The practical effect of the cease-fire deal agreed to Feb. 12 by the 17-country International Syria Support Group could be limited. The United States hopes that implementation of the agreement, which excludes the Islamic State and extremist groups within the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al Assad, will lead to a political transition that could end the Syrian civil war and refocus international attention on the Islamic State. The Russians see considerable advantage in the cease-fire proposal, the implementation of which is set to begin Feb. 19, because it could mean improving Russia's military advantage on the ground without requiring any significant political concessions.
The extent of any cease-fire will be key to its outcome. The U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition has no intention of halting operations in Syria. The exclusion of some of the groups involved in the conflict means, effectively, that at best only a partial cease-fire will exist. Moreover, one of the excluded rebel groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, is a dominant camp within the rebel fronts in the north. Given the number of rebel forces closely intertwined with Jabhat al-Nusra and the interspersed organization and deployment of rebel forces across Syria, even localized cease-fires will be difficult to maintain. The history of the Syrian conflict is littered with failed cease-fires, both regional and nationwide.
Beyond the fractious rebel landscape, the cease-fire's success also depends on the moves made by al Assad loyalists and their Russian and Iranian backers, who hold the current military advantage and battlefield momentum. The Russians' history in Syria, where they have consistently claimed they were targeting the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra when they have clearly struck at other factions, including Free Syrian Army units, does not bode well for the chances of a lasting cease-fire. With their recent battlefield successes, loyalist forces would also be averse to making significant political concessions, dimming hope for an amenable political transition for all sides.
However, even a limited reduction in fighting could prove beneficial in at least one aspect: easing the delivery of aid to civilians affected by the conflict. Beyond that, a cease-fire, or more accurately a gradual cessation of hostilities, is only as effective as it is applied. With an understanding by all sides that no complete end to fighting is possible in Syria in the near term — especially as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey all increase their involvement in the conflict — and with little hope for a successful political transition at this stage, fighting could just as easily escalate as decline over the coming months.