Belfast Telegraph

Ceasefire is a necessary first step towards a lasting peace in Syria's long and bloody tragedy

As we in NI know only too well, optimism about a truce must be tempered with realism, says Alban Maginness

Over the past few weeks the siege of rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo has horrified the public with its unremitting bombardment and massive destruction.

It was with relief that we witnessed the end of the siege after a ceasefire between the protagonists and the peaceful evacuation of rebel combatants and their families to the relative safety of other rebel-controlled areas in Syria or Turkey.

The relatively peaceful end to the siege was successfully negotiated by the Russian and Turkish Governments. This conclusion to a dreadful battle of attrition in Aleppo was widely welcomed internationally. The avoidance of an appalling massacre was good news in a year mired in bloody outrages.

In the wake of this welcome development, there was a further surprising but very welcome move by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition rebel groups (minus Islamic State and al-Nusra) to agree a general ceasefire.

If this new ceasefire holds - and that is a bif 'if' - there will then be peace talks in Kazakhstan in an attempt to agree a comprehensive political solution to the almost six-year-old civil war.

The difference between this ceasefire and previously unsustainable truces is that this time it has been agreed between Russia and Turkey, acting as both negotiators and guarantors. The US has not been included, but has welcomed the deal.

However, it has been diplomatically outwitted and marginalised by Russia, probably because its own policy has been uncertain and ineffective over the past number of months.

The US has been opposed to President Assad and supported the so-called "moderate" rebel forces politically and with the supply of armaments. It was, therefore, opposed to the Russian military intervention and Russian political and diplomatic support for Assad.

But American intervention has been lamentably unsuccessful and added sustenance to the rebel campaign, thereby unnecessarily prolonging military action.

In the midst of this most terrible civil war the Turks, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have supported the rebel opposition, and the Russian military, along with the Iranians, has supported the Syrian Government.

All sides have agreed that a political solution has to be found to end the fratricidal conflict that has cost more than 300,000 lives, devastated the economy and made 4.8 million people refugees. A further 6.3 million are internally displaced.

The knock-on effect of the refugee crisis on Europe has virtually transformed politics in the EU and triggered the most serious challenge ever to the sustainability of it and its institutions.

For the Middle East and its divided Arab populations, the Syrian conflict is the contemporary equivalent to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, which was equally as bloody and divisive in ideological and political terms.

It also was a proxy war for the USSR and Nazi Germany, who armed and militarily helped opposite sides in that merciless and fratricidal tragedy.

Indeed, many idealistic young men from Ireland and Britain joined either side of the opposing forces in Spain, much like young jihadist volunteers do so today from Britain and other European countries.

Like the young jihadists of today, young men from here wastefully lost their lives in a so-called "ideological war" in Spain.

What has fundamentally changed things is that the Syrian Government, with the military help of the Russians since 2015, have regained control of the major Syrian cities and, with the recent recapture of the whole of Aleppo, have changed the military balance of the civil war.

The Syrian opposition, which is deeply fragmented and divided among itself, has been weakened militarily and needs to find a political solution to the conflict.

However, Islamic State and al-Nusra, being absolute Islamic fundamentalists opposed to Assad and also most of the Syrian opposition as well, will never accept a negotiated settlement to the war.

The more moderate political and armed forces within the opposition will accept a negotiated settlement, and that is the basis for hope for the end of this ghastly war. While Assad may militarily win this war with the massive help of the Russians, he will very likely lose the peace, as his continuation as a despised and divisive President of a post-civil war Syria is extremely unlikely.

For the time being he is safe, but in the long-term his rule is highly improbable.

Having served Russia's immediate political and military interests, the Kremlin will have no hesitation in abandoning Assad if that is what is required to bring about a peaceful settlement.

While we cannot be too optimistic about this ceasefire, it is an important political step-change that might just provide the basis for achieving a lasting peace in Syria.

We in Northern Ireland all know how difficult that task will be.

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