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Syria's ceasefire: what it means and doesn't

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry in Munich.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry in Munich.
Alexandra Beier/Getty

When world powers gathered in Munich earlier on Thursday for the latest round of Syria peace talks, the mood was reportedly "dour" and the expectations so low you could feel a sense of despondence even in the coverage. Nonetheless, after hours of talks, at around 1 am local time the parties emerged to announce something pretty remarkable: immediate humanitarian access to besieged areas and, starting in about a week, a ceasefire.

This is Syria, so however low your hopes are, you need to lower them further. For one thing, the parties are insisting this is not technically a ceasefire but rather a "cessation of hostilities." For another, the ceasefire does not include ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda's Syria branch), so fighting with those groups will continue.

Here are a few initial thoughts on this moment.

1) Even if the ceasefire or humanitarian access lasts only one day, it is worth celebrating

The Syrian war, it is important to remember, primarily matters for the vast and terrible human suffering it causes. The violence has killed an estimated 470,000 people, or 2 percent of the population. That number just a year and a half ago was 250,000, meaning about 440 people die every day.

Beyond that, Syrians suffer mass displacement and face extreme poverty, disease outbreaks, and hunger. The city of Aleppo is facing potential mass starvation under a siege by Assad regime forces.

This is not going to end the world's worst ongoing war, substantially alleviate the word's worst humanitarian crisis, or change the fundamental calculus by which the war is a stalemate likely doomed to last years.

But just a single day of expanded humanitarian access or of ceasefire is thus a welcome reprieve for Syrians. It is not peace, and it is not justice, but it's something.

2) Best case, maybe this can be a baby step toward peace

The idea of a peace deal for Syria still feels so remote and unlikely it is difficult to even imagine; the parties within Syria can't even talk to one another, much less the regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia that treat Syria as their proxy war. None of that is solved by this ceasefire.

At best, this agreement, however briefly it holds up, can serve as some confidence-building measure between the parties. Yes, they will spend its duration bickering, cheating, and accusing one another, before one or all of them tear it up.

Still, being able to even negotiate a frail and likely doomed ceasefire is something, and the more time the parties spend talking, the more they can wear down the taboo of meeting and the taboo of compromising. That's not going to suddenly make a peace deal appear, but it makes the sheer diplomacy of it a little less difficult.

3) Do not count on everyone to adhere to the ceasefire

Russia is putting its stamp on this ceasefire, along with the US, so Moscow will be under special scrutiny. And there's real reason to be skeptical it will hold to the terms, not least because it has long lied about its Syria airstrikes, saying they target ISIS when they in fact target anti-Assad rebels. Russia and its proxies in Ukraine frequently violated ceasefires there.

But even if Russia does stick to the ceasefire, Moscow has shown over and over that its leverage over Bashar al-Assad is limited. There is no guarantee that Assad's forces will comply with the ceasefire. Even if both Assad and Russia comply, then their control over pro-Assad Shia militias is not complete, either.

By the same token, Syria's anti-Assad rebels may have come together under an umbrella negotiating body, but there are still dozens of rebel groups, some of which could violate the ceasefire.

The Syrian conflict is a tangled mess of dozens of local and foreign actors. The odds that all of them stick by the ceasefire throughout its duration is extremely low. The odds that the ceasefire falls apart, and probably quite quickly, assuming it ever even gets started, are very high. The moment someone first fires a rifle in Syria, there will be a spate of punditry demanding that America immediately plunge Syria back into war and abandon peace talks.

Nonetheless, not all violations are equal. If and when those violations happen, the question becomes whether the violations are sufficiently systemic to necessitate ending the ceasefire entirely, or whether they are isolated enough that Syrians are better off if the ceasefire holds despite violations.

4) Whoever is seen as first breaking the ceasefire will suffer for it diplomatically

This is an oh-so-faint silver lining to the near certainty that the ceasefire will quickly collapse: Whoever is seen as bringing it down will humiliate their allies and anger peace-talk mediators.

This happened, for example, with ceasefire violations in Ukraine, which helped build momentum for the crushing European sanctions on Russia that eventually brought Moscow's offensive, if not to an end, at least to heel.

So whoever is the worst bad actor here will end up outing themselves in ways that will bring them diplomatic costs, and make it easier to isolate that party at further rounds of talks. However, do not assume that will be someone on the pro-Assad side; it could rather end up being some anti-Assad rebel group, which would risk dangerously fracturing the coalition. So I suppose there's a gray lining to the silver lining.

5) There are ways to accomplish things other than by bombing

The commentary in the US in the lead-up to Munich was exactly what you'd expect: comparing it to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at that same city in 1938, accusing President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry of not just incompetence but of deliberately selling out the Syrian rebels, and, most of all, declaring that American policy is morally bankrupt and responsible for abetting genocide.

The central argument in all these many takes was that the only appropriate US policy on Syria is for the United States to escalate militarily — to do more killing — and to abandon diplomacy, which has been portrayed as not just a failure but a moral evil on par with genocide.

I have previously argued that there was indeed likely a brief window, early in Syria's war, where US military action could have helped. But there is an unfortunate tendency in the US to believe that military action is the only ever appropriate policy in response to foreign crises and that diplomacy is not just ineffective but doomed to worsen violence.

Maybe it will turn out that this ceasefire collapses quickly, or before it has even begun. Maybe it will turn out that this entire agreement was a massive ploy from the beginning meant to deliberately sacrifice massive Russian diplomatic capital just to delay further action from the US and its allies by a few days. But it seems at least possible that diplomacy will have won a much-needed respite, however brief, for the Syrian civilians whose fate matters most here.

6) Syrian peace talks, no matter how doomed, are still worth having

As I wrote a week ago, even if peace talks never come anywhere near achieving a peace deal, the mere practice of bringing the parties together can win occasional (very) minor victories like this.

Let's hope, though hope is a sadly relative term at this point when it comes to Syria, that there will be more.