The ceasefire in Syria

The agreement reached between Russia and the United States in Geneva on > a ceasefire in Syria is perhaps the best opportunity for a solution to the five-and-a-half-year old civil war. Under it, Russia will prevent the regime of President Bashar al-Assad from bombing rebel-held areas, while the U.S. will join hands with Russia in the fight against jihadist groups, including the Islamic State. The > broad framework of the deal is the Putin Plan, made public a year ago while announcing Russia’s intervention in Syria. Vladimir Putin wanted Syrian statehood to be restored and the major powers to come together in the fight against the jihadists. When Russia made the proposal at the UN General Assembly, not many had expected that Moscow and Washington would come together on Syria. The U.S.’s initial response to the Russian intervention was sceptical, with reservations about Russia attacking non-IS rebel groups. There were fears about the conflict escalating into a full-blown war. Instead, the Putin Plan seems to have worked, albeit with a heavy human cost. The intervention has bolstered the Syrian regime, changing the balance of the conflict. Mr. Assad’s regime was on the verge of collapse a year ago; it is now stable at least in its strongholds. The rebels’ influence has shrunk, though they appear to be unbeatable in many of the small towns they control. This stalemate and the fear of more bloodshed may have prompted both the U.S. and Russia to play down their differences.

This time, the prospects for peace are brighter given the investment the two military powers have made. Both the rebels and the regime have welcomed the deal. There are positive changes at the regional level as well. Turkey, a staunch supporter of the rebels, had recently said Mr. Assad could play a transitional role in Syria. Two big challenges remain. First, can Russia halt Mr. Assad’s fighter jets? Though Moscow wields strong influence over Damascus, it has in the past expressed uneasiness over the stubbornness of the regime. The regime is now making gains in the battlefield. Even if Mr. Assad agrees to suspend the bombing, it is not clear if he will be prepared to make any meaningful compromises in the peace talks. Second, the rebels fighting the regime are not a unified force. Russia wants Fateh al-Sham, a former affiliate of al-Qaeda, to be singled out and attacked. The U.S. has agreed to this suggestion in principle, but its practicality is uncertain. However, the odds should not overshadow the significance of the agreement. If the ceasefire is clearly established, that itself would be quite an achievement given the horrors of the war.

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