The war in Syria and Iraq has reached a decisive turning point with the announcement by the US and Russia in Munich that they have agreed on the delivery of food and other aid to besieged communities in Syria; this would be followed by “a cessation of hostilities” in preparation for a formal ceasefire.
A de-escalation of the conflict will be difficult to implement because it does not apply to Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, both of which are designated by the UN as terrorist movements; between them, they control more than half of Syria’s territory – though a far lower proportion of the population. There is no agreement on which other members of the armed opposition are terrorists, so Russia can continue bombing those whom the US and its allies claim are moderates.
But the agreement in Munich is still a crucial stage in ending the five-year war that has convulsed much of the Middle East and brought terror to people across the world, from Paris to Jakarta. Despite problems in implementation, the agreement is significant because it is brokered by the US and Russia, the only states with enough influence over the many participants in the war to begin the process of ending it.
The outcome of the conflict will not be determined by diplomacy alone, but by events on the battlefield, where winners and losers have been emerging over the past six months. A crucial development was the entry of Russia as a participant in the war; its bombing campaign in support of the Syrian army, which began on 30 September, ensured that President Bashar al-Assad was not going to lose the war. When the Syrian army cut the rebel supply lines between Aleppo and the Turkish border on 2 February it became increasingly possible that he would win it.
The only development that might lead to the military balance of power swinging back in favour of the Syrian armed opposition would be the direct intervention of the Turkish army in Syria. But it is getting very late in the day for this to happen, despite deep unhappiness in Turkey at the advance of the Syrian Kurds along its southern frontier. Saudi Arabia has been an important backer of the armed opposition and has offered to send ground troops to Syria; but it has not said when, where or how it would intervene.
The first test of the new agreement – and of Russia’s ability to ensure that the Syrian government acts in accordance with it – will be the delivery of food and other supplies to besieged and blockaded towns in Syria, such as Madaya and Zabadani. Ending the sieges, or at least alleviating the suffering of the besieged, raises a problem in that almost half of the 486,000 estimated by the UN to live under siege are in government-held areas encircled by Isis and al-Nusra.
In the government-held part of Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, 200,000 civilians are trapped and malnourished, according to the UN’s Office for the Co‑ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. When Isis broke into part of the besieged city in January, its fighters executed 85 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Sieges and blockades have played a central role in the Syrian war because neither side wants to suffer casualties among their combat troops in house-to-house fighting. Government strategy has been to seal off urban areas it has lost by placing checkpoints around them; often these are manned by conscripts who are elderly or out of condition. It then bombards the rebel-held area with artillery and bombs, turning them into “ghost districts” – uninhabited heaps of rubble and shells of burned out buildings.
Going by past experience, government forces will be averse to allowing through food and other necessities to places held by their enemies, whom they have been fighting for years. Nevertheless, the Syrian army is so dependent on Russian air strikes for its recent successes that President Assad will have difficulty resisting Russian pressure, if it is applied, to comply with the terms agreed in Munich.
A “cessation of hostilities”, to be followed by a formal ceasefire, presents problems and opportunities because so much of the armed opposition is dominated by Isis and al-Nusra, which are not part of the deal. Both groups are, in any case, highly motivated fighting machines for which battle is a proof of Islamic faith, and neither would flourish in conditions of peace. They may benefit from a revulsion among many Syrian opponents of the government at the belief that they are being sold out, after all their years of suffering, and that President Assad and the Ba’ath party are going to stay in power.
One of the more important paragraphs in the statement by the International Syria Support Group concerns the policing of compliance with a truce. The paragraph states that the ISSG looks for support “for a cessation of hostilities, and in furtherance of that have established an ISSG ceasefire task force, under the auspices of the UN, co-chaired by Russia and the United States, and including political and military officials, with the participation of ISSG members with influence on the armed opposition groups or forces fighting in support of the Syrian government.”
The ISSG task force will clarify which parts of Syria are held by Isis, al-Nusra and anybody else labelled as terrorist.
There is plenty of room for disagreement, but for the first time there is a plan for de-escalating the war, and a mechanism for enforcing it that is backed by the US and Russia. Syrian and regional forces will find it difficult to sabotage the agreement, though they may try to evade it. Inside Syria, parties are exhausted by the long war and are so reliant on outside support that they may have little option in the long term but to comply. Regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar may not like what has happened, but there may not be much they can do about it either.
President Assad has survived and the alliance of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah has avoided defeat and got much of what it wanted. Probably President Assad would like to fight on and win decisively, but his successes over the past four months stem from Russian and Iranian backing.
The approach to peace in Syria will be as messy as the war itself, but despite the many obstacles to diplomacy, this agreement may be a step towards peace: it has the backing of the US and Russia, and it reflects the balance of power on the battlefield.