Syria cease-fire a welcome humanitarian respite, but at a cost

Although the Syria cease-fire holds important advantages, it has also helped solidify the regime's hold on power.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
A view of the town of Masyaf in Hama province, in Syria on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. The Russian- and US-brokered cease-fire that began Saturday is intended to help pave the way for Syria peace talks planned for next week in Geneva.
Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Staffan de Mistura (r.), United Nations special envoy for Syria, arrives with his special adviser Jan Egeland to address the media after a meeting of the Task Force for Humanitarian Access at the UN in Geneva, March 3, 2016.

The cease-fire in Syria’s brutal five-year-old civil war has mostly put a halt to the fighting and bombardments, is allowing humanitarian aid to reach starving populations in rebel-held territory, and has paved the way to a resumption of peace talks March 9.

Those are the pluses.

But the cessation of hostilities negotiated by the United States and Russia last month has also come at a high price from the perspective of the US and the opposition it purports to support: The truce has the effect of solidifying Bashar al-Assad’s once-shaky hold on power and essentially recognizes him and his regime as the most powerful and viable Syrian entity in the country.

Essentially what the US has done in Syria is to recognize the increasingly stable hold that Mr. Assad has on at least a portion of the country, some regional analysts say. And as a result of that realistic assessment, they add, the US has opted to put a priority on Syria’s immediate humanitarian crisis while relegating its geopolitical interests and goals to the long-term basket.

“From the US perspective, it seems very clear that the cessation of hostilities is meant above all to let the humanitarian aid flow in and test things to see if this might transition into a sustained halt to the fighting,” says Nicholas Heras, who focuses on Middle East security issues at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington. “It’s recognition that some form of [political] transition is probably at least several years down the road.”

This is not the beginning of the end of the Syrian conflict, he adds. “Instead I’d say it’s a recognition of the very little appetite for a systematic end to the conflict on either side, and so the idea is to at least take advantage of the moment to get in much-needed food and medical supplies.”  

That the lull in fighting comes at the price of buttressing Assad and his regime becomes clearer every day. Since the cease-fire took effect on Saturday, a newly confident Assad has taken to offering “amnesty” to all opposition fighters who agree to lay down their arms.

That may be a bitter sight for the Obama administration to watch, but it is also something the US has resigned itself to for now at least – in the interest of addressing Syria’s humanitarian crisis and its spreading repercussions.

“I don’t think they [in the administration] want Assad to remain in power – but they aren’t willing to do anything about it, either,” says Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria and US policy in the Levant at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy. “US policy now is not about bringing an end to the Syrian war,” he adds, “but with that off the table, the focus is really on settling the conflict down and bringing some respite to the Syrian people.”

And there’s another dimension to the US focus on easing the humanitarian crisis, Mr. Tabler says. With the parties in the war not looking ready to reach a deal to bring a conclusive end to the fighting, the US is turning its attention to addressing some of the unforeseen ramifications of the war, he says. And the chief worry for the US among those repercussions is the refugee crisis unsettling Western Europe.

The refugee flows battering Europe like unstoppable waves “continue to have an impact on so many levels,” Tabler says. “That’s what demonstrated how the Syrian war was not containable, and it’s what led to concluding a deal with Russia so Assad could remain in power.”

Another result of Europe’s refugee crisis is a hardening of the West’s position toward the moderate Syrian opposition, says Mr. Heras of CNAS. “The wave of refugees hitting Europe has really undermined support for the Syrian armed opposition and dried up a lot of the patience towards the opposition’s shortcomings,” he says. “In many ways they are now looked upon as a ... basket case.”

Critics of the Obama administration lay responsibility for the opposition’s weaknesses at President Obama’s feet and what they insist has been too little assistance too late to deliver an armed opposition able to stand up to a Russia-backed Assad. But Heras says the US focus on humanitarian issues and on halting the violence, if only temporarily, is largely the result of the US concluding it could do little with a divided and weak opposition whose most effective elements are increasingly radical Islamists.

“The fundamental difference driving the US and Russian positions and what they’re aiming for right now is that the Russians believe they are back on a winning horse,” Heras says, “while the US is not at all convinced it has a winning horse in the opposition.”

No one foresees any quick results from the peace talks set to resume in Geneva next week. Full-scale fighting is likely to return at some point, regional experts say, but the cessation of hostilities might lead to a kind of model to serve for future cease-fires, they add. Don’t be surprised if the divisions and upheaval the Syrian crisis is causing in Europe prompt the European Union to lift sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, Tabler says.

Assad may even be eased out of power eventually, Heras says – if the Russians and Iranians are convinced the West can accept a Syrian state with elements of the Assad regime if not Assad himself.

But don’t expect a resolution to Syria’s war anytime soon, these experts say.

“This is not a process that will end by the end of this administration,” Heras says. “At best it might end in the next administration.”

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