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Is Peace Within Reach?
Syrian ceasefire goes into effect with American, Russian support
By Hichem Karoui | NO.10 MARCH 10, 2016

There is no question that peace is much desired by the citizens of Syria, as it would be for any people suffering through a more than five-year long civil war. But can peace be easily attained?

A ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia went into effect across Syria on February 27. This was the first agreed-upon measure by the international community to attempt to reduce the violence in this devastating conflict. At the time of writing, on the military field at least, the ceasefire has been implemented, although some small violations have been reported.

However, terrorist groups like the so-called "Islamic State" group, also referred to as Daesh or ISIS, and Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, were excluded. That raises the question: Is this a preparation for war against them, or a preparation for an actual dismantling of Syria? In both cases, the chance for peace to be realized anytime soon is unlikely.

The need for peace has never been more urgent, though.

According to a World Bank report, the cost of the Syrian war and its spillovers to neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt), is estimated to be close to $35 billion in output, measured in 2007 prices, which is equivalent to Syria's GDP in the same year (2007).

Other statistics are no less shocking. For example, the war in Syria has displaced half of its population—more than 12 million people—both internally and externally. About 13.5 million people desperately need humanitarian aid in Syria itself, in addition to the needs of all of its migrants who have been finding refuge all over the world.

In education, the effects are dreadful. As of the end of 2014, the total cost of damage to Syria's actual education infrastructure was estimated to be somewhere between $101 and $123 million. Not to mention the fact that 18 percent of Syria's schools have ceased to function, as schools instead serve as refuges for internally displaced people.

The war is creating an army of illiterate or half-illiterate young people who will be more likely to fall prey to the extremist rhetoric of radical Islamists. Even bleaker, today's children could be future candidates for terrorist activities—including suicide operations.

Syrians walk in a marketplace in Damascus on February 27. The capital saw a relatively calm day as a Russia-U.S. sponsored truce went into effect at midnight the day before (XINHUA)

Apparently, the purpose of the U.S.-Russian truce is to bring back to the negotiating table the representatives of the Syrian regime and the opposition, or at least those opposition groups willing to negotiate a political solution. But this is no easy job. Not only because it is hard to get the Syrian Government and the many opposition groups to engage in direct talks, but also because there are persistent doubts regarding the real agenda of the UN's envoy, Staffan de Mistura.

Indeed, some factions within the Syrian opposition think that de Mistura, and therefore the Geneva talks which he is in charge of moderating, are just smokescreens for the dangerous geopolitical game that the United States and Russia have been playing for five years in Syria; a game sometimes dubbed the "new cold war."

In 2011, seeing that civil war was about to break out in Syria and unsure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ability to survive, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to conduct negotiations between Assad, opposition groups, Russia and the United States. But Putin made Moscow's participation based on two conditions: that Russia should be treated as an equal to the United States, and that decisions about the future of Syria should be left to the Syrians themselves.

Washington spurned the offer. Instead, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration chose to encourage the rebels and began funding selected anti-Assad insurgents.

At the time, Washington did not see Syria as possessing the same potential of radical militancy that had become a real force in Afghanistan and parts of Iraq. It was only after Daesh became a significant threat for Western interests that Washington woke up to the new realities of the struggle. Setting its numerous divergences with Moscow aside, the recent ceasefire represents the United States finally giving Putin's 2011 offer to broker peace a chance.

Yet the conflict over the intervening five year period has only grown more complicated. It is not just Assad and the opposition factions who are players in Syria, but also all of the radical militants who do not feel bound by any political law or border—national, regional or international.

Even if we forget the large gulf separating Assad and the opposition—and forget the question of Assad's future—there remain immense obstacles to any lasting political deal, including the fact that radical armed groups now hold vast territories of Syria, which are populated with innocent civilians.

The author is an expert on international affairs and author of several books on the Middle East/North Africa region

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

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