For a durable peace in Syria, warring sides must continue talks

A temporary halt to the fighting is a welcome opportunity to negotiate a longer-lasting pact to end the country’s horrifying civil war

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 February, 2016, 12:51am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 February, 2016, 12:51am

Negotiations between the government and opposition have little prospect of early progress towards an urgently needed political solution to Syria’s horrifying and complex civil war. This is clear from the swift suspension of talks just after they had begun in Geneva less than two weeks ago. Hope has been revived, however, in a more realistic scenario announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Friday.

They have agreed on the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian cities over the following few days, to be followed by implementation of a “cessation of hostilities” within a week. The latter is not as permanent as a ceasefire. Kerry told reporters he envisaged a “pause” that ended hostilities while food relief was delivered by air and road to government and rebel-controlled areas. It also excludes the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, both declared terrorist organisations by the United Nations.

But if the relief operation and cessation come to pass – by no means certain given the involvement of outside forces with their own agendas on both sides – they are at least steps in the right direction of a more formal ceasefire.

The test is whether all parties honour commitments under an agreement forged by the International Syria Support Group. If they do, it will be the first agreed and sustained halt to the fighting in a brutal civil war that began in 2011, and so far has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced half the country’s population of 22 million, four million of whom have migrated or become refugees.

Critics say that by agreeing to an early cessation of hostilities Kerry is acceding to President Bashar al-Assad’s recent territorial gains, with the support of heavy Russian bombing raids, particularly in the rebel stronghold of Aleppo province. The rebels are unlikely to stand for that for long. Both sides must treat a respite in the fighting as an opportunity to forge something more durable. That calls for further peace talks.