x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

With his truce offer, Assad has left his regime exposed

Without intending to, the government of Bashar Al Assad has handed a strong card to the international community - and opened the door to future military intervention

US secretary of state, John Kerry, right, talks with Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov,  in Paris, as the United Nations’ Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi looks on. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AFP
US secretary of state, John Kerry, right, talks with Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Paris, as the United Nations’ Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi looks on. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AFP

Unsurprisingly, the offer from Syria’s foreign minister to negotiate a truce in Aleppo has been met with scepticism and loud disbelief from most of the opposition.

Bashar Al Assad is hardly the most trustworthy negotiating partner. And yet the truce offer matters because by making it, the Assad regime may just have given away more than they bargained for – and opened the door again to military intervention.

That the Syrian regime is not to be trusted is hardly in doubt. Its previous form in the suburbs surrounding Damascus, where those promised safe passage were arrested or killed, underlines that distrust.

Indeed, Aleppo itself has been shelled in the past two days, doubtless a warning to an already ravaged city of the consequences of refusing the “truce”.

The regime itself most likely does not expect the truce to occur. It is simply a position, taken ahead of Geneva 2 this week, to show willingness. But by making the offer, the Assad regime has given away an important bargaining chip – and offered the international community another one.

As this newspaper’s editorial argued earlier this week, by making the offer, the regime has extended de facto recognition to the opposition and to the rebels, undercutting its earlier claims that neither are coherent groups who could be negotiated with.

Further, the truce offer implies that the opposition – which the regime has always claimed are outsiders with no support inside the country – do in fact have some leverage with the rebels on the ground.

All of this might be slim political pickings, but the political leverage, even if slight, matters.

The second part of the truce offer is the bargaining chip that the regime has handed the opposition.

To see why, rewind to last summer after the regime massacred rebels and civilians using chemical weapons.

That was the most dangerous moment for the Assad regime, when it looked possible that the international community, in particular the United States, might actually use military force against the Syrian government, possibly toppling Assad. By handing over chemical weapons, the regime neutralised the threat of international intervention.

Now, potentially, it is back.

Look at the parallel with neighbouring Iraq. When US forces pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution specifying the ceasefire terms.

It was these terms, as set out in the 1991 resolution, that eventually triggered the 2003 invasion. Because when the UN Security Council met in November 2002, it adopted (the endlessly contentious) Resolution 1441, which found Iraq in material breach of the 1991 resolution, thus giving flimsy, but legally crucial, cover for the invasion.

That’s why the Aleppo truce is so important. If the opposition and its backers in the international community are canny, they will push the Security Council to adopt a resolution deciding ceasefire terms for the city.

Russia, as Syria’s backer among the permanent five members, can hardly object to such a resolution.

With a resolution in hand and with international backing, there could be all sorts of opportunities to police the ceasefire – with the ability, later, to go back to the Security Council for a further resolution if Mr Al Assad were in breach. The door to strong international action is suddenly open again.

The harder question, in fact, is who exactly would enforce any ceasefire. Which country’s troops could maintain order in Syria’s largest city without added political complications and historical associations? That’s the problem in the Levant – there is simply too much history.

Turkish troops? The return of the Ottoman Empire, critics will say. Lebanese troops? That would be payback: after all, it was Syrian troops who went into Lebanon in the 1970s to keep order (which they did, successfully), only to remain long after they had outstayed their welcome, becoming an occupying army in effect, if not in name.

What about Egyptian troops? Many Syrians still retain bad memories of the brief and ill-fated union of the two countries, the United Arab Republic.

Israeli troops? Syrians would point to the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since the 1970s. Iranians? “There are already plenty of Iranian troops in Syria,” quipped one Syrian.

What about forces from outside the region? Russians? Unacceptable, the Americans would say. Americans? Iraq. The French? They already occupied the country once. The British? They imposed one king on Syria, and the Syrians forced him to flee.

The United Nations? There is a UN force in south Lebanon and it is toothless and pointless. Another multilateral force? They tried that in Beirut once, and it didn’t end well.

Round and round, the politics of the Levant make any foreign intervention tricky. But it is not impossible, and it is only by starting small, and starting on the ground that this conflict can be first halted, its effects ameliorated and ultimately solved. And Aleppo’s war-weary population certainly needs a ceasefire.

In proposing a truce, the Assad regime has allowed a small window of opportunity that the international community and the opposition can exploit. They should not let it close.

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: FaisalAlYafai