It is easy to be cynical about Syria. Last week's Munich meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and all interested parties (less the Syrian government and opposition groups) arrived at an agreement that sought to provide a qualified lull in the fighting and to provide limited humanitarian relief. This followed on from the failed intra-Syrian talks the week before and a renewed military offensive that has seen the Assad regime wrest the battlefield initiative from the armed opposition.
While some in the media trumpeted this deal as a Syrian ceasefire agreement, it is certainly not that. But whether you call this a cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire, or nothing much in particular, the recent agreement is possibly the first time external parties who have their fingers in the Syria pie have been able to agree on anything. That in itself is noteworthy. Perhaps excluding the combatants and focusing on their external supporters is the most appropriate way of establishing the confidence needed as a precursor to dealing with the mess in Syria.
Let's break this deal down into negative and the positive aspects. To finish on a high, let's look at the negative first.
1. Pro-Assad groups are not giving up much, militarily
Little happens immediately, with the implementation date a week (or so) away. This has been cited as necessary to work out the modalities, which would indicate that there hasn't been much work done on the implementation phase of the agreement.
Regardless, the Syrian government and its allies would never have agreed to such a deal if they felt it disadvantaged them militarily. They have had significant success in Latakia and Aleppo province recently, including the squeezing of the rebels' main supply routes into Aleppo, while the Kurds have gained territory in the east. Respites normally help rebel groups to reconstitute, but if their logistic resupply routes have been compromised and they are still under attack (see below), then an operational pause may assist pro-Assad forces more than the opposition.
2. There will still be a lot of fighting regardless of how well the agreement is implemented
Under the agreement, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra remain fair game, and operations against them will continue. Read More
ISIS's operating premise has largely been one of 'my way or the highway' and as a consequence its alliances with other groups have been relatively brief and limited in scope. That means it is far easier to target ISIS in isolation. Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand, has been much more careful in constructing military alliances in Syria, cutting its cloth to suit local circumstances. As a consequence, its fighters are intermingled with a range of other groups in a range of locations.
The ISSG has undertaken to delineate the territory held by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups designated as terrorist organisations by the UN Security Council. But when groups are as intermingled as they are in Syria, and when the tactical situation is so fluid, the ability to delineate ground 'held' by any one group will be nigh on impossible. Which means Russian aircraft and pro-Syrian ground forces could still target areas not declared free of Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS.
The only way rebel groups could avoid continued targeting would be to show that they had severed ties with terrorist organisations and physically moved away from them. In other words, the onus will be on opposition groups to split with Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. This will either weaken the opposition by splitting it militarily, or simply allow the bombing to continue. Either way, it's a win for the regime.
There is however a glimmer of positive news:
3. The humanitarian dimension
There has been a recent focus on the humanitarian situation in villages under siege by both regime and opposition forces. As always, there is a lack of objective information based on regular visits. This agreement should at least provide regular information and practical relief to besieged populations. The humanitarian aspect of this agreement has been designed to be even-handed. It will give the UN road access to previously besieged areas (and in the case of Deir az-Zour, air access using Russian aircraft) and establishes an oversight committee to regulate access. It's not much, but for the optimists among us, it's a start.
Of course, the utility of this agreement will become pretty apparent in the next one or two weeks. We will soon be able to make an informed judgment about whether it is of any practical benefit or whether it is simply another insubstantial announcement, with the real solution ultimately coming via the barrel of a gun.