The Syrian ceasefire is on... for now

This is being described in the media this morning as an effort by the President to “move on” (which is a phrase that Trump is using himself as you’ll see below) but the first joint effort at a partial ceasefire in Syria is underway. Ed wrote about this on Friday when it was first announced and things have unfolded rather quickly since then. President Trump came to an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit, which we are being told was the culmination of months of talks between their staffers. The affected area doesn’t cover the entire nation, but rather the southwestern province of Deraa, near Lebanon, and it kicked off a few hours ago. (CNN)

A ceasefire brokered by the US, Russia and Jordan went into effect Sunday in southwest Syria.

The plan was announced Friday at the G20 summit in Hamburg after a meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

The international efforts will take place in the province of Deraa and along the Lebanese border. The area in southern Syria will be the first in which the US is party to a de-escalate zone.

White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said in a statement Saturday that such de-escalation zones are a US priority.

“The United States remains committed to defeating ISIS, helping to end the conflict in Syria, reducing suffering, and enabling people to return to their homes,” he said. “This agreement is an important step toward these common goals.”

Rex Tillerson is being quoted as saying that the ceasefire could be “a precursor to further cooperation in Syria.” His remarks were echoed by Sergey Lavrov, who seemed to be pitching the consensus position that the ability of the United States and Russia to work together to calm the waters in Syria could be the foundation for more cooperation in the future.

Not everyone seems quite as enthusiastic, however, or even on the same page. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was, at best, being cautiously optimistic while insisting that this can’t be allowed to turn into some sort of back-door deal which allows Iran a presence in the region.

The two most important players in the equation are, of course, Assad and the rebels he’s been bombing all this time. One might presume that Assad would do the bidding of Putin rather than risk losing one of his only powerful allies, but that’s hardly a sure thing. On the other side of the coin, local reports are already coming out saying that the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Southern Front reportedly is rejecting the deal, saying they weren’t consulted.

That probably represents the biggest thereat to even modest gains in stopping the war. It’s not as if the Syrian fighters are a single unified group with a leader who can speak for all of them. The FSA are pretty much free agents and if they continue to mix it up, Assad will probably respond in kind, leaving the entire deal looking like little more than lip service.

The press on the early Sunday cable news shows seemed eager to portray this as an effort by Trump to get them off the subject of Russia, Russia, Russia, but striking a deal with Putin isn’t exactly the sort of thing which would lend itself to turning the page. For his part, the President was out on Twitter this morning responding to not only the media criticism, but seemingly looking to the future.

There’s no way most of the media is going to veer away from their favorite, impeachment-themed topic, but it seems as if Trump is being rather pragmatic at this point. If we assume that Russia was putting out fake stories and trying to sway opinions to “meddle” in the election (almost certainly true) but they didn’t actually manage to hack into our system and change any votes (zero evidence of that thus far) then what is Trump supposed to do? Refuse to engage with the Russians on anything at any time for the next three and a half years? They may be an adversary, but they also remain a powerful force in the global landscape. And given their increasingly close ties with Turkey and Iran in that region, they can’t be ignored.

As I mentioned above, I’m not holding out any strong hopes that this ceasefire will last until tomorrow, say nothing of next year. There’s been a ceasefire in Ukraine for how long now? And that certainly hasn’t worked out. (That’s another item on Tillerson’s agenda this weekend, by the way.) The main problem here is that too much of the playing field is beyond the control of either Russia or the United States. But I suppose we may as well give it a try. It’s not as if anything that was tried under Obama produced any results.