How the US and Russia Can Make the Syria Ceasefire Deal Last

How the US and Russia Can Make the Syria Ceasefire Deal Last

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

We have a serious “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, finally, and it’s the best chance for peace since protests became violent four years ago.

But there was no sliver of daylight between the joint announcement of the U.S.-Russian agreement last Monday and an onslaught of skepticism: The prevailing view is that it would be great if this deal holds but there’s little chance it will.

The doubters are overdoing it. True, all previous efforts to halt the violence in Syria and bring warring parties to the negotiating table have collapsed in ignominy—sometimes in a day. As an odds game, the skeptics seem to bet wisely.

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They’re unwisely missing the essential point: Diplomatic circumstances and “facts on the ground” have changed drastically in just a few weeks. Most of those needed to achieve a settlement now have a motivation to work toward one.  

This truth arises from a single new reality.

The Obama administration has long asserted that there is no military solution in Syria—only a political bargain. But Russia’s air campaign in support of Syrian troops as they’ve approached Aleppo and other key towns and cities has just proven the president and Secretary of State Kerry wrong.

There most certainly is a military solution available, and we can count on the Russians to impose it if the informal ceasefire that took effect Friday at midnight fails. It’s hard to imagine that rebel militias, as well as their Saudi and Turkish backers, don’t understand this.

I follow the presidential campaign debates, especially between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with this thought in mind. Clinton persists in calling for a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone sequestering northern Syria on its border with Turkey; Sanders wants to disengage as far as possible.

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They’re both off. Since Russian warplanes are bound to continue bombing ISIS and al-Nusra targets, Clinton’s proposal presents a reckless risk of widening warfare. Sanders forgets Colin Powell’s adage after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: You break it, you own it. In Syria as in Iraq, the U.S. role in precipitating the crisis means it has to commit itself to a resolution if there’s to be one.

One point of concern about the ceasefire deal is that it was struck between Moscow and Washington. Not everyone has signed on.

I don’t see this, either. When the Russians flew their first bombing sortie last September 30, Syria was instantly transformed into a field of great-power rivalry.

Two signatures on the accord are therefore enough, at least at this stage. Moscow and Washington can control—directly or indirectly, easily or coercively—all the combatants the pact covers and all their outside supporters.

What’s the view from Moscow and Washington, then, now that they’ve reached a fragile agreement on Syria?

From the Russian perspective, Syria has gone from a significant liability to an opportunity. The air campaign has plainly been effective. It’s now beyond dispute that Moscow has an essential role in whatever version of a political settlement may come to be.

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Note how President Vladimir Putin made the deal public: He went on national television and, with an unmistakable suggestion of pride, announced that Russians and Americans had agreed to work together in Syria.

Don’t miss the subtext: This is Putin’s best chance yet to prove Russia’s status as a great power, as he has long desired. His success on the ground is half the loaf. Now he has to do whatever he can to make a ceasefire and political talks come good.

Moscow now has to keep Damascus in line, and this ought not to prove difficult. President Bashar al-Assad has accepted the terms of the deal, even if he hasn’t signed it, and he’s likely to stay with it for one reason: It serves his interests.  

“The pause in fighting may have the unintended consequence of consolidating President Assad’s hold on power over Syria for at least the next few years,” David Sanger wrote in Saturday’s New York Times. “It may also begin to freeze in place what already amounts to an informal partition of the country, even though the stated objective of the West is to keep the country whole.”

Related: The Road to Aleppo: How The West Misread Putin Over Syria

As to the Obama administration, it’s hard to say whether it overplayed its hand or underplayed it. Either way, let’s leave it that Obama and Kerry didn’t make lemonade out of this lemon.

By strategic ambiguity or ineptitude, the Obama administration bumbled along ineffectively in Syria for four years — even after the ISIS emerged as a force in 2014. Moscow’s decisive entry into the conflict caught the White House utterly off guard, and in consequence, the bargaining table now offers the only one dignified exit strategy.

Washington’s big jobs are several.

First, it must now tell us all—especially the Russians—just who is legitimate opposition and why. Russia’s probably in no mood for another blurry American account of some Islamist militias as “moderate” in supposed contrast to others.

The U.S. just sent Russia a list of 69 armed rebel groups that accept the ceasefire accord, Reuters reported Sunday, citing Russia’s Interfax news agency. This has to make good, clear reading if it is to prove effective.

Second, Washington has to whip Turkey and Saudi Arabia back into their cages. The Turks assert they will continue to attack Syrian Kurds as terrorists—ridiculous—and the Saudis continue spoiling for war even since the ceasefire took effect.

At this moment the Syrian crisis comes to one remarkably symmetrical contradiction: For Russia, the war is an existential threat, given its role in breeding terrorists, with strategic considerations attaching; for the U.S., strategic rivalry still dominates the thinking on Syria, while there is little threat to national security.

If the new agreement halting hostilities is to lead anywhere, these upside-down interests will have to be reconciled.