Despite the resurgence of violence, the implementation of the latest ceasefire in Syria is a cause for hope and might lead to long-term peace in the war-torn country.

By Zsófia Baumann

On 24 February, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted for the implementation of a 30-day ceasefire in Syria starting immediately. The sixth in the history of the seven-year long conflict, the ceasefire is expected to bring a temporary solution to the distribution of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the hundreds of wounded civilians trapped inside the war-torn country. Despite the renewal of violence just within two weeks of the UN-resolution, there is still hope that the ceasefire will not only ease the suffering of civilians but provide incentive for the parties to give negotiations another try.

Syria: a list of unsuccessful ceasefires

This is not the first time warring parties in Syria agreed to cease fighting for a period of time. Previously, five attempts were made to hold peace, but in three of the five cases these initiatives did not last the time period initially agreed on.

The first, though partial, ceasefire agreement was set two years ago, following the annual Munich Security Conference. The initial aim of the ceasefire was to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged and hard-to-reach areas of Syria and the “cessation of hostilities” across the country. Simultaneously, just a week before the ceasefire came into effect, parties entered into negotiations in Geneva at the UN-mediated Syria Peace Talks, which unravelled after only two days. An ambitious plan, the ceasefire had some major flaws. First, the resolution was loose on identifying terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State, Jabhat Al-Nusra and their affiliated groups. It thus provided a loophole for Russian forces to target whomever they deemed terrorists. Russia’s actions were seen by many as direct support for Syrian government forces, hampering efforts at reviving previous peace talks. The truce slowly collapsed as hostilities continued in Aleppo between the Syrian government and opposing rebel groups, despite repeated attempts at shorter, renewed ceasefires.

The second attempt came just a few months later and lasted from 12 to 19 September 2016. It was initiated and backed by the United States and Russia, with the understanding that if the Syrian government and the US-supported coalition of so-called “mainstream Syrian opposition rebel groups” would stop hostilities for a week, the US and Russia could begin to plan a joint mission against the Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front. The agreement, again, was not explicit enough on terrorist groups, providing a good excuse for Russian airstrikes to target rebel-held territories. On paper, the ceasefire held up for a week, however, Syrian forces continued to target rebels, the delivery of UN aid was hampered and a US-British airstrike hit Syrian soldiers instead of Islamic State militants. The US officially announced the suspension of talks with Russia a few days after the ceasefire ended.

Two months later Turkey and Russia managed to reach an agreement on a ceasefire for the whole territory of Syria. The truce was meant to begin on 30 December 2016 at midnight. However, clashes broke out just a few hours after. The agreement was clearly violated after only three days, leading to several rebel groups who originally signed the ceasefire declaring their withdrawal from future peace talks. By 14 February, the ceasefire collapsed nationwide and the fighting resumed.

The fifth ceasefire attempt entered into force in July 2017. The agreement brokered by Russia, the US and Jordan was initially planned as an open-ended agreement but only covered three provinces in southern Syria. At the same time, talks in Geneva opened again, this time focusing on a new constitution, establishing governance, holding elections and combating “terrorism” in the above mentioned territories (the so-called southern “de-escalation” agreement). In October, the US Department of State claimed the ceasefire was still holding, despite outbreaks of country-wide violence. Although the termination of the July 2017 ceasefire was actually never officially declared, the conclusion of the US’ covert support for southern rebels, the lack of appropriate groundwork for a long-term political solution, and thus, the re-emergence of violence effectively ended it at the end of last year.

The latest attempt at peace

The latest attempt on 24 February comes after a week of bloodshed affecting primarily the suburban area of Eastern Ghouta, adjacent to the capital of Damascus. According to Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières – MSF), an NGO providing medical help, more than 520 people were killed and 2,500 wounded in the week leading up to the ceasefire, due to the heavy bombardment of the residential area where around 400,000 people are in hiding. In addition to the ceasefire, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a daily five-hour humanitarian pause in fighting in the area. Despite the international backing of the ceasefire and Russia’s visible support, the UN says it has not received Syrian government permission to deliver humanitarian aid and the 45-truck convoy with medical and food supplies for 90,000 people was left stranded outside of Eastern Ghouta.

The fighting has resurged as well. The British NGO Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Syrian warplanes bombing Ghouta the same day the ceasefire was agreed to. The Syrian government’s envoy to the UN, Bashar Jaafari responded to the incident saying his government had a right to defend its territory and “fight terrorism, wherever it is.” This led to renewed clashes between the Syrian army and rebel groups, raising the death toll to 1,099 and the number of casualties to 4,378 by the end of the second week of the ceasefire, according to SOHR. The rising toll comes amid claims of yet another chemical attack on the town of Arbin in Eastern Ghouta, the second within a couple of days. These recent developments raise concerns about whether the agreement will hold at least for a shorter period of time or if it will suffer the same fate as its predecessors.

Another major obstacle ahead of any Syrian ceasefire is the lack of a UN-led observer mission in the country. The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was active in the country until 2012, when it suspended its activities due to the escalating violence. Without an independent mission in place, it is more difficult to monitor compliance. At the same time, dispatching a new mission is not something that can be done in a few days. In lieu of a UN-mission, the presence of independent media can also act as an observer force. However, in the case of Syria, the adequate presence of international journalists is also an issue. Together with certain areas being cut off from the outside world, repeated attacks against international NGOs and civilians makes the work of those few journalists in the field much more difficult.

What is expected from this agreement?

Despite all of the above-mentioned hurdles standing in the way of a successful Syrian ceasefire, it is still a significant step towards a possible peace agreement. The most important advantage of implementing a ceasefire, regardless of its length, is that it temporarily reduces fighting, and thus, the number of casualties. This, apart from bringing relief for people on the ground, allows, in theory, humanitarian and medical staff to “catch up” with their work and provides for international organizations an access to territories cut off by fighting. In the case of the current Syrian ceasefire, it would be aimed at bringing relief to civilians trapped in Eastern Ghouta who have endured weeks of shelling and are cut off from the outside world in terms of both medical and food supplies.

Apart from the practical advantages of the ceasefire, it also helps to build trust between the warring parties, especially if the truce holds. A commitment from all sides to the ceasefire could lead to a momentum towards a permanent end of hostilities. However, this can also backfire. If one party breaks the deal, it could not only hamper the efforts to achieve peace, but set the process back by years. On the other hand, if the ceasefire holds, the cessation of fighting provides time and opportunity to start talking about long-term peace.

The success of the ceasefire largely depends on all sides’ motivation to enter the agreement in the first place. Warring parties usually agree on a ceasefire if the costs of continuing the fight are higher than those of stopping. The same applies to holding up their commitment. Parties can agree to cease fighting temporarily to regain strength, regroup or resupply and then resume fighting from a better position, in which case they violate the spirit of the agreement. Alternatively, they can put down their weapons to show their commitment to a peaceful resolution and thus gain recognition both domestically and in the eyes of the international community.

Do ceasefires ever work?

With grave violations to the current agreement and the long list of unsuccessful attempts at peace in Syria, one might be highly sceptical as to whether this latest will actually lead to a permanent solution. Does a history of unsuccessful ceasefires necessarily means failure? According to a research on past ceasefires (on 196 conflicts between 1975 and 2011) conducted at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, ceasefires do not hold in 80% of the cases. However, that does not mean, that it is not worth trying again (and again).

On the contrary: the findings of the research show that the best predictor of a ceasefire’s success is how many failed attempts came before. Even in the case of the ceasefires that do hold (20%), they usually come after several years of negotiations. There is also a tendency of moderate parties joining at first, while more radical groups on the periphery enter negotiations gradually. This could also be the case of Syria where there is a multitude of actors involved both directly and indirectly. However, it also makes the Syrian conflict especially problematic, as the wide-array of actors involved means that coming up with an acceptable solution for all is extremely complicated. Addressing the range of concerns puts different sides at odds with one another.

However, it is possible to negotiate a successful ceasefire that can then lead to permanent peace. There is a set of prerequisites for a successful ceasefire that does not only hold for the agreed timeframe but also prevents the continuation of fighting afterwards. According to the research mentioned above, there has to be a roadmap that paves the way to a sustainable solution. Just like the previous, fifth agreement, the current ceasefire attempts to outline an agenda by addressing key issues that only apply to certain areas of the country. This, as a matter of fact, is more of an advantage than a drawback because once certain conditions are agreed on in one region, it is easier to extend them to the whole territory of the country.

Additionally, the roadmap should not only establish mechanisms that report violations to the ceasefire, but also address them. In the absence of an international monitoring mission, violations are nearly impossible to report in the first place. An internationally mandated – possibly UN-led – mission is needed to observe the implementation of the ceasefire, especially if it leads to future long-term agreements. However, until the level of violence in the country decreases, it is unlikely that the UN-mission will be reimplemented.

Finally, the ceasefire also has to address weaknesses of past failed agreements. One of the major cause for violations during previous ceasefires was the fact that they did not comprehensively cover terrorist organisations operating in the country, providing a justification for warring parties to assault each other in the name of fighting terrorism. For instance, Russian forces targeted Syrian rebel groups fighting the Russia-friendly government’s forces, while recently, Turkey launched an offensive against Kurdish forces in the Northern Syrian district of Afrin. This step resulted in the US accusing Turkey of violating the ceasefire for which Turkey responded by denouncing the US’ double standard in unilaterally specifying which “terrorist groups” can be fought in Syria.

A prelude to peace?

The findings of the aforementioned research can still provide reasons for hope: it suggests that in long-term conflicts “hard core fighters” eventually become either marginalized or militarily defeated, which seems to be the case of the Islamic State. The remaining more moderate actors in the conflict should eventually join the peace process if it seems like a viable option, in order to avoid “missing out.” Fear of missing out when it comes to deciding the future of the country is always a strong motivation.

The central problem in the case of Syria, however, is to identify the moderate actors per se. The conflict has so far been dominated by a government accused of war crimes and violating international norms, and by uncompromising insurgent groups, not to mention radical terrorist networks. However, with the downfall of the common enemy, that is, the Islamic State, hopefully parties left in the conflict will gradually moderate their positions, allowing the effective implementation of the current ceasefire and the negotiation of a long-term peace. To highlight this tendency, the first ceasefire in early 2016 came after the coalition against the Islamic State started recapturing strategic territories formerly controlled by the terrorist group. Within just two years, five more attempts – even if temporary – were made at peace. The fact that, in 2016, after five years of fighting, all six ceasefires happened within the course of just two years is a cause for optimism: it shows that all sides are increasingly considering diplomatic alternatives as a viable option to bring long-term peace to Syria.

Cover Photo: street at night in the Syrian rebel-controlled city of Aleppo in 2012, © William Proby / flickr