A PARTIAL cessation of hostilities in Syria has provided some tangible relief to the country’s long-suffering population over the past 10 days. By some estimates, violence is down 80 percent or more; according to the World Food Program, convoys carrying food and medicine have reached some 150,000 of the half a million people who previously were under siege. In some places, public demonstrations against the regime of Bashar al-Assad have resumed, showing that the dictator has failed to crush the popular rebellion that began five years ago.
Meanwhile, the political winner of the cease-fire is Russia. Vladimir Putin has posed as a peacemaker and statesman while continuing to advance his military objectives in strategic areas. Russian planes are still bombing: According to opposition sources, one airstrike hit a fuel market in rebel-controlled Idlib province on Monday, killing tens of people. Under the pretext of fighting terrorist groups excluded from the peace process, pro-Assad forces backed by Russian airpower are trying to sever the last supply road for the rebel-held side of Aleppo and to capture other key ground near Damascus.
The pause in fighting has saved lives, thankfully. But the price of the deal has been high: It has put Mr. Putin in command in Syria, able to chip away at Western-backed forces while ensuring that the genocidal dictatorship he backs remains in place.
The cease-fire is supposed to lead to the resumption of U.N.-brokered negotiations on Syria’s future. A spokesman for mediator Staffan de Mistura predicted Tuesday that indirect talks would get going by next Monday, though the rebel coalition has yet to confirm its attendance. According to a U.N. resolution, the Assad regime and its opponents are to agree on an 18-month plan to create a transitional government and organize elections. But Mr. Assad has no intention of yielding power; he is already organizing his own parliamentary elections for next month, in defiance of the U.N. road map.
U.S. officials still predict, implausibly, that Mr. Putin will cooperate in forcing Mr. Assad to leave office and make way for a new government. In reality, the best that can be hoped for is that Syria will settle into an uneasy partition, marked by chronic but perhaps less bloody fighting and fruitless negotiations. It would, in short, resemble Ukraine, where Russian forces continue to prod and probe government defense lines in spite of multiple commitments by Moscow to cease fire.
Mr. Putin might embrace that outcome if it allows him to gain diplomatic advantage. He could seek the lifting of Western sanctions in exchange for quieting the conflict and the accompanying surge of refugees toward Europe. Or he could resume the military offensive, seeking to restore the regime’s control over Aleppo, the country’s largest city. By conceding him those options, the Obama administration has temporarily avoided deeper U.S. involvement in Syria. It has also pushed a genuine peace out of reach.