Moscow – A ceasefire in Syria agreed by Russia and the U.S. is set to start at midnight Friday, but strong challenges lie ahead. Moscow and Washington are both interested in negotiating a cessation of hostilities. For President Barack Obama it’s important to be able to claim in the U.S. election year that his administration has managed to put an end to the five-year conflict. For Putin, the ceasefire offers a chance to make Russia appear as a global power on equal par with the United States. Strong doubts remain, however, that the deal could work.
In the U.S. administration, many see the agreement as playing into Putin’s hand by effectively securing President Bashar Assad’s hold on power. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates, who have backed Assad’s foes throughout the war, are dismayed by any deal.
The cease-fire doesn’t apply to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), but many opposition units backed by the U.S. and its allies are closely affiliated with al-Nusra. It has remained unclear how positions of moderate rebels could be differentiated from those of the Nusra Front.
RUSSIA STRONGLY BACKS TRUCE
Russian President Vladimir Putin secured the deal in a phone conversation with Obama on Monday and quickly went on national television to hail it as a major breakthrough. “We are finally seeing a real chance to bring an end to the long-standing bloodshed and violence,” he said. Putin said that under the truce terms, all warring parties in Syria must signal their readiness to respect ceasefire to Russia or the U.S. Russian and U.S. military experts will then mark their positions and make sure that neither the Russian air force nor the U.S.-led coalition strike them.
The deal follows a longtime Russian effort to engage the U.S. in a dialogue on Syria. With Russia-West ties ravaged by the Ukrainian crisis, Putin has been looking for ways to derail Washington’s efforts to isolate Russia and reclaim Moscow’s global clout. The Syrian crisis has offered him a chance to do so. Europe, flooded by flows of refugees fleeing the war, welcomed Russian offers to help mediate an end to the conflict.
Obama, who has faced Republicans’ criticism for failing to reach his proclaimed goal of forcing Assad to step down, also has been looking for a way to break the Syrian deadlock and find a way to claim at least a partial success in Syria to deflect criticism from his foes.
Putin began his diplomatic blitz in the summer, sending signals that Russia is willing to help negotiate a peaceful settlement using its ties with Assad. Moscow has offered to declare a transition period during which Assad’s government and the opposition could negotiate a new constitution and terms for new elections. According to the Russian offer, Assad will stay at the helm until the elections are held.
At first, the U.S. and its allies in the region were reluctant to accept the idea, hoping that the opposition could oust Assad soon. Assad’s forces suffered a series of defeats in 2015 and his positions seemed increasingly shaky. To encourage interest in his peace offers, Putin needed to shore up Assad.
RUSSIAN AIR STRIKES CHANGE THE GAME
Russia’s air campaign in Syria that began on Sept. 30 dramatically changed the situation on the battlefield. Russia dispatched just over 30 warplanes to the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s province of Latakia, Assad’s Alawite heartland, but they have operated with a remarkable intensity and efficiency.
During the five months of the air blitz, each Russian warplane made several raids a day to an impressive total of more than 6,000 combat sorties. Russian air raids were conducted with close coordination with the Syrian army, which helped indicate the targets.
The results were felt soon, with Assad’s forces going into offensive in several key areas. The most important one was launched near Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial capital that was split in government- and rebel-controlled parts early in the conflict. Operating under the Russian air cover, the Syrian army, backed by the Hezbollah militia and Iranian allies, managed to encircle the city, cutting rebel supply lines. At the same time, the Kurdish YPG militia moved to advance to the Turkish border north of the city.
The Syrian government’s offensive around Aleppo marked a turning point in the war and made the U.S. and its allies more interested in negotiating a deal with Russia.
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