or­ity will be the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city be­fore the war, where antigov­ern­ment rebels have man­aged to hold on de­spite a block­ade by troops loyal to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad and govern­ment airstrikes that have re­duced much of the city to rub­ble. Since the cease-fire went into ef­fect, the Lon­don-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights has reported a marked de­crease in vi­o­lence, and other sources sug­gest the city is now safe enough for chil­dren to play in the streets.

Still, the sit­u­a­tion is ex­tremely frag­ile. As of Wed­nes­day, U.N. con­voys were still wait­ing on the Syr­ian govern­ment to is­sue tran­sit pa­pers au­tho­riz­ing aid work­ers to pass through govern­ment lines into rebel-held ar­eas of the city. A U.N. of­fi­cial said he was hope­ful the govern­ment would is­sue them “soon” but had no in­for­ma­tion on when that might hap­pen. If and when it does could pro­vide the first im­por­tant test of whether Pres­i­dent As­sad and his Russian and Ira­nian al­lies are se­ri­ous about stick­ing to the agree­ment reached in Geneva last week or whether they are sim­ply buy­ing time ahead of a planned re­sump­tion of the fight­ing.

More­over, the As­sad govern­ment’s in­ten­tions are not the only po­ten­tial roadblock to im­ple­ment­ing the deal. Two of the most rad­i­cal rebel fac­tions, the Is­lamic State and Jab­hat Fateh al-Sham, which was once the al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate in Iraq, have de­nounced the cease-fire as a U.S.-Russian sub­terfuge to keep Pres­i­dent As­sad in power by di­vid­ing the op­po­si­tion. Both groups are con­sid­ered ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions by the U.N. and are not cov­ered by the cease-fire. On Tues­day Jab­hat Fateh al-Sham threat­ened to form an al­liance with U.S.-backed and other rebel fac­tions, which would vastly com­pli­cate Russian and U.S. ef­forts to tar­get the group with­out also en­dan­ger­ing those cov­ered by the agree­ment.

The first week of the truce will be cru­cial. Un­der the agree­ment, all fight­ing be­tween Syr­ian govern­ment forces and the rebels named in the ac­cord must cease. How­ever, Mr. As­sad’s govern­ment will be al­lowed to con­tinue airstrikes against Jab­hat Fateh al-Sham and Is­lamic State fight­ers. If the cease-fire holds through Sun­day, the U.S. and Rus­sia would then set up a new cen­ter to co­or­di­nate strikes against those two groups. Mean­while, U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry and his Russian coun­ter­part, For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov, would each take steps to restart peace talks be­tween the As­sad regime and rebel groups aimed at achiev­ing a po­lit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion to the con­flict.

Given how many mov­ing parts are in­volved in nudg­ing the war­ring par­ties to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, it’s any­body’s guess whether the ef­fort will suc­ceed. Mr. As­sad re­mains adamant that he will never cede power, and Rus­sia has shown no sign it is will­ing to aban­don its sup­port for him. More­over, U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials are deeply skep­ti­cal of plans to share tar­get­ing and in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion with the Rus­sians that could com­pro­mise their sources on the ground and about op­er­a­tional se­cu­rity in what would be the first joint mil­i­tary cam­paign in­volv­ing the for­mer Cold War ad­ver­saries since World War II. Both coun­tries have a lot rid­ing on the out­come, but what hap­pens next is any­thing but cer­tain. That said, we have no choice but to try. The only worse idea might be to not even at­tempt to al­le­vi­ate the suf­fer­ing of mil­lions of in­no­cent Syr­i­ans caught in the cross­fire.

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