Syria’s de-escalation

WHEN a group of teenage boys scrawled “down with the regime” on their school wall they lit the powder that ignited Syria’s civil war. Ever since their torture at the hands of state-security agents in March 2011, the boys’ home city of Deraa has become synonymous with the start of the rebellion to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But Deraa may yet turn out to be the place where dreams of overthrowing the regime finally die.

The guns fell silent over the battered city at noon on July 9th as a ceasefire brokered by Russia and America came into force. The truce, announced by Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin after their first meeting, is the latest in a string of failed attempts by the two powers to quell more than six years of violence that has killed perhaps 400,000 people. Its success, if it lasts, may open the door to deeper co-operation between Moscow and Washington. That could lead to a kind of peace, but at the price of what may be a lasting carve-up of Syria into zones controlled by different foreign powers, which will in all probability leave Mr Assad firmly in place on the populous coastal west of the country.

It is unclear whether the ceasefire will work this time. Months of secret meetings between American, Russian and Jordanian officials in Amman have produced a deal that lacks teeth. Russia says it will deploy troops to police the ceasefire zone, which covers three southern regions that abut the borders with Israel and Jordan. American diplomats say the make-up of any ground force is still being discussed. The truce has held so far but, like past deals, may quickly fall apart without a way to enforce it. Rushed out to give the two presidents something to announce at their first meeting, the ceasefire appears premature.

The geography and make-up of the region covered by the ceasefire may, however, help it to last. The area—Deraa, the province of Quneitra and parts of Suwaida province—is smaller than regions covered in the past. There are also fewer extremists to spoil the truce, and fewer rebel factions to pressure into abiding by it. The rebels in the south are also less rebellious: Jordan keeps a tight hold on those fighting the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias that have made incursions into areas close to its borders.

The ceasefire is a result of Russian plans to wind down the war. Since January, Moscow has led talks with Turkey and Iran, which back opposing sides in the conflict, to establish four “de-escalation zones” where rebels and the regime will agree to stop killing each other. The aim is to have each region policed by different foreign powers. America’s rush to cut a deal with Russia in the south, the first of the zones to be formally demarcated, is partly a test of Moscow’s sincerity. “We’ll soon see if the Russians are willing or even able to rein in Assad and the Iranians,” said a Western diplomat.

Mr Assad is sitting pretty in Damascus. If the ceasefire holds, it will partly be because the Syrian president and his Iranian backers see in the truce a chance to solidify their territorial gains, drive rebels from other parts of the country and race American-backed forces for control of the oil-rich lands still occupied by Islamic State in the east. The American secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, says America “sees no long-term role for the Assad family”. But removing the dictator, who has repeatedly vowed to reclaim every inch of territory lost during the war, will be impossible without the consent of Iran and Russia.

If anything has remained constant in America’s approach to the Syrian conflict over the past year, it is its faith in Russia to bring the fighting to a close and Iran in check. Mr Tillerson believes the warring parties are “tired” and “weary” of the conflict. The coming weeks will establish how fanciful this reading is.


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