If Syria cease-fire is officially abandoned, what can be done next?

For the US, how to deal with Assad without striking the Russians is a key issue – as is dealing with Syria's neighbors to consolidate spheres of influence.

Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
People inspect a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 23.

A cease-fire deal in Syria brokered by the United States and Russia that was supposed to introduce welcome calm to the war-battered country and provide desperately needed aid to besieged communities lies in tatters, barely a week after it came into effect.

With the Syrian Army and its allies launching a renewed ground offensive backed by Russian air power against the beleaguered city of Aleppo in northern Syria, and reports of an imminent push against rebel forces in southern Syria, prospects for a revival of the cessation of hostilities plan appear bleak.

But if the cease-fire is abandoned, what can be done next to try and bring an end to a conflict that has destroyed much of Syria, killed perhaps a third of a million people and caused the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II?

“The US needs to think about two issues if it wants to manage the war – punishing the Assad regime for cessation-of-hostilities violations while not striking Russians. Second, working with neighboring countries to consolidate their spheres of influence into buffer or safe zones,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Still, that might serve as advice to the next administration because the cease-fire agreement, brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, will be perhaps the last significant attempt to end fighting under President Obama’s watch. If the deal collapses completely, which already appears to be the case, it is doubtful that Mr. Obama, who has always sought to avoid entanglement in Syria, will launch another initiative so close to the end of his presidency, analysts say. And regardless of the victor in the presidential election on Nov. 8, it could be many months before the new incumbent at the White House will turn his or her attention to Syria.

“It’s all down to the US doing something or not…. I think the US clearly is entering a period of 'coma,' or hibernation, with the presidential election,” says Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “What more can Kerry do in the remaining hours or days before the US is unable to pay any attention [because of the election], at least attention that the Russians or the Assad regime feel is worth listening to?”

Deadline for success is short

Another attempt to resuscitate the cease-fire failed Thursday during a meeting in New York of the International Syria Support Group. The talks, grouping more than a dozen top diplomats, collapsed when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov refused a demand by Mr. Kerry to promise an immediate grounding of the Syrian Air Force.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy for Syria, told reporters that he was hopeful for fresh talks Friday between Kerry and Mr. Lavrov, but admitted that the deadline for success was short.

“The next few hours – days at maximum – are crucial for making or breaking it,” Mr. de Mistura said.

Even before the cease-fire deal came into effect on Sept. 12, there was little optimism it would hold. The deal, in part, called for a week of calm, the provision of aid to besieged areas followed later by a coordinated air campaign by the US and Russia against extremist militants in Syria, namely the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.

It was a high-diplomatic-stakes move by the US, effectively recognizing Russia not only as a major stakeholder in Syria but also as a combat partner. Many analysts felt the deal was weighted in favor of the Assad regime and Russia.

It also placed enormous pressure on rebel groups to disassociate themselves from Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham to avoid being caught up in joint US-Russian air attacks against the extremist group. Many rebel factions, while not sharing Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham’s Islamist ideology, have battlefield alliances with the powerful group. Separating from Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham and leaving it vulnerable to US-Russian airstrikes threatened to weaken anti-Assad rebel forces as a whole.

“I think the reason Kerry took these extreme steps was to lock the Russians and the Assad regime into a formal deal that would survive the period of American [electoral] 'coma,' ” says Sayigh.

Military dynamics

But the arrangement faltered from the start. Aid convoys remained stuck on the border with Turkey and when one finally entered rebel-controlled territory in northern Syria, it was bombed from the air, killing 20 civilians and destroying 20 trucks. The US blamed Russia for the attack. Russia denied involvement and accused the US of failing to instruct rebels to abide by the cease-fire and for bombing a Syrian military position near Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, leaving dozens of soldiers dead, an act that Washington said was a “mistake.”

If US-led diplomacy wanes in the coming period, the direction of the conflict in Syria probably will be determined by military dynamics. The Assad regime has redoubled its efforts to crush rebel forces in Aleppo, mounting a major offensive this week against the city. The Syrian military commander for the Aleppo area promised on Thursday that the city will soon be “safe” through reconciliation agreements or “a military solution.”

“The [regime] forces deployed are sufficient to recover the entire city of Aleppo,” said Maj. Gen. Zaid Zaleh, according to the ruling Baath Party’s Aleppo branch Facebook page.

While the battle for Aleppo has dominated the conflict lately, recent reports suggest that the Assad regime and its Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah partners could be eyeing a fresh offensive in the Golan Heights area of southern Syria. In early September, an Iranian news portal claimed that Hezbollah fighters were deploying in the Quneitra area of the central Golan ahead of an offensive. Pro-rebel media subsequently made similar claims. 

On Friday, Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, which supports Hezbollah, reported that Assad had told a top Lebanese politician that the Syrian Army would soon launch an operation to remove rebel forces from a belt of territory contiguous to Israeli-occupied areas of the Golan Heights. Assad accused Israel of backing the rebel groups in the area.

“The Army will soon undertake a military operation to break Israeli endeavors,” Assad reportedly said.

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