Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Counting on the ceasefire

The ceasefire brokered by Russia and the US has brought a measure of peace to Syria amid fears that its failure will open up dangerous alternatives, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Last Saturday was a very unusual day for the Syrian people. For the first time in five years they did not hear the sound of artillery or aerial bombardment, there were no military planes in the air, and the random dropping of the “barrels of death” from the regime’s helicopters had stopped.

A rare look of optimism crept into people’s faces at the thought that perhaps some real progress could now be made in the negotiations that UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has said will resume on 7 March.

In accordance with the cessation of hostilities resolution agreed upon by the US and Russia on 22 February and approved by the UN Security Council, a fragile truce went into effect on Saturday. Although there were some minor breaches, these were anticipated, and in the main all the warring parties took a day off from the conflict.

The regime’s military machine was silent, and the skies were free of Russian aircraft. The following day, Russian planes resumed their task of striking Syrian villages they had identified as strongholds of Al-Nusra Front, one of the terrorist organisations excluded from the ceasefire.

According to the Syrian opposition, regime forces committed 10 breaches of the ceasefire on the first day and 25 on the second. It urged Russia to adhere to the truce, stressing that Al-Nusra Front was not present in all the areas its planes had targeted.

In the main, the Syrians are hopeful. When the US and Russia declared their joint intent to monitor the ceasefire, there was a feeling that the two powers were serious this time. Russia stated that it would use 70 surveillance planes to monitor the truce, and set up a centre at the Latakia Airbase to receive complaints of breaches from both sides.

The US set up a similar centre that it said would operate around the clock and publicised telephone numbers and an email address through which people could report breaches.

Syrian opposition forces across the board have welcomed the ceasefire, but have also expressed doubts concerning Russia and the regime’s willingness to commit to it, especially as there are no stipulated penalties for breaches.

In spite of the detailed list of breaches they claim the regime committed in the first two days, the opposition forces stressed that they would continue to adhere to the truce. They also urged that measures be taken to strengthen the truce before negotiations resume in Geneva, including the release of prisoners and the lifting of the regime’s blockades on nearly half a million Syrians.

The enthusiasm for the ceasefire was shared elsewhere in the Arab region and the rest of the world. France welcomed it, but cautioned against its being used as a way “of crushing civilians”. Britain said that if the truce succeeds it will be “the most important step taken in the past five years”.

The UN did not exclude the possibility of “lapses” in the cessation of hostilities and urged all parties to exercise restraint and not retaliate against any breaches. It was up to the major powers to take appropriate action, it said.

Cairo also welcomed the ceasefire, saying it made it possible to save many Syrian lives. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri urged that steps be taken to strengthen and reinforce the truce, along with rapid action to address any breaches or disputes that could jeopardise it.

The aim was to pave the way to a comprehensive ceasefire that would enhance the prospects for progress in the negotiations, he said. He also underscored the importance of a full commitment to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2268 endorsing the cessation of hostilities, and added that Egypt would exert all possible efforts to support this in view of the need for it in the Arab region, the Middle East and neighbouring areas in Europe.

There remains the problem of the locations of moderate opposition forces as opposed to terrorist organisations, which is still the subject of disagreement between the Russian and US defence ministries. The Syrian opposition has urged Washington and Moscow to draw up a single map that identifies the combat fronts with the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Nusra Front, which are excluded from the agreement.

The opposition is concerned that Russia and the regime will use Al-Nusra Front as a pretext for sustaining strikes against a large area of territory. They say that according to the Russian map, the area designated for the truce is so small as to be barely visible, amounting to less than one per cent of Syrian territory, on which there are only 17 opposition organisations, whereas there are more than 100 Syrian factions accepted by the West under the terms of the ceasefire, and these control about 10 per cent of Syrian territory.

Many Syrians believe that Russia needs the ceasefire as much as the two sides of the conflict in Syria. Wary of becoming more embroiled in Syria than it already has, Russia may have discovered that after five months of intervention it has yet to succeed in securing a victory or a definitive shift in the balance of power in favour of the regime.

At the same time, it has earned the animosity of the majority of the Syrian people and the acrimony of Arab and Western countries. If it continues with the war, it will lose the Syrian people forever, while if it holds to the ceasefire it will retain some supporters in the future.

Hadi Al-Bahra, a former chairman of the Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said that Moscow “needs the ceasefire and needs to promote a diplomatic solution that is acceptable to the Syrian people and regional powers and a legal and legitimate solution that is acceptable to the West”.

Said Al-Bahra, “It realises that otherwise it will end up mired in the conflict and its repercussions for years to come. This is something that Russia does not want and most likely cannot sustain.”

The majority of the opposition forces have adhered to the truce for fear of becoming a target of both Russia and the US. In spite of the breaches of the ceasefire on the part of the regime and Russia, the number of dead across the country since the ceasefire went into effect has dropped to 10 per cent of the average daily toll.

Most likely there will be further breaches and perhaps interruptions in the ceasefire, but there are hopes that such troubles can be weathered and that the current truce will evolve into a permanent ceasefire.

It is unclear what the next step will be with regard to the cessation of hostilities agreement, with some speculating that the Russians and Americans will formulate a new agreement to impose a permanent ceasefire, or the UN Security Council will pass a resolution to introduce international observers and a peacekeeping force.

Samir Al-Aita, chair of the Opposition Syrian Forum, argues that the ceasefire is an indirect way of separating the military from the political tracks to facilitate a larger agreement.

“The security and military questions may have been separated off so they do not become the subjects of futile negotiations between the regime and the opposition,” he said. “This will augment the possibility of reunifying the country and reaching a political solution.”

He continued, “Separating the military questions from the political ones could reinvigorate the social forces that are fed up with war. At that point the Syrian people would be able to have their say on whether they want to live together or to fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines.”

Al-Aita also spoke of the possibility of separating humanitarian relief from the political track. “This would create a new climate, as the necessities of life would be made available to people who have suffered so greatly from the horrors of the conflict, thereby generating hope that the political solution has a meaning.”

The Syrian people see the ceasefire as a step towards ending the five-year war in the country. Ordinary people on both sides of the conflict are aware that a military victory is impossible and can only destroy the country.

They have begun to voice their hopes that a way can be found out of the tunnel that discards both the regime’s military calculations and the excessively high minimum demands of the opposition. At the same time, they fear that warlords on both sides may undermine any solution that would terminate their roles.

The Syrian people are also watching other developments on the ground. In tandem with the ceasefire, the regime has been redistributing its forces, mobilising more troops from the areas it controls, and deploying them to reinforce its weaker brigades.

Moscow has been talking of the “smart weapons” it has sent to Syria, some to its own military bases and others to the regime, and there are reports that the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah has deployed more forces in Syria and is strengthening its defences.

At the same time, the US has begun to speak of a “Plan B” military plan that, according to leaks, would circumvent Russia in the event that the ceasefire fails. Turkey has been amassing forces along the border preparatory to a ground offensive in the event that the Kurds proceed in their drive to take over northern Syria, while Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase has received a squadron of Saudi military aircraft and Riyadh is hosting training exercises for troops in Syria.

Members of the armed Syrian opposition still have their guns in their hands and remain stationed behind their barricades because they do not trust the regime or Russia.

All this combines to create the impression that the current ceasefire is only the calm before the storm. But the developments have increased the determination of all rationally minded Syrians to do everything in their power to persuade the warring parties to abide by the ceasefire and to appeal to other countries to help it succeed.

The Arab countries, above all Egypt, have urged other regional powers to work to enable the ceasefire to hold in order to pave the way for a political solution. At the same time, the Western countries are pressing the superpowers to assert their influence to the fullest to make the ceasefire last.

Everyone is acutely aware that this is a rare opportunity that will not easily be repeated and that its failure will open the floodgates to other options, all of them dangerous.

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