There’s still hope that the U.S. and Russia can hammer out a workable ceasefire deal for Syria, but there’s mounting concern that there are too many stakeholders in the conflict who want to see continued violence within Syria.
A soldier of the Syrian Arab Army at the Syrian-Turkish border near the town of Kessab. Photo: Sputnik
The joint statement of Russia and the U.S. on the Syrian ceasefire looks more like an ultimatum to the opposition groups and field commanders unaffiliated with radical Islamist forces. The message is clear: stop fighting and start negotiating with Damascus or suffer further ruthless air strikes.
The U.S.-Russian initiative is driven by the non-constructive actions of Syria’s political opposition, whose representatives virtually stalled the last round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva.
It appears that originally Moscow and Washington wanted the Syrians to introduce the ceasefire initiative and announce the start of a large-scale national reconciliation. Russia and the U.S. were mistaken in counting on the political opposition predominantly comprised of emigrants, and it looks like the failure of Geneva-3 finally convinced the American leadership that such negotiations are futile.
Since the political segment of the opposition that is closely bound to Turkey and the Persian Gulf monarchies refuses to cooperate, it will likely be ignored, and further talks will target local field commanders, a much more effective approach anyway. Some representatives of Syrian tribes who came to Moscow for consultations last year made it plain that they perceive the government as the lesser of two evils and are ready for dialogue. For example, the opposition in Daraa, Kalamun and Homs already signed a truce with the authorities.
The ceasefire is supposed to provide local insurgents with the opportunity to stop fighting against the government. At the same time, it will assist in dealing with smaller military groups that support the highest bidder and often have no qualms about joining terrorist ranks. Other opponents of the regime will have to unite and take part in negotiations.
Also read: "3 major obstacles facing the new Syrian ceasefire"
Thus, the ceasefire may serve as a binding instrument for the opposition, which is critical to the political process because many earlier attempts at conflict resolution failed due to the fragmented nature of Bashar al-Assad's opponents. Most importantly, once an agreement is reached, it will be possible to concentrate on fighting against terrorist groups.
The joint statement is a milestone in the development of Russia-U.S. relations because it shows that the two sides are capable of constructive cooperation regardless of their differences. Moreover, this is an opportunity to refute media speculation about a new Cold War.
For Moscow, it is important to impress upon the global community that Russia can be an equal partner in its cooperation with Washington on the resolution of key international conflicts. The statement also indirectly confirms Russia's superpower status and establishes it as a reliable partner in spite of certain tensions and international sanctions caused by the situation over Ukraine.
It is also necessary to consider that President Vladimir Putin personally appeared on TV and announced the upcoming ceasefire in Syria. Thus, he showed the seriousness of the Kremlin's intentions and challenged the outside sponsors of the Syrian opposition. It remains to be seen how Ankara and Riyadh will respond to the ceasefire.
But Putin's announcement also targeted the audience inside the country: it showed that the leadership was actively working on ending the conflict that claimed hundreds of Russian lives when the passenger plane crashed over the Sinai as the result of a terrorist attack.
In spite of U.S. and Russian resolve, the future of the ceasefire is rather hazy. There are too many opposition groups, and technically it is extremely hard to make all of them agree, so combat action is not likely to come to a halt on Feb. 26. Under the most positive scenario, it will be at least two weeks before the actual ceasefire takes place. But even that is possible only if the majority of al-Assad's opponents are truly ready to stop fighting. If that does not happen, the initiative will fail.
Besides, Syria is still home to military units and field commanders who have gotten used to make money off of war, so one of the key issues here is finding a way to deal with those who are unwilling to give up fighting. The joint statement gives reason to believe that they will be compelled to peace by air strikes carried out either by the Russian Air Force or by the U.S.-led coalition.
Nor can we ignore the external factor. The real ceasefire in Syria is possible only with the consent from the main sponsors of the opposition. Otherwise, the truce will be used by terrorists for repositioning and restocking, and nothing else will come out of it but another round of fighting.
It is also important to make sure that Damascus accurately fulfills all conditions of the Geneva agreement, especially its part on developing a new constitution and organizing elections.
War will not stop
At any rate, we should not presume that the ceasefire and dialogue between the government and the opposition will bring peace to Syria. If the Russia-U.S. ceasefire works, it will just signify the beginning of another stage of military confrontation, this time between Syrians and radical Islamists representing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist organizations.
And this war can prove to be a long one because ISIS is operating on the territory of neighboring Iraq and can get help there. There are also outside sponsors who are pursuing their own political goals in Syria, the major one being the ousting of the regime that is friendly to Iran. And they will not relent.
It is highly likely that the success of the government troops will push outside ISIS sponsors to increase their financial support, deploy new terrorist groups and supply them with updated weapons. That is the scenario that played out in Afghanistan in 1980s and resulted in decades of chaos and bloodshed.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.