WASHINGTON – Israeli officials aired skepticism on Sunday that a planned “cessation of hostilities” in Syria’s civil war, brokered last week in Munich by US and Russian officials, would ultimately succeed.
In the German city for a series of meetings, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Jerusalem believes “it is hard to see how the war and mass killing there are stopped.”
“The situation in Syria is very complex,” Ya’alon said.
“Syria, as we have known it, will not be united anew in the foreseeable future, and at some point I reckon that we will see enclaves, whether organized or not, formed by the various sectors that live and are fighting there.”
The planned cessation of hostilities – short of the legal prerogatives and requirements that constitute a formal cease-fire – would amount to a pause in fighting between the belligerents on both sides of the five-year-old war.
Both sides, however, would be allowed to continue striking groups they agree constitute terrorist organizations: Jahbat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria; and Islamic State.
Ram Ben-Barak, director- general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, suggested on Sunday that a partition of the Syrian state along sectarian lines was “the only possible solution.”
While those lines continue to change with the pace of battlefronts, Syria’s East is largely controlled by embattled president Bashar Assad – a member of a Shi’a minority– while its West is largely Sunni, and its North inhabited by Kurds.
“I think that, ultimately, Syria should be turned into regions under the control of whoever is there – the Alawites where they are, the Sunnis where they are,” Ben-Barak told Army Radio, referring to Assad’s minority sect and the majority Muslim denomination, respectively.
“I can’t see how a situation can be reached where those same Alawites, only 12 percent of the population, go back to ruling the Sunnis, of whom they killed half a million people there,” Ben-Barak continued.
“Listen, that’s crazy.”
Despite plans for a pause in the fighting by the end of the week, Russian jets continued pulverizing rebel forces opposed to Assad on Sunday, including in and around Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city.
In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama “emphasized the importance now of Russia playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria,” the White House said of the exchange.
He also emphasized the importance “of rapidly implementing humanitarian access to besieged areas of Syria and initiating a nationwide cessation of hostilities.”
A paper published by the Institute for the Study of War warned against proceeding with this pause, however, calling it a Russian ploy to consolidate its gains on the ground made in recent weeks.
“Russia is using the cover of a potential ‘cessation of hostilities’ to set conditions for the collapse of US-backed groups in Aleppo,” wrote Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande, both with ISW, who warn that US-supported groups in Aleppo may ultimately fall under the leadership of Jahbat al-Nusra.
“There is very little to indicate that Russia, Iran, or the Syrian regime have any intention of halting their military campaign in northern Syria, despite this diplomatic overture.
“Russia’s objective is to eliminate the opposition in Aleppo that poses the greatest threat to Assad and undermine Western support of these groups under the cover of targeting terrorists,” the analysts warn.
“As such, the February 11 ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement is not a solution to the challenges the US faces in Syria; it is a submission to Russia’s agenda.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the proposed pause, hopes to negotiate a permanent cease-fire that will precede a political transition from the Assad government.
Assad’s forces also advanced further into Raqqa province on Sunday, where they seek to retake control of Islamic State’s nominal capital. So, too, do Saudi Arabian forces, who have deployed to a Turkish base in Incirlik in preparation for the operation.
The dual advances – should the Saudis proceed with a ground invasion – amount to a race for Islamic State-held territory between the two major sides of Syria’s larger civil war.
In Syria’s North, Turkish forces shelled Kurdish fighters for a second day on Sunday, warning them not to continue an advance outside of their long-held stronghold.
Russian and Iranian officials have warned both Turkey and Saudi Arabia against intervening on the ground.
“Americans and Europeans cannot decide for Syrian nation, and it is the Syrian nation who should decide its future,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Sunday.Reuters contributed to this report