Syria’s latest cease-fire deal, negotiated by the United States and Russia last week, is due to go into effect at sundown Monday night, just a couple hours from now, but there are already reasons to be skeptical about whether it will have any lasting impact on the conflict.
The deal requires the Syrian government, the Russian military, and U.S.-backed rebel groups to halt hostilities for a seven-day period. This will hopefully allow aid groups to finally bring aid into Syria’s embattled largest city, Aleppo, which has seen some of the civil war’s heaviest fighting. The U.S. and Russia will also begin work on setting up a “Joint Implementation Center” to share information on targeting al-Qaida–linked groups and ISIS. The goal is to disentangle the “legitimate” opposition groups supported by the West and other Arab states from the jihadist ones that both sides agree should still be targeted.
The United States and Russia are certainly key players in the conflict, but as with previous deals, the question is whether the Syrians themselves will adhere to it. The Syrian government has agreed to the terms of the cease-fire, but it’s hard to imagine it will refrain from attacking rebel positions for long. President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance on Monday at a mosque in Darya, a Damascus suburb recently retaken by the regime, vowing that his government would “recover every area from the terrorists,” by which we can assume he was referring to all rebels, not just those designated terrorists by Washington.
Most U.S.-backed rebel factions are preparing to honor the cease-fire, though they are skeptical and the leader of one publicly called it a “trap.” The trickiest factor here is the group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which changed its name from Jabhat al-Nusra when it officially broke ties with al-Qaida last month. The split wasn’t because of ideological or tactical differences—it was blessed by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Rather, it was intended to blur the distinction between the group and other rebel factions, including those supported by the West. Despite the rebranding, Fateh al-Sham is still on the U.S. target list, but its often intermingled on the ground, and in some cases directly allied with the same groups that America wants Russia and Syria to stop bombing, particularly in the complex battlefield around Aleppo. So it’s not clear how the distinctions between legitimate rebels and terrorists will be made.
Given that the deal doesn’t address any final status questions about the political future of Syria, as well as signs that many of the players in the conflict are now essentially waiting out the clock on the Obama administration to see how they may fare under the next president, there’s little reason to expect the ceasefire to hold for long. Even the Pentagon seems skeptical that the deal, negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, will stick. The best we can say—and this isn’t nothing—it that it will bring some momentary relief to the trapped people of Aleppo.