Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syria Cease-Fire a Welcome Humanitarian Respite, but at a Cost

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Syria Cease-Fire a Welcome Humanitarian Respite, but at a Cost

Article excerpt

The cease-fire in Syria's brutal five-year-old civil war has mostly put a halt to the fighting and bombardments, is allowing humanitarian aid to reach starving populations in rebel-held territory, and has paved the way to a resumption of peace talks March 9.

Those are the pluses.

But the cessation of hostilities negotiated by the United States and Russia last month has also come at a high price from the perspective of the US and the opposition it purports to support: The truce has the effect of solidifying Bashar al-Assad's once-shaky hold on power and essentially recognizes him and his regime as the most powerful and viable Syrian entity in the country.

Essentially what the US has done in Syria is to recognize the increasingly stable hold that Mr. Assad has on at least a portion of the country, some regional analysts say. And as a result of that realistic assessment, they add, the US has opted to put a priority on Syria's immediate humanitarian crisis while relegating its geopolitical interests and goals to the long-term basket.

"From the US perspective, it seems very clear that the cessation of hostilities is meant above all to let the humanitarian aid flow in and test things to see if this might transition into a sustained halt to the fighting," says Nicholas Heras, who focuses on Middle East security issues at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington. "It's recognition that some form of [political] transition is probably at least several years down the road."

This is not the beginning of the end of the Syrian conflict, he adds. "Instead I'd say it's a recognition of the very little appetite for a systematic end to the conflict on either side, and so the idea is to at least take advantage of the moment to get in much- needed food and medical supplies."

That the lull in fighting comes at the price of buttressing Assad and his regime becomes clearer every day. Since the cease-fire took effect on Saturday, a newly confident Assad has taken to offering "amnesty" to all opposition fighters who agree to lay down their arms.

That may be a bitter sight for the Obama administration to watch, but it is also something the US has resigned itself to for now at least - in the interest of addressing Syria's humanitarian crisis and its spreading repercussions.

"I don't think they [in the administration] want Assad to remain in power - but they aren't willing to do anything about it, either," says Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria and US policy in the Levant at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy. "US policy now is not about bringing an end to the Syrian war," he adds, "but with that off the table, the focus is really on settling the conflict down and bringing some respite to the Syrian people."

And there's another dimension to the US focus on easing the humanitarian crisis, Mr. …

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