On March 27th, the cessation of hostilities in Syria completed one month. There have been some violations, but the American-Russian agreement has held. It is a first in the five years of conflict, a kind of a miracle and a breakthrough for the two countries leadership and cooperation, and hopefully a turning point for the Syrian people.
The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry qualified the situation as a “fragile but nevertheless beneficial reduction of violence … and produced the first significant flow of humanitarian assistance to besieged people after several years … but more needs to be done.” The opposition is calling for the release of political prisoners which was one of its preconditions to participate in the Geneva talks.
Speaking after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday 24, Secretary Kerry said Moscow and Washington would try to nudge Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad to “make the right decision,” and engage in the peace talks. Negotiations in Geneva between representatives of the Syrian government and opposition are bogged down, and Washington believes that Moscow, closely allied to Assad, can convince him to make concessions. The main stumbling block is whether Syria’s political transition will lead to Assad leaving office.
“We agreed today that we will accelerate the effort to try to move the political process forward,” Kerry said. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said only that Russia would encourage all sides to commit to the principles of the talks in Geneva, brokered by UN.
Kerry’s visit to Moscow and his announcement on working to achieve a new Syrian constitution by August surprised all parties and gave some hopes for a speedy end to the bloody crisis. His visit came two weeks after President Putin’s decision to withdraw the bulk of Russian military force in Syria. Russia’s military campaign on September 30, 2015 and its withdrawal on March 14 “demonstrated its unquestionable leadership, willpower and responsibility” as the Russian president put it to reporters. He holds by now, an important position for the starting of a political transition in Syria… he acquired an air base in Hemimim in the Northern Syrian coast, enhanced Russian presence in the maritime base of Tartous, and became a power broker in the Middle East.
Besides, he opened a new marker for Russian arms in the region. Even if he doesn’t save the Assad presidency, his departure would be the result of a negotiated deal.
President Putin will receive King Salman of Saudi Arabia in April , and their talks will help, among other issues, in bridging the gap between both sides on the Syrian conflict.
The coming episode will be rich in developments on the diplomatic scene and on the ground. The Syrian regime will try, with its allies, to invest its achievements in the retaking Tadmor (Palmyra) to present itself as the only force capable of fighting the Islamic State Group, in a bid to save itself from a pressing end.
On the diplomatic front the performance of the Syrian regime delegation in Geneva was confused and evasive. While the opposition was clear in presenting a document concerning the transition period in the political, military and administrative levels, and was commended by the international envoy, Staffan de Mistura, the government delegation presented a view about combating terrorism and forming a new government without much commitment.
The document elaborated by De Mistura at the end of the last session of talks in Geneva contained 12 common points between the two sides, in preparation for the next session starting from April 9. It was not mentioned in the regime’s media revealing uneasiness in Damascus towards any progress in the political process.
The next few weeks will be crucial in demonstrating the persistence of the deal brokers in Syria, the United State and Russia in following through in their efforts. The regime, known for its diabolic intrigues, will be as resistant to transition proposals as it was on the ground causing the total destruction of Syria and on unfold misery to its people.
Mahmoud is a former Lebanese Ambassador to Mexico