A day after the horrific attacks in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a silver lining: The world had come together and agreed to end the Syrian civil war. At a press conference in Vienna, they laid out an ambitious time line. A cease-fire would be negotiated in a matter of weeks between the Assad regime and rebel groups, with the exception of “terrorists.” Talks between Assad and the opposition would be held by Jan. 1. A “credible, inclusive, nonsectarian” government would be established within six months. A new constitution and free and fair elections would materialize within 18 months.
If their plan — backed by the Arab League, the United Nations, the European Union, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates — sounds too good to be true, that’s because it probably is.
Much like Kerry’s overly optimistic goal of creating a Palestinian state within two years, the Syria plan is based more on the desire for peace than the prospects for it actually happening on the ground.
“Just like [the past two attempts to broker peace in Syria], it is mostly designed to dress up a political vacuum and lack of resolve,” said Peter Harling, project director of Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria for the International Crisis Group.
“This process seems sufficiently divorced from reality that I don’t see why anyone in the opposition — civilian or military — would feel encouraged by this,” said Evan Barrett, spokesman for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a Washington-based group that represents Syrian-Americans.
The most glaring weakness, which Kerry acknowledges, is that the question of Assad’s fate remains unresolved. Russia and Iran insist that Assad should be allowed to run in future elections, while Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar insist that he be barred. Without a guarantee of an eventual transition away from Assad — or at least a meaningful voice for them in government — it’s unlikely that any rebel groups will show up at these talks at all.
And while a genuine cease-fire could improve the quality of life in Syria, the prospects of a nationwide end to the bloodshed are thin. Much of northern Syria is held by the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, two groups that have already been excluded from the cease-fire. The Islamist nationalist group Ahrar al-Sham, which also controls territory, will likely also fail to pass muster as a trustworthy partner in a cease-fire.
Rebels fear that Syria and Russia will continue bombing the opposition, under the guise of bombing “terrorists.”
“The opposition certainly desires a workable cease-fire, but they simply cannot trust the regime or Russians to implement one honestly,” said Barrett. “Until moderate rebel groups have a clear understanding of which groups will remain fair game for attacks, even under a cease-fire, they will have good reason to find the cease-fire framework reached in Vienna suspect.”
Another obstacle to brokering a cease-fire is assuring the safety of people in rebel-held territory, who could be at Assad’s mercy if they let down their guard. Local cease-fires have so far seen mixed results. In some cases, the regime failed to freely allow in food or release prisoners as promised. Rebels fear that a cease-fire could simply be a trick to allow Assad’s forces to rest and regroup.
If rebels trusted the United States to protect them, they might be willing to take more risks for peace. But rebels don’t trust Washington, which has been unwilling to fight any group but the Islamic State.
Nevertheless, if a cease-fire can halt indiscriminate Syrian and Russian attacks on civilians in the cities of Aleppo and Idlib, it could convince opposition groups that they have something to gain from this process.
It may well be that the best outcome we can hope for is to freeze the conflict, at least temporarily. That would give the dizzying array of opposition forces in Syria, including democratically elected councils in Aleppo and Homs, a chance to coordinate their demands and sketch out a political deal that they could live with.