A rare cessation of hostilities in Syria will begin late on Friday night, according to an agreement struck by Russian and U.S. officials. While Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s acquiescence to the terms of the ceasefire raises hopes for the plan’s success, many high-ranking diplomats and Middle East analysts see the agreement to reign in the sprawling geopolitical battle as fundamentally flawed.
“If implemented and adhered to, this cessation will not only lead to a decline in violence, but also continue to expand the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian supplies to besieged areas,” Secretary of State John Kerry said, even though he acknowledged that “significant challenges” could get in the way of that aim.
Here’s a look at what’s on the table and what’s at stake for those involved.
Terms Of The Deal
The ceasefire agreement calls on all signatories to allow for the distribution of humanitarian aid, along with an end to all sieges and the release of all detainees, particularly women and children. Most importantly, however, it calls for a “cessation of hostilities” against all parties involved in the truce.
Terrorist groups — including ISIS and the al Nusra front — are not part of the agreement. That means that all sides can continue to attack those or other terrorist outfits.
That exception might be the agreement’s undoing, since Russian and Syrian regime forces have persistently carried out attacks against moderate opposition groups as well as civilians under the pretense of attacking terrorists.
“Whatever the technicalities, the big picture is this: unless the level of Russian airstrikes dramatically decreases, this ceasefire will not hold,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told members of the House of Commons.
Deciding If Russia Can Be Trusted
Eighty-five to 90 percent of the airstrikes Russa has carried out over Syria have hit moderate opposition groups and civilians, according to top State Department officials.
U.S. officials see the the ceasefire agreement as a way to “pin the Russians down” since the country’s officials have continued to vehemently deny that they are hitting areas held by forces who have taken up arms against Bashar al Assad.
Should the Russian forces continue to strike opposition forces, the United States and its allies will need to consider alternative plans to restore peace to Syria.
“We would be derelict were we not to plan for various contingencies, especially given the tragic history of this conflict,” a senior Obama administration official told the Wall Street Journal under condition of anonymity. “To be clear: our actions are not aimed at Russia. Our focus, however, does not change the fact that Russia, by increasingly involving itself in a vicious conflict on the side of a brutal dictator, will become enmeshed in a quagmire. Should it not change course, Russia’s fate will be self-inflicted.”
The Question Of Turkey
Turkey, which borders Syria and is home to more of its refugees than any other country, is skeptical that the ceasefire will hold.
“I welcome this truce, but I am not very optimistic that it will be respected by all the parties,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Tuesday.
He warned that, “if necessary,” Turkey would continue shelling Kurdish groups in Syria, which it says are aligned with its outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party. Turkish officials have blamed Syrian Kurdish rebels for attacks on its soil, including one in Ankara last Wednesday, which left more than 80 people injured.
Enforcing The Ceasefire
One major criticism of the ceasefire is it lacks a plan to monitor — much less enforce — its provisions.
While the joint statement from the United States and Russia said that the two countries would “establish a communication hotline”, the two countries have not had a great track record of information-sharing when it comes to the Syrian War.
“There’s not going to be any force on the ground or monitors on the ground to look at this, other than where we get information from in terms of intelligence, but also through NGOs reporting on the ground and journalists, frankly, who give feedback as to who’s being hit by whom,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
What About ISIS?
ISIS is “beginning to lose,” according to Col. Steve Warren, a spokesperson for U.S.-led operations in Syria.
“They have been able to replenish their forces at roughly the same rate as we’ve been able to kill their forces. That’s hard to sustain,” he said, suggesting that group’s numbers would steadily decline.
Some are less certain that ISIS’ demise is imminent.
“The economic infrastructure that [ISIS] has created is being dismantled: last month the group halved the salaries of its mujahideen, and it is becoming paranoid about spies and traitors,” Michael Clarke of the Royal united Institute for Defense and Security Studies wrote in a recent op-ed. “But none of this means that [ISIS] will be decisively beaten any time soon. Until someone other than badly supplied Kurdish forces is prepared to go toe-to-toe against [ISIS] fighters, the group will retain control over some territory, people, hostages and slaves, alongside grudging, residual loyalty from Sunnis in the region.”
‘A Well-Intentioned Wish’
While there’s widespread agreement about the need for an end to hostilities in a conflict which has killed 250,000 and displaced 11 million, few are willing to bet that this ceasefire agreement will lead to lasting peace.
“Under these circumstances, a cessation of hostilities in Syria is at best a well-intentioned wish, at worst a tragic farce,” Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies wrote. “The fighting will not stop, threatening to undermine the credibility of diplomacy altogether.”
And that could mean that the conflict will only worsen, especially since, as Hokayem pointed out, Bashar al Assad has broken previous ceasefires which he used to regroup and rearm his troops.
Fred Hof of the Atlantic Council took a similar position: “Indeed, success of this initiative — including widespread humanitarian relief for Syrian civilians — requires good faith and decency by three parties who have shown little or none during the duration of this crisis.”