Sunday,24 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Sunday,24 June, 2018
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A lull in the conflict

The flurry of local truces in Syria may not guarantee stability but will make life easier for millions of civilians, writes Bassel Oudat from Damascus


A SERIES of ceasefire deals in Syria just might begin to heal the wounds. During six years of conflict over 300,000 people lost their lives. But for the plight of 11 million who have been displaced, a comprehensive political solution is the only way to go home.
A SERIES of ceasefire deals in Syria just might begin to heal the wounds. During six years of conflict over 300,000 people lost their lives. But for the plight of 11 million who have been displaced, a comprehensive political solution is the only way to go home.

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Temporary and local ceasefires have begun springing up across Syria though there is little sign a clear roadmap towards a political solution is emerging to end the conflict that has been tearing the country apart since 2011.

The ceasefire push began in south-western Syria where a truce was announced after Russian President Vladimir Putin met his US counterpart Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 Summit on 7 July. Two days after the meeting fighting in the region came to a halt after six bloody years.

The good news is the truce is likely to hold. It is, after all, sponsored by two major powers and no Syrian party — neither the opposition nor the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad — is in a position to reject it. Iran has also been forced to withdraw its militias from the region, redeploying them northwards.

Although the area remains divided between the armed opposition and regime troops the deal will have a significant impact on the lives of civilians since it puts a stop to air strikes by the regime and Russia. It will also help ensure calm along the border with Jordan and Israel by pushing back the sectarian, Iranian-backed militias drawn from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Truces have also sprung up in rural areas around Damascus where the armed opposition continues to control an area to the east of the city. Here the ceasefire between the regime and the armed opposition was brokered by Russia and Egypt, part of Cairo’s first bid to sponsor ceasefire talks in Syria.

The deal, coordinated by the Egyptian government and the Russian Ministry of Defence, was signed on 23 July after three days of negotiations attended by armed opposition groups from rural Damascus and Egyptian and Russian officials.

The truce has held so far, not least because it is perceived as necessary by both the opposition and the regime. The regime supports the truce because it fears an opposition that is ensconced on the doorstep of the capital, just a few kilometres from the presidential palace. The opposition needs the truce because it has been exhausted by air strikes. On 3 August the Russian Defence Ministry announced that a ceasefire had also been agreed in Homs in central Syria. Signed in Cairo, it was co-sponsored by Egypt.

The one million Syrians likely to benefit from the ceasefire in the south include 500,000 refugees from the town of Deraa who fled to camps in Jordan and elsewhere. As soon as they heard about the Russian-US sponsored truce they began to head back home despite the future remaining uncertain. Their safety in the short or medium term cannot be guaranteed given the regime’s history of breaking truces.

The ceasefire around Damascus and in Homs is unlikely to alleviate serious food and other shortages and living conditions will remain difficult for many.

Though the ceasefires and truce agreements are important for large numbers of Syrians they fall short of offering stability. The guarantor of the two most recent truces is Russia, hardly a neutral party given it is the Syrian regime’s main supporter. Russia has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the opposition as representative of any part of the Syrian population, leaving many suspicious of Russia’s true intentions.

In an attempt to build confidence in the agreements Russia has begun deploying military police to monitor the ceasefires in the south and around Damascus. Some in the opposition hope the ceasefires will also be enforced by the US, adding that Egyptian troops monitoring the frontlines would be better than Russians given the latter are allied with the regime.

“Russian guarantees are open to manipulation,” said Said Al-Sheikh, a member of the Syrian opposition. “Experience has taught us that Russia does not keep its promises to the Syrian opposition. After every agreement it has sent in airplanes to attack truce areas under the pretext that terrorists are present in them.”

 “Egyptian guarantees are more acceptable. Deploying Egyptian troops to monitor the ceasefires would be more agreeable to the Syrians, especially if they were part of an Arab deployment ordered by the UN.”

“The Russians wanted Egypt to be the co-sponsor of the agreements in eastern Ghouta and northern Homs even though Cairo was not a signatory to May’s Russian-Iranian-Turkish Astana Agreement to de-escalate the conflict. Egypt is on equal terms with the regime and the opposition and it has a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia. The international community may also call upon it to deploy its forces to guarantee any future political and military solution,” said Al-Sheikh.

Moscow wants to balance its relationships in the region and would prefer to see an Egyptian presence in Syria rather than deploy Russian military police on the frontlines. While the presence of Turkish troops would be unacceptable to the Syrian regime an Egyptian role is easier to swallow given that Cairo has maintained a balance in its ties with both sides over the last six years.

It has been reported that Cairo wants to see discussions on how to resolve the Syrian conflict centred on the Arab League, something which also appeals to Moscow since it could lead to the bracketing of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 on the need for a transitional government in Syria. Moving discussions to the Arab League might also make it easier for Moscow to guarantee that the regime remains in power during any transitional phase, even allowing Al-Assad to run for office in any future election.

The string of truces in the conflict has been welcomed by Syrians on all sides and they have reduced the level of fighting and destruction even if they cannot bring about a permanent and lasting peace. To consolidate any gains the ceasefire agreements must be accompanied by a comprehensive political solution to the conflict based on the Geneva Declaration, guaranteeing the Syrian people a long-overdue political transition.

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