Syria’s cease-fire: A peace process for pessimists

Tony Karon writes: Few expect that the four-day truce in Syria‘s civil war scheduled to take effect Friday will hold, much less serve as the prelude to a more sustained peace process (activists have already reported that fighting was occuring near a military base in Syria’s north). But the cease-fire proposed by U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, to coincide with this weekend’s Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday, is likely an attempt to lay down a marker for a future mechanism to end a war that neither side is currently ready to stop. The veteran Algerian diplomat could take some small consolation in the fact that even if they have no intention of implementing the agreement, both sides felt obliged to agree to his plan rather than be seen to be saying no to the U.N. Instead, each side will seek to blame the other for thwarting Brahimi’s mission.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad and some of the major rebel commanders on Thursday signed on to Brahimi’s plan, but each side set conditions that leave it plenty of room to keep fighting. The Syrian military announced it would “cease military operations” from Friday until Monday, but reserves the right to respond if attacked — and also to take action to prevent rebels reinforcing their current positions. It’s harder to pin down a rebel position because there are literally hundreds of insurgent groups fighting the regime. There is no single military chain of command, much less clear political leadership. Many rebel commanders have reportedly questioned the value of the truce, and a number of the Islamist battalions made clear they will fight on — which, of course, is what Assad is assuming. Still, a number of officials speaking for the Free Syrian Army, a loose umbrella of rebel forces headquartered in Turkey, indicated that they, too, would observe the Eid al-Adha truce, but set unlikely conditions of their own, including a demand for the release of prisoners on Friday, and withdrawal of government forces from key cities. “We will observe it as long as the regime does,” Col. Qassim Saad Eddine of the FSA told the LA Times, but “we don’t expect them to observe it for even one minute.”

Previous cease-fire agreements have been violated by both sides, and neither appears ready to stop a fight both believe is their best way forward. The absence of any external monitoring personnel or established protocols for disengagement, much less any enforcement mechanism, is a clear sign that the Eid al-Adha truce plan is largely an effort to have the combatants make a symbolic commitment to the idea of a future political settlement. Having honed his reputation in decades of mediating such intractable conflicts as the civil wars Lebanon and Afghanistan, Brahimi is not so naive as to believe Syria’s can be ended any time soon; instead, he’s establishing lines of communication with all sides, making sure that the Syrian combatants and their foreign sponsors will know where to turn when one or the other is ready to sue for peace. That moment, though, will likely be some time in coming. [Continue reading…]

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