Don't look now, but peace in Syria may be inching closer
Putin's backing of Assad looks to have changed the diplomatic dynamic too
So, after two weeks of a tense ceasefire in Syria's civil war, what can be said? Apart from the fact it's the pessimists who've had to admit surprise that some form of truce seems to be holding.
Of course, this was never going to be easy. This is a five-year-long war, after all, which has killed over 250,000 people and displaced nearly 11 million.
Still, default pessimism should not obscure the first tender signs of "a positive dynamic," which is what some diplomatic teams were saying last week.
The ceasefire is far from flawless, but since it began on Feb. 27, it has substantially cut armed violations. Civilian deaths have fallen by 90 per cent and fatalities among combatants by 80 per cent, according to independent observers.
And yes, this is in Syria.
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Aid groups meanwhile are seeing significant progress in the delivery of humanitarian food and medicine.
New aid has just reached 250,000 people in what the negotiators call "besieged areas," while another 600,000 civilians will start receiving supplies in coming weeks, and up to 1.7 million before March is out, assuming, of course, the ceasefire holds.
Perhaps the most dramatic sign of improvement are the civilians who have been photographed out enjoying the sun in certain rebel-held towns, free for the moment at least of the bombs and artillery fire.
Across scores of Syrian towns, tens of thousands have even taken to the streets to protest against the Assad regime, an open political expression not witnessed there during the five-year war.
Truce 'generally being observed'
This, of course, is not a total ceasefire for it does not include the two extreme jihadist groups trying to take down Bashar al-Assad: ISIS and the al-Qaeda offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusra.
So air attacks from the U.S. coalition, as well as from the pro-Assad Russian jets continue to target them.
There have also been a few isolated incidents involving pro- and anti-Assad forces, as well as Turkish and Kurdish militias.
But both Russia and the U.S., the key backers of the peace effort, insist that overall the ceasefire is "starting to settle" across an ever larger swath of Syria, and monitoring teams report "the truce in Syria is generally being observed."
In fact, it appears to be going far better than expected given the numbing complexity of the Syrian War.
The opposition alone is thought to comprise more than 1,000 independent rebel groups, so many of the ceasefires have to be worked out locally.
The Russian military, for example, last week concluded "cessation of hostility agreements" with 43 separate rebel groups, most of them about 300-450 strong. The Assad regime and rebels are also working out local truces between themselves.
The ceasefires' spread clearly indicates a profound war weariness on all sides.
Rarely has a modern society been so profoundly shattered by internal conflict, and UN negotiators are drawing civilian groups, including important women's voices, into the peace mix, giving them a rare podium.
The dynamic of the conflict changed after Russian leader Vladimir Putin swung his nation's iron fist behind the Assad regime last fall.
This quickly convinced the U.S. and most of the big European nations that Assad was not going to be toppled by force, however hot the moral outrage.
So a negotiated transition to another government was the only way out of this nightmare.
Putin seems to have personally quarterbacked Russia's dominant role in these events. He has made it clear to Assad, according to diplomats, that his eventual departure may be essential for any kind of lasting peace.
Putin has also convinced the EU to pressure rebel groups to accept peace talks by driving home the message that there will be no end to Europe's refugee crisis, nor defeat of ISIS, until armed struggle gives way to a negotiated transition.
The message is that however vile Assad may be, continued war for two or three or more years is unimaginably worse.
Last week, after talking to Putin, the British, Germans, French and Italians agreed the ceasefire offered "a positive momentum" to advance peaceful "political transition away from Assad."
How peace 'settles in'
So what now? The talks that restart in Geneva today won't initially risk bringing the warring sides to the same table.
That's considered too dangerous at this early stage, so the parties will meet separately with the UN's chief negotiator, Staffan de Mistura, to explore setting up a transition government, with free elections within 18 months.
Peace talks follow a special dynamic when successful.
The hope is that even the hard-core elements will start considering potential future gains involving constitutional and governance reform, power-sharing measures, sectarian confidence-building and prisoner exchanges. In the UN jargon, this is how peace "settles in."
In this case, major powers, including Russia, are testing the waters to see if Syria might adopt a federal division of powers for the war-racked nation, with separate provinces to allow for stronger regional and religious autonomy.
There's general agreement Syria must remain as one state, but decentralization is picking up early support, including from the main Kurdish group, which argues that this is the only way to rebuild confidence after all the betrayals and atrocities under Assad.
Again these are early days in the hardest peace challenge seen anywhere in decades, so you expect rough going. But we need to remind ourselves that wars do end.
For the first time in a while, fresh ideas are now being offered up in Geneva; big powers are anxious to clamp a lid on a war that threatens all; and, so long as the talking lasts, millions of Syrians are having the chance to rediscover what peace feels like and can start planning, at least, how to rebuild their lives.