Commentary

Skepticism and the Ceasefire

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Views from the Region

A UN aid convoy has been destroyed, apparently in a regime airstrike, less than a week into the U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire between government troops and opposition forces in Syria. With no aid flowing to Aleppo and sporadic fighting continuing, the regional commentary on the ceasefire has been less than optimistic. Many in the Middle Eastern media have expressed frustration at the apprehensive nature of U.S. involvement in the five-year conflict, and are skeptical of the efforts undertaken by the Syrian opposition to move toward a post-Assad future. In fact, most appear to think that Assad and his allies hold all the cards, and the ceasefire is a desperate move to salvage something from a difficult situation.

The most recent ceasefire has been welcomed by most observers, with many, including this Gulf Today editorial, calling for a temporary cessation of hostilities to enable the delivery of aid to the stranded civilians: “Civilians in Syria have borne the brunt of endless and senseless violence for too long. The agony of civilians, especially in Aleppo, refuses to cease. Never-ending bombardment and dwindling medical supplies have deepened their woes....Syria’s five-year war has already killed hundreds of thousands and displaced 11 million. This has sparked an international refugee crisis. The intensifying attacks on medical care are also a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. Civilians who choose to remain should have unhindered access to life-saving humanitarian assistance. The need of the hour is a humanitarian pause in the fighting in Aleppo. As UN officials point out, civilians, including the sick and wounded, must be reached through the most effective way both through cross-line and cross-border operations. They must be assisted without discrimination, and wherever they are located. All parties must guarantee the security, safety and dignity of all civilians and civilian infrastructure in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law.”

While the United States and Russia were hammering out their differences in anticipation of a joint ceasefire plan, Syria’s opposition forces were in the middle of their own negotiations aimed at drafting a peace plan, which according a Saudi Gazette editorial, sounded more like an admission of “defeat”: “The scheme put forward by the High Negotiations Committee, the umbrella group which brings together the political and armed opposition is that there would be a full ceasefire to be followed by six months of negotiations. At the end of this period, Assad would cede power to a unity government drawn from all communities within Syria. This administration would then govern for 18 months, during which its primary task would be the organization of elections though it ought surely also be giving attention to the drafting of a workable new constitution....Assad has never budged from his astonishing assertion that he should be part of the solution when in fact he himself, and nobody else, is entirely the problem. With Russia, Iran and now it seems to some extent Turkey, offering succor to the regime, it seems clear that it believes that the opposition peace plan is a sign of weakness, even a recognition of its defeat.”

Commenting on the U.S.-Russia deal, the Khaleej Times editorial staff was quick to praise the possibility of providing some relief to the besieged residents of Aleppo and its surrounding area, but it had no illusions about who would the real winner in the negotiations was: “There's reason to hope, though a political settlement is a long way off. With so much violence happening in the country, even a simple ceasefire agreed to by Russia and the United States is refreshing for peace.... President Assad who does not appear to be going anywhere. In fact, he only seems to get stronger, thanks to Russian support, even as fighting rages in Aleppo, and human rights violations are rampant. Barrel bombs and chemical weapons are being rained on civilians. The opposition is in shreds - there are 100 disparate groups who want a piece of the action and power....The US is losing the plot in the Middle East, but has bought some time with this agreement with Russia....This broad deal could save the US some face. Moscow, meanwhile, is wearing a broad grin.”

A similar air of resignation to the increasing likelihood that Assad may not be going anywhere anytime soon is evident in a Jordan Times editorial: “Credit goes to Moscow for convincing Damascus to agree to the ceasefire. The US has little influence over the fighting in Syria because, unlike Russia, it has neither ground forces, at least officially, nor air power deployed in the country. If the truce continues, it may still provide the platform for the start of the, so far, eluding peace talks between Damascus and the main opposition groups. The chances of success of any peace talks are quite limited, since Damascus has a much stronger bargaining power than the opposition. The uneven military and political strengths of the two sides to the armed conflict is not conducive to a political process that could end the conflict in Syria.”

One of the reasons why Mr. Assad may begin feeling more emboldened, according to Al Arabiya’s Azeem Ibrahim, is due to America’s unwillingness to fully embrace the Syrian opposition: “US inaction in the face of Assad’s brutality has consequences. Last week, an umbrella group of Syrian opposition parties met in London to put together a proposal for a future for Syria without Assad. If Assad were to fall, it would be this grouping who would fill the vacuum. The less the US and its allies do to remove Assad, the less bright the future prospects....But the geopolitical cover Assad receives is only half of the story. Assad is able to continue to commit his crimes in part because of the rhetorical cover provided by some journalists, political leaders and religious leaders. They have all stepped up to the plate to sow confusion. By describing all opposition to Assad as ‘al-Qaeda’ and painting Assad as the real victim of US aggression they seem to have muddied the waters. Arguments for action against Assad receive less public hearing thanks to the work of their pens....By muddying the case for action against President Assad, these analysts, journalists, and politicians become the accomplices to real suffering in Syria today.”

Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's former defense minister, argues in a recent op-ed written for the Yedioth Ahronoth that it is unlikely that the U.S.-Russia agreement will lead to a “full ceasefire in Syria,” even if President Assad were to go into exile: “The Syria ceasefire agreement, which was signed by the United States and Russia and took effect on Monday, may only be implemented randomly, in the form of local and temporary truces in certain areas. There is no chance, however, for a full ceasefire – in other words, an end to the serious bloodshed....The opposing interests between the external elements involved in the fighting in Syria make it impossible for the war to be decided or for any political settlement to create a new reality in the divided country and stop the bloodshed....Assad and his supporters know it is a battle of life and death, and this situation will continue even if Assad himself decides to leave Syria and seek refuge in another country. The term ‘the Assad regime,’ therefore, no longer refers to a state's regime but to an ethnic group controlling certain areas across what used to be Syria.”

Meanwhile, there is growing frustration with the lack of engagement on the part of the United States, leading Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed to express the wish, following the United States’s bombing of Syrian troops over the weekend, that more such “mistakes” should be committed in the future: “Unfortunately, the only right action the U.S. took in Syria throughout the past five years was a mis-targeted airstrike. U.S. jets struck the regime’s military sites in Deir Ezzor for the first time.... Is it true that the airstrike was intentional, according to media rumors? The answer is: Absolutely not, because the Americans would have justified their action in a different way or even blamed the regime forces or the Russians....The U.S. raid on Assad’s forces might motivate Russians to coordinate more in order to avoid similar mistakes. It is also possible that the Russians will exploit this in an adverse way through downsizing the U.S. military presence in the Syrian airspace. U.S. President Barack Obama’s tenure is almost over; the time is ticking and new ideas for a political solution must be suggested following the latest negotiations between Washington and Moscow.”


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