Syria civil war: A moment of hope – but if moderate rebels are still targeted it will be dashed

A better deal would have seen the cessation of all military operations, except those surrounding Isis territory

A “cessation of hostilities” has been announced in Syria. What this means, according to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is that no military offensives will be permitted between the moderate rebels on one side and the regime, Russia and Iran, on the other. The fight against Isis will continue, with America in the lead, and few of the above parties paying much attention. The most immediate benefit should – by the terms of the “cessation” – be the delivery of aid to besieged towns, such as Madaya and Zabadani. It is no exaggeration to say that Syria lies on the edge of serious and speedy deterioration. A million citizens are currently enduring starvation, 800,000 of those due to Bashar al-Assad’s sieges. Food must now be allowed to reach these people. 

A pause in the fighting, and a breaking of the sieges, would mark a critical moment in a conflict that has so far led to the deaths of 11 per cent of the Syrian population, and displaced more than seven million. Some Syrians will certainly be relieved when the “cessation” comes into force within the next week. The question is how many, and for how long. There are grounds for pessimism here. 

Not long after the “cessation” was announced, Mr Assad claimed he plans to “retake the whole country”, however long it takes. Those who posited that the pause in fighting would simply provide cover for Mr Assad’s forces to solidify their recent gains, and plan future incursions into the territory of moderate rebels, will have had their fears confirmed. It can be expected that the regime will attempt to seal off its northern border, so cutting off rebel supply lines, either in the days preceding the cessation or after it. How far it will abide by the terms during the pause is also open to question.

America has agreed to terms that have one key loophole. Russia and the regime are free to continue targeting “terrorists” under the cessation. One distinguishing feature of Russia’s intervention has been how it groups all the rebels under that label, following the lead of Mr Assad. It has labelled every one of its bombing raids as targeting Jabhat al-Nusra or Isis, despite the majority of munitions falling on territory held by moderate rebels, far from Isis strongholds. The campaign against Aleppo has killed hundreds of civilians and cannot be said primarily to target either of the terrorist groups. 

Perhaps the best that can be hoped is that, as the former British ambassador to Syria Peter Ford suggested, the moderate rebels will now make an effort to distinguish themselves from Nusra. The al-Qaeda offshoot has proved adept at winning the trust of rebel factions, mostly through its prowess on the battlefield. Yet the deeper al-Qaeda worms into the revolution, the harder it will be to weed out in the event of hostilities permanently ceasing. Now would be a good time for Ahrar al-Sham, a nationally grown, less hardline Islamist group, to put down a clear marker of its opposition to Nusra – with whom it has often clashed.

Mr Kerry claims that this cessation – ceasefire is the wrong word, as it carries more legal weight – will test the “seriousness” of the Russians, Iranians and the Assad regime. In terms of letting relief through, or seeking peace, they have failed all tests thus far. A better deal would have seen the cessation of all military operations, except those surrounding Isis territory. Whom, and where, Russia bombs must be watched closely. And Mr Kerry’s stated Plan B, of increasing support for mainstream rebels, must be brushed up meanwhile.

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