Last Monday, Washington and Moscow hailed an agreement that would see a temporary cessation of hostilities in Syria.
The “ceasefire” went into effect on Saturday and so far, so good. “Clashes and airstrikes across western Syria largely abated Saturday morning, as an internationally backed truce took hold in parts of the country where rebels have been fighting the regime,” WSJ reported this morning. Although the SAA apparently hit a few rebel positions east of Damascus, overall, “it was a calm morning.”
Russia said it would halt all flights over the country for the first 24 hours to avoid “mistakes” in targeting. "Given the entry into force of the U.N. Security Council resolution that supports the Russian-American agreements on a ceasefire, and to avoid any possible mistakes when carrying out strikes, Russian military planes, including long-range aviation, are not carrying out any flights over Syrian territory on Feb. 27," the Defense Ministry said.
By “mistakes” Moscow means hitting anyone other than al-Nusra or ISIS, who are not included in the agreement. Rebels, not to mention analysts, have argued that Russia and Hezbollah will be able to use al-Nusra as an excuse to continue the offensive against anti-Assad elements. While the ISIS presence is concentrated in eastern Syria, al-Nusra has positions in Aleppo City, the Jabal Turkman region of Northeastern Latakia, the Jabal Zawiya region in Southern Idlib Province, and the Quneitra Province along the Golan Heights. Just to name a few. That effectively means Russia can bomb anywhere along the country’s urban backbone in the west and claim to be targeting the group, which, you’re reminded, is an offshoot of al-Qaeda.
(a captured ISIS fighter lets you know "who's number one")
The other important thing to note about the ceasefire is that Russia and Hezbollah were within a month or so of declaring victory when the deal was struck. The Iranians and Hassan Nasrallah had surrounded Aleppo and the YPG were about to cut off the Azaz corridor, the last remaining supply line from Turkey. Backed by Russian airstrikes, the Hezbollah offensive was racking up gains and it was just a matter of time before Aleppo city was recaptured by forces loyal to Assad.
That meant Russia was negotiating from a position of strength. “We are totally in control of the situation in all of the territory of Syria,” Sergei Rudskoi, head of the main operations directorate of the general staff said today.
The rebels echoed that sentiment in the days leading up to the ceasefire. Russia pounded anti-Assad positions all week in an apparent effort to cement gains and ensure the rebels loses are devastating enough that they can’t use the lull in fighting to regroup.
"We are heading toward being liquidated I think," a former official in a rebel group from Aleppo told Reuters.
In other words, Russia and Iran have the rebels feeling like HY fund managers in a junk bond rout and the opposition is essentially finished.
(women walk amongst the ruins of a town in Hasaka)
Some rebel commanders say the Syrian army (or whatever is left of it) isn’t abiding by the truce. “In early reports of violence, a Syrian rebel group in the northwest said three of its fighters had been killed while repelling an attack from government ground forces a few hours after the plan came into effect,” Reuters reports. “There are areas where the bombardment has stopped but there are areas where there are violations by the regime such as Kafr Zeita in Hama, via targeting with artillery, and likewise in Morek in northern Hama countryside,” Fursan al-Haqq chief Fares Bayoush said on Saturday.
Importantly, it's not entirely clear what this is supposed to accomplish. "Let's pray that this works because frankly this is the best opportunity we can imagine the Syrian people has had for the last five years in order to see something better and hopefully something related to peace," U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said at a midnight news conference in Geneva.
While any day that innocent people aren't dying (or at least are dying less, because six people were killed in a suicide attack in Hama and three children died in Deir al-Zor in an "unspecified" attack) is a good day in Syria, this seems to be a road to nowhere. Aleppo is surrounded. There's no chance of the rebels rallying here. They'll either have to eventually surrender or they'll ultimately be starved out or overrun. There's no chance whatsoever that Assad is going give back the territory captured over the last two months.
(a fighter from Islamist Failaq al-Rahman holds his weapon on Friday in Ghouta, the late Zahran Alloush's stronghold)
What seems likely is this: it would appear that this may be the prelude to what will amount to a negotiated surrender. If Russia can build up some goodwill with the rebels over the next week or so and if the Assad government can demonstrate a willingness to focus its attacks on "the terrorists" rather than the FSA, then perhaps the rebellion will be willing to accept defeat in exchange for some kind of seat at the table in a new government.
Make no mistake, this is farcical. As long as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah overtly back Assad and the Saudis and Turks are unwilling to provide the same level of support for the rebels, there are only two possible outcomes here: 1) the ceasefire collapses, Russia and Hezbollah overrun Aleppo, the rebellion goes the way of the dinosaurs, or 2) by some miracle (Allahu akbar) the rebels decide to lay down their guns in exchange for what will be billed as representation in a restructured government. But if you think that representation will be anything other than symbolic, and if you think Bashar al-Assad and the Alawites are going to establish some kind of democratic oasis in the Mid-East after seeing their country gutted by militants, you're sorely mistaken.
If anything, the last five years underscore Assad's cold, yet pragmatic assessment of his country's political prospects: "We do not claim that we did not make mistakes in Syria. And we do not claim that we, in the Middle East, have reached a stage of significant political openness. We were moving in that direction, not very quickly, and maybe slowly."
The implication there is simple: the region isn't ready for democracy and when you remove a Mid-East autocrat, you risk creating anarchy.