Syrian Ceasefire Undermined by Russia’s Political Bullying

By Dan Moritz-Rabson, Staff Writer

Following an extensive day of negotiations on Thursday, representatives of countries centrally involved in the Syrian war reached a tenuous agreement to ease hostilities. With the Turkish border expecting up to 70,000 refugees fleeing the recently-intensified conflict, and the announcement Wednesday that the water line serving Aleppo no longer worked, the discussions adopted an increasing urgency.

Since initial U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict, the Obama Administration has repeatedly stated its preference for a diplomatic solution to the war and shown a reluctance to extensive involvement.

But with the bolstered position of Syrian forces achieved through the recently-intensified campaign for Aleppo, Washington appears even more unlikely to achieve its improbable objective proclaimed repeatedly in recent years: the disposal of Assad.

Even as the U.S. government emphasized the necessity of reaching a political agreement to end the war, it now negotiates with little power. Additionally, swaying negotiations in favor of Assad even as Syrian forces advanced towards Aleppo, rebels cited a dwindling supply of weapons and support, forcing the U.S. to decide whether to capitulate or increase airdrops — an unlikely outcome.

The mismatch of intentions inevitably skews negotiations between the two sides; while the countries backing the regime exhibit a willingness to continue pouring money and fighters into Syria, those pushing for peace display a desire to end the conflict. While understandable, the Western stance hardly enables them to achieve diplomatic gains.

Further, Assad has never particularly entertained thoughts of reaching a diplomatic solution resulting in his disposal. And the improved Syrian position presents Assad with little reason to compromise with Kerry or others.

With Aleppo under pressure and the imminence of a humanitarian disaster — worse than the existing situation — if Syrian forces continue their advance on the city, negotiators appear prepared to cater to the demands of Russia.

Far from deliberating the proper framework to create a transitional government to eventually replace Assad, talks focused on establishing a fixed end date to the conflict and enabling humanitarian access to the most damaged areas. Even with these mild objectives, Russia still holds the power to direct negotiations.

Under the guise of conciliation, the Russian Foreign Minister proposed a ceasefire starting March 1, rather than immediately, as desired by the U.S. This proposition came as parties involved sought to revive the Syrian peace talks that faltered last week amid a barrage of Russian airstrikes hit Aleppo, strengthening the negotiating power of Syrian supporters. But the March 1 date allows Syrian fighters to further advance on Aleppo, obliterating the weakened rebels and arriving at future talks with an even stronger grip over the agenda.

Putin wants Assad to remain in power. With a potentially toothless agreement in place, and substantial discussions for a ceasefire still needed, his dethroning now seems a rapidly disappearing glimmer of hope for Washington—and the Syrian people.

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Email Dan Moritz-Rabson at [email protected]