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Close, But No Cigar

The chances of the ceasefire enduring longer than a New York minute are about zero to nil
By The News · 13 of September 2016 08:12:21
A file photo shows forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walking at a military complex as one of them holds up a Syrian national flag, after they recaptured areas in southwestern Aleppo that rebels had seized, Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walk at a military complex as one of them holds up a Syrian national flag, after they recaptured areas in southwestern Aleppo on Sunday that rebels had seized last month, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on September 5, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY., photo: Sana, via Reuters

In principle, the plan seemed feasible.

The United States and Russia would join forces to implement a ceasefire in and around the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo and, once humanitarian aid could be delivered, jointly implement the eradication of extremist terrorist forces in the area, with an eye to later extending the cessation of hostilities to the rest of the country.

This, in turn, would constitute the first step toward building real and lasting peace in Syria.

In exchange for this cozy little East-meets-West deal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would agree to stop bombing the hell out of the area in question and instead limit his military domain to only certain parts of the country (which are basically those that he already controls).

There were, however, a few major snags in the much-hyped scheme.

To begin with, the United States and Russia had agreed to disagree — at least for the time being — on whether Assad would remain in power when and if (and we are talking a very big “if” here) peace is reestablished in Syria.

That was, of course, until U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who drafted the accord with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the weekend, suddenly decided Monday, when he announced the treaty to the rest of the world, to add on a clause clarifying that the plan would entail Assad eventually stepping down.

That not only went against the fundamental tenets of the agreement from the Russian perspective (Moscow has from the get-go been an avid supporter of Assad as the legitimately elected leader of Syria), but it also irked Assad, who responded in true warmongering panache by flexing his military muscles and stating that, despite the ceasefire, he would continue his armed defense until all Syrian territories were again under his control.

Just as vexing is the fact that, other than agreeing that the Islamic State (I.S.) and Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) are both legitimate targets, the United States and Russia don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to deciding which local militant groups actually qualify as terrorist organizations, since each side has helped arm and train any number of insurgent fighters in the region.

And if that isn’t enough to put a damper on any hopes of the frail ceasefire lasting, Russia and the United States immediately started arguing over demarcation lines of the area to be included within the ceasefire region.

Both sides wanted to exclude segments where their respective proxy armies are operating.

Assad, meanwhile, said Monday that he has no intentions of pulling his forces away from a major highway into Aleppo that he seized from rebels two months earlier.

Then, of course, there is the matter of getting the mélange of local militias to comply, none of which seem to be too eager to put down their guns, and none of which have much trust of their opponents.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, there are no clauses within the plan to enforce the ceasefire, which means that everyone involved will be essentially operating on an honor code system.

In other words, the chances of the ceasefire enduring longer than a New York minute are about zero to nil.

Asking the opposing military groups in Syria to play nice just isn’t going to cut it.

A ceasefire is a good start, but it can only work if the rules of engagement (or in this case, disengagement) are clearly defined and all parties agree to specifically outlined consequences for noncompliance.

The latest Syrian ceasefire accord made Russia and the United States look good, but, alas, it is not likely to do anything to bring peace to a country that has been scarred by more than a half decade of brutal civil war.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.