This "cessation of hostilities" is incredibly fragileby Martin Fletcher / March 9, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: What is Putin’s agenda in Syria and Ukraine?
The cessation of hostilities in Syria that was brokered by the US and Russia and began on 27th February is just about holding. Aid organisations have begun delivering food to besieged and starving communities. In Geneva today talks resume on ending a five-year war that has caused 470,000 deaths, displaced half Syria’s population and reduced many of its cities to rubble (though in practice, not all delegations invited to attend the talks will arrive this week).
All of which begs a question. After so much horror, why is there so little celebration? Why is the reaction so muted? The short answer is because nobody trusts Vladimir Putin, whose ultimate goal is not peace, but to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, divide Europe and reassert Russia’s influence in the Middle East.
This began as a simple conflict. In 2011 local protests against official corruption and brutality coalesced into a widespread but peaceful uprising led by Syria’s oppressed Sunni majority. The regime responded with force. The West refused to intervene. Other foreign powers had less compunction, and have since turned Syria into a hideously complex tangle of competing international interests and proxy wars.
The first rebel fighters, loosely grouped under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, have seen their revolution hijacked by numerous Islamic groups, many backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the most powerful and hard line being al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra. The faltering regime has been reinforced by Iranian and Iraqi Shia militias, Hezbollah and—since September—Russian war planes, weaponry and military advisers. The extreme jihadists of Islamic State (IS), who abhor both the rebels and the regime, have exploited the chaos to establish a caliphate straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border. Syrian Kurds, though backed by the US and fighting IS, have been attacked by Turkey for seeking to create their own semi-autonomous region along the Turkish border.
This long ago ceased to be merely a war between the regime and its Syrian opponents. It now pits Sunni Islam against Shia Islam, Saudi Arabia against Iran, the West against Russia, Turkey against Syria’s Kurds, Turkey against Russia and pretty much everyone against IS. Most of the fighting forces on the ground have foreign backers. Maps showing who hold sway where look like swirling, multi-coloured works of modern art. Front lines criss-cross Syria, and there is no trust.
The truce would be fragile in any circumstances, but Russia has also reserved the right to continue attacking IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other “terrorists” which, in its parlance, means almost any rebel group—especially as Jabhat al-Nusra fights alongside more moderate factions.
Equally suspect is Russia’s support for a truce at the very moment that its air strikes have enabled the regime to encircle Aleppo and advance elsewhere in northern and western Syria. Assad looks safer than he has in a long time.
Putin may simply be seeking to give the regime’s overstretched forces time to consolidate their gains, or to besiege and starve Aleppo’s rebels into submission. Or he may believe that this is an unusually propitious time to pursue a political settlement that keeps if not Assad himself, then a regime well disposed to Moscow, in power in Damascus.
Right now he holds almost all the cards. He has achieved most of his goals. He has successfully “weaponised” Syria’s refugees, forcing tens of thousands to flee westwards across the Mediterranean and causing a crisis that threatens to tear the European Union apart. He has exposed the west’s impotence and lack of will, boosting Russia’s standing in the Arab world at a time when America’s is diminishing. He has caused rifts in Nato, too, by driving a wedge between Turkey, which regards the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists, and the US, which regards them as its most effective footsoldiers in the battle against IS. He knows that most western leaders—though few would admit it—are now much more concerned with crushing IS than toppling Assad.
The rebels insist that there can be no peace while a president who has used barrel bombs, chemical weapons and Scud missiles to massacre his own people remains in power, but they are in retreat. At home, the fact that Russian war planes are in action over Syria has boosted Putin’s popularity and distracted attention from the country’s economic slump.
But Russia’s president also knows that he needs to extract his military before it is sucked into the proverbial quagmire. He should do that soon, says Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, who argues: “It is not yet clear which international, regional and Syrian actors have made a strategic decision for real peace and are truly prepared to make concessions necessary to end the conflict. This cessation of hostilities is so fragile, vulnerable to a huge array of spoilers.” Without a concerted international push for a viable political process, he argues, its time may be up within days.
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