What ‘cease-fire’ means in Syria

In this Feb. 16, 2016, file photo, Turkish artillery fire from the border near Kilis town toward northern Syria, in Kilis, Turkey. (AP Photo/Halit Onur Sandal, File)

It looks as if President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will get the formal cease-fire they have sought in Syria, beginning today. It will probably bring welcome humanitarian aid, in convoys that set out from Damascus on Wednesday, to some communities that have been isolated by the fighting.

But it’s questionable whether it will contribute to a lasting peaceful settlement of the Syrian civil war. Indeed, as President Obama said in a news conference Tuesday, the evident determination of Syria’s President Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers to continue the use of force is likely to result in an ongoing “quagmire” of unresolved conflicts.

Russia demonstrated its view of the “cease-fire” it told Secretary Kerry it would observe by intensifying air strikes helping Iranian-led “volunteers” to choke off the main rebel center of Aleppo. That included the bombing of a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. And President Assad said the cease-fire would not apply to “terrorist” groups, by which he meant any opposition forces.

The continued fighting means more refugees will be permanently displaced, more pressure on Europe to accept them despite the clear security risk that Islamic State terrorists will pose as refugees, and, in a new wrinkle, a heightened risk of war between Turkey, our NATO ally, and Russia.

This danger arises because Syrian Kurds that the United States has been backing to fight the Islamic State — to the dismay of Turkey that fears a militant Kurdish minority — have now launched attacks reportedly backed by Russia against moderate Syrian rebels (backed by the United States) in an attempt to expand their territory in Syria. Turkey may use force in Syria to stop it, bringing it up against Russia, which backs the Kurds in order to help President Assad gain control of the main rebel base in Aleppo. If that makes your head spin, welcome to Syria.

The success of the Assad government’s military allies — Shia ground troops supplied and led by Iran, and Russian air power — also raises the possibility that President Obama will be forced to seek an alliance, openly or tacitly, with President Assad and his backers to combat the Islamic State.

That would put this country on the side of a widely denounced war criminal who has used chemical weapons against his own people. And it would disastrously ally the United States with the main cause of instability in the Middle East — the rising tide of Iran-backed Shia militancy that has caused many among the majority Sunni population to sympathize with and financially support the Islamic State.

The quagmire that Mr. Obama blames on Russia cannot be isolated to Syria, but oozes out to threaten Europe and the United States. There has got to be a better answer to this threat that the figurative shrug of the shoulders that Mr. Obama delivered at his Tuesday press conference.