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Give peace a chance

Editorial | New Delhi |

It is fervently to be hoped that the cease-fire will hold. This is quite the most charitable construct that can be placed upon Vladimir Putin's announcement of a “truce deal” between the Syrian regime and the opposition groups. Even the Russian President is scarcely confident about the agreement, brokered by Russia and Turkey and effective from the “zero hour of 30th December”, as the Syrian military command has announced. Markedly, it comes in the aftermath of the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara and after the capture and evacuation of besieged Aleppo, however partial. Decidedly cynical, realistic too, has been Putin's own response ~ “The agreements reached are, of course, fragile, and need a special attention and involvement.” There is no mention of a time-frame for  the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria; the Russian military will maintain a presence at an air base in Syria’s Latakia province and in the port of Tartus, the Kremlin has asserted. Nor for that matter is there any reference to the ISIS challenge. Does Putin have the resources to keep his troops indefinitely in Assad's country? He is trying to assert his authority on the world stage but his ability to gamble in the Middle East is in itself questionable. Assad is said to be hanging to power by the skin of his teeth; the moment Russia scales down its involvement, his survival will be under a cloud. The Syrian National Coalition, which is one of the main opposition groups, has lent support to the agreement, urging “all parties to abide by it”. It is as yet uncertain whether the entire opposition ~ a fractious grouping ~ has concurred with the pact. Indeed, the uncertainty centres precisely over which groups were included in the deal. At two ends of the scale, both America and ISIS have been excluded in the greater scheme of things. It is a salutary development that the Syrian army has called for an immediate end to the fighting, and it now remains for Assad's forces to walk the talk. In terms of geostrategic power-games, a striking feature has been the exclusion of the United States from recent negotiations. America is unlikely to attend the next round of peace talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, a Russian ally. Is it possible that the exclusion of the US mirrors its differences with both Turkey and Russia over Washington’s policy on Syria? Altogether, there may be hope yet that the increasingly prevaricating United Nations has readily welcomed the agreement. It must above all save civilians, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance across Syria, and most particularly Aleppo, pave the way for productive talks in Astana, and not least bring Assad and ISIS to their knees. The road ahead is rocky, but there is mild comfort in the thought that the year ends with a scintilla of hope.