The agreement reached in Munich by major world powers, including the United States and Russia, to work towards a cessation of hostilities in Syria within a week is the most constructive step yet to find a political solution to the country’s civil war. For years, the world looked away when Syria was transformed into a geopolitical battlefield where several countries were involved, either directly or through their proxies, to maximise their interests. The war has nearly destroyed the country, triggering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. A report released last week by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research paints a picture graver than what even the UN had estimated. About 470,000 people have been killed and 1.9 million injured since the crisis began in March 2011. Nearly 45 per cent of the population has been displaced, while life expectancy has dropped from 70 to 55.4 in five years. That a civil war in a small nation of about 23 million people was allowed to get this catastrophic, itself points to the failures of the international system.
The positive development in the Munich agreement is that both Russia and the U.S. have strongly come out for a cessation of hostilities. Russia is directly backing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, support the anti-regime rebels. To be sure, both blocs have different solutions to offer for the crisis. While the Russians want the regime to be sustained, with or without Mr. Assad, the Americans and their allies want Mr. Assad to go. Still, there is some common ground. Both Washington and Moscow are fighting the Islamic State. Despite its military intervention in favour of the Assad regime, Russia is consistently pushing for an eventual political solution. The U.S. has over the years mellowed its hardline stand. Though it still calls for Mr. Assad’s ouster, it doesn’t say when he should go. This common ground opens the possibilities for a ceasefire, which, if it is put in place successfully, could set the stage for serious negotiations. But even the implementation of a ceasefire faces serious challenges. Since the Russian intervention, the regime forces have made substantial advances on the ground. The weakening of rebel positions has upset their regional backers. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have announced they are considering sending ground troops to Syria. If they do that, Russia would be forced to expand their involvement, which would dangerously escalate the crisis. Another key question is whether President Assad, already emboldened by the military advances made, would be ready to make concessions. In an interview last week he vowed to retake the whole of the country by force. But after the near-total destruction of Syria, it is delusional to think of a military solution. If the U.S. and Russia are committed to the Munich agreement, they should put serious pressure on their allies and bring them to the table. That’s the only way forward for Syria.