Breaking the ceasefire before it even starts

The Syrian opposition finally agreed to the ceasefire that’s supposed to start in the next couple of days, albeit on a temporary basis:

Syria’s opposition indicated on Wednesday it was ready for a two-week truce in Syria, saying it was a chance to test the seriousness of the other side’s commitment to a U.S.-Russian plan for a cessation of hostilities.

Combatants are required to say whether they will agree to the “cessation of hostilities” in the five-year war by noon on Friday (1000 GMT), and to halt fighting on Saturday. The United Nations hopes the planned halt will provide a breathing space for Syrian peace talks to resume.

A statement seen by Reuters from the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, which groups political and armed opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it “views a temporary two-week truce as a chance to establish how serious the other side is in committing to the points of the agreement.”

The rebels are skeptical about Russia’s ability to co-manage a ceasefire, seeing as how Russia is a full participant in the war, and that makes sense. But even if the ceasefire were to only last two weeks, that’s still something. It’s still a window of opportunity for humanitarian agencies to get food and medical supplies to people who are trapped and desperately short of both. This is what I was talking about yesterday.

(In other good news, the UN airdropped aid into the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor yesterday. There are probably a couple of hundred thousand civilians still in Deir Ezzor, making it the largest besieged municipality in Syria. Unfortunately they’re besieged by ISIS, which is not a party to the proposed ceasefire, so airdrop is the only way to get aid to them.)

Because this is Syria, though, even a two week ceasefire already looks impossible. The once-large Damascus suburb of Darayya, which has been controlled by Free Syrian Army-affiliated rebels since mid-2013, is a frequent target of Russian and Syrian aerial bombardment (as a rebel-held city only a few miles outside of Damascus, you can see why it’s been a focal point for Assad and those backing him). Over 2000 people have been killed in Darayya, and it’s estimated that a whopping 98% of the city’s buildings have taken at least some damage in the fighting. Now the Assad regime says it will continue indiscriminately bombing Darayya even after the ceasefire goes into effect, because it says the FSA-aligned force controlling the city is, in fact, part of Jabhat al-Nusra. This claim is flatly denied by the rebels:

Darayans mock claims they are linked to Jabhat al-Nusra. In a recent months, a group of fighters sought to create a offshoot of ISIS in the city but they were promptly rounded up and arrested, said Ahmed Mujahid, nom de guerre of a community leader who spoke to BuzzFeed News via Skype.

“Really?” Mujahid quipped. “We’ve been cursing and spouting blasphemies for three years for them to come and call us Nusra?”

Matar told BuzzFeed News that 90% of the fighters in Daraya belong to Shuhada al-Islam, or Martyrs of Islam, a faction of the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, and the other 10% of the armed forces belong to a faction of Al Itihad al Islami li Ajnad al Sham, or Islamic Union of the Soldiers of Damascus. “The regime is constantly trying to spread the idea that those in Daraya and the factions in Daraya belong to al-Qaeda or Jubhat al-Nusra, or other extremist factions,” said Matar. “All of these men are the sons of Daraya. None are strangers or from outside the city.”

darayya map
Darayya in relation to Damascus, from Google Maps

This is exactly the scenario–Assad strikes a target, claims it’s a Nusra target, but the rebels say otherwise–that ceasefire skeptics envisioned, it’s just that I’m not sure anybody anticipated something like this coming up even before the ceasefire went into effect. How does something like this get handled under the terms of the ceasefire? The answer, which will surprise nobody since we’re talking about diplomacy, is that the aggrieved party can report alleged ceasefire violations to a committee. Then the committee will do…something. Issue a harshly-worded statement, maybe! Then again, considering Russia is co-chairing that committee, probably not. There’s nothing here to force anybody to be honest–either Nusra is in Darayya and the rebels are lying, or they’re not and Assad is lying–and it’s not like the International Syria Support Group is going to be able to send its own people to a city that’s being barrel bombed 50 times a day in order to investigate the situation on the ground.

In the absence of any conceivable way to effectively adjudicate a dispute like this, Assad can be expected to keep bombing and the rebels can be expected to pull out of the ceasefire as a result. That’s why things don’t look good for an extended pause in the fighting. Right now they don’t even look good for a brief pause.

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