A cease-fire, even a partial one by only some of the parties to the war in Syria, is the perfect first step -- but only if it's widely understood as a first step.
Almost none of the news coverage I've seen speaks to what purpose the cease-fire serves. And most of it focuses on the cease-fire's limitations and who predicts someone else will violate it, and who openly promises to violate it. The big outside parties, or at least Russia, plus the Syrian government, will go right on bombing selected targets, which will go right on shooting back, while Turkey has announced that ceasing to kill Kurds would just be taking the whole thing a bit too far (Kurds the United States is arming against other people the United States is arming, by the way).
The United States distrusts Russia on this, while Russia distrusts the United States, various Syrian opposition groups distrust each other and the Syrian government, everybody distrusts Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- the Turks and Saudis most of all, and U.S. neocons remain obsessed with Iranian evil. The predictions of failure could be self-fulfilling, as they seem to have been before.
Vague talk of a "political solution," which parties take to mean completely incompatible things, is not a second step designed to make a cease-fire succeed. It's a fifth or sixth or seventh step. The second step that is missing, after ceasing to directly kill people, is to cease facilitating the killing of people by others.
This was what was needed when Russia proposed peace in 2012 and the United States brushed it aside. This is what was needed after the chemical weapons agreement in 2013. Instead the United States held off on bombing, under public and international pressure, but escalated its arming and training of others to kill, and its winking at Saudi Arabia's and Turkey's and others' fueling of the violence.
Truth be told, this was what was needed when President Barack Obama was allowing Hillary Clinton to convince him to overthrow the government of Libya in 2011. Outside parties need an agreement to cease supplying weapons and fighters, and an agreement to supply unprecedented levels of humanitarian aid. The goal should be disarming those who would kill, supporting those who would join the violence out of economic need, and countering the highly successful propaganda of groups that live off the assaults on them by outside nations.
ISIS is thriving in Libya now and going after the oil there. Italy, which has a shameful history in Libya, is showing some reluctance to worsening the situation there by continuing to attack. The point is not that local forces can defeat ISIS but that nonviolence would do less harm than violence in the short, middle, and long term. Hillary Clinton, for her part, is bordering on the criminally insane, or at least the criminal, as she just spoke about Libya in her most recent debate on the model of a permanent occupation of Germany, Japan, or Korea. So much for hope and change.
The second step, the public commitment to which could make the first step work, would involve the United States withdrawing from the region and insisting on Turkey and Saudi Arabia and others ceasing to fuel the violence. It would involve Russia and Iran pulling out all forces and canceling backwards ideas like Russia's new proposal to arm Armenia. Russia should ship nothing but food and medicine to Syria. The United States should do the same and commit to no longer seeking the overthrow of the Syrian government -- not because it's a good government, but because it has to be overthrown nonviolently by forces that actually mean well, not by a distant imperial power.
Secretary of State John Kerry's already announced plan B is to partition Syria, meaning to continue to fuel the mass murder and suffering, while hoping to diminish the size of the state allied to Iran and Russia, in favor of empowering the terrorists that the United States empowered in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Iraq in the 2000s and right now in Yemen. The U.S. delusion that yet another overthrow, yet again empowering small groups of killers, will fix things is a root cause of the conflict at this point. But so is the Russian delusion that bombing just the right people will bring peace and stability. Both nations have stumbled into a cease-fire, but seem to think of it as an opportunity to appease a bit of global outrage while reloading. If you want to know how the cease-fire is going, watch the weapons companies' stocks.