Syria's Welcome and Dangerous Truce

Cease-fire deal.

Photographer: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

After five years of bloody civil war in Syria, the U.S., Russia and other world powers meeting in Munich have reached a truce that could, at least, get humanitarian aid to civilians who are being starved by siege.

If the truce works -- that is, if aid organizations are allowed to reach the surrounded populations, if enough rebel fighters cooperate with the planned "cessation of hostilities," if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ends his indiscriminate bombing of civilians, and if Russia turns its missiles against terrorists alone -- it will give purpose to wider peace talks that stalled earlier this month.

That's a lot of if's, however. With the help of Russian air power, Assad has been gaining territory, so he has little incentive to stop the bombing unless forced to do so by his sponsor Russia. The U.S. and Russia have different ideas about which rebel groups are terrorists. In northwestern Syria, U.S.-backed rebels are fighting Assad alongside the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda franchise, so combining a cease-fire with a continued war on terror would at the very least be complicated. And the U.S. and its allies have reason to doubt Russia's intentions. So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has treated the peace talks as a smokescreen for incessant bombing. 

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

What's more, the Munich agreement includes no commitment from Russia to stop bombing. And it delays even a preliminary cessation of hostilities for a week. But why wait?

Ukraine could suggest a grim answer. When a cease-fire in its conflict with Russia-backed rebels was finally agreed to -- exactly one year ago -- the accord was given three days to take effect. In that time, a furious Russian-led assault secured strategic territory. Russia and Assad now have at least a week to intensify their campaign to surround Aleppo, potentially trapping 300,000 people in a new siege.

At least U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was able to limit the delay in Syria to one week; Russia initially wanted to stall until March 1. 

However shaky the truce turns out to be, Kerry should use the window it provides to address the biggest question looming over the peace talks: how to reconcile the reality that Assad will remain in power in Damascus with the equally unavoidable fact that large numbers of Syria's Sunni population will remain unwilling to submit to Assad's rule. Any attempt to either force Assad's removal or impose his control on the country is bound to bring more war and a further radicalization of Syria's majority Sunni population.

It is for this reason that any lasting cease-fire or genuine settlement will require the country's de facto separation into zones of control. This is what Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov should work toward next week.

In the meantime, the U.S. and its allies should be prepared for the truce to fail. Recall that another deal struck in the same city in another century promised "peace in our time." Kerry's challenge is to ensure this Munich deal doesn't prove to be another ruse that only facilitates war.  

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.