Saving the Ceasefire, Moving Forward

Secretary of State John Kerry is investing quality time trying to salvage the “cessation of hostilities” in Syria that began on February 26. For much of March, violence—particularly attacks on civilians—subsided and the United Nations was able to move a modicum of humanitarian aid into desperately needy Syrian communities. But violence is now on the rise, particularly in and around Aleppo, which the Assad regime hopes to surround and besiege. Not only is the human cost horrific, with the regime targeting hospitals with air attacks, but the political price is prohibitive. The Syrian peace process created last October—largely though the dogged work of Kerry—hangs in the balance.

From the outset of the Syrian conflict the Assad regime has identified civilians as the target of choice. For many months into the uprising it was alone in the deliberate targeting of civilians: demonstrators in the streets and ordinary citizens in their homes, hospitals, mosques, schools, bakeries, and markets. Although the inevitable retaliation by non-governmental forces could never reach the scale and lethality of a state with massive military resources and the help of powerful outsiders, non-governmental assaults on civilians have nevertheless played a role in Syria’s unraveling. Although the Independent International Commission of Inquiry and human rights NGOs assign the overwhelming bulk of criminality to Bashar al-Assad and his enablers, both the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) and the Nusra Front get honorable mentions, and nationalist rebel groups do not escape criticism.

Saying, therefore, that the Assad regime is not alone in placing Syrian civilians on the bullseye is not to minimize the impact of a state—or the remnants thereof—turning its lethal capabilities on its citizens. The humanitarian deluge that has submerged Lebanon and other neighbors, surging past Turkey into western Europe, is an obvious consequence of collective punishment and mass homicide uninterrupted for the better part of five years. And given the reluctance of negotiators to sit in a conference room and politely discuss possible political arrangements while their constituents are being slaughtered, targeting civilians is a diplomatic show-stopper.

There are those who argue that the Geneva process is devoid of meaning anyway; that it is a Potemkin peace conference in which a militarily secure Assad and his external backers hold all the cards while a thoroughly outmaneuvered Washington plaintively buys time for an administration change on January 20, 2017. Observers in this camp would be reluctant to mourn the collapse of UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s efforts. They point to what seems obvious: Russia and Iran have taken military steps to secure their joint client in at least part of Syria; and the prospect of Bashar al-Assad being transitioned via negotiation is, to put it generously, extremely remote.

Although based on defensible analysis, the foregoing view is fundamentally indefensible when measured against the alternative: unrestricted warfare by the regime, Russia, and Iran against Syrian civilians for the balance of 2016 and on into the next American administration. Yes, this would be the Assad regime’s preferred way forward. It has survived through a strategy of extermination. It did not like what it saw when violence subsided for a while in late February 2016. But Assad aside, what would Moscow and Tehran like to see? How do they measure their own regional and international interests in the context of an out-of-control client who has manifested not an ounce of compassion or concern for the victims of barrel bombs and the like since the conflict’s beginning?

The view here is that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably does not hold Bashar al-Assad in high regard. Although Putin may not find Assad’s brutality per se to be terminally off-putting, surely he sees his client’s lack of political imagination and creativity to be profoundly regrettable. These defects even attracted negative commentary some time back from (of all people) Iran’s Ahmadinejad while serving as his country’s president. Yet whatever temptation Putin may feel to cashier Assad in favor of someone more competent and more attentive to Russian interests, there are two things giving him pause: his objective ability to spring the trapdoor on Assad and the worst of his entourage; and the fact that Bashar al-Assad personifies the state that Mr. Putin has vowed to ‘rescue’ from Islamist terrorism and the alleged regime change designs of President Barack Obama.

The hypothesis here is that Russia will make no move to encourage or hasten the regime’s transition if it believes that in so doing it will be seen by Russians as having abetted the alleged regime change agenda of Washington. Perhaps this accounts for periodic statements by President Obama and his secretary of state denying that Washington harbors any Iraq-like, violent regime change designs on Syria. Yet even if the two sides could arrive at a formula encouraging Moscow to sideline Assad while enabling Putin to say credibly that regime change had been avoided, there would remain the objective question of what Russia could do to put Assad in transition mode.

Presumably Moscow could make it clear to its many contacts in the Syrian military and intelligence services that it is time for the family to go. Presumably it could withdraw its military forces from Syria altogether. Would this be enough for a critical mass to form for Bashar’s ouster? To what extent would Russia be willing to push hard? And what of Iran, whose need of Bashar’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon is open-ended?

Five years of open-season on civilians in Syria has left no one, with the possible exception of Bashar al-Assad himself, with any attractive options. Yes, Russia and Iran have succeeded in propping up a person whose trial would surely be on the docket in The Hague were there anything resembling justice and accountability in the Syrian context. No doubt there are senior officials in Moscow and Tehran not entirely comfortable with this state of affairs. Yet for the balance of the Obama administration it may well be—unless senior American officials can persuade a reluctant president to go down a ‘Plan B’ path—that the best way forward is to sustain peace talks whose substantive vacuity would, if the talks are to be sustained, require reduced levels of violence and increased levels of humanitarian aid.

If, in the Syrian context, the perfect is not to be the enemy of good, then one must wish John Kerry Godspeed as he tries to throw a blanket over Assad regime mass murder in and around Aleppo. Quite aside from saving lives, a reduction of violence—even if unaccompanied by political transition—will make Assad squirm and perhaps give Syrians of many political persuasions the space they need to speak to one another and inch their way toward political accommodation on their own. For at least the next eight months-plus there may be no better option for the people of Syria.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: A child walks past damaged buildings after an airstrike in the rebel held area of Aleppo's Baedeen district, Syria, May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail