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Destroyed house in Syria.

The Russia–US Ceasefire Deal in Syria: Not an End to the War, but Perhaps the Beginning of the End

Michael Stephens
Commentary, 12 September 2016
RUSI International, Counterinsurgency, Syria, Middle East and North Africa
The deal to implement a ceasefire across Syria brokered by the US and Russia is a major development in the course of that country’s brutal conflict. It presents a faint glimmer of hope – the first in years – that an end may be in sight to what to date remains this century’s bloodiest conflict.

As the war in Syria enters its fifth year, it has become clear that no side involved in the conflict can achieve outright victory. This is largely because the conflict is now so internationalised that the course of the war is more determined by the will of outside powers than by the warring domestic factions. Slowly but surely, more and more countries have been sucked into fighting in Syria to preserve or advance their perceived interests; at the time of writing Iran, Russia, Turkey, the US and Britain all have some form of confirmed presence of ground forces in some fighting capacity inside the country. Then there are the Syrian protagonists themselves, or a variety of proxies which also operate on the ground.

Thus, the war has largely become a battle of wills between those countries that back Assad and those that resist him. However, nobody has invested enough blood and treasure in support of their proxies to win the war; the action is merely to prevent a chosen proxy from losing. As a result, an ugly stalemate has ensued, with what remains of Syria’s battered urban centres being pounded by repeated offensives and counter-offensives, with little left of worth for the victor to claim.

Seen from this perspective, the deal brokered between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, no matter how limited in its aims, is both overdue and welcome, and accordingly was greeted with cautious optimism from an assortment of parties including EU member states and Turkey. Although regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia have yet to express their support, an accommodation over Syria between two of the region’s foremost powers is well nigh impossible given the current tension that exists between them, so a ceasefire of the kind proposed now is likely to be a source of disappointment rather than relief.

Does this bring the Syrian war to an end? No. It should be expected that sporadic fighting will continue, particularly in areas where local groups on the ground – for example the Kurds – still believe there is much to be gained from taking territory in order to increase their political and military standing before any peace negotiations begin. And historical precedents are not encouraging: ceasefires in the Syrian war more often than not have proved to be temporary breaks for all sides, providing just a breather for the warring parties to re-equip and prepare themselves for even fiercer hostilities.

Even more uncertain is whether Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will decide to honour the deal, and with Russia and Iran still propping up an ever-weakening regime in Damascus it is difficult to see how it would accept a compromise. Ultimately, this is within Russia’s power to solve: Moscow’s military support for the Syrian Arab Army can be leveraged to force Assad to agree to terms, assuming that in striking the deal with the US, Russia is genuinely serious about holding back the Syrian regime.

The good news is that if this agreement holds, almost all forces in Syria that share territory with Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), will be free to turn their guns on the group, and drive it out of Syria for good. This year has not been a good one for the jihadist proto-state; its territory is shrinking and its hold on vital logistical routes, border crossings and supplies of oil have all been brought to an end. A concerted push by all parties to end Daesh’s control over the cities of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor would be a huge step in denting the group’s global appeal, and provide much needed relief to those Syrians who have lived under jihadist control for the past two years.

The race for control over Daesh territory may, in turn, trigger more conflict as competing sides scramble for fresh territorial gains, notwithstanding the anticipated level of coordination between Russia and the US to defeat the terrorist group. So much will depend on how Moscow and Washington can ensure that territory Daesh leaves behind is apportioned, and whether the two powers sponsoring the current deal can prevent Syria’s warring parties from squabbling over the spoils.

So, caution is still advisable with the current deal: Kerry and Lavrov are hardly likely to have produced a panacea, although the Syrian war was never going to be brought to an end in one agreement in which both sponsors remain fairly parsimonious. Instead, it is best to view the deal as the opening gambit in an attempt to reduce violence and improve the lot of ordinary Syrians, while ensuring that both the opposition and the regime disengage until some political compromise can be found. For this, both the US secretary of state and the foreign minister of Russia deserve some credit, notwithstanding the simmering tensions between their countries.

Syria’s war is not coming to an end, but the potential for a less bloody future is at last becoming a possibility, however remote.

Banner image courtesy of Voice of America News.

Author

Michael Stephens
Research Fellow for Middle East Studies

Michael Stephens is the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies and Head of RUSI Qatar. He joined RUSI’s London office in September... read more

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