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Joseph MicallefThe ceasefire in Syria is unravelling – and that’s no surprise.

Mohammad Alloush, chief negotiator for the Army of Islam, one of the principal rebel coalitions fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has just stepped down from the Geneva peace talks. In doing so, he criticized the United States and Russia for their inability to enforce “adherence to the ceasefire.”

The resignation underscored the ineffectiveness of the once highly-touted peace negotiations and how dramatically the political and military situation in Syria has changed in the last few months.

It was, in fact, never much of a ceasefire. At best, it was an ill-fated attempt to broker a political compromise to end the five-year civil war. At worst, it was never more than a cynical farce. Suspended since April, the three rounds of negotiations produced little beyond a declaration of a ceasefire – one that has been repeatedly violated by the Syrian government and its Russian allies.

The ceasefire specifically excluded military operations against Islamic State (IS), the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front, as well as other jihadists. The Syrian Army’s campaign to retake Aleppo, however, continued unabated. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and various jihadist groups have contested Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, for the last four years. During the summer of 2015, the FSA seemed on the verge of taking control of the city.

Russia’s intervention was designed to stabilize Assad’s government by eliminating any western-backed political alternatives. Nine months later, the situation is sharply reversed. It is the FSA in Aleppo that is now largely surrounded by Syrian troops, supported by Russian air power and Russian special forces units, and in danger of collapsing.

In the meantime, the administration of U.S President Barack Obama continues to play out the farce that it is engaging with Russia to organize a ceasefire and craft a political solution to end the Syrian Civil War. The ceasefire is failing because neither Damascus nor Moscow has any interest in maintaining it or in crafting a political solution to end the fighting in Syria.

Indeed, the Kremlin has stated what it considers an acceptable political solution: the continuation of the Assad government, an unspecified role for the “moderate” Syrian rebels in an Assad administration, and a combined Russian-American effort to eradicate Islamic State and other radical jihadist groups. To his credit, Russian President Vladimir Putin is well on his way to accomplishing exactly what he said he was going to do – a lesson that is not lost on Russia’s allies in the Middle East or on America’s allies.

What prompted Russian calls for a ceasefire was the Kremlin’s concern of an imminent Turkish intervention. Although Ankara has been a vehement opponent of the Assad regime, its more immediate concern was to prevent the creation of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state along the Syrian-Turkish border, as well as to prevent the complete collapse of the Turkish-supported FSA in Aleppo.

In the weeks prior to the ceasefire, there were numerous signs that Turkey was considering a military intervention to secure the largely Islamic State-controlled zone between Afrin Canton and the Euphrates. The intervention would create a safe zone for Syrian refugees. It would also have prevented the linkup of the three Kurdish cantons. A Turkish intervention, however, was dependent on Washington supplying air cover for the Turkish troops.

The prospect of American air support for a Turkish ground invasion triggered a declaration by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that it “could possibly lead to a third world war” – shorthand for a direct U.S.-Russian military clash. The Obama White House’s strong support for the Russian ceasefire proposal, even though it must have known it would be stillborn, was likely prompted by a desire to avoid the complications that would have been created by a Turkish intervention.

From the Kremlin’s standpoint, the ‘Syrian ceasefire’ served its political purpose – it forestalled a Turkish ground invasion of Syria. For the Obama administration, it is yet one more example of how it continues to be outmanoeuvred in Syria by Putin.

For the moment, the military operation to retake Aleppo goes on, al-Assad shows no signs of stepping down and the Syrian Civil War will continue unabated.

Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics. 

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