Can There be a Future Ceasefire in Syria?

Konark Sikka, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives 

The most recent seven-day Syrian ceasefire was agreed upon by the United States and Russia on  September 7th, in the days preceding Eid Al-Adha. The ceasefire has taken place five years after the start of the Syrian Civil War, two years after the United States formally intervened in Syria, and one year after Russia became involved. The ceasefire was brokered by the United States and Russia, and included the stipulation that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces would also cease hostile attacks during the ceasefire.

This was not the first ceasefire agreement in the Syrian Civil War. There were two previous attempts during the conflict. The first one happened in April 2012, when former United Nations Secretary General  Kofi Annan helped broker a ceasefire between President Assad’s forces and the rebels that had emerged over the course of the conflict. That ceasefire did not hold for long,  as it was interrupted by fighting.

The second attempt at a ceasefire took place in February 2016, when the United States and Russia, as well as the Arab League and the EU, agreed to cease hostile advances,  allow aid delivery, and initiate peace talks. The terms of the agreement never came to fruition and the ceasefire was repeatedly disregarded.

The Details of the Ceasefire

Despite previous attempts at ceasefires, the current agreement was negotiated slightly differently than the previous ones. What made the recent ceasefire agreement different was the cooperation between the United States and Russia to target the terrorists groups of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and ISIL. No cooperation had previously been agreed upon by the two countries in specifically targeting terrorist groups.

Source: Vox/ISW/Al Jazeera

The ceasefire also included an agreement to create a demilitarized zone around Aleppo, one of the hardest hit cities during the conflict, in order to send in aid. There was also an agreement between the United States and Russia to create a Joint Implementation Center (JIC), facilitating information sharing on terror groups between the two countries and their allies.

Finally, the ceasefire also stipulated that the Assad government would stop attacks in opposition areas, a measure Russia had agreed to. Russia also certified that the stipulation would be respected by Assad’s forces.

Why the Ceasefire Failed

The most recent ceasefire was met with discontent and skepticism by rebel groups from the moment of its announcement. First, there was no proper mechanism for either monitoring of the situation or applying enforcement in cases that violated the ceasefire agreement. The agreed mechanism was the same mechanism that was agreed upon during the February 2016 ceasefire, which only included the provision to set up a communications hotline between the United States and Russia, and  establish a ‘working group’ to scrutinize any reported violations. That mechanism had already been violated and was shown to be ineffective. To take the same approach to an enforcement and monitoring mechanism as the previously failed ceasefire agreement was redundant, and in case of a ceasefire violation, given the history of the conflict, was extremely likely.

Furthermore, Russia and the United States have often been in dispute over who the terror groups in the Syrian conflict are. Additionally, Russia has launched attacks that were not limited to ISIS and other terror groups. Thus, dissensions between the two countries over determining who the terror groups were in the conflict was imminent, despite the creation of the JIC.

The severe distrust between Syrian forces and rebel groups regarding the other’s ability to maintain the ceasefire was evident in statements on the ceasefire agreement. Opposing rebel forces had no faith in Assad’s military upholding the agreement based on the violations they made in the previous ceasefire agreement. The rebel forces also expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of a stronger enforcement mechanism for the agreed ceasefire.

The distrust between all parties eventually led to the breakdown of the ceasefire, as both sides argued that the other side had violated the ceasefire. Eventually, the United States cited Russia’s attacks as the reason for making the ceasefire agreement impossible.  

The Future of Ceasefires in Syria’s Conflict

The ceasefire is now over. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have had discussions since the  breakdown of the ceasefire, but there has been no breakthrough in the talks to date.

For any future ceasefire to be successful, the two key factors that led to the breakdown of the most recent ceasefire will have to be addressed. The JIC, while a step towards cooperation, is a tool fraught with difficulties. Neither the United States nor Russia share mutual goals surrounding a resolution to the Syrian conflict. Tensions between the two countries over Crimea make a successful implementation of the JIC proposed strategy even less likely.

To add to those obstacles, any successful implementation of the JIC plan would require sensitive information to be shared between both countries, which will be an unpopular and risky proposition. Given these stated reasons, the JIC, as it was written in the ceasefire agreement, seems like a  mechanism that would be extremely unlikely to be successfully implemented. That is not to say that any level of cooperation is impossible between the two countries. The United States and Russia currently cooperate in order  to avoid any unintended attacks on either country’s forces.

While cooperation is an acceptable path forward, a path towards the resolution of the conflict hinges on all sides concentrating on smaller targets rather than solely focusing on their parochial goals. Hence, the initial steps that should be taken have to be incremental in order to foster trust. The next mutual step that can be taken is to limit cooperation efforts to the termination of ISIS in Syria, before shifting the focus to sifting through the various groups in Syria’s conflict to determine which ones are linked with terror groups.

Finally, there is a need for a coherent and agreed upon enforcement and monitoring mechanism in cases of attacks on both rebel groups and Assad’s forces. This mechanism can be drawn up in cooperation by all the countries involved in the conflict, under the auspices of the United Nations, who would serve as an impartial overseer of this mechanism. These steps would foster trust and a common platform that would help create the environment for talks to reach a resolution of the Syrian conflict.

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