Syrian Cease-Fire Is a Baby Step Toward Peace

First appeared at Bloomberg

A fragile truce in the southwest is a good omen for U.S. interests.

After years of horrific fighting in Syria — including several failed cease-fires — it’s hard to get too excited about a limited agreement to stop hostilities in a tiny corner of the country. Yet the modest “de-escalation” deal in Syria’s southwest is a promising sign.

Islamic State is not yet defeated. But the cease-fire, reached by Jordan, Russia and the U.S., is an indication that the end of that fight is near, as all sides are beginning to jockey for position in the next stage of the Syrian civil war.

The halt in the fighting in parts of three provinces, reached earlier this month, seems to be mostly holding. The next steps of the deal, which reportedlyinclude the departure of non-Syrian fighters, providing humanitarian aid to civilians, and setting up a monitoring center in Jordan, are pending.

Still, what has already been achieved is notable. Russia — Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful backer — has cut an independent deal with the U.S. that will not just give rebel troops a respite but also help protect Israel and Jordan, two of America’s most important Middle East allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have hammered out the truce without giving the Syrian regime or its Iranian patrons a say. And this despite the fact that Iranian-backed militias had been making military inroads in southern Syria.

The area covered in the de-escalation agreement includes the rebel stronghold of Deraa Province, which is within 50 miles of the Jordanian capital of Amman and is adjacent to the Golan Heights, which Israel has considered a crucial buffer zone since conquering it in the 1967 war. The deal will be help keep Iran and its proxies from gaining too close a foothold to Israel and Jordan.

A piecemeal approach to cease-fires has its downsides. It may undermine the fitful negotiations to end the civil war that are now taking place in Kazakhstan, and the Assad regime may use this opportunity to strategically reposition forces at other battlefronts (the Syrians seem to have an eyeon the oil-rich Euphrates River Valley near the Iraq border). And the deal relies on the questionable assumption that the Russians will be able to rein in aggression by the Syrian army its allies.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that the pact is the “first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.” As distasteful as it sounds, cooperation with the Kremlin may be the best hope for an enduring political solution to the civil war — and for ensuring that Islamic State won’t rise again.