Syria’s truce likely to go the way of other ceasefires

Neither the Syrian government nor the opposition were very enthusiastic about the ceasefire.
Sunday 04/03/2018
Members of Syrian government forces stand at the Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus near the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region, on February 27.(AFP)
Scorched earth strategy. Members of Syrian government forces stand at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus near the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region, on February 27. (AFP)

BEIRUT - “Wishful thinking” is probably the best way to describe the 30-day Syrian ceasefire adopted by the United Nations. It will be no better or more binding than all other ceasefires reached and breached in the Syria war since 2012, all of which failed.

None of the major stakeholders were serious about UN Resolution 2401. They waited three days to put it in place while the death toll in Eastern Ghouta and Damascus totalled more than 500 people, Doctors Without Borders said.

Planes continued to pound towns and cities in the Damascus suburbs while, in the Syrian capital, 35-60 mortar shells landed on civilian neighbourhoods daily, with a non-combatant death toll as high as 11 a day.

Resolution 2401 was stillborn, with no clear timetable for implementation, no information on what to do with any violation should it happen and no committee for its technical supervision.

The Syrian opposition said it had a big loophole as the ceasefire excluded the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), giving the Russians a legal pretext to strike at anybody on the ground, accused or suspected of either being a past or present member of ISIS.

As a result, hours after the ceasefire was announced, Turkey said it did not apply to its military operations in Afrin, west of the Euphrates River. An aerial blitz was conducted against Eastern Ghouta early February 25, killing 20 people, and mortars were fired at Damascus.

Neither the Syrian government nor the opposition were very enthusiastic about the ceasefire, explaining why it collapsed so rapidly.

The armed opposition had decided to fight, refusing a negotiated settlement with the government that ended on February 21. The Russians played along under pressure from the international community, more interested in a peace process than actual peace on the battlefield.

By excluding ISIS and HTS, Moscow was giving itself ammunition needed to play along with the presumed ceasefire, arguing it had abided by the will of the international community, with good intentions.

The fight for Eastern Ghouta, the last enclave still fully in the hands of the armed opposition, was floated as the last battle of Syria. Approximately 11,000 troops have been shipped to Eastern Ghouta and Russian and Syrian media termed it as the “Mother of all Battles.”

The Syrian government started a ground invasion of Eastern Ghouta, surrounding the town of al-Nashabiya, near Damascus International Airport. From there they hope to lay siege to Douma, the principal town in Eastern Ghouta, which is held by Jaysh al-Islam led by Mohammad Alloush.

The plan is to lay siege to Douma and force its militants to surrender or die. The belief is that should Douma fall, the rest of Eastern Ghouta would crumble.

Damascus-based analyst Amer Elias, a member of the Ba’ath Party, said: “The ceasefire is not a surrender — far from it — and a military victory is not an easy task, achievable within days. In politics, there are colours different from black and white. The ceasefire doesn’t mean that the mortars (fired at Damascus) will stop nor will the military operations (in Eastern Ghouta). It will lead to defections among the military groups of Eastern Ghouta and quarantine its middle sector (where the militants are heavily placed).”

Jennifer Cafarella, a senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, disagreed, saying: “The Assad regime and its backers have shifted their main military effort from Idlib (in north-western Syria) to Damascus after Turkey intervened in Idlib to block their offensive. The goal of the pro-regime forces is likely to force the surrender and withdrawal of civilians and opposition groups in the besieged Eastern Ghouta area.

“The absence of significant international condemnation of the pro-regime campaign reflects the absence of coherent policies towards Syria in the West. It also reflects the naivety of the US approach to ‘de-escalation’ in Syria, which has always provided the regime and it backers with time and space to prepare and conduct their next military operation.”

She was referring to the “de-conflict zones” agreement reached last May, which called for a ceasefire in the countryside of Damascus and Homs, Idlib and throughout southern Syria to the border with Jordan.

Cafarella warned: “The US should expect a major violation of the de-escalation zone in Daraa, south of Damascus, next.”