Now playing in Syria: Ceasefire, the sequel with the wrong cast | columns | Hindustan Times
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Now playing in Syria: Ceasefire, the sequel with the wrong cast

Syrians are sceptical of the second US-Russia brokered ceasefire because it’s much like the first one — short on specifics and long on loopholes

columns Updated: Sep 17, 2016 16:11 IST
Bobby Ghosh
US secretary of state John Kerry (L) and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a press conference, Geneva, September 9, 2016
US secretary of state John Kerry (L) and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a press conference, Geneva, September 9, 2016(AFP)

We’ve seen this movie before — this very scene, featuring this very cast of characters, mouthing more or less the very same lines. On February 11, speaking from a rostrum in Munich, American secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov announced the imminent cessation of hostilities in Syria. In a week’s time, they said, all combatants in that wretched land would stop shooting each other, and allow food and other humanitarian aid to reach Syrians long besieged by the fighting.

If the ceasefire had held, there would have been no reason for Kerry and Lavrov to reprise their Munich performance last Friday, this time in Geneva. Again, the two men held out the promise of an end to the Syrian civil war, now halfway into its sixth year, and nearly halfway to claiming a million lives.

For the sake of the millions of Syrians bloodied and bereaved by the war, and the many more who have been forced to flee their homes, risking death on the journey and hostility at its end, we must force ourselves at least to hope that Kerry and Lavrov have got it right this time.

Read | Syria ceasefire takes effect with Assad emboldened, opposition wary

Alas, recent history allows no optimism. The ceasefire announced in Munich failed because it was based on calculations far removed from the ground realities: 2,600 km removed, to be precise, the distance, as a jetliner flies, from the Bavarian capital to Damascus. And, let me save you the trouble of looking this up: Geneva is 300 km farther away.

On the ground in Syria, where the cost of the failure of the previous Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire pact is measured in blood and bodies, there is widespread scepticism, a sentiment that has succeeded where all other mediation has failed, in uniting the many anti-regime rebel groups.

Read | Syria ceasefire: Who are the forces involved?

They are right to be pessimistic, because the deal is short on specifics, and long on loopholes. Russia and the forces of the dictator Bashar al-Assad may continue to attack anybody they deem to be terrorists affiliated to al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Since Assad routinely brands ALL his opponents terrorists, this gives him licence to continue pounding helpless civilians. If he doesn’t stop dropping bombs, there’s no reason for the rebels to silence their guns.

Another reason to be sceptical is that the deal was announced by the wrong people. Kerry and Lavrov may represent powerful nations, but in the context of Syria they are not the primary actors. Far more important players were not seen or heard in Geneva: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and only slightly less important, Turkey.

Read | US response to 9/11 expanded terror threat: France president Hollande

For Tehran and Riyadh, Syria is the battleground of their deep-felt sectarian enmity, currently playing out in several theatres of conflict, including Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iran wants Syria’s Sunni majority to remain subjugated by Assad, who is at least nominally Shia. The Saudis cannot abide by the thought of a Shia hegemony along the Iran-Iraq-Syria axis.

Neither has any interest in an end to the fighting until its surrogates have stamped the other’s into complete submission. The regimes in both countries have vast resources they can throw into the conflict, and no compunctions about shedding the blood of their proxies in pursuit of regional dominance. (Whereas Saudi Arabia coaxes from the sidelines, Iran goes a step farther, sending some of its own men — some in uniform, others notionally civilian volunteers — to fight on Assad’s side.)

Read | Chemical gas attacks in Syria: The civil war is far from over

Turkey ought to care more about the plight of the Syrians, not least because millions of them are refugees on its soil, leading to great economic strain as well as growing social and religious destabilisation. But the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has until recently used the Syrian war to try and settle old scores with Turkey’s restive Kurdish minority. Judging by his rhetoric and his actions, it’s hard to see Erdogan playing a constructive role in a Syrian peace process.

And all this, before we even get to the principal protagonists in Syria: Assad, the moderate rebels, and the terrorists. Nothing we’ve seen in recent months suggests any of them has reached the point of exhaustion — of resources, or of resolve — required for any serious peace negotiations to commence. It doesn’t help that at least one party, the ISIS, is made up of people who are enthusiastic about death, their own almost as much of that of their enemies.

Read | Siege of Aleppo: The Islamic State will benefit from this mayhem

As I said at the start, we’ve seen this movie before. Sequels, especially when they feature the same actors and script, rarely improve on the original. It behoves the world to keep our collective fingers crossed, but to also be clear-eyed about the likeliest outcome: A brief pause, followed by a resumption of hostilities, just as in the previous movie.

For peace to become even a possibility in Syria, it is essential that the next ceasefire sequel features a larger cast of actors — and at a location exactly 0 km from Damascus.

(Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He has spent over two decades covering international affairs, including long stints as correspondent and editor in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the US. He tweets as @ghoshworld)