March 2, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Cessation of Hostilities in Syria
Indirect talks between the rebel groups and the Assad regime in Syria, arranged by the UN, broke down quickly in early February when the rebels protested the continued bombardment of civilian targets and the denial of relief supplies to thousands of families under siege in rebel-held areas. However, after intensive negotiation between Russia and the United States, including at the presidential level, a two-week ‘cessation of hostilities’ began at midnight local time on February 27. The cessation of hostilities is intended to allow the resumption of the UN-brokered talks. These were originally to restart on March 7, but yesterday the UN announced a postponement to March 9 to allow more time for trust to build between the parties. If the cessation of hostilities breaks down completely before then, the talks will be delayed still further.
A lull in the fighting has been acknowledged by all sides, though complaints of violations have mounted, especially as Russian and Syrian government airstrikes have continued to hit rebel targets that are well away from areas controlled by the so-called Islamic State, which, along with Jabhat al-Nusra, is specifically excluded from the deal. This is not just because Russia and the Syrian government label everyone opposed to Assad a terrorist. Maps produced by Russia marking the areas held by rebel groups considered party to the cessation of hostilities show small and isolated pockets of territory in areas of no immediate strategic importance, and are clearly inadequate. The problem for the rebels is that Jabhat al-Nusra has supporters in almost all those parts of the country where the fighting has been most intense. The rebels increasingly fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra just as its supporters fight alongside them, and Jabhat al-Nusra has labeled the cessation of hostilities a betrayal of the revolution.
An intended consequence of the ceasefire may therefore be to split the rebels; some have asked Jabhat al-Nusra to move away to allow the lull in fighting to continue in their areas, and others view the exclusion of Jabhat al-Nusra as a deliberate attempt to weaken the opposition. A complete lack of confidence in the good faith of the other side is likely to limit the durability of the cessation of hostilities as well as the productivity of any subsequent talks; rebel groups are likely to argue fiercely with one another and within their own ranks as to the benefits of continuing to hold their fire.
However, the cessation of hostilities, even after just four days, has clarified some aspects of the war. First, it has shown unity among the rebels, at least for the time being. The High Negotiations Committee, established last December in Riyadh, claims that 97 different factions, including the Army of Islam, and to some extent, Ahrar al-Sham, are signatories to the agreement. Second, it has shown that the political leaders of the opposition do have direct influence over the actions of the groups fighting on the ground, so making them viable partners in peace talks. Third, it has shown that the United States can force its allies to follow its lead, despite the differences between them, including Turkey’s outlier position as fundamentally opposed to the cessation of hostilities. Fourth, it has shown that the United States can find common ground with Russia and even influence its policy if it plays tougher than it has until now. It is likely, for example, that Russia would have preferred to delay the cessation of hostilities until pro-Assad forces had succeeded in encircling Aleppo. Fifth, it shows that, for now at least, Russia can call the shots with regard to both Syria and Iran, and therefore Hizballah. There is clearly a limit to Assad’s independence of action, despite Russia’s complaints that he is inclined to ignore instructions.
The cessation of hostilities is essentially a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia, and President Putin has embraced it with enthusiasm, seeing it as a vindication of his engagement in the war. The two countries have appointed themselves joint chairs of the Ceasefire Task Force on behalf of the International Syria Support Group, which includes all countries with a stake in the conflict. Not only has Russia therefore secured its seat at the table in discussions of the future of the Middle East, it is now on an equal footing with the United States, and even possibly more influential in the context of Syria, where it is both player and umpire. This will go down well with Putin’s audience at home, overshadowing some of the economic woes faced by his supporters.
The cessation of hostilities is likely to remain under imminent threat of collapse for as long as it lasts. Government troops have already redeployed, ready for a resumption of the fighting; but for the moment at least, civilians in some areas of Syria have enjoyed a small respite from the grueling civil war. Whether this is enough to stem the flow of refugees remains to be seen, but the agreement, albeit only partially observed, shows that there is a path towards resolution of this brutal and indiscriminate conflict. Even if the shaky peace holds, talks on governance, a new constitution, and elections will require greater unity of purpose than currently apparent, as will dealing with reconstruction and the problems caused by the slow collapse of the Islamic State, but it is a start.
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