There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the latest cease-fire agreement in Syria, all the more so with Russia accusing the U.S. of violating the agreement, Bashar al-Assad still blocking aid deliveries to besieged Aleppo, and U.S. military commanders making clear that they are very reluctant to cooperate with Russia on anything. But the war, which has now gone on longer than World War I, has to end some time, and Dan Perry and Phil Issa of the AP make a pretty good case that the tide is starting, ever so subtly, to turn.
The full text of the deal has not yet been released, but from what we do know, it freezes in place the territory currently held by both the government and the rebels. Past agreements have fallen apart because the Assad regime continued targeting the rebels, arguing that it was going after al-Qaida-linked terrorists. There’s certainly a risk of that happening again, given that these terrorists are often intertwined on the ground with U.S. backed rebels. But Perry and Issa write that “if Assad refrains from targeting other rebel groups, and the U.S. and Russia exercise their firepower judiciously, the conditions on the ground could allow for talks that Russia’s Foreign Ministry says could resume as early as next month.”
The bitterest pill for many to swallow will be allowing mass murderer Bashar al-Assad to remain in power, but for the moment, the harsh reality is that the rebels’ backers, particularly the United States, aren’t willing to provide the assistance that would be needed to oust him. Even the Syrian regime’s most implacable foreign foe, Turkey, has suggested that it would be open to Assad playing a transitional role, though not a long-term one. If the rebels can be convinced to accept some role for Assad and he can be convinced to cede some power or even agree to a timeline for departure, there might finally be some room for negotiation.
It seems impossible now, after five years of bitterly sectarian violence, for Syria to go back to the pre-war status quo with a strong central state, so the AP story suggests that the more likely scenario would be an unwieldy but peaceable confederative structure, with strong local governments and a weak central state. The Kurdish PYD government that has taken power in Syria’s northeast region is already pushing for something along these lines. Assad wouldn’t be happy about this, but it’s undoubtedly a better position than he looked like he was going to be in when the uprising began, Though it would take away some of his power, he’d still get to be president with all the benefits for himself, his family, and his political allies that come with the position.
There are a lot of things that need to happen for this to work. The U.S.-backed rebels need to accept a future role for Assad; Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers need to rein him in from resuming efforts to crush the rebels; Turkey needs to accept the existence of an autonomous Kurdish region with ties to the militant PKK right on its border; and ISIS still needs to be routed. (Fighting within Syria’s borders will continue for some time no matter what happens with this cease-fire, but it will be harder for ISIS to operate if the rebels-Assad conflict, the main source of the country’s chaos, is eliminated.)
The U.S. election calendar, and signs that the race is getting tighter, also factor in here. The outcome of the race could dramatically shift the conflict: Hillary Clinton has favored more U.S. aid to the rebels as well as the establishment of a no-fly zone, and generally doesn’t seem to share Barack Obama’s aversion to military entanglements. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has suggested that he shares Vladimir Putin’s view of the conflict and would be open to cooperation with Assad. Both sides in Syria may view it as worthwhile to simply wait out the Obama presidency and see if their fortunes improve with the new administration.
But still, it’s getting easier to visualize how this conflict might burn itself out. Three years ago, I wrote a post looking at how civil wars generally come to an end. The bad news is that negotiated settlements are rare. Civil wars more commonly end in total victory for one side, which in Syria still seems unlikely. But settlements are much more likely when the conflict settles into a military stalemate. The fact that neither side seems able to make a meaningful military breakthrough in Aleppo has been heartbreakingly disastrous for the people of that city, but may ultimately prove to be what brings this war to an end.