World·Analysis

Last-ditch diplomacy yields an imperfect Syria deal — and boost for Assad

The U.S.-Russia deal coming into effect at sundown tonight is aimed at ending the fighting yes, but it also reaffirms Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s longstanding view that the only battle worth fighting in his country is that against extremists. What's understood perfectly is that such reconciliation is only possible with Assad at the helm.

Country's president celebrates by visiting symbol of Syrian uprising

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, seen earlier this summer, appeared at a mosque for Eid al-Adha services on Monday ahead of a U.S.-Russia ceasefire deal. (Sana/Associated Press)

When two of the world's most powerful diplomats strike a deal on Syria, who wins?

Evidently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad believes he does. It may be the only explanation for his triumphant lap this Eid morning into Daraya, the recently recaptured and dispirited home of one of the earliest anti-government rebellions and a subsequent government siege lifted only last month.

The U.S.-Russia deal coming into effect at sundown tonight is aimed at ending the fighting. But it also reaffirms Assad's longstanding view that the only battle worth fighting in his country is that against extremists.

That alone, for Assad, must feel like vindication.

"We are determined to retake every inch of Syria from the terrorists, to restore peace and stability in the country, and to rebuild everything that has been destroyed in the past," he said in a statement while touring Daraya's war-damaged streets with a large entourage.

But the hard-won deal, the latest in a series of them, promises no victories.

In fact it guarantees little: not even the seven-day "cessation of hostilities" that is aimed at ending the fighting as well as the punishing sieges — mostly by Assad's forces — in order to allow aid to flow to starving civilians.

Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings following a reported airstrike in the northern city of Aleppo on the weekend. It's hoped the deal going through this evening will bring an end to the five-year conflict. (Ameer Alhalbi/AFP/Getty Images)

According to Russia, Assad has agreed to abide by the deal with the blessing of Iran. That means an end to the siege of Aleppo. It also means a commitment to end Syria's deadly barrel bombs from the sky.

An uncertain future

But none of that is guaranteed either.

"Given the precedent here, we shouldn't take that as anything near enough evidence that [Assad's] forces will comply on the battlefield," says Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

At the Daraya mosque where the president offered Eid prayers, the imam, who could only utter state-approved words, offered praise to the efforts of Syrian forces.

According to a state newspaper, he said this Eid (a festival marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca) held hope that the "end of the crisis is near, through the victories of the Syrian army — and the insistence of Syrians to move on the path of national reconciliation." This was followed by a nod to the idea of a nation willing to forgive its wayward sons.

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walk at a military complex after they recaptured areas in southwestern Aleppo earlier this month. It's widely accepted that the ceasefire coming begins this evening will only be possible with Assad leading the charge. (Sana/Reuters)

What's understood perfectly is that such reconciliation is only possible with Assad at the helm.

Also understood by everyone involved is that the last-ditch diplomatic effort in faraway Geneva — without a single party to the conflict at the table — is an exercise somewhat rooted in theory.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hold a press conference following their meeting in Geneva Friday, where they discussed the crisis in Syria. (Kevin Lamarque/Associated Press)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov's couched language on a deal shows that it relies on good faith — between two practiced, mistrustful adversaries. But it also hinges on the idea that each of them has enough sway to actually change the behaviour of players on the ground.

It isn't at all clear that the U.S. or its allies will be able to persuade more moderate fighters to change their alliances or to abandon their posts, often shared with more extreme groups.

Also unclear is how Russia and the U.S. will, as agreed, successfully meld their military aims in Syria into a single effort to fight the two main extremist groups on the ground — an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the so-called Islamic State.

Still, the two sides have agreed it's the best way out of the five-year conflict, and the best way to try to bring about a political solution to a crisis that has claimed as many as half a million lives.

U.S. election timing 

But who will see that process through? And what would happen if the fighting starts up again, or, worse, never stops? Would that shared command and control centre be disbanded? With an election to soon to sweep away Kerry and his boss, will that command and control centre even ever be established?

Few on the ground have regard for the process or its prospects. Yet this is still the closest world powers have come to finding a way out of Syria's darkness.

It was not easy to reach. It took several months and many attempts, even with the efforts of two seasoned diplomats accustomed to hard negotiations with each other.

That means if this deal fails — and there's every chance it will — another attempt, even at theoretical peace, must wait for a new U.S. administration. Another serious attempt could be months, even years away.

That too would be a victory for Assad, and for his sponsor in Moscow. And it would be another loss to add to a mountain of them for ordinary Syrians.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

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