No One But John Kerry Believes A Cease Fire In Syria Will Work

The news of another deal to pause part of the war in Syria has been met with skepticism, and with good reason

Wishful thinking from America's chief diplomat? — Getty Images
Feb 23, 2016 at 4:27 PM ET

The U.S. and Russian governments have, once again, agreed on a cease fire for the war in Syria. But no one other than U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is even pretending to believe that it could actually work.

“The only one holding out hope is John Kerry,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Right now, it’s hypothetical and not based on anything real. How Kerry even explained it in his own words, it’s hard to take seriously.”

There’s plenty of reason for observers to be skeptical. Kerry’s efforts to broker a truce amount to little more than wishful thinking at the moment. This isn’t even the first cease fire agreed to; one already been scheduled for February 19, and the date passed without anything happening. The details of this latest cease fire are still being worked out only days before it is supposed to take effect. At the moment, there is no proposed international monitoring on the ground to ensure the various parties abide by the deal, and no consequences for anyone that doesn’t. The U.S. might be able to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies to keep up their part of the bargain if it had a stick with which to threaten them; it does not.

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“Instead of halting fire, the Syrian government is currently trying to isolate and assert dominion over the rebel-held portion of Aleppo,” wrote Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, this week. “The Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies want to impose surrender terms on the armed opposition, not negotiate a compromise political deal.”

The same issues that surrounded the previous cease fire plan are sticking points in the current one. The parties are meant to agree to stop air strikes and bombing campaigns on all areas and targets other than ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliated militant group currently battling Syrian government forces for control of the northern city of Aleppo. But both ISIS and Nusra are in positions not far from other rebel groups; Syrian government and Russian forces could easily strike those other groups by accident—or at least claim it was by accident. Either way, such an incident could lead to a wider rupture in the cease fire.

“I just mechanically don’t understand how the Russians can continue to bomb Nusra elements when they’re so close to other elements that are abiding by the cease fire,” Ford, now a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute, told Vocativ. “I don’t think the Russians are so precise in their bombing.”

There is reason to worry that Assad might exploit the letter of the cease fire in order to keep attacking rebel groups other than ISIS and Nusra. Assad has reportedly said he welcomed the truce, as long as groups he deemed “terrorists” didn’t take advantage of any lull in the fighting. But his definition of terrorists includes more than just ISIS and Nusra—Syrian and Russian jets have bombed strongholds of rebel groups that haven’t been designated terrorist groups by the U.N. or the U.S., but have been fighting to unseat the Assad regime.

There’s also the issue of Turkey, which has bombed American-backed Kurds in Syria who are close to its border. The U.S. government is going to be holding its collective breath hoping that Turkey refrains from doing so during the cease fire.

“We have made it clear to Turkey while we understand their concerns about [Kurdish fighters], we want it to stop its shelling,” said Mark Toner, the deputy spokesperson at the State Department, on Monday.

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Still, the deal, fragile and vague though it is, may be the most that can be accomplished for now.

“He’s genuinely trying to do the best he can,” Ford said of Kerry, who he believes is trying to find a middle ground between Assad and the anti-government hardliners who want nothing to do with Assad. “He doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver, it may not be possible. I’m not at all sure despite his best efforts that it will be possible.”

Hamid says that as long as the U.S. maintains its current strategy in Syria, no amount of diplomatic shuttling by Kerry will make a difference.

“That’s sometimes the purpose of diplomacy, to offer the illusion of substance,” he said. “This administration needs to show that it’s doing something on Syria. The process becomes an end in and of itself, a version of a process that’s been ongoing since 2012. This is just the latest in a series of endless initiatives that have never made real progress.”