There have been numerous high-profile international calls for ceasefires and peacekeeping in Syria:
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November 2011: The Syrian government accepted an Arab League peace plan calling for a ceasefire. That allowed a mission of Arab League observers to tour the country. But cooperation quickly broke down; the Arab League subsequently called for Assad’s ouster.
February 2012: Then-UN peace envoy Kofi Annan called for a ceasefire, regarded as the most serious attempt to put an end to the fighting. Annan went so far as to fly to Moscow to secure Russian support for his efforts, but ultimately, they failed. A subsequent UN Supervision Mission was suspended in June 2012, when its commander cited “escalating violence.”
May 2013: The U.S. and Russia agree to an initiative to help negotiate a peaceful solution to the war, though a date has not been set to put those talks into motion. Meanwhile, experts say little to no result has been seen on the ground.
We asked Ayham Kamel, a London-based Levant analyst at the Eurasia Group, to weigh in on the practical success of a ceasefire and how it fits with prospects for a negotiated peace.
The basic issue in Syria right now is that the conflict has been going on for two and a half years, and there is a question as to whether cease-fires can be used as a confidence-building measure and something to be built on in a negotiated agreement. We’re not at a stage yet where the regime or opposition are seeking a negotiated agreement, but the global environment is changing. There’s more pressure from global powers, including Russia and the U.S., to explore the diplomatic track, which is a significant and strategic change and influences the [Syrian] allies of [each of] these two powers.
There is an incremental but important structural change in the Syrian conflict. Washington and Moscow do not believe there’s a clean end to this conflict without a diplomatic or negotiated political settlement. They believe that without that, you cannot have a stable end to the conflict. That is a very important shift in the positions of these two powers. The problematic issues are still quite broad. There’s still a question over how to begin this transition or negotiate a track, and does it [eventually] lead to the complete ouster of Bashar al-Assad? That’s a big question for Moscow and Washington.
There is, at the same time, an acknowledgment within the U.S. that it’s not in the U.S.’s interest to destroy the [government] institutions of the Syrian state, and that’s [a view] Moscow and Washington have come to share over time. The U.S. doesn’t believe that Assad is pressured enough right now to [want to] negotiate with the opposition. They could be right about the nature of his position right now. The context of recent U.S. military aid to rebel groups is that they want to leverage that to [make Assad nervous] and convince him to negotiate. I think the efforts [at getting him to the negotiating table] will fail. This is really about incentives and how they work within the Syrian conflict. International intervention is not on the table, and Assad has a very good chance of fighting this out.
The question of cease-fires is secondary. Structurally, we are not in an environment of diplomatic outreach, although the environment is better than it was a year ago. We haven’t reached a point where Assad or the rebels have given up the thought that through outright fighting, they will achieve victory. Assad thinks he can achieve a victory over the rebels just by fighting, and he could be right about that. He has support from allies [like Russia], and popular support is beginning to sway away from the opposition, because of factions and the arrival of extremists. The rebels at this point think there’s no way to negotiate with the regime.
When diplomacy becomes more serious, a cease-fire will become a critical part of the equation. At this point it’s not clear who [the cease-fire] would be between. Assad has one force, but the rebels are legions of fighting groups, and they do not coordinate. Right now I think a cease-fire is very unlikely. The environment is not conducive for that. There was a point in time when the most serious attempt at a cease-fire was the Arab mission for violence monitoring, headed by Mohammed el-Dabi, the Sudanese general, at the beginning of the conflict. There was a real effort at that point to try and calm down the clashes. But at this point, you’re not looking at anything serious.