The talks on the Syrian conflict at the International Security Conference in Munich were just getting underway, when they were suspended. The reason was that the advance of the Syrian Army under the cover of the Russian Air force was defeating the anti-Assad forces in the city of Aleppo and causing a huge wave of migrants to build up at the Turkish border, precipitating a humanitarian crisis. What is the point of talking ceasefire when the fighting is in full swing and one side is about to be defeated and removed from the scene.
But, behind the scenes talks continued, especially between the Americans led by US Secty. of State John Kerry and the Russians led by FM Segei Lavrov. They came to an agreement that they were able to sell to the other combatants, namely that there will be a general cessation of hostilities and delivery of humanitarian supplies across Syria that will begin in a week’s time, but excluding the Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliates. By delaying the ceasefire this gave the Russians and their allies, Pres. Assad of Syria and the Iranians, time to complete their offensive around Aleppo and yet give a date when the anti-Assad forces will be able to have some relief from the constant pressure against them.
But, will this agreement achieve anything dramatic and lasting in Syria? The answer is most likely not. There are too many actors and too many local conflicts. For example, apart from the Russians and the Syrian regime and their Iranian supporters, there are the anti-regime forces with their American, Saudi and Turkish supporters, as well as the Kurds and the Islamists, both the Al Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusrah Front, and the Islamic State, that are not included in the agreement, as well as dozens of local anti-regime and Islamist groups. It is an impossible task, Syria has become a quagmire of conflicting and violent groups that are impossible to pacify.
Over the past five years of war, almost 10% of the population have been killed and ca. 30% have become refugees, either externally or internally displaced. Syria no longer exists as a coherent sovereign country and only the Russians seem determined to protect their interests by propping us Assad. How long they can continue to do this remains to be seen. Even though the allied air campaign supporting the anti-Assad forces and against the IS remains active, its results are apparently inconclusive. But, putting US “boot on the ground” into such a mess is not a viable option either.
Meanwhile the parties have established a Task Force under the aegis of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that will coordinate the supply of humanitarian goods with the UN agencies. Trucks full of supplies are now waiting for the go-ahead. Whether this will really happen remains to be seen. At least Secty. of State Kerry is working hard to try to bring this about.