Cyr: Fragile Syria ceasefire is significant — and promising

"Today we announce an arrangement that we think has the capability of sticking." That is how U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, standing with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, announced the Sept. 9 agreement to pursue a ceasefire and longer-term stability in Syria. The civil war has been utterly devastating to the population of the nation, and threatens the stability of the entire region.

The collaboration, ironically, is a result of the forceful direct military intervention in Syria by the Russian military approximately one year ago. Over the short term, Russia's air force has greatly secured the staying power of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. A constellation of rebel groups, which includes the Islamic State, had been slowly gaining the offensive. Syria has grown increasingly isolated in the international community.

Russia has a long history of involvement in the Middle East, including with Syria. The 1950s were an especially turbulent time, with new nationalist regimes appearing to succeed European colonies and clients. The profoundly serious Suez Crisis of 1956 resulted in sharp rupture among Western allies, as the Eisenhower administration refused to support a combined military assault by Britain, France and Israel to retake the Suez Canal and seize the Sinai Peninsula from nationalist Egypt.

From that time until the end of the Cold War, Moscow exploited opportunities to expand influence in the region. Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, was part of a 1963 coup bringing his faction of the nationalist Ba'ath Party to power. By 1970, after extensive internal struggle, he consolidated power and ruled until 2000. Ironically given developments today, he was generally regarded as relatively moderate and an economic modernizer, though in the context of harsh dictatorship.

Syria developed a close military partnership with Egypt, and the two nations went to war together against Israel in 1973. President Jimmy Carter brokered a durable peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1978-79. Jordan later reached a treaty with Israel. Syria remains hostile.

Historically, Moscow has been preoccupied with secure national borders, especially in Eastern Europe, and has generally abstained from sending military forces long distances overseas. President Vladimir Putin has abandoned this cautious approach.

President Barack Obama declared that use of poison gas by Damascus would be a "red line," and implied military retaliation. When poison gas was used, he did nothing beyond rhetoric that Congress must authorize force.

The Yom Kippur War between Arab states and Israel in October 1973 brought an American-Soviet nuclear confrontation, though largely outside public view. Rivalries and the Watergate crisis color recollections among the officials involved. Nevertheless, reasonable conclusions can be drawn.

First, President Richard Nixon aggressively secured essential military aid to Israel. Simultaneously, Israel was pressured successfully to show restraint regarding encircled Egyptian forces. In short, vital U.S. interests in the region were recognized clearly and protected.

Second, visible actions were taken to demonstrate U.S. military resolve: B-52 bombers were moved from Guam to the U.S., and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division was placed on alert.

Third, the U.S. declined a proposed joint "condominium" with the Soviet Union. Interests were too divergent on both sides. Today, absence of the Cold War permits limited cooperation.

The Yom Kippur confrontation arguably was as serious as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. In today's post-Cold War world, such stark Russia-U.S. collision is less likely.

Negotiating skill and drive is essential to progress. So far, John Kerry is proving equal to the task.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of "After the Cold War."

acyr@carthage.edu

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