The cease-fire that came into effect in Syria on February 27 is a partial success. Humanitarian convoys have begun to get through to some of the areas besieged by government forces. The death toll is sharply down. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the civilian death toll in Syria fell by 90 percent last week. This was accompanied by an 80% decline in deaths among combatants on all sides.
“Proximity” talks between the sides are set to commence in Geneva on Wednesday.
So does the cease-fire in Syria represent the beginnings of an endgame in the long and bloody civil war which has racked the country since mid-2011?
This is a war in which, according to a recent report by the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research, up to 470,000 people have died. Fully 11.5% of the population have been killed or injured, and 45% have left their homes.
As of now, there remains very little chance of the implementation of the plan as outlined in Vienna last November for the diplomatic process in Syria. According to this plan, within six months of the commencement of negotiations, the sides are to establish a “credible, inclusive and nonsectarian” transitional government. This government will then set about drafting a new constitution and holding free and fair UN-supervised election within 18 months.
The tentative success of the February 27 cease-fire notwithstanding, this plan still sounds utterly unrealistic. Its main stumbling block remains the core disagreement between regime and opposition over the future role of President Bashar Assad. For the opposition, any role for Assad in the course of the transition remains utterly unacceptable.
For Assad, riding high on the results of the Russian intervention which began in September last year, there is no reason to compromise or contemplate departure. On the contrary, the Syrian dictator bullishly (and absurdly) announced this week that parliamentary elections will take place across Syria on April 13.
Since the officially sanctioned diplomatic process remains somewhat other-wordly, and yet the cease-fire has not been a total failure, what direction are events likely to take?
As of now, Syria has fragmented, and a host of related conflicts are taking place over its ruins. The Russian intervention has effectively removed from the table the possibility of the military destruction of the dictatorship. For this to be achieved, an air force capable of besting that of the Russians, who guarantee Assad’s survival, would need to enter the fray. Such air power is possessed only by the US. Washington has absolutely no intention of acting as the air wing of the Syrian Sunni rebels, in a way analogous to that of the Russians vis-à-vis the regime.
Since this is likely to remain the case, it follows that there is no longer any credible military threat to the continued existence of the Assad regime in its enclave in Damascus, in the western coastal area, in the cities of western Syria and in the areas linking them.
This being said, it remains the case that a regime reconquest of the entirety of Syria also remains unlikely. Assad, in a recent interview, declared this to be his goal. But it is unlikely that the actual forces that could conceivably achieve this goal for him – Russian air power and Iranian proxies on the ground – are interested in pursuing it. Iran is withdrawing Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel from northwest Syria. The immediate goal of preventing any threat to the regime has been achieved. The Iranian regime does not appear to wish to commit its own forces to the mutual slaughterhouse that a campaign to reconquer all of rebel and Sunni jihadist-controlled Syria would entail.
The Russians, too, are now withdrawing. They appear wary of a long and grinding campaign of reconquest. With a devalued ruble and very low oil prices, it is not clear that they could sustain the necessary expenditure. Again, the goal of the Russian campaign appears to have been to preserve the regime enclave, not to enter an all out assault for the reunification of Syria by military means.
Even Assad himself may be aware that an attempt at reunifying the country under his rule would bring back the original dilemma that caused his withdrawal in the first place. Assad does not possess sufficient forces to securely govern those areas that reject his rule. The Russian intervention has not altered this core reality.
Russia wants to see the removal of Ukraine-related sanctions on it, and to be treated as a world power. Backing its allies and ensuring their survival forms a part of this. An ongoing bloody campaign of reconquest is unlikely to do so.
So if the disparate rebellion can’t beat Assad, and if Assad is unlikely to achieve or even try for a knockout blow against the rebellion, and if there is no basis for a negotiated settlement, doesn’t that mean that the diplomacy is doomed, the cease-fire bound to be short-lived, and a return to full blown conflict inevitable?
Maybe, but not necessarily. It is worth remembering that there are two other vital players on the Syrian map, apart from the Assad regime and the Sunni Arab rebellion. The two other elements are the Kurds, and Islamic State. As of now, a Western-backed military alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is making steady headway against Islamic State. If this progress can continue, the prospect opening up in Syria will be for a Russian-guaranteed, Assad-ruled west, and a US-guaranteed east, in which Islamic State has either been destroyed or is in the process of eclipse.
On this basis, with neither side able to dislodge the other and neither side having an obvious interest in continued conflict (or with each side deterred by inescapable realities if they do), it is possible to imagine the beginning of a diplomatic process based on the emergence of a confederal or de facto divided Syria.
Such an outcome is, of course, not certain, but it is possible. If it does not emerge, the bloodletting in Syria is likely to recommence with full force in the future, and the current cease-fire to be remembered as little more than a brief respite.