How Ceasefires in Syria Became Another Tool of Warfare

The ceasefire declared in Syria at the end of 2016 has already practically collapsed. This is not surprising. No ceasefire in Syria has so far managed to hold long enough to pave the way for meaningful peace talks. This is not because the Syrian opposition hasn’t taken ceasefires seriously, but because the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies have re-defined ceasefires.

In Syria, ceasefires have become another tool of warfare. They are tools for making military gains, political statements, and playing power games.

Russia has been selectively labeling groups as terrorist or not according to its strategic military goals. Photo by Getty Images.
Russia has been selectively labeling groups as terrorist or not according to its strategic military goals. Photo by Getty Images.

A familiar pattern

Looking at the series of ceasefires in Syria over the past year reveals a pattern. The first ‘nationwide’ ceasefire in this time period was agreed in February 2016 by the US and Russia, who declared a ‘cessation of hostilities’ that was quickly adopted by the United Nations.

The agreement excluded ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Russia used the exclusion of those groups to justify its continuing air campaign in Syria, saying that it is targeting terrorist groups. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also continued their takeover of towns previously held by rebels near the Turkish border, leading Turkey to shell SDF positions in the Syrian border town of Azaz. The Syrian army, meanwhile, continued to carry out attacks on rebel-held areas in the Aleppo governorate.

The persistence of these military activities put pressure on the political representatives of the Syrian opposition who had agreed to participate in peace talks only if indiscriminate bombing against civilians stopped, humanitarian aid was allowed access to rebel-held areas and sieges of civilians ended. None of these three factors were fully implemented, leading to the suspension of talks.

The second ceasefire attempt took place in September 2016 and saw a repeat scenario of the first one, leading to a quick collapse of the US-Russian agreement, particularly after a US airstrike meant to target ISIS killed at least 62 Syrian army soldiers instead, according to the Russians. The Syrian government consequently officially declared the ceasefire to be over.

The latest ceasefire agreement is not so different on the ground. Despite its declaration of abiding by the terms of the agreement, the Syrian regime and its allies continued targeting rebel areas. This led rebel groups to announce on 2 January that they have frozen their participation in preparations for peace talks.

A tool of warfare

What the above pattern reveals is that the Syrian regime and its allies have turned ceasefires from tools of peace into tools of warfare. The Syrian regime today has used the ceasefire as an opportunity to advance around Damascus, just as it had used the ceasefire in February 2016 to consolidate its campaign in Aleppo. The regime has taken advantage of the halt in Free Syrian Army activity to conduct troop movements and plan for sieges and attacks. If Aleppo is to be taken as a guide, it is likely that the current ceasefire is meant to pave the way for the regime to retake further territory from rebel groups.

Russia has also used ceasefires for similar purposes. It has been selectively labeling groups as terrorist or not according to its strategic military goals. For example, Jaysh al-Islam, previously labeled as a terrorist group by Russia, is now part of the Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously Jabhat al-Nusra), on the other hand, has been excluded, providing Russia with an excuse to bomb Idlib, a rebel heartland, under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

Ceasefires also have become a way to make political statements. While the first two ceasefires of 2016 were declared by the United States and Russia, the latest one has been led by Russia and Turkey. This can be seen as a statement by Russia about the marginal role that the US has come to play in the Syrian conflict, and the prominence of its own.

Turkey acquiescence, meanwhile, signals a major shift in its position. After investing in trying to topple the Syrian regime, Russian pressure on Turkey coupled with lukewarm support from the West has pushed it to pragmatically migrate closer toward the Russian position on Syria and appears to have abandoned regime change as a priority.

But ceasefires are also a way of playing power games, not just between opponents but also among allies. During the last ceasefire, the Syrian regime did not abide by Russia’s instructions to allow humanitarian aid access to some rebel areas. In the current one, the regime is reportedly advancing on Eastern Ghouta, an area controlled by Jaysh al-Islam that is supposed to be part of the ceasefire agreement, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

While it is not yet known whether the fighting in Eastern Ghouta is being pursued by the regime without Russia’s agreement or as part of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ Russian-regime tactic, it has become clear from the series of actions on the ground in this and previous ceasefires that Russia and Syrian regime have become hostage to one another. Russia is unable to fully deliver the Syrian government, while the Syrian government is unable to fully achieve its goals without Russian backing.

What all this means is that ceasefires in Syria must not be taken at face value. Although Russia has been the main driver behind the latest ceasefire, saying that its success would pave the way for peace talks in Astana in one month, its and the regime’s behaviour on the ground has not diverged from the scenarios of previous ceasefires in which they were simply not serious about peace negotiations.

With the gain made by the regime and its backers in Aleppo, it becomes less convincing that they would not continue to pursue a similar strategy towards other rebel-held areas in Syria. In other words, ceasefires have become another tool through which the regime and Russia appear to be seeking to end the Syrian conflict through military, not political, means. But even if they achieve this, the next chapter will be determined by how the regime and its allies manage their own conflicts of interest.

Lina Khatib is head of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme at Chatham House.

This article was originally published by CNN.

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