Few had expected that the four-day truce in Syria‘s civil war scheduled to take effect Friday would hold, much less serve as the prelude to a more sustained peace process. There was little surprise, then, when after a few hours of calm, fighting resumed across much of northern Syria and elsewhere on Friday, while a massive car bomb that claimed a number of civilian casualties in Damascus further dimmed the prospect of the two sides even paying lip service to the cease-fire. But the temporary truce proposed by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, planned to coincide with this weekend’s ‘Id al-Adha Muslim holiday, was less a naive attempt to broker a peace for which neither side is ready, than it was an attempt to lay down a marker for a future mechanism to end the war when one or both sides see no gain in fighting on. The veteran Algerian diplomat could take some small consolation in the fact that even though they clearly had no intention of implementing the agreement, both sides felt obliged to agree to his plan rather than be seen 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 Assad and some of the major rebel commanders had signed on to Brahimi’s plan on Thursday, but each side set conditions that leave 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 to take action to prevent rebels from 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 ‘Id al-Adha truce but set unlikely-to-be-met 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,” Colonel Qassim Saad Eddine of the FSA told the Los Angeles Times, but “we don’t expect them to observe it for even one minute.”
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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 ‘Id 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 over decades of mediating such intractable conflicts as the civil wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan, Brahimi is not so naive as to believe Syria’s can be ended in the near term; 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.
“Brahimi is not making the same mistake as his predecessor in the mediator’s role, Kofi Annan, in pretending he can solve the conflict anytime soon,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “Instead, he’s establishing himself as a go-between, knocking on the doors of all the players inside Syria and outside, looking for the lowest common denominators that can change the dynamic, without making optimistic claims. And the fact that he’s got the major actors saying yes to a cease-fire even when we all know they mean no is a sign that the Syrian parties remain concerned to maintain international backing.”
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A cease-fire seemed the furthest thing from the minds of fighters on the ground on Thursday, as fierce clashes broke out in suburbs to the north of Damascus and in Homs, while a rebel advance into the two main Christian neighborhoods of Syria’s second city, Aleppo, prompted a frenzy of reports that the city was about to fall into insurgent hands. By later in the day, however, rebel fighters were reported to have retreated from those neighborhoods in the face of regime armor being deployed. And opposition activists reported, Friday, that government forces had begun shelling rebel positions in the city on Friday morning. Still, the rebels appear to be launching a new offensive after a three-month stalemate in the city. This will greatly exacerbate the regime’s problems in the north, where it has lost control of vast swaths of territory and relies exclusively on air strikes to prevent rebels from stabilizing their hold. But while the regime may have imagined it could get away with shelling and bombing poor Sunni towns and neighborhoods, using those tactics in the more prosperous Christian neighborhoods of Aleppo risks antagonizing a community on whose support against the rebellion Assad has relied.
“The battle is not over in Aleppo,” says Landis, “but the rebels feel they’re in the driver’s seat in the north and will want to push forward. It’s an important opportunity for them to counter the despair that has begun to settle in over a military stalemate. Capturing Aleppo would be a huge victory. Still, the Syrian army remains a very powerful force that has retained its coherence, has tons of weaponry and continued backing from Iran, Russia and China. Assad’s not going away, even if he’s no longer able to rule the whole country.”
The stage remains set for a protracted war, in no small part because it is already a regional conflict. The last U.S. presidential-campaign debate revealed a consensus in Washington to avoid direct intervention in Syria, and if the U.S. is keeping its forces out of what would likely be another complex and open-ended military commitment, then so are Turkey and the Arab countries, who have neither the appetite nor the capacity to intervene alone. Instead, it will be a proxy war, with outside powers enhancing the fighting capacity of their Syrian allies.
The warning that Syria’s conflict might spill over into neighboring countries is a tad misleading, because pre-existing regional conflict has also spilled into Syria from neighboring countries. Sure, it has already had echoes in renewed communal violence and terrorism in Lebanon and has fostered strife in Turkey, which faces a growing refugee burden — as well as a Kurdish separatist insurgency emboldened by the gains of their kin on the Syrian side of the border and growing sectarian tension among Turks who identify with different communities in Syria. But the burgeoning sectarian conflict in Iraq, where according to AFP more than 1,000 people have been killed this year as political violence continues on a daily basis, is more intimately connected to Syria’s conflict.
“The battle for Syria is also a battle for Iraq,” warn analysts Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in a sobering assessment of the current turmoil in the Arab world. “Sunni Arab states have not accepted the loss of Baghdad to Shi‘ites and, in their eyes, to Safavid Iranians. A Sunni takeover in Syria will revive their colleagues’ fortunes in Iraq. Militant Iraqi Sunnis are emboldened and al-Qaeda is revitalized. A war for Iraq’s reconquest will be joined by its neighbors. The region cares about Syria. It obsesses about Iraq.”
For the regional antagonists, Syria is simply another theater of a battle fought across the Gulf and the Levant. The same dynamic that prompts the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm Syria’s rebels reinforces the determination of the Iranians to shore up Assad’s regime. But while the regional proxy conflict between Iran and the Saudis has raged for three decades, one of its defining features is that the losing side in any particular round is never destroyed or eliminated; a new balance of power is established on the ground and then codified in new political arrangements. Brahimi has simply reminded all the parties on the ground and their regional sponsors that sooner or later they’ll need his services.