Without a Plan B, Syria truce is holding despite its flaws

Both sides are alleging violations in the Syria truce, for which there appear to be no consequences. But overall the violence has been dramatically reduced.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
A Syrian soldier keeps watch near Maarzaf, about 15 kilometers west of Hama, Syria, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Local leaders and elders signed a declaration pledging to abide by a truce in Maarzaf. The Russian military has helped mediate signing the document.

Shortly after the cessation of hostilities came into partial effect in Syria a week ago, residents of Darayya, a besieged suburb of Damascus, staged spirited demonstrations against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

It was a poignant reminder of the peaceful origins of a protest movement that mutated into the vicious conflict that is soon entering its sixth year. Across Syria, thousands have seized on the relative calm to stage protests.

But how long the calm will last is still uncertain.

The cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the United States and Russia came into effect Feb. 27. While there has been a significant reduction in Russian air strikes – which over the past five months have tilted the balance of power squarely in favor of the Assad regime – each side accuses the other of violations.

US officials and international observers have largely lauded the decline in violence. The Syrian conflict has claimed at least 270,000 lives by most counts, although some believe the real death toll may be closer to 500,000. Nearly 8 million Syrians have been displaced within their own country and up to 4 million have become refugees.

Analysts say there are a number of shortcomings in the truce, including the lack of a mechanism to adjudicate and sanction violations, as well as a failure to demarcate the combatants’ positions on the ground ahead of the truce. But the lack of alternatives in the quest for peace means there is pressure to downplay the gravity of any breaches.

UN looking to next talks

The UN envoy for Syria, meanwhile, has expressed the hope that the next round of talks between the regime and the opposition, slated for March 9, will not be derailed by discussions over cease-fire violations.

For the time being, Russia’s defense ministry says both moderate and terrorist opposition groups have repeatedly violated the agreement. President Assad insists his forces have “refrained from retaliating in order to give a chance for the agreement to survive” but has said “there are limits.”

Thursday, the main opposition grouping – the High Negotiations Committee – warned that the truce was “on the verge of collapse” if world powers failed to do more to address the violations, accusing the regime and its allies of committing more than 100 breaches over the previous five days.

The Institute for the Study of War, which has been mapping Russian activity in Syria, assesses that Moscow “continues to strike mainstream armed opposition groups” in multiple provinces “despite claiming it would only target terrorist groups after the cessation of hostilities.”

Analysts agree that a violations reporting mechanism should have been in place before the truce came into effect, while the opposition is indignant at the lack of consequences for Russia and the regime.

No punishment for violations

“There doesn’t seem to be any sanctions for violations,” says Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If it is found that there was a violation, then what? Does that mean someone gets punished? Someone goes to jail? Someone gets bombed? What is the outcome of the adjudication process?”

There is a sharp dissonance between the opposition’s warnings that they will pull out of talks on account of continued regime strikes against moderate groups and the muted expressions of optimism coming out of Washington and Europe. Mr. White says there is pressure to downplay the violations.

“Violations are going to have to achieve a pretty high level before they are considered worthy of risking the cessation of hostilities agreement,” he says.

Russia and the regime, adds Mr. White, have been the biggest aggressors as they have continued military operations in rebel-controlled areas deemed of strategic value, particularly in northern Syria along the border with Aleppo province. “That is directly contrary to the spirit of the cessation of hostilities,” he says.

“From both the regime and the Russians we will see a continuous effort to test the boundaries of the cease-fire to see how far they can push it,” predicts Amr Al-Azm, a professor at Ohio's Shawnee State University. “The main objective is to isolate the opposition from the Turkish border, from the main supply lines.”

'We are being fooled'

Another shortcoming of the truce agreement was the failure to define the fault lines and who is positioned where. This has allowed Russia to bomb moderate groups included in the cease-fire agreement under the pretext that it is targeting terrorists such as Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, and the self-declared Islamic State, which are excluded.

“The mood on the ground is ‘we are being fooled,’ ” says Bassma Kodmani, a member of the opposition negotiating team. “It is an attempt to … break opposition ranks with the argument that ‘We are hitting Nusra.’ ”

The High Negotiations Committee documented 13 alleged breaches on March 3 alone, including two Russian warplane raids and two regime warplane raids against targets that included US-backed rebel factions. That is a major drop, however, compared with the weeks leading to the cease-fire. 

Ms. Kodmani says the committee is also going to present evidence that Russia and the regime have used chlorine in its attacks. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has also accused Damascus of “using military grade chemical weapons,” including dropping barrels of chlorine on civilians, during the truce.

One benefit of the cessation of hostilities has been a relative improvement in the delivery of aid in Syria, which – along with the halt of air strikes, the lifting of sieges, and the release of prisoners – has been a central condition of the opposition to enter more substantive talks.

No Plan B

This week humanitarian aid reached the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh, one of 18 besieged communities in Syria cut off from humanitarian aid. The United Nations refugee agency is working on reaching other areas in the coming days. But opposition official says such efforts have fallen well short of expectations.

The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, says he hopes the two camps will engage on “substantive issues” at the next round of talks.

“As long as there is some sort of movement on the delivery of aid, it will make it harder for the opposition to refuse to participate,” says Professor Azm, “They are not in any position to dictate any fierce terms.”

While the cease-fire has its limitations, there are few alternatives to resolving a conflict injected into both the sectarian power struggle between the Arab Gulf and Iran as well as the US-Russian rivalry.

“The United States and [Secretary of State John] Kerry in particular are enormously invested in the success of the cessation of hostilities and the success of negotiations,” says White. “There is really no Plan B.”

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