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Syria's fragile cease-fire

Can Russia be counted on to help end Syria's civil war?

The cease-fire in Syria brokered by the U.S. and Russia last week appears largely to be holding after it went into effect on Monday, despite what were described as sporadic, minor violations of the accord. In the next few days we should know whether the cessation of hostilities can last long enough to permit desperately needed humanitarian aid to reach the besieged residents of Aleppo and other cities that have been cut off by the fighting for months. More importantly, it should become clearer whether Russia can be counted on to work with the U.S. to restart peace talks aimed at ending the five-and-a-half-year civil war that has devastated the country, killed more than 400,000 people and driven millions more from their homes.

U.N. officials are cautiously optimistic that aid convoys could soon set out to deliver food, fuel, medical supplies and other essential goods to civilians who have been trapped by the fighting all summer. The first priority will be the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, where anti-government rebels have managed to hold on despite a blockade by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and government airstrikes that have reduced much of the city to rubble. Since the cease-fire went into effect, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported a marked decrease in violence, and other sources suggest the city is now safe enough for children to play in the streets.

Still, the situation is extremely fragile. As of Wednesday, U.N. convoys were still waiting on the Syrian government to issue transit papers authorizing aid workers to pass through government lines into rebel-held areas of the city. A U.N. official said he was hopeful the government would issue them "soon" but had no information on when that might happen. If and when it does could provide the first important test of whether President Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies are serious about sticking to the agreement reached in Geneva last week or whether they are simply buying time ahead of a planned resumption of the fighting.

Moreover, the Assad government's intentions are not the only potential roadblock to implementing the deal. Two of the most radical rebel factions, the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was once the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq, have denounced the cease-fire as a U.S.-Russian subterfuge to keep President Assad in power by dividing the opposition. Both groups are considered terrorist organizations by the U.N. and are not covered by the cease-fire. On Tuesday Jabhat Fateh al-Sham threatened to form an alliance with U.S.-backed and other rebel factions, which would vastly complicate Russian and U.S. efforts to target the group without also endangering those covered by the agreement.

The first week of the truce will be crucial. Under the agreement, all fighting between Syrian government forces and the rebels named in the accord must cease. However, Mr. Assad's government will be allowed to continue airstrikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Islamic State fighters. If the cease-fire holds through Sunday, the U.S. and Russia would then set up a new center to coordinate strikes against those two groups. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, would each take steps to restart peace talks between the Assad regime and rebel groups aimed at achieving a political resolution to the conflict.

Given how many moving parts are involved in nudging the warring parties to the negotiating table, it's anybody's guess whether the effort will succeed. Mr. Assad remains adamant that he will never cede power, and Russia has shown no sign it is willing to abandon its support for him. Moreover, U.S. military officials are deeply skeptical of plans to share targeting and intelligence information with the Russians that could compromise their sources on the ground and about operational security in what would be the first joint military campaign involving the former Cold War adversaries since World War II. Both countries have a lot riding on the outcome, but what happens next is anything but certain. That said, we have no choice but to try. The only worse idea might be to not even attempt to alleviate the suffering of millions of innocent Syrians caught in the crossfire.

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