Column: Why the Syria cease-fire won’t work

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. Special Envoy for the crisis in Syria, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks on during a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland on Sept. 9.
(Martial Trezzini / EPA)

John F. Kerry’s new cease-fire in Syria, launched this week after negotiations with Russia, is an admirable effort to bring a measure of peace to a shattered land. But it’s almost certainly doomed to fail — despite the diligence and even passion the secretary of State has devoted to it.

Too many forces, from Bashar Assad’s government to Al Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot, don’t really want the cease-fire to last. And it’s not clear that anyone can stop them from blowing it up — least of all the Obama administration, which has sworn off military intervention on the ground.

Here’s how the deal, negotiated by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is meant to work:


The Syrian government and Syria’s moderate rebels — the ones supported by the United States — are supposed to stop shooting at each other. (So far, they’ve mostly complied.)

The two great powers involved, the United States and Russia, both want a truce — but their basic goals are still far apart.

The extremists of Islamic State and Al Qaeda aren’t included; nobody expected them to cooperate. (The Al Qaeda branch in Syria, formerly called Al Nusra Front, has rebranded itself as the Front for the Conquest of Syria, but it’s the same outfit.)

If the truce holds for seven days, the United States and Russia will set up a joint center to coordinate their air forces in attacks against Islamic State and the Front for the Conquest of Syria.

At that point, the Syrian air force, which has dropped thousands of primitive “barrel bombs” on its own citizens, will be required to stop attacking rebel-held zones. Routes will be opened to allow humanitarian aid convoys to bring food and medicine to areas the government has besieged.

And then, if all goes well, the government and the rebels will start negotiations to end the war for good.

That would be a remarkable diplomatic achievement — especially in view of the limited leverage the United States has applied so far.

Here’s why it’s unlikely to work:

The two great powers involved, the United States and Russia, both want a truce — but their basic goals are still far apart.


Kerry wants to push all sides into negotiations to set up a new Syrian government that would ease Assad out of power.

The Russians, who sent troops and planes to Syria last year to bolster Assad, mainly want to stabilize the government.

Assad not only wants to keep power, but he also wants to use the cease-fire to improve his military and diplomatic positions. That’s what he did, with help from the Russians, during a brief cease-fire earlier this year.

Opposition leaders hope the truce will end the government’s siege of the rebel stronghold in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, but they fear that the broader effect will be to weaken their forces and strengthen the government.

Finally, Islamic State and the Front for the Conquest of Syria have already rejected the truce and can be counted on to try to foil it — in part to avoid becoming the only remaining targets for airstrikes.

There are practical problems, too, beginning with this: How is the truce going to be enforced?

“For a cease-fire to work, you need a monitoring group on the ground — and there isn’t one,” Robert S. Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told me.

If the Assad government violates the agreement, what then?

“Without a Plan B, there is no useful ‘or else,’” warned Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center on the Middle East. (As Plan B, he recommended U.S. strikes against the Syrian air force, an option President Obama has turned down.) And there’s a longer-term risk, Hof added: If the U.S. and Russia succeed in defeating the Front for the Conquest of Syria, what’s to stop the Assad government from restarting its war against the smaller, weaker opposition?

Finally, there’s still no clear path to success in the peace negotiations Kerry wants to start — even if the government and the rebels show up.

“Saying that we’re going to get everyone to the negotiating table isn’t really a strategy,” Ford said. “It’s going to take a lot longer, and the opposition is going to need a lot more support.”

Kerry deserves credit for the work he’s done to get this cease-fire started. Even a brief truce is better than none. I lived in Beirut during the early years of Lebanon’s civil war; days with cease-fires, even shaky ones, were generally safer than those without.

If the truce holds and humanitarian aid flows, Obama might even avoid the fate of leaving office with his Syria policy a symbol of unbroken failure.

But it doesn’t look likely. This peace plan depends too heavily on two scarce commodities: the wisdom of Syria’s armed factions and the goodwill of Russian President Vladimir Putin. There’s an old rule in the Middle East: It’s hard to go broke if you bet on pessimism.

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

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