Ceasefires in the Syrian civil war have so far been frequent, short-lived and wholly unsuccessful. For the millions caught in the crossfire of this brutal conflict, the ceasefires have often made no difference to the violence they experience. The question is whether the latest ceasefire, brokered by Russia and backed by Turkey, will last or least long enough to change the course of the war. There are reasons to be at least hopeful that this ceasefire will be different. But much which will depend on how a host of known unknowns unfold in the coming months.
The most obvious source of optimism is that the ceasefire is backed by Russia, Turkey and Iran – the three most important external players in the war. If it were left to the Syrian protagonists it seems evident the fighting would have continued. The Shia regime of Bashar al-Assad says it wants to reconquer the entire country. The rebels, whether or not affiliated to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, still insist on Assad’s removal from office. But none of the Syrian players have the ability to win the war, which is why their respective external players are able to get them to sign on the dotted line.
It has been divisions among these external powers that have wrecked ceasefires in the past. Russia’s military intervention saved the Assad regime from almost certain defeat a year ago. Moscow’s greatest success has been to bring the Sunni rebels most important backer, Turkey, on board the peace process. The isolated Sunni rebels, with Saudi Arabian unwilling to intervene on their part without US backing, have been successfully isolated.
The next diplomatic steps will be crucial. The first challenge is that Turkey still insists that Assad must step down and Russia must find a means to square this circle. The second is that Turkey’s main interest in the ceasefire is to be able to turn its guns on the Kurds. However, the Kurds are backed by the US and others who see them as a bulwark against the Islamic State. Finally, no one is quite clear what the incoming administration of Donald Trump thinks about all this. Trump has said he does not support further US military intervention in West Asia but is also clear about his determination to obliterate the Islamic State. It is perfectly conceivable to see Turkey use the ceasefire to turn on the Kurds, have the US warn Russia and Iran to roll this back, and, when they do, see Turkey pull the rug from under the ceasefire. The fundamental issue of addressing the Sunni sense of marginalisation that anchors the support for the Islamic State and triggered the anti-Assad rebellion remains wholly unaddressed in all this. Which is why, while the ceasefire may hold, it is not certain a path to peace will necessarily reveal itself afterwards.