Here's What To Know About The Trump-Putin Syria Cease-Fire

Jul 17, 2017
Originally published on July 17, 2017 3:55 pm

President Trump is touting a newly brokered cease-fire in southwest Syria as a major foreign policy win for his White House. After years of failed peace attempts under the Obama administration, Trump has boldly speculated that the new truce could mark the beginning of the end of the war.

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached the agreement during their July 7 meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. It affects towns, villages and borderlands in three regions close to Jordan and Israel.

Last Thursday, after the guns had remained silent for a fifth day in this small corner of Syria, Trump said the arrangement should be replicated across other "very rough" parts of the country. "All of the sudden you are going to have no bullets being fired in Syria," he said during his visit to Paris.

It may not be so simple. Many have doubts. And in fact, this cease-fire may even be leading to more violence in other parts of Syria.

Here's a look at some key questions:

Is this different from previous cease-fire efforts?

Past cease-fires — there have been four other attempts since February 2016 — collapsed due to a lackluster commitment from the warring sides. But this time, Russia, a powerful ally of the Damascus regime, seems focused on a lasting freeze in the violence.

Moscow has said it would be willing to dispatch military police to Syria to patrol the cease-fire lines. "That's a level of investment, a level of risk-taking that we haven't seen before," said Faysal Itani, senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

For Russia, this is part of a wider effort to establish "de-escalation zones" in the country that would ultimately stabilize Syria while keeping the regime of Bashar Assad in power. Russia has vetoed United Nations Security Council measures against the Assad regime on eight separate occasions since 2011.

But a long-term settlement in this part of Syria is far from set.

Salman Shaikh, a consultant and the former director of the Brookings Doha Center who has closely followed diplomatic efforts since the start of the crisis, said the Trump administration announced the cease-fire because of political needs in Washington rather than because the terms were agreed by all warring side.

"It's a rushed job," he said. "That Putin-Trump meeting needed to have something positive come out of it. And this is it."

Rebel groups in the area have laid down their weapons as they wait to see a final proposal. But they say they have not agreed to anything that would calcify the current front line into a permanent stalemate that would carve up territory in Syria among the warring groups.

How genuine a move toward lasting peace can this be?

Trump tweeted that the cease-fire "will save lives." Eight days since it began, the areas it covers remain relatively calm.

Civilians in Daraa city — where protests against the regime first began in 2011 — are living in respite from the airstrikes and barrel bombs that were decimating their neighborhoods.

But in this cynical war, cease-fires are also an opportunity for the most powerful warring side — in this case, the regime and its allies, including Russia — to reorganize and redeploy forces. Damascus has used the quiet in the southwest to move troops up to eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the capital where opposition groups still have a strong foothold.

Activists posted images on Twitter on Monday of dead children being pulled out from under the rubble of destroyed homes in eastern Ghouta, which they said was a result of an intensified air assault on the area.

Aid workers charged with getting food and medicines smuggled into the besieged suburb also said the regime has escalated its offensive in the area.

Issam al-Reis, a spokesman for the U.S.- and Jordan-supported Southern Front rebel group in southwest Syria, told NPR they would not stand idly by if the assault on eastern Ghouta continues.

"East Ghouta is our brother in the revolution," he said. "This may threaten the whole deal."

Does Russia have the power to enforce a final agreement?

In a further complication to Trump's ambitions, on Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, took the unusual step of publicly attacking the cease-fire, saying Israel was "utterly opposed" to it.

The truce zone backs onto the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Much of that Syrian territory is controlled by U.S.-backed rebel groups.

But Israel fears Russia may not be willing or able to enforce the cease-fire. And if that is the case, it could see hostile, Iranian-funded fighters ultimately occupy the territory near its border.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday, "I can guarantee that the American side and we did the best we can to make sure that Israel's security interests are fully taken into consideration."

That may not be enough.

"Israel wants a guarantee that Iranian-backed groups will keep away," said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum. "Whether the Russians could enforce this is unclear."

Iranian-backed militia groups are providing the manpower to support the Assad regime on the front lines. The Syrian military has been decimated by the war. Shaikh estimated there may only be some 10,000 effective soldiers left. So militias funded by Tehran have stepped in. Hezbollah and other Shiite groups have incurred hundreds, if not thousands, of casualties.

For the moment, Hezbollah and its allies are concentrating their firepower in eastern Syria — far from the current cease-fire area. Analysts say the groups are working to open a land route through Iraq and Syria through which they can be directly supplied.

Iran was not party to the current cease-fire negotiations. And if it succeeds in the east, some analysts warn that a strengthened Hezbollah may ultimately be tempted to storm toward the Israeli border.

The cease-fire's chances of success then rest on Russia's ability to coerce these militias to comply. Time will tell if this is something Moscow has the power or desire to achieve.

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