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Amid big uncertainties, Syria truce deal might mean some relief for civilians

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A truce allowing aid to reach trapped populations could forestall a looming humanitarian disaster in Syria. But huge challenges endure.

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    (from left) Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, attend a news conference after the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich, Germany, Feb. 12, 2016. A cessation of hostilities in Syria was announced early Friday, to take effect in a week.
    Michael Dalder/Reuters
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Despite the many questions swirling around the cessation of hostilities in Syria that was announced early Friday – including whether the truce will even take hold – the plan offers a glimmer of hope for a half million Syrians at risk of going hungry.

Just hours after the deal’s announcement, the United Nations said it would be ready to start delivering food, water, and medicine to hundreds of thousands of Syrians in besieged pockets of the country “within 24 hours” – provided conditions on the ground permit.

A truce allowing aid to reach trapped populations could forestall a looming humanitarian disaster, particularly around the embattled city of Aleppo. And it could put off a second huge wave of refugees that is threatening, as a result of recently stepped-up violence, to spill into Turkey and on to Europe.

Still, the truce is not likely to provide substantial relief to Syrians or halt the punishing violence that has sent more than 4 million Syrians fleeing their country, some regional experts say.

“The agreement gives the illusion of doing something about the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, but it really doesn’t do much more than apply a band-aid to a sucking chest wound,” says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “And it certainly does nothing about the root causes of the Syrian people’s immense suffering.”

The temporary “cessation of hostilities” was reached by the United States and Russia on the margins of a security conference in Munich, Germany. It was agreed to by 15 other countries involved in the Syrian conflict and would not actually take effect for another week.

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s declaration that support for the deal was “unanimous,” critical actors in the conflict have not yet pronounced their support.

Perhaps the key factor will be how Russia translates what Secretary Kerry acknowledged is so far only “words on paper” into action on the ground.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed that Russia would cease its intense bombing campaign – a campaign that Western leaders have criticized as a “scorched earth” effort striking moderate rebels and civilians and aimed primarily at assisting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. But Russia says it will continue under the truce to target “terrorists” – terminology Mr. Assad and the Russians have used to describe all Assad opponents.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond hinted in comments after the agreement was reached that what Mr. Lavrov signs on to is not always Russia’s final word, and that all would depend on how Russian President Vladimir Putin interprets the agreement.

The agreement “will only succeed if there is a major change of behavior by the Syrian regime and its supporters,” Mr. Hammond said, adding, “Russia in particular claims to be attacking terrorist groups and yet consistently bombs non-extremist groups, including civilians.”

One factor likely to determine Mr. Putin’s treatment of the truce will be whether he considers Assad’s position strong enough to enter – and weather – suspended peace talks. Under Friday’s agreement, those are to resume by Feb. 25.

“The Obama administration seems to have bought the Russians’ claim that they are not wedded to keeping Assad in power, but I think the bombing campaign that has given the regime new life is the proof that the Russians aren’t going to let up on any rebel group that doesn’t accept Assad as the central leader in Syria,” says Mr. Phillips of the Heritage Foundation.

For its part, the US will continue its fight against the Islamic State in Syria, regardless of the status of a truce, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on Friday.

Despite Kerry’s claims of “unanimous” support for the truce, rebel groups supported by the US, Europe, and a number of Middle Eastern Sunni powers said Friday that they were not yet on board and would need to decide their position in the coming days.

Several rebel leaders voiced concerns that the truce allows Russia substantial leeway for continuing its bombing campaign.

Phillips says they have good reason to be skeptical. “Russia says it will continue airstrikes against ISIS and al-Nusra Front,” he says, using an acronym for the Islamic State and also citing Al Qaeda’s chief affiliate in Syria. “But they have claimed that all along, when in fact about 70 percent of their strikes have been against more moderate groups, including some supported by the US.”

Others say Western diplomacy in recent days is to a large extent a measure of rising fears over the impact that the Syrian conflict and the resulting refugee crisis are having in Europe.

“If Europe does not gain control of its external borders in a very short period of time, there’s going to be greater instability in Europe,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Noting that an additional 60,000 refugees arrived on Europe’s shores in January – “the coldest month” – Ms. Conley says that by spring, another rising tide of refugees “could become existential for Europe.”

The past week has also seen NATO assume a role in the eastern Mediterranean’s burgeoning refugee crisis.

The impact of the refugee flows on Europe’s cohesion is not lost on Putin, says Phillips.

The Russian leader is “happy to pull the strings on a conflict that is having such a profound effect in Europe, especially if it might get him some relief for his intervention in Ukraine,” he says. “It’s another dimension of Putin’s cynical use of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.”

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