In Depth

Is the Syrian war over?

US is accused of risking ceasefire in Idlib, the final bastion for anti-Assad rebels

A ceasefire by Syrian government troops that came into force in the rebel-held province of Idlib this weekend is already threatening to collapse.

Hours after the Russia-brokered agreement “ended months of bombardment of Syria’s last significant anti-regime holdout” on Saturday, the US launched an air strike targeting al-Qa’eda figures, reported The Telegraph.

At least 40 people were killed, prompting Moscow to accuse Washington of “endangering” the hard-won truce that was scarcely a day old, said the newspaper.

So why is Idlib so important and is the civil war anywhere near an end?

Is the war over?

Syria has been at war since President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used deadly force against pro-democracy protesters in 2011. The government has been fighting rebel groups and extremists, including Islamic State (Isis), to reclaim control of the country, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions.

Assad’s position “looked tenuous at one point during the eight-year conflict”, but thanks to international allies such as Russia and Iran, he “has won back control of most of Syria, and has set his sights on Idlib”, reports the BBC.

Why is Idlib so important?

The province “is the last bastion for Syria’s armed resistance, and over recent years, those who could not be bought in surrender deals, or those whom the Assad government has no interest in allowing into government-controlled areas, have been corralled into Syria’s northwest corner”, says the Telegraph.

Assad’s forces have been trying to retake the area since April and have made advances in recent weeks. This has not come without a cost: more than 800 people, including 200 children, are said to have died.

As thousands of Syrian civilians gathered at posts along the border with Turkey last week, Russia announced the ceasefire, saying it aimed “to stabilise the situation” in the province and urging anti-regime fighters to “abandon armed provocations and join the peace process”.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been pressing to control a “safe zone” in coordination with the US on the Syrian border to keep out Kurdish forces, which it sees as terrorists, reports the Military Times.

Turkish officials have “temporarily” agreed to a US-proposed safe zone, narrower than 20 miles, but have warned that if it fails to materialise Turkey will launch an offensive into Syria.

Will the ceasefire last?

The truce is the latest Russia-led effort to “avert what the UN has described as one of the worst humanitarian ‘nightmares’ in Syria’s eight-year conflict”, says Arab News.

But Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior Assad adviser, told Lebanon’s pro-Damascus Al-Mayadeen TV that it is only temporary and is part of the regime’s strategy “to liberate every inch” of the country.

Reuters points out that it is the second ceasefire declared in Idlib in the past month, noting that the “truce in early August collapsed three days in, after which the Russian-backed army pressed its offensive and gained ground”.

Political scientists Benjamin Allard and Tanisha M. Fazal, writing in The Washington Post, say the war “seems to be ending via a slow surrender by a fractured insurgency”, but a formal negotiated settlement “is deeply improbable today, given a profound lack of trust on all sides”.

With his military upper hand and backing from Russia, Assad has little incentive to pursue a broad peace agreement, they say.

“The slow rebel surrender, however, will probably amount to at best a hollow victory for the regime,” conclude Allard and Fazal. “The Assad regime’s history of repression and violation of international humanitarian law means that rebel retreat will by no means automatically convert into effective government control. When the war ends, the toll of ‘peace’ is likely to be quite high for Syria, and for Syrians.”

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