The four-day ceasefire that went into effect on Friday should have been the first good news from Syria for several months. The initiative came from Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League's special envoy, and was accepted by Bashar al-Assad's government
as well as several opposition commanders.
Two Islamist groups rejected it outright and both sides put conditions on it. The government said it would respond to rebel attacks and the rebels said the government should not resupply its troops. The rebels seemed to be particularly sceptical of any ceasefire since they appear to believe the military momentum is with them, and they have always been wary of political negotiations unless Assad first resigns.
Although ceasefire violations have been numerous, there has been a slight overall drop in military activity. Reports from Aleppo suggest the city has been quieter and in other places people had a brief respite, especially on the first day. UN agencies, working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, had pre-positioned tons of aid for displaced families and were able to dispatch two convoys to Homs. Dozens of Syrian civil society groups have been working to get medicine, food and blankets to the informal shelters where homeless families are living in and around Damascus and Aleppo.
Aleppo has been the focus of terrible recent clashes. It has fallen victim to the worst destruction of any major city in the world since 1945. Over a third of its 2 million residents may have fled. According to Haytham Manna, the head of the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, Aleppo's tragedy began when rebels attacked the city without having the strength to win it; whole districts were then destroyed by government counterattacks.
Manna lives in Paris but the rest of his 25-person executive lead opposition groups inside Syria. They still believe the best way to remove the Assad regime is through a ceasefire and a political settlement that provides for a democratic transition in which state institutions are reformed, not destroyed. They condemn the government's indiscriminate use of air power in built-up areas but are aware of growing civilian criticism of rebel tactics. Manna even claims to detect signs of fatigue among the armed opposition.
He and his colleagues inside Syria consider diplomatic intervention the only solution. Russia and the US must reach a consensus to halt arms supplies and put pressure on each side to have a long-lasting ceasefire. This would be followed by negotiations between the Syrian parties as well as talks among Syria's neighbours to guarantee no outside power would undermine the transition to a new system. It is a tall order. In their recent debates Romney and Obama produced the usual formulas that have yielded no breakthrough yet: Assad must go now, sanctions must be tightened, and support must increase for the armed opposition while ensuring weapons only go to "moderates". There was no mention of ceasefires, the UN, Brahimi, or a political solution.
On the Syrian government side there are severe obstacles. The ceasefire track is not new. Before Brahimi took over Kofi Annan's team had tried to negotiate truces in Homs, Rustan and Deir el-Zour. Assad claimed to agree but his generals vetoed the plans. Since then the regime's security chiefs have launched air attacks and new massacres in districts on the edge of Damascus. Now come this weekend's ceasefire violations. Like some of the rebels, the generals still believe military victory is possible.
They have also poisoned the atmosphere for talks, even if it means snubbing Russia, China and Iran. After Russian pressure the government allowed Manna's group to hold a conference in Damascus last month. But the day before it opened, one of the group's leaders, Abdelaziz al-Khayer, and two colleagues were detained by troops of the Airforce Intelligence, the most feared of the security agencies. Repeated inquiries by Russian, Chinese and Iranian diplomats have not yet produced their release.
Once the US election is over, Washington needs to change policy. One-sided support for the armed opposition condemns Syrians to months, perhaps years, of bloodshed. A Libya-style intervention would be a worse escalation. Far better to junk the failed strategy both candidates followed in last week's debate and work with Russia and Brahimi on a permanent ceasefire. Whatever disputes Obama has with Putin on other issues, he needs to work with the Kremlin on Syria rather than provoke it.