By Arab News
By Mahir Ali
It will take something approximating a miracle for any substantive good to flow from the temporary truce that was meant to take effect in Syria from sundown on Monday, following last week’s agreement in Geneva between Russia and the US.
No one can seriously deny that among nations deserving of a miracle, Syria is decidedly at the top of the list after five years of a brutal war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and uprooted millions of others. Analysts such as the BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, have predicted that the conflict could conceivably drag on for another decade.
In the circumstances, even the vaguest glimmer of hope has a novelty value. It is perhaps equally inevitable, though, that the prospect of even a partially sustainable cease-fire is viewed with considerable skepticism, notwithstanding the fact that key protagonists – from the Bashar Assad regime and Hezbollah to US allies among the rebels – tentatively support the US-Russian initiative.
From what has thus far been made public, we know that if the truce holds for a week – and that’s a big if – the Russians and the Americans will begin coordinating their airstrikes against Daesh and the group formerly known as Jabhat Al-Nusra, which has lately disavowed its links with Al-Qaeda and altered its nomenclature with the apparent aim of reflecting its exclusive focus on toppling the regime in Damascus.
Given that the massive death toll in Syria is in large part a consequence of actions by forces loyal to, or associated with, the Assad government, the goal of removing it from power can easily be viewed as a worthy objective. But it’s the question of what might replace it that, to quote Shakespeare, “puzzles the will/And makes us rather bear those ills we have,/Than fly to others that we know not of.”
In Geneva, Russian Foreign Ninister Sergei Lavrov was candid enough to point out that various elements of his agreement with US Secretary of State John Kerry were not being publicized precisely because of the complicated nature of the Syrian conflict.
Given that more or less everyone agrees there can be no military solution to the murderous disarray, perhaps the biggest question is whether the US-Russian agreement might entail any attempt to resume political negotiations about a possible transition, which have hitherto proved fruitless. There have lately been concessions from some sides, holding out the prospect of an interim role for Assad, or even a place for elements of his regime in any future set-up.
There has, however, been no indication that Assad or his loyalists are willing to compromise on anything sharply at variance with a return to the status quo ante, which is almost universally seen as untenable.
The US and Russia may be key players in the conflict, but they are by no means the only ones. Whereas Moscow has the benefit of considerable leverage where its allies are concerned, the US is in a trickier position with respect to nations such as Turkey and Israel, not to mention the opposition groups it has been supporting, with little success in weaning them away from outfits such as Al-Nusra.
The 15th anniversary this week of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington ought to have served as a reminder, among other things, of the unpredictable consequences of an absurdly disproportionate response to an egregious act of terrorism. Even the conquest of Afghanistan can be viewed as an ultimately counterproductive overreaction, but the invasion of Iraq, notwithstanding the atrocious nature of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, was a predictable disaster and anyone refusing to accept the role of the US-led occupation in sowing the seeds for Daesh is irredeemably delusional.
Without Daesh – and it’s worth recalling that in its earliest incarnation Al-Nusra was an offshoot of that Iraqi project – it may well have been possible to see the revolt in Syria in less ambiguous terms, as a conflict between a repressive regime and a potentially desirable alternative. Beyond that there is the bigger, potentially answerable, questions about whether the Arab Spring would have flowered in the first place without the imperialistically-imposed regime change in Baghdad, or whether its consequences would have been so deleterious in the absence of external intervention.
How history ultimately records the Middle Eastern events of the first two decades of the 21st century will largely depend on thus far unpredictable consequences. But Syria is more than a litmus test in that context. In more than one respect, not least in terms of the international reaction to refugees desperate for survival, it is a means of gauging the quality of human civilization in the 21st century. And so far the international community, for whatever that term is worth, has come up woefully short in almost every respect.
It would undoubtedly be miraculous if this week were, by some quirk of human nature, to mark at least the beginning of the end game.