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Can the latest attempt at a ceasefire in Syria succeed?

Analysis | 2017-07-29 14:03:14
Can the latest attempt at a ceasefire in Syria succeed?
(The Economist)- The guns have fallen silent over southern Syria. Under a deal brokered by Russia and America, the Syrian regime and its rebel adversaries, which have fought for six bloody years, have agreed to stop killing each other in parts of the country. Since the truce came into force on July 9th, both sides have withdrawn fighters and military equipment from the agreed ceasefire line. Lightly armed military police from Russia—one of the war’s chief belligerents—have reportedly been deployed to keep the peace. President Donald Trump says the southern ceasefire will save lives. Can the armistice last?

The deal is the latest in a string of failed attempts to wind down a war that has killed some 400,000 people and triggered the largest refugee crisis since the second world war. Previous ceasefires have collapsed within weeks. Buoyed by Russia and Iran and determined to retake the entire country, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has seen little merit in freezing a conflict that it is winning. That view may have changed. 

The collapse of Islamic State (IS) in the east, a region rich in oil and gas, has triggered a scramble between the regime and rebel forces to control the natural resources. To win the race, the regime needs to free up troops fighting on other fronts. Russia is also seeking a way out of the Syrian quagmire as it grows weary of its costly military adventure. Since January it has held talks with Iran and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the war, to establish four “de-escalation zones” where pockets of rebellion remain. Left out of the talks, America’s willingness to work with Russia in the south is partly a test of Moscow’s sincerity.

The truce, which covers parts of three provinces along the border with Israel and Jordan, stands a better chance of lasting than previous ones. There are fewer jihadists to spoil the agreement, the region covered by the truce is smaller than before and rebel forces in the south are less unruly than their fractious comrades in other parts of the country. America’s regional allies also have a greater stake in the deal: both Israel and Jordan are alarmed by the incursions of Iranian-backed militias into areas that rub against their borders. Much can still go wrong. Like past deals, the ceasefire lacks a way to punish violations. The regime may also decide to turn its guns south again, once it has captured the oil-and-gas fields still occupied by IS in the east. 

If the deal holds where others have failed, then deeper co-operation between Russia and America can be expected. Mr Trump, who has prioritised the fight against IS, has already shown a greater willingness to go along with Moscow’s plans in Syria than his predecessor did. Last month America shut down a CIA programme to train and equip rebel forces fighting the regime. Publicly, officials in Washington say that Mr Assad must eventually step down. But greater co-operation with Russia, which has shown little inclination to get rid of its ally in Damascus, may only cement his rule. The ceasefire will save lives, should it hold. But it may also kill the rebels’ dreams of overthrowing the regime.
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