Stark prospect of worse to come in Syria

With trust so diminished it is impossible to be optimistic about the final outcome of New York talks

 

The war in Syria is at another turning point this week as the United States and Russia struggle to keep the ceasefire they organised together after two major atrocities destroyed most of the remaining trust between them. Their ability to bring Syria’s opposition and government on board to allow delivery of humanitarian aid is always questionable, since these act independently and often with other regional sponsorship. But the ceasefire initiative is currently the only available way to establish space for longer-term peace negotiations. The alternative is an even more intense war whose only certainty is more horrific deaths, displacements and suffering.

US secretary of state John Kerry and the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov both reached this conclusion before calling the ceasefire. It assumes there is no alternative political path towards a settlement, even though they both know the Syrian and regional players still assume a more outright military victory is possible, or desirable given these players’ respective competing interests.

The atrocities that undermined the ceasefire effort are reciprocal but contested; the first a US attack on Syrian forces that killed 60 troops and the second an air strike on an aid convoy that killed 20 civilians. Russia strongly disputes responsibility for the second of these. Outgoing United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon rightly described it as a war crime and denounced those he described as the “cowards” behind it. He added: “Just when you think it cannot get any worse, the bar of depravity sinks lower”. Efforts to provide aid still went on yesterday even as Syrian air force raids on Aleppo intensified.

Continuing talks in New York are worth the effort despite these major setbacks. Coming in the week of the UN’s General Assembly sessions they can bring together all the principal states and groups involved, including the UN’s own efforts. The US-Russian plan envisages a joint US-Russian air campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria, contingent on separating their forces out from other opposition units on the ground. That is difficult indeed to deliver, all the more so after these breakdowns of the ceasefire. The tentative and tenuous nature of the overall plan was well described by Mr Kerry after it was reached in Geneva: “No one is building this based on trust”, he said. “It is based on oversight, compliance, mutual interest. This is an opportunity, and not more than that until it becomes a reality.”

With trust so diminished it is impossible to be optimistic about the final outcome of these talks. But the consequences of failure are more and more starkly obvious and unconscionable. With nearly 500,000 dead and 13.5 million people displaced, a continuing Syrian war will only intensify these disasters.

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