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ANALYSIS: Syria ceasefire a token pause, not peace in our time

Acknowledging it amounts to 'words on paper', John Kerry's Munich deal raises more questions than it answers
John Kerry said the deal struck in Munich needed to be followed up with "action on the ground" (AFP)

Two weeks ago the Americans and the Russians declared that a solution was in sight to the Syrian war. The opposition and the government were on their way to Geneva to thrash out a UN plan for ceasefires, transitional governments and a new constitution that would end five years of fighting. Everything was set.

What a difference two weeks have made. The Geneva talks lie in tatters, officially "suspended" until 25 February. The Syrian government and its Russian allies purposefully escalated and refused to end their offensive in Aleppo, and the opposition refused to talk.

That particular road to peace has gone nowhere, while tens of thousands of Aleppans ran for the Turkish border.

Saudi Arabia, a fervent opponent of Assad, last week indicated a willingness to send ground forces into Syria, ostensibly to fight the Islamic State under the command of the US.

And then, Thursday talks in Munich between the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a last-ditch attempt to save Geneva, ended with what was described by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, as a cessation of hostilities to be implemented within a week, and the delivery of aid to stricken communities across the country.

Kerry had stated that the ISSG talks were to be a moment of truth, and it is clear the result could have been much worse. But the truth that emerged was short of what many wanted to hear.

This tentative agreement does not end the war. It is not the immediate ceasefire the Americans reportedly demanded. It doesn't save Geneva. Anyone branded a "terrorist" is still fair game. A whole world of events can happen in a week.

Tellingly, Kerry announced the ceasefire with this statement: "What we have here are words on paper. What we need to see are actions on the ground."

Robert Tait, the Daily Telegraph's Middle East correspondent, said that neither Kerry nor his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, could give assurances that their respective allies would comply.

"Lavrov said Russia would not desist from fighting 'terrorist' groups in Syria. Yet its bombing raids have targeted organisations considered by the West to be legitimate rebel groups," he said.

"It is tempting to cloak the merest hint of progress in euphoric terms."

"Yet the tentative accord thrashed out... in Munich seems no more likely to herald peace in our time than an ill-fated previous agreement reached in the same city on the eve of the Second World War."

Indeed, if the last two weeks show anything it is that the diplomats are far from any concrete solution to the crisis. And the blowback from their failures will inform events in Syria and perhaps the wider world for years to come.

If Aleppo does fall, as it still can in this week-long limbo, US policy towards "moderate" rebel allies will no longer exist, because an organised "moderate" opposition will effectively no longer exist.

There are indications that the US has prepared for this. Weapons shipments have reportedly dried up. The US knows it now risks a confrontation with Russia, summed up by the reported words of Kerry to two Syrian aid workers: "What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia?"

It is, perhaps, the result of more than a decade of disastrous US foreign policy that has weakened not only its will to protect its interests, but has now made it incapable of doing so without antagonising Russia.

Russia on the other hand saw its chance, and seized it.

Sam Kiley, the foreign affairs editor for Sky News, says that the Munich deal is an acknowledgement of this reality.

"The initiative is now very much with the Russians," he said. "Military doctrine demands that Russia continues to press home its air attacks while Syrian troops, Hezbollah, and Iranian and Russian 'advisers' take control on the ground.

"So, in a week's time, the Assad regime will be in a better position in the civil war than it has been for years - and the rebels reeling."

And Munich does not guarantee the Syrian army will stop its attack in Aleppo, or allow access for humanitarian aid. 

As one diplomatic source told the Guardian: “The key question is whether the [Assad] regime will deliver land access to besieged areas. That remains in the regime’s, not Russian, hands."

After Aleppo will surely come Idlib, the domain of some "moderate" forces but also home to al-Qaeda's affiliate, the Nusra Front. The Munich agreement does not stop Russia bombing Nusra.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said a cessation of hostilities could only succeed "if there is a major change of behaviour by the Syrian regime and its supporters".

"Russia, in particular, claims to be attacking terrorist groups and yet consistently bombs non-extremist groups including civilians".

And so to the Islamic State group which, for all its menace and barbarity, seems almost an afterthought in such huge power games.

It is at least an issue that all sides can agree on: It must be defeated. But two questions arise: how will a US in retreat and an emboldened Russia now effectively fight a common enemy?

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday said he was "exploring the possibility" that Nato could become directly involved in the US-led, anti-IS alliance.

That would put Nato and Russia fighting wars in the same theatre, and not necessarily always on the same side. Both have their own ideas of who is a terrorist, and who is not.

Carter's apparent backing of Saudi Arabia's willingness to push its troops into the quagmire was also greeted with warnings of a new world war from the Russian prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev.

"The Americans and our Arab partners must think hard about this – do they want a permanent war? All sides must be forced to the negotiating table instead of sparking a new world war."

The risks of this next phase of war in Syria cannot be overstated.

And what of the people who suffer as the bickering continues? What of the Syrians?

The millions who wanted to see Assad's end will either be under the yoke of a pro-Assad government now guaranteed by a reinvigorated Russia, or under the control of IS.

The war for them is far from over.