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Syria Cease-fire Deal Draws Skepticism as Russian Airstrikes Continue

  • Henry Ridgwell

World powers meeting in Munich have agreed on a cessation of hostilities in Syria, to begin in one week. But many observers are skeptical, and warn that Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, could exploit the deal.

After five years of war and close to half-a-million people killed, a faint sign of hope the slaughter may stop. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the cease-fire deal in Munich Friday.

Cessation of fighting

"We’ve agreed to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities to begin in a target of one week's time. That’s ambitious, but everybody is determined to move as rapidly as possible to try to achieve this,“ he said.

Kerry’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, emphasized there were still differences with Washington.

He said the key in Syria is to have direct contacts for cooperation between the army, the U.S.-led coalition and the Russian army – which, he added, is in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government.

Under the deal, operations against terrorist groups like Islamic State militants will continue.

In reality, Syrian government and Russian airstrikes have targeted all opposition groups, said Karen von Hippel, director of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and the former Chief of Staff to U.S. General John Allen, who led the fight against Islamic State until stepping down last year.

“The Russian pattern is, they have not been sincere about any of these peace overtures. They have been using every single opportunity to gain territory and to really just almost carpet-bomb Syrians,” said Von Hippel.

Russia said it only targets extremist groups. But the bombardment has been stepped up against the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, which is now almost encircled by Syrian regime forces.

Geopolitical stakes

While Russia and Iran are providing military support to the Syrian government, Sunni states like Saudi Arabia – along with Western powers including the U.S. and Britain – are supporting opposition forces. The geopolitical stakes are rising, said Von Hippel.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a Russian helicopter gunship gets shot down in the coming weeks or if several of them get shot down," she added. "Not necessarily by opposition forces on their own, but with the support of countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or even Turkey.”

Analysts say a cessation of fighting would provide relief for Syrian’s desperate civilians – and also a pause for breath in a spiraling proxy war. The agreement on paper is yet to be implemented on the ground.